In Praise of the Coffee Shop

What makes you smile? For me, right now, in 2022 it’s a visit to a coffee shop.

I did not grow up enjoying good coffee. My mother loved Folger’s Coffee and drank it exclusively. Maybe she veered off into Maxwell House territory, but I don’t remember her being anything else but loyal to that very basic, very American “Best Part of Wakin’ Up” coffee.

Black.

I recall my father loved his coffee with milk and sugar, or maybe cream and sugar, or maybe powder and sugar, but it was very pale and very sucrose. My mother took her’s black.

I always took mine with milk or cream. No sugar. Must be genetic.

But, because kids turn into teenagers, we reject that which our parents enjoy, out of a sense of duty to pubescent rebellion or something, and so I soon as I saw a few advertisements for General Foods International Coffees (with boxes decorated in national flag colors and named such things as Cafe Francais and Suisse Mocha) I begged, pleaded, cajoled and finally broke into my own babysitting money, just to increase the chance of sophistication in my little Georgia home. I didn’t like it much. It tasted like…overly sweet chemically powdered instant coffee. I kept buying it though, because I wasn’t going to give up on the dream.

The odd thing is that both my mother and my father lived in New York City for years, and you’d think that because of that exposure they’d have had better taste in coffee than Folgers, but he was Texan by way of Missouri and she was from Michigan, so I guess Middle America was in their bones.

As I moved into my college years, I discovered real espresso, served either in straight shot form or in cappucino form at a dingy little Greek cafe in downtown Athens. I went there often, but still would wind up buying something bland and basic at the store.

You have to remember that this was at best, 1990, and so far as I know, whole beans weren’t featured in the Winn Dixie or Bell’s Market where I lived. It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle in the fall of 1991, that I discovered the all encompassing joy not only of good fresh coffee, but of coffee shops where one could sit, linger, write, flirt, chat, smoke (I did smoke back in the day), and muse over an acrid brew, topped with frothy whole milk, a beautiful thing called a “latte.”

Seattle and Starbucks really lit it up. Lit me up. Coffee, real coffee, was one of the many joys big city life (for Seattle in 1992 was a HUGE city compared to Athens, GA) brought to me. Coffee at Pike Place, near Intiman, on my way to Pioneer Square, close to the apartment in Wallingford and then up on Capital Hill. Flirting with my not-yet-but-soon-to-be-boyfriend at Cafe Septieme in Belltown, and later with him as a husband when Septieme moved to Broadway. Me, and my hand written journals and a hot steaming cup of something strong and bold and hot.

Thankfully, the coffeehouse craze is ubiquitous now. Of course, when I lived in Austin, TX there were many cafes on my roster; from Cherrywood Cafe to Thunderbird to Bennu, I delighted in them all. I wrote hundreds of pieces, planned festivals and events, rallied crowds, and generally believed I was living la vie boheme through caffeine, and sometimes wine…well…often wine. Dolce Vita (RIP) was a poetry favorite where you could get your ice cream, spirits, or espresso and all were delicious.

Older now, and long since moved back to the NW, I frequent several in Ashland, Oregon. I’m currently at Pony Espresso (delicious and accessible housed in the same building with a bank, near my work), Mix Bakery (with incredible bread), Case Coffee (they have vegan donuts!), and Noble Coffee, (expensive but worth it). If you’re ever in Jacksonville, Good Bean is also quite delicous. And there are two drive through spots that seem to compete for traffic, and of course you can’t sit there, but you can pick up a 20 ounce Americano with cream for the “long” drive to Medford.

Public Houses (both bars and cafes) always have appealed to me. The noise is just enough to block out the squirrely ADD of my own brain, the people sitting and chatting make me feel less lonely overall, and the people sitting alone make me feel a strange sense of comfort and solidarity. The smells delight, the hiss of the steamer should jar, but somehow sounds vaguely oceanic to me. I feel more creative in a cafe, or perhaps the stimulation around me allows me to focus. Or maybe it’s just mythology I’ve made up in my own brain. The stories of big city late night diners with jet fuel by the cup, street-side dining with pastries and sandwiches, morning shops open to help the populace wake up. It’s all poetry to me. Always has been.

It’s been several years since I’ve frequented cafes regularly. Of course, this is due to Covid and restrictions and my own caution. I’d pick up coffee at the drive-throughs, but it’s not the same. Of course it’s not. I’ve done my best to also order in from the local shops and pick-up because supporting these businesses is vital, but the sitting, lingering, writting, listening to pieces of conversations-those I’ve missed. Or meeting a friend and just…chatting.

Seems a luxury that we took for granted in the pre-virus times.

Many of us are still pretty hesitant to leap into “normalcy” and rightly so! It’s not normal still. The virus is moving towards something more endemic, yes, but the costs still seem high to me. America has not had a real tolerance for absolute lock-downs, and our region is pretty libertarian with many fighting over vaccine mandates, masks, and more.

I can feel the pull to just throw caution to the wind! It reminds me a little bit of the feeling I’d get at the tail end of the high school year when summer break was juuuuuust around the corner. Surely, I could skip out school a little early! Stay up later at night to match the slower setting of the sun! Work on that term paper tomorrow!

The risks are different now. But, because I cannot stand being in the same four walls day after day (Office 9–5!, Living Room 5–9! Bedroom commute right about 10!), I’ve started escaping back to the coffee houses that I love so much.

I’m writing this at a coffee-shop, as we speak, the most productive creative work I’ve managed in the past month has been OUT. And yes, a risk. And one I’m apparently, willing to take either out of nostalgia or stubbornness, or a narrative of myself in my best iterations, countless Julies writing at countless coffee shops over countless years, until the pattern is so engrained I can’t see myself another way.

It’s busy here today, at Pony Espresso. It’s late in the afternoon and I’m happy to see so many people out, or I should say after my cautious response to seeing faces sans masks, I feel a spark of hope and I remember myself at my best times, and I smile.

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The Junk Drawer of My Mind: Essays/Stories/Photographs

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