On Coffee Shops
This morning I am doing the nouveau literati thing, a la J. K. Rowling, and writing in a coffee shop. Tim Horton’s,
in beautiful downtown Newport, to be more accurate. I do this because my son, soon to be a freshman in high school, has football practice until noon, and it makes no sense to drive all the way home and all the way back in a couple of hours to pick him up again.
I have never done this, taking advantage of Timmy Ho-ho’s free wi-fi to do the day’s five pages, and I’m feeling kind of exposed, rather like the girl in the coffee shop in the Saw Doctors’ song “Exhilarating Sadness,”* who was minding her own business, though she was everybody else’s. Not that anyone here seems to care what I’m up to–the clientele seem to be mostly elderly people who have marked out their territories in twos and groups; it’s a boisterous sort of crowd, as though they are all at a giant party. In fact, there are some floaters: people who hop from one group to another, as though schmoozing at a cocktail hour. I am the anomaly, here in the corner with my extra-large tea and computer.
I don’t, as a general rule, do coffee shops. Perhaps because I don’t, as a general rule, do coffee. Tea’s my game. So I’m not one of those people who hangs out at Dunkin’ Donuts, or Tim Horton’s, or Starbucks, or any of those little independent shops which are so rare in these parts. My kids like to use the drive-thru at Dunkin’ Donuts to get fruit Coolattas and things of that nature, but I resist that, for though I’m not in the coffee habit, it seems a sort of sacrilege to get anything else.
I suppose I could backtrack here and say that, for years, I liked the occasional cup of fake vanilla cappuccino I could get out of the machines at gas stations, but that was precisely because of the very fakeness of it. If instant coffee makes true coffee aficionados cringe, instant cappuccino goes one step further and causes ritual suicide. But there was a sweetness, a pretension about it which attracted me: fake vanilla cappuccino is a drink living a fantasy life.
From there I eventually went on to sample the slightly more real cappuccino from Dunkin’ Donuts, as there is a shop on the way to school. At first I had to have them put sugar in it to cut the bitterness for me: it’s the bitterness that has always stood between me and real coffee addiction. When I started cutting back on sugar consumption (another long story, for a different time), I tried the cap without sweetener. That took some getting used to, but the vanilla flavor is what saved me. Later I shifted to skim milk. Then, on the advice of my ever-thinking friend Karen, I went from cappuccino to latte: same drink, but not half foam, and therefore more for your money, as it were. But my consumption fell way back, precisely because drinking the stuff was becoming more complicated; I didn’t want to have to spend all that time intellectualizing a morning drink.
As a curious side note: it was my ever-thinking friend Karen who, in the coffee shop in the Musee d’Orsay,
introduced me to my very first–and very last–espresso. She and her daughter Bailey drank theirs up with obvious delight, while I have to admit that I struggled through mine, small though it was. Bitter! I remember Karen laughing at me, and apologizing as though personally responsible for the taste. It took me forever to finish, though it wasn’t just Karen and Bailey waiting, their cups long empty, that made me sip faster the closer I got to the end of the espresso. In fact, I don’t remember much about the rest of that trip through the museum, as it felt as though I was viewing it at about a thousand miles per hour (fortunately, I had already visited my favorite Monet painting, and Karen had already visited her van Goghs). I don’t think I slept again for that entire week in Paris.
To tell the truth, I had never even visited a Starbucks until I entered one in Glasgow with my friends Dan and Danielle. Talk about complicated! For comparison purposes, I ordered a vanilla cappuccino, but I couldn’t get into the Starbucks lingo: mine was just plain large. Then, because Dan and Danielle and I were walkers on
that trip, we eschewed the little tables and strolled around the city in the weak April sunlight and the strong April wind, peering into windows of closed shops (it was Sunday), and drinking our coffees. I’m not sure I liked the taste, but I liked the scenario: it suited my fantasy life to be wandering about Glasgow with a Starbucks cup in my hand. As an added bonus, the cup was hot, and kept my hands warm. It seemed a shame when the cappuccino was gone, and it was with regret that I tossed the cup into a trashcan along the street.
Since that Glasgow cappuccino adventure, four years ago, I can safely say that I’ve only ever had Starbucks drinks in foreign countries. That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when I met with Karen and some friends to talk writing at the Starbucks out by the mall in Bangor: I broke down and got myself a vanilla latte there. Still too bitter. But the company was good, and since we took up two tables for several hours, I felt compelled to do something to rent the space.
I suppose I could have had a cup of tea at any of those places, at any of those times. I have one now. When I came into Tim Horton’s this morning, I ordered a cup. The boy at the counter asked what size I wanted, so I handed him the two dollars I had in my pocket. “Whatever I can get for this,” I said. He gave me an extra-large, and 39¢ in change. Not bad for free wi-fi and nearly three hours of writing time.
* For the Saw Doctors video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sI2PoYZXCOg