“I was alone in the apartment, with that particular sense of luxury that solitude always gives me. I poured myself a cup of coffee, sugared it well, and filled the cup with milk. A habit, from many times when ten cents was what I had, and a cup of coffee was going to be all of breakfast, or supper. Lots of milk and lots of sugar make it go farther, as nourishment, as energy.”
– Diane di Prima, Memoirs of a Beatnik
I made a list of my top five vices once and discovered that I have my liquor and men under control. The habits starting with a “c” and ending in “ine” are the ones I can’t kick, but then I haven’t tried.
San Francisco has its Rituals, its Four Barrels, and its Blue Bottles. For every day, the original Peet’s is still there in North Berkeley and even if you never admit it, you can rest in the comfort of that Place that’s Always There For You and Amazingly Consistent. Philz beats the whole Bay Area’s worth of hipper-than-thou, individually filtered cups, both by flavor and by its blessedly unattractive branding. Using heavy cream instead of half-and-half also doesn’t hurt (let a cup of Philz sit on the counter and watch the cream congeal into a hockey puck).
It’s not that I don’t love a good cup of coffee, but life in San Francisco can be pretty fancy pants and on weekend mornings, I like to feel at home. It’s not that I don’t love good coffee. It’s just that I have a special fondness for bad coffee that won’t stand for any of this garnished-with-a-sprig-of-mint business.
I grew up under the impression that drip-brewed coffee was a big deal. My parents have drunk Folgers instant coffee from a can, then a glass jar, and now a plastic Costco vat, every weekday morning for as long as I’ve known them (my dad drinks his black, my mother with hazelnut Coffee Mate). Nowadays when I visit home, a freshly drip-brewed pot awaits me in the mornings, and we all had a whirlwind affair with a 12-cup French press last Thanksgiving, but we always go back to the vat.
Coffee began with a biannual “Larchmont Special” (that’s an ice blended mocha in 1993-speak) from the neighborhood Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf sometime in junior high. The habit jumped to once a month later in high school when second-semester juniors and seniors had off-campus lunch privileges. My mother also lovingly fueled my caffeine (and procrastination) habit by buying me an attractive tin of instant mocha mix specifically for all-nighters – I’d forgotten all about that until a few nights ago when, let’s just say, some things haven’t changed.
Early college consumption took the form of a mocha bianca from Caffe Strada once a week during finals periods (accompanied by a seasonal sugar cookie shaped like a Christmas tree with green sprinkles!). It became once a week all year, with an occasional cafe au lait after I visited Alison in Paris and ordered them in cafes just because it was fun to say, “cafe au lait, s’il vous plait.” Stepping out for coffee started off as a fun thing to do at my first office job after college. By the time I told the guys at the Starbucks in the lobby of 555 California that it was my last day, my cafe au lait was waiting for me on the bar and they’d bought it for me.
I arrived at my first day of law school with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, 30 pounds of textbooks, and a school-branded commuter mug that pleased me because it was my first (despite my conflicted feelings for the school, which originated back when my sister started college and came home with a t-shirt that said, “A Bruin is forever but a Trojan is only good once”). The commuter mug contained instant coffee and my mother’s hazelnut Coffee Mate. Out of nerves (and despite severe hypoglycemia), I never ate my sandwich. I got through the day on adrenaline and that blessed cup of coffee – with all those sugary calories and the goodness of home, where I was finally grateful for living. I carried my commuter mug to school every day that first year, during which I got good grades, then made one friend and consequently got bad grades.
Once I realized I could stop studying, I inevitably came home too late to wake up in time to make (stir) my coffee. Then it was mediocre coffee, milk but no sugar, from the law cafe, which I also rather miss. Yogurt every day. Pretzels nibbled one by one to make them last longer. And always coffee. It was a lifeline – for a private university that sells Kiehl’s in its student store, there was no good coffee on campus (amazing to see the PJ’s kiosk on a recent visit to Tulane – lucky bastards).
A Goldfish cracker-shaped container filled with Cheerios and a double iced latte (more filling than an iced coffee, big enough to share) got me through studying for the bar every morning, slumped over the big green workbook and propping my eyelids open. A sleek gas station Starbucks Doubleshot got me through the bar itself – a providential concentrated dose, sugar calories, minimal houseroom in bladder.
I moved here with one box of clothing, twelve boxes of books, a toaster and a drip machine. The whole of my first year in the city, I became deeply depressed and the only good part of my day was my morning coffee. I wore black and ordered a small drip with half-and-half every day. Never sugar. Never blended. Not even a cappuccino or a latte except on the days I was hungriest and wanted the extra milk to fill my stomach. But on weekend mornings I would brew coffee for myself. No instant granules for me, but I always had a non-dairy hazelnut creamer that I made trips to Safeway just to get, the kind that never expires and that my mother always keeps in the house.
I love that passage from Diane di Prima because it reminds me of a life that was more forgiving, when I was reckless with my time, lived on Cheerios, and arrived at most places bleary-eyed with a cup of coffee. Those things are no longer possible when you have a fancy pants job that demands a decent night’s sleep and three square meals a day. The only coffee I can get around work is good coffee, and the coffee around the city on the weekends is even better. It’s one reason I am lucky to live here. But it’s very much a responsible life, a life where I have to behave like an adult. Sometimes I cheat and in the afternoons, I make an instant Vietnamese coffee from a packet in my desk drawer (the sweetened instant coffee mixes of various Asian cultures — that’s a whole other post in itself). It brings me back. Sometimes, I just really miss the sleepless nights and hazy mornings, and a bad cup of coffee.