Today I took some time to reminisce about a moment where everything changed. That seminal moment many years ago where I went in a boy and left a man. As I sit here in the place where it all started more than 10 years ago I can’t help but think of how foolish and awkward I was, and how much I have grown, and how much better I have gotten at all aspects of the act. And now it is time for you to get your mind out of the gutter as I tell the story of my first time drinking coffee.
I was a late bloomer, and didn’t come into my own with coffee until I was almost 20 years old. I had always enjoyed the gas station cappuccinos that come out of that terrible sounding machine and that are mostly sugar with some coffee flavoring, but actual coffee was not anything that I could stand for more than a few sips. I preferred to find my caffeine though diet sodas and little cans of energy drinks, and rode that “EXTREEEEME” lifestyle through the first two years of college, but as is my tendency one day I decided to try something new partly out of necessity and partly out of a sense of adventure, and now it has lead me down a rabbit hole that I never could have predicted.
During the summer of 2005 I overextended myself, another familiar tendency that know all too well. I liked Organic chemistry so much during the school year that I was overjoyed to be invited to retake Orgo 2 again over the summer. Two months of Dr Martha Hass teaching me and 6 of the other dumbasses who couldn’t hack it the first time in intensive classes 3 days a week. That would have been torture enough, but as I have covered previously I am a workaholic. During my 4 days off each week I still managed to juggle 2 jobs, getting up at 5am to work at a hospital pharmacy then driving up to Saratoga to work at SPAC during the evening, before heading back to Albany to crash out and repeat the process.
During one of these 70 hour work weekends I found myself with a little downtime between jobs on one of the hottest days of the summer and in that moment I felt the need to make a change. While driving through downtown Saratoga I was overcome with the strange need for an iced coffee. Knowing nothing of this magical bean juice I didn’t want to risk it with a gas station variety, I wanted to go to the source, the most fancy high end independent place that I could think of, Starbucks, the exact Starbucks where I am sitting now. Walking in for the first time and being enveloped by its warm Pacific Northwestern decor and hip music made me feel like I was at home and ease some of my nerves, but I was still kind of freaking out. I was out of place, I was this kinda grungy kid with longish hair and big mutton chops (yeah I made bad decisions) wearing a polo shirt for a performance arts center over slacks and dress shoes from being at the hospital.
Beyond being uncomfortable in the venue I was all of a sudden confronted with an entire language that I didn’t understand. As the people in front of me in line rattled off terminology about grande half caf one pump mocha lattes I started to panic. Coffee, I want coffee, but not hot coffee I want coffee with ice in it, but how do I say it, where is it on the board, I don’t know what all of these words mean, how foolish am I going to look to these cute baristas, are they going to like my sweet sweet mutton chops, oh god what am I doing. And as I scoured the display board I noticed the one word I was looking for, Iced, right next to the word Americano. I sidled up to the counter and asked for a large iced Americano. For a few seconds the panic abated, its an Americano, Americans love coffee so it is just an iced coffee, and I am such a grown up that I ordered a large one. Let me take a moment to say I was dumb. If you aren’t familiar an Americano is espresso topped with water, and while it is my favorite style to drink now, it was probably not the best option at the time. Espresso, especially Starbucks roasts of it, is the darkest most bitter way to roast coffee beans, and a large (Venti) iced Americano at Starbucks has 3 shots of espresso in it, making it one of the most bitter and burnt coffees that you will ever have, and that was what I started with.
Once my name was called, or more pointedly “Venti Iced Americano for Alan” I sheepishly approached the counter and embraced my fate. There was no room to put in milk or cream and I couldn’t get the raw sugar to dissolve so it just formed a layer of sediment on the bottom of the cup, I gave up and headed out into the sunshine to carry on with the day. As I stood on the busy sidewalk holding a 24 ounce cup of cold espresso water on that hot summer day I was about to embark on a journey. I took my first sip and savored the cold beverage as it rolled over my tongue and hit all my tasted buds resulting in a jolt that I will never forget, because it was fucking terrible. It was all that I could do to keep from spitting it out, but I gutted through that first sip and contemplated where to go from here.
I tried a few more sips and couldn’t make it work. I was faced with one of my biggest failures and unsure what to do I took a path that I don’t take often, I called it quits and threw the nearly full cup into the trash. I think it is the sting of this defeat and my reaction to the situation that have burned it into my brain for all these years. I couldn’t muster the strength of will to make it through. From where I am sitting I can see the trash can I put it in, and my inner monologue keeps calling myself a pussy and repeating the line “drink up, there are tired kids in Africa that would kill to have that full cup of coffee.”
My path through coffee has been long and twisted. I kept trying until I started to like coffee in all its forms and embraced it’s culture. I have used coffee as fuel, and as a reward, and as a motivator, and for pure sensory joy. From Starbucks, to 3rd wave independent roasters, to instant and kcups, hot or cold, black or with various additives and enhancers, coffee has always been there for me. Even when I go on my periodic detoxes to kill my tolerance the sight and smell of coffee bring up strong memories of experiences good and bad, the adventures that these beans have fueled, and the friends that I have shared my cups with. But no matter how long it has been or have far I have traveled I will never be able to forget that first Iced Americano, and the bitter taste of defeat.