I love coffee. So much. If you asked me to give up either coffee or booze (of any kind) for the rest of my life, I would swear my allegiance to coffee until the day I die. I will drink it hot or cold, black or with excess amounts of milk. No matter what, it’s comforting, and, for me, it’s full of memories.
I remember how much my mom loved coffee growing up. I remember her robe smelling like coffee on weekend mornings, and her coffee breath as she hugged us goodbye, my sister and I headed off to school while she drove to work. I remember her drinking coffee in the morning, in the evening, warming her hands with it on road trips, trying to put a regular mug of coffee in the car’s cupholder on those mornings we were really in a hurry. I remember coffee ice cream and coffee-flavored yogurt in our fridge. I remember thinking coffee was disgusting, but still being so comforted by the coffee that was always, in one form or another, within reach.
Through high school, I still thought coffee was like, so gross, even as my friends started drinking it, picking it up black from the gas station on the drive to school or in a fancy concoction from Starbucks on a weekend outing to the mall. I distinctly remember one friend getting a caramel macchiato on every trip to Somerset in Troy when we finally could drive ourselves down I-75 to “the nice mall,” and I even more distinctly remember calling it “rat poison” and turning my nose up at it, complete with dramatic gagging. I’ll admit now that I had more of an intentional contrarian streak in high school than I’m proud of. But still, coffee was a constant, and whether I liked it or not, those associations were burned into my brain.
Once I got to college, I realized that pulling all-nighters might require caffeine. So I started with Coke, moving over to Diet Coke in an effort to combat the freshman 15 I had gained, despite not drinking at all (I’m only a little embarrassed to admit how much I liked dorm food. Chicken broccoli bake day was the best, and you can’t tell me otherwise.). Then sophomore year, finally living on Central Campus, with access to many more coffee shops, I dared to try a cappuccino from Amir’s in the Michigan Union, and it was like a whole world opened up to me. Not only did I find my new favorite source of caffeine, but I found my new favorite way and place to study and write and think. Even when I moved on to regular coffee, thanks to my realizing how expensive my habit was and admittedly, how many calories lattes and cappuccinos had (even writing this makes me sad for all of the delicious things college me missed because she was too busy counting), my love for the thing and the place did not waver. I drank coffee all day long, trying to sustain the feeling of warmth and heightened presence of mind, not only from the coffee, but from the campus cafes’ buzzing conversations, bustling activity, and soft lighting.
I would pick up my coffee first thing in the morning on the way to class (in leaner times, drinking the coffee brewed in the dorm cafeteria or sorority house kitchen), sipping to stay warm on icy winter mornings in small seminars and on hot spring days in overly air-conditioned lecture halls. In breaks between classes, I’d make my way back to Starbucks or Espresso Royale on South U, staking my claim on a table by spreading out my coursepacks and notebooks and highlighters. Evening always saw me ready to read and put in my time at my favorite study spots, moving from one to the next if they were too crowded or closing too early. Though I spent my fair share of time at the library, it was never “my place.” Half the time, it felt too social (I dreaded the heavily encouraged Greek system study nights); the rest of the time, too sterile. I never felt fully immersed in what I was reading, never fully inspired to write, like I did when I was camped out at my favorite table at my favorite cafe, wrapping my hands around my cardboard cup of coffee. Cocooned by the indistinct chatter and the din of coffee being made, by the worn tables and the dimmed lamps, I felt safe and warm and inspired. I felt like me.
After graduating, coffee shops were still my place to retreat and be alone, despite being surrounded by people. When I briefly lived at home, hours were spent at Starbucks, job hunting and wishing I was not in Grand Blanc, that I had it figured out like so many of my friends had right out of school (looking back…lol). When I moved to Chicago, Lincoln Park coffee shops were my place to write blog posts and stay out of the apartment I shared with two (very nice) strangers just a little longer. Once I took a little career detour, coffee shops in the Loop were where I went to fuel up before my very long days as a very underpaid personal trainer, and where I went to decompress, hide out and write, after yet another day of not being able to close a sale on a personal training package I didn’t think someone really needed.
And when I finally moved to DC eight years ago for grad school, coffee shops were the first places I went to get the lay of the land, to truly make this small big city my home. They are where I studied, where I, again, retreated from roommates who were very nice, but also total strangers. They were where I observed people and where I wrote papers, freelance assignments, blog posts (different blog for a different city, naturally), and just notes and letters to myself. Coffee shops, from big chains to funky local places, helped me find myself again during so many transitions. I felt alone but not lonely, I felt seen but (mostly) unbothered, I felt at home as I was making new places my actual home.
And while, yes, a lot of this seems tied to having a place to sit alone and think, for me, it truly does come back to coffee. I’ve tried sipping delicious herbal tea on weekend days when I feel too caffeinated from one too many cups at home (a sad byproduct of age and cutting back while pregnant and nursing), but it’s not the same. I find myself doodling a few lines in my journal and heading home, dissatisfied with my mind for stubbornly refusing to think a creative thought. And in my first trimester, I couldn’t stomach coffee, so for 3 months, I walked around feeling sad and uninspired each morning as I drank my iced green tea. Coffee is not a personality trait, but I’m convinced the memories associated with it, and the places I drank (or didn’t drink) it, make up a lot of who I am.
I mourn so many things as a result of this pandemic (my job (kind of), my son’s wonderful daycare, seeing friends, feeling safe going to farmers’ markets or having wine on a patio), but one thing I miss more than almost anything is my favorite place, which isn’t really one place at all. I miss the feeling of being alone with my thoughts and a pen (or a laptop, as the case may be) and a hot cup of coffee. I miss being surrounded by strangers but totally at ease by myself, staring out the window and playing with words like putty in my mind. I miss sipping that mug of warm, dark comfort and discovering myself over and over again.
Coffee, to me, will always be a sensation, a place without a place, a moment in time. Of course, it’s also a practical, delicious vehicle for caffeine, but more than that, it brings me back to where I need to be. Even today, as I gulp down my mug of dark roast while trying to get my toddler to not pull on the TV cables or climb on the table, coffee is a deep breath and temporary retreat. No matter what is going on, coffee roots me to this moment and transports me, however briefly, to another. For me, coffee is now, and it’s then. It’s here and somewhere else entirely. It’s home.