My Coffee History

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     Illustration by Stephanie Mulvihill

In 1992, at 16 years old I drove a silver Chevy Nova, around the suburbs of Oklahoma City.  I was bored.  Permanently bored.  Clever, but directionless, I picked up Plato’s The Republic from the mall’s bookstore–there was no Barnes and Noble or Amazon back then.  I chose Plato simply because I had heard of it.  My world was small-small, but occasionally a tiny bit of noise from the grand curious, intellectual noise of the coasts reached me in Tornado Alley.
One other bit of culture that reached me was a coffee shop that opened in the strip mall next to the Bowling Alley and the pizzeria.  I was frequently the only one there, but I was introduced to the first love-bite of cappuccino and a socially acceptable space to read and foster a rich interior life.

Crappy single coil heater espresso machines began to be mass produced and I bought one at a big box store, but I was unable to produce the smooth velvety milk, or the complex brew of the local strip mall shop so I gave up.

I went away to college in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a landscape dominated by Oklahoma State University and stale, bulk coffee percolated in giant urns for the undergraduate masses.  I forgot my early love of coffee and fueled my late night studying with diner coffee boiled down to half its volume on a hot plate at the waitress’ prep stand.

By the time I’d begun studying Poetry as a grad student at Indiana University, I’d learned enough to know that coffee was all about the bean.  Starbucks had taken over by then.   But, I was all about the roast.  Turning my back on the coffee revolution of sweet, creamy Starbucks lattes, I’d souped up a hot-air popcorn popper from the local goodwill with some instructions from Sweet Maria’s and began roasting green beans in my tiny kitchen in a garage-converted-apartment on the edge of Bloomington, IN.

I quickly discovered that the roasting efforts at a local shop, The Runcible Spoon were superior to my own and began buying my roasted beans there.  Throughout it all, I flirted with the occasional espresso drink, but my real true deep passion was for simple well-roasted, fresh drip American drip coffee, black.

After I graduated, I moved to New York.  Like many others, I hoped to find the coffee culture seen in Friends episodes where everyone hung out at the Central Perk.  But, that turned out to be a prime-time dream.  There are many perks to New York:  the inspirational hustle of its people, the way it is processing our world on its stages, the cityscape… but there was no Central Perk.  In fact, Starbucks was the main coffee shop to be found, on every few corners, and only homeless people hung out there while everyone else just rotated in and out.

I would travel by train 30 minutes to reach the Art of Joe coffee in the village for a cup of complex, well-roasted coffee and the buzz of coffee-drinkers at nearby tables.  That was 2006.  I bought my beans at Oren’s Daily Roast–still some of the best coffee in New York–and carried around a coffee thermos everywhere I went refusing to buy Second Wave coffee.

Since then, the coffee scene in New York City has exploded.  West Coast roasters have saturated its light industrial areas with their drum and fluid bed roasters and trucks full of freshly roasted beans cross the bridges every day.

New York became the coffee city of my prime-time dreams.