Let’s get this out on the table right away: I don’t really care what anyone else thinks about this. I definitely don’t care what conflicting medical studies show. And I don’t really even care if what I am about to tell you is factually true. That’s how one-sided I am when it comes to my life with coffee.
When I was a kid, my grandpa Postel lived in an apartment in the basement of our house. Occasionally, I got to stay overnight in the apartment with him. (There were six of us kids, so by the time he cycled through the bunch, it was a rare and special event). After spending the night, we’d get up early and go to 6:00 a.m. mass at the Cathedral, followed by breakfast at Rings Restaurant on Dodge Street. On these special mornings, I was given the choice: a cup of tea or one of coffee, loaded with sugar and creamer. I always chose tea. To this day, I regret my childish mistake.
My parents lived on coffee (reference the 6 children mentioned above). My mother didn’t leave her bedroom in the mornings until she’d had her first two cups, delivered by my father or one of us kids if a proxy was needed. Depending on the day, there might be a pot at lunch, but there was WITHOUT FAIL coffee at supper. I learned how to use an electric percolator at an early age.
By the time I was in high school, I was regularly helping myself to my parents’ stash. Of course, I poured in the sugar and milk, but there was no mistaking that dark, earthy coffee flavor. Then, in 1976 a coffee shortage happened, and prices skyrocketed. In an effort to curb their children’s burgeoning taste for the liquid gold, my parents instituted a “drink it black or not at all” rule in the house. They said that if we didn’t like the way it tasted on its own, we didn’t like it enough to justify the expense of drinking it. Unfortunately, their Machiavellian plot backfired, because 1976 marks the year I fell truly, madly, deeply in love with the bean.
Throughout my college years, I was an aficionado of the greasy spoon coffee: Saturday mornings at a breakfast cafe where a waitress named Patty kept it hot and filled to the brim; late nights at Perkins, where my friend Marty would wave the empty pot over his head to signal our server that we’d reached the bottom of yet another “bottomless cup”. By the mid-80s, I was in grad school and the modern coffee trend finally reached the midwest. Coffee shops with flavored coffees, brew bars, and coffee drinks proliferated. (Unbelievably, it took almost another twenty years for Big Coffee to claim any real estate in Iowa.) I officially became a coffee snob.
Regardless of the ambience or delivery method, I remained true to my coffee purist roots. I drank it black and strong, first thing in the morning and all day long. Occasionally, I ordered a cappuccino to experience the sublime flavor of coffee sipped through expertly foamed milk. (Eventually, a trip to Ireland changed my coffee habit irrevocably – the first time I drank coffee with real Irish cream. Now my Americano is almost always softened with half-and-half.) I often drank copious cupfuls of the stuff at night, then went to bed and fell peacefully asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I realize that everything I’ve shared thus far serves as an argument for addiction. I can’t deny that. About ten years ago, I was suffering from horrible heartburn and acid reflux. I gave up soda and coffee, cold-turkeyed them both. I felt horrible for several days as I suffered with the telltale splitting headache of caffeine withdrawal.
And here’s where the love affair side of things kicks in. After successfully removing coffee from my life for almost a year, I felt physically fine but found myself still longing for a cup, for the taste of it in my mouth: I missed my cup of joe. More important, I missed the ME who indulged in those cups. So I started up again – and, like a miracle, discovered that coffee was not the cause of my previous discomfort. I still only rarely indulge in sodas, but I quickly returned to drinking coffee daily.
Why did I miss coffee so much? I missed the ritual of having a “first thing in the day”. I missed holding the warm cup in my hand. I missed the warmth of familiarity coffee offers in cold new surroundings, and I definitely missed the purposefulness of “going for coffee” as opposed to wandering about town aimlessly. Most important, it wasn’t until I gave up coffee that I discovered just how much a part of my social engagement with family and friends it was. When I visit my parents, morning coffee is my favorite part of the day – we read the paper or watch the morning news and talk in an unguarded way that is never really replicated at other times of the day. With my siblings (one brother actually owns a coffee shop) and friends, long, rambling, silly or serious discussions are had while hanging out over coffee. Or, like when I visit my brother Matt in Chicago, we get up and out to walk over to Cafe Mustache and engage with the neighborhood – something I’ve happily replicated in my new neighborhood by heading over to the Boiler Room. When I am alone, as I am so often since moving here, coffee shops are always welcoming, and good coffee fuels my ability to relax then focus on projects.
I’d like to mention that I have dear friends and family members who DON’T drink the stuff. Even some who cannot understand in any way its appeal. We have awesome times together, too, though they’ve accepted that I might bring coffee with me to their homes (and drink it while they share a bottle of wine). My friend, Sue, even keeps an elegant electric percolator in the cupboard – and coffee in the freezer – just to make me feel at home when I visit.
Can I live without coffee? I know the answer is yes. Would I want to? Not really.
So, you may be wondering, why am I sharing this long reminiscence about the role of coffee in my life and personal history? Well, I wanted you to understand my relationship with coffee, my love of it, before I share part two next week – my adventures in working at a coffee shop. Stay tuned!