My affair with java began as unrequited longing during childhood. My dad made it black every morning as he headed to his home office, its aroma a gentle wake-up that wafted into my room.
But I wasn’t allowed to drink more than a sip or two. Coffee would stunt my growth, my parents joked. That only made me desire it more. I didn’t like being one of the tall girls who got her growth spurt in grade school and then had to wait years before the boys caught up.
So I served make-believe coffee to my friends, settling for sniffing my hand-me-down percolator, the aroma of finely ground beans still seeped in its metal sides, a tantalizing hint of the taste I couldn’t have.
By the time I finished growing my dad had switched to the convenience of instant. This concoction didn’t tempt me the way his percolated brew had. In fact, I don’t think those sparkling crystals should get to use the name coffee. With your eyes closed they smell more like dirt than the robust fragrance of heaven.
In high school I began my first coffee habit, one that would change over years while staying forever linked to my memories. In between the cross country and track season one year my best friend Ali and I would run to Tidyman’s grocery store after school. They served complimentary coffee in the bakery.
We’d each buy a donut and load our steaming Styrofoam cups with cream and sugar, then walk back to the school, talking about anything and everything. Our friendship was forged by running and drinking coffee together, two of the most companionable activities I know. What is it about sipping a cup of Joe that makes the conversation flow?
Later, as a freshman at the University of Oregon, my friend Camille introduced me to the vanilla latte. It was love at first sip. I may have even swooned. The creamy richness captivated me, and I broke up with the regular brew they served in the dining hall.
It was a few short years before Starbucks launched the coffee revolution and I became a regular at a little coffee house one block off campus. For $2 I could buy a 16-ounce flavored latte with a humongous freshly baked blackberry muffin, an economical brunch.
I’d snag a table in the crowded cafe and sit with friends or strangers, doing homework, swapping stories or discussing politics, religion, history and the mark we’d make on the world. The heady rush of new knowledge and a hopeful future was flavored with coffee.
I became an evangelist, extolling the virtues of my favorite drink to my parents while complaining during visits home that I had to drive across town to Lindaman’s to find a palatable cup, one that made me close my eyes in ecstasy. Spokane didn’t have enough coffeehouses, I said, unaware that my frustration had as much to do with atmosphere and new-found independence as it was about my drink of choice.
After college, as a young wife and mother back in my hometown I discovered the coffee craze had arrived in the Inland Northwest but I quickly gave up my coffeehouse habit. It was too expensive for a budget that included diapers and day care. But my days were still steeped in a coffee tradition. I bought an espresso machine and spent each morning reading the newspaper with both hands wrapped around an aromatic cup topped by a head of frothy milk.
That machine was my best kitchen investment, paying for itself within months. Since then I’ve gone through three espresso machines and continue to start each day the same way.
I’ve also gone back to the coffee shop. Now I meet friends for coffee and we catch up on the details of our lives over the aroma that has grown up along with me. I go out for coffee with my husband. Compared to dinner, a show or the movies it’s an economical date at a table sized for intimate conversation. As a bonus, I don’t have to compete with the television for attention the way I might at most restaurants or bars.
My coffee order may have changed over the years but it still lubricates the conversation into a steady flow.
I’ve also succumbed to the writer’s stereotype. Twice a week I take my computer to a coffee shop and work, letting the energy and buzz of both the drink and the location propel my fingers across the keyboard. It’s often my most productive time. It’s also a tasty efficiency while my daughter is at her downtown rehearsal. I hate driving back and forth. And I love coffee.
This column originally appeared March 10, 2012 in The Spokesman Review.