My first true love was my college coffee shop. A white house on the corner of a street in Gambier, Ohio, it was where I spent every moment between classes. We were infatuated with each other but, like most first loves, our relationship had a glaringly obvious flaw that I chose to overlook: I did not like coffee. I do not like coffee. I considered writing this in the past tense, but that would not be honest, because even now when I drink coffee I like, I do not like coffee. I like the better-tasting things that cushion the blow. The cream, the sugar, the syrups, blended into a frothy mix that I can sip through a straw while walking somewhere important, or distilled into a soup that I can cradle in my hands while wearing a turtleneck.
I don’t like coffee, but I like the things around it. The big hefty mugs. The friendly baristas. The scootch of chairs. The people who walk through the doors, finishing a story over their shoulders, be they Bushwick freelancers on a July afternoon or liberal arts undergraduates braving the 4 p.m. post-class rush. I work and I watch, sipping glasses of free water and hoping nobody sees me for what I really am.
When it all began at that coffee shop in Ohio—the shop that had my heart because of its chirpy atmosphere and convenient location for meeting friends, because of the memories I had collected there and tucked under the booth cushions—I’d been an interloper for some time. I worked and I watched, sipping glasses of free water and hoping nobody saw me for what I really was.
After a while, I started to feel self-conscious. How could I say this coffee shop was an important place to me if I didn’t even drink its sole commodity? Did I even have a right to cozy up in these booths for hours if I was ordering nothing but chocolate-chip cookies and muffins? I decided to make a change, one step at a time, starting with frozen caramel lattes. They were delicious. My body rejected them immediately. Every time I drank one of those how-is-this-not-considered-ice-cream concoctions, I was doubled over in pain an hour later. I would not be defeated. I powered through until, eventually, it stopped.
Then, I moved to New York. Looking for a familiar scene, I took up residence in the Stumptown on the corner of East 8th Street and Washington Square West. I landed in the city with no job and very few connections, but I was always welcome at Stumptown—provided, of course, that I ordered coffee.
What followed was an era of experimentation, seeing what sugary sweet treats I could add, how much, and which kinds created the best combination to give me the satisfaction of saying I’m drinking coffee while at the same time barely tasting it. I landed on any mixture of mocha, hazelnut, and vanilla syrups. It’s what I’d later order every day from the Starbucks on 87th and 3rd when I made my commute to my first full-time job, so much so that after a few months, it would be already made and wordlessly handed to me the moment I walked in.
I’ve tried to take things a step further, walking into those high-end coffee shops (the kind without outlets and barely enough room to order) and choosing from their minimal, three-item menus. However, while they often boast an impressive variety of blends and beans that mean nothing to me, they’re decidedly anti-syrup, and even asking results in a dismissal so curt you might as well have tried to order a pizza.
It’s those moments when I ask myself why I’m doing this. Why am I putting myself through emotional and sometimes bodily pain just to drink something I’m usually only ever able to finish half of? It could just be because I like the energy boost and the way it looks in pictures. It could be because, like drinking alcohol or wearing clogs, it’s the defining feature of a culture I desperately want to be a part of. But when I’m sitting down to think about it, I realize it’s not about the coffee at all.
No, I still don’t think coffee tastes good. What I’ve found, though, despite my initial insecurities, is that that part doesn’t really matter. I’ve stomached bitter dark roast in the name of good conversation, choked down a cappuccino in a hostel in Venice, and watched a relationship fall apart, our emotional barriers punctuated by the two untouched lattes between us. Bad coffee, good coffee, with cream or served black, it could be hot mud and it still wouldn’t change the fact that I wasn’t searching for coffee; I was searching for acceptance.
I just moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In the mornings I wonder if there’s still a latte waiting for me on 87th and 3rd. Not for too long, because now I wait in line at an independent coffee shop across the street from my new place. When I was scoping out the area a few months ago, I’d be lying if I said the shop’s Pinterest-perfect rustic exterior and ample indoor seating wasn’t a big part of why I eventually decided to make the move. I could see myself in this place, the memories I’d make with my laptop in the corner, the sense of home I’d start to feel upon arrival.
Here, I order an iced mocha. You can barely taste the coffee at all.