My Love/Hate Affair with Coffee Culture

My father used to drink seven to eight cups of coffee a day. Black. No cream or sugar. From those big Yuban tin cans that weighed about five pounds and cost about $4 back in the early ‘80s. They could last you about two months. When I was six, he let me have my first sip of his coffee. It looked like a little cauldron of dark liquid with steam rising and “#1 Dad” displayed on the outside. It burned my tongue. It was bitter and acidic. I scrunched my face in disapproval and chased it with a big swig of grapefruit juice from my Muppets glass. You know, the collectors edition ones from McDonald’s with all of them crammed into the Happiness Hotel bus? From then on, I carried negative thoughts about coffee. And drank my grapefruit juice instead.

That all changed in 1996. I turned 23 then. Dad had passed away the previous year. I had just graduated college and landed my first real job smack in the middle of Redmond, Washington, home to Microsoft, who was rapidly gaining national attention with their revolutionary Windows 95 operating system. A co-worker buddy had to get out of the office for a break, kind of like Peter Gibbons in Office Space. Instead of Tchotchkes restaurant, he took me to a Starbucks. In the mid-’90s, Starbucks coffee shops were huge in Washington State, but hadn’t gained popularity around the rest of the country. Maybe it was because Washington has awful, gloomy weather 9 months out of the year. I had never stepped foot in one before. I had equated the dark, neon green Starbucks logo with a bitter drink. And I pictured the interior like the album cover from Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner.

My co-worker was having post-lunch drowsiness, and had to get some coffee to make it through the workday. Still prejudiced, I grabbed a bottle of fruit juice to join along. Told him I didn’t like coffee; it was bitter and I didn’t like the taste of it. He told me to get a Tall Mocha. “It’s like hot chocolate, only it revs you up,” he claimed. In fact, he bought one for me. With whipped cream added, too. My skepticism turned into pleasure. This wasn’t my father’s coffee. It was tasty! To this day, it’s the only kind of coffee I will order. Tall mocha with whipped cream, thankyaverymuch.

Back in 1996, Starbucks coffee shops had lots of cushy chairs and sofas to sit around in. I bet they copied that from Central Perk, the hangout spot in Friends. You would hear chill, acoustic guitar music playing through the speakers, like Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Fairytales. Or vintage jazz vocalists like Etta James or Billie Holiday. Hushed voices in conversation combined with clinking of coffee cup to saucer. Random coffee grinder whirring would be loud enough to distract your train of thought as you read a newspaper, a book or magazine, or were writing in a notebook. College students were just starting to piece together the Starbucks formula for an evening of study. Not a lot of distractions, a table to spread your homework onto, a warm location to loiter for an hour or two without being kicked out, and caffeine to jack your brain up.

The coffee house experience was a mainstay for me in the early ‘00s. Often two or three times a week, I’d venture in with a paper or a book, and kill an hour of time, sitting in a cushy armchair, reveling in the warm, quiet, fragrant atmosphere. I even went so far as to record an entire album of electronic music in a local coffee shop. It was glorious! Headphones firmly planted in my ears, a 17-inch Apple Powerbook on my lap, and tons of loops to arrange and fiddle with in Garageband. I even uploaded it to iTunes during a coffee shop visit, and sold a whopping 10 copies of it!

Going to a coffee shop back in the late ‘90s was fun for me. Not so much nowadays.

All you extroverts have warped the coffee shop experience, and we introverts are suffering because of it. What used to be a quiet place for us to study, read, contemplate, think, and hide out from you has turned into a din of distraction. You flourish, we cringe. You talk loudly about your dinner last night, we push our headphones deeper into our ear canals to block your voice out.

I’m wagering all of us have the same coffee shop experience, and I’m wondering if anyone has noticed its gradual downward spiral to ignominy:

  • The inviting, relaxing scent of coffee beans as we open the heavy glass entrance doors? Check.
  • The proliferation of tables and chairs scattered everywhere without organization or elbow room for patrons? Check.
  • Attractive, twenty-something baristas greeting us with a disingenuous, robotic, loud, “Hi! What can I get started for you today?” Check.
  • Ceiling-mounted speakers pushing the barista’s awful tastes in music, played at a level that would eliminate any chance for focus on homework, reading, writing, or conversing? Check.
  • Mobile phone ringtones set to stun, and text message notifications pinging like popcorn? Check.

You extroverts like it loud, you like it chock full of people like yourself, and you like it superficial. While you think your grande, non-fat, extra-hot, soy, pumpkin spice latte with extra foam makes you feel special, we chuckle to ourselves as we sip our tall mocha and shake our head at your six-adjective drink. You don’t see us smirk because your nose is buried in your iPhone, proudly displaying to the world that your favorite color is teal. You don’t hear us because of the loud milk steamer filling the room with a whoosh that even drowns out the terrible music. To you, this venue is paradise, a ritual de lo habitual, and the rest of us get to deal with it.

Until the day comes where coffee shops revert back to the quiet, chill places they used to be, my noise-isolating headphones will be firmly planted in my ears while I clutch my tall mocha with whipped cream.