The Barista is Not an Essential Worker

          Covid may affect coffee customs. Apparently many people realize that they can live without Starbucks. They have learned that not-difficult task of making coffee.

I have been into Starbucks or one of its clones a few times, but not often. This is not because I don’t drink coffee. I am addicted to it, and I don’t feel right until I have copious amounts each morning. (Before some medical procedures, I have been told not to eat or drink anything after midnight. Most often abstaining from food has not been a big deal, but the lack of coffee takes a toll. As I await the knife, needle, or probe, I have been asked by attending medical personnel, “How are you feeling?” I don’t know if this is just politeness or a serious inquiry, but it is senseless. I want to snap back but try hard not to, “I am jumpy, jittery, and a bit headachy and queasy. How do you expect I feel without my two or three mugs of coffee?”) I like coffee; I desire coffee; I want coffee; I need coffee. It just doesn’t come from Starbucks.

          I presume I tasted coffee before I went to college, but I don’t remember it. However, a month or two into my freshman year (oops: Old style and politically incorrect—first year), I was drinking coffee. Then it was not so much a morning drink but was instead ingested while studying in the late afternoons or early evening to stave off the drowsies. Perhaps I got coffee at the student union or some other place on campus, but as I often studied in my room, I soon bought a percolator, the way to make coffee in those distant days.  I don’t remember what coffee I bought or where I bought it, but I do know that when the liquid in the pot got cold, I plugged the machine back in. Now the sensible thing would have been to clean out the basket that held the grounds before the reheating, but I did not do that until the pot was empty. The coffee got repercolated often more than once. The coffee became more sludge-like each time this happened which could be several times in a day. I assume that I started out drinking this concoction with sugar and milk, but if so, I quickly gave them up as unnecessarily difficult to keep in the room. Unsweetened black it was then and still is.

          If I could drink the resultant tar, my taste buds for coffee could not have been very refined, but at some point, I realized that some cups of coffee tasted better than others. As with other of my preoccupations, I became obsessed with coffee after I moved to New York City. This was fueled with an overheard conversation at the unlikely place of the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union. I was doing work there, and while it was the summer of the Pentagon Papers, not all of the talk was about civil liberties. Strong opinions were common on many topics so it was not completely surprising that two very bright attorneys were stridently discussing the merits of making coffee by percolating or by dripping. A shocking conversation to these ears. There were other ways to make coffee besides percolation? Although I had nothing to add to the conversation, I listened intently, and like the good lawyer and civil libertarian I wanted to be, I weighed the arguments and evidence. I concluded that the drip man had the better of it.

          Ezra Pound clinched the move to drip coffee. I then had a fascination with the poet, editor, and traitor and read much about him. For one of the many books I have not written, I had thought about exploring whether his broadcasts from Italy during World War II, for which he was prosecuted, should have been protected by the First Amendment. I registered information about his career and opinions, but a personal detail struck me: Pound started each day be dripping boiling water over coffee grounds held by a cloth suspended above a coffee cup. I thought it made perfect sense to have a morning ritual making coffee. It would suit me better than prayers. (My fascination with Pound had an important limitation. I did not study and try to make sense of his Cantos. I am not crazy and have stayed out of St. Elizabeth’s.)

          I adapted Pound. First thing each morning while water was heating, I put a scoop of coffee in a one cup filter inside a holder and placed it over a coffee mug. When the water boiled, the gas was turned off and a tablespoon of water was sprinkled over the coffee. It was important, I have been reliably told, to let the coffee “bloom” to bring out all subtleties and aromas. Then a mug’s worth of hot water went into the filter and in a few moments, I had my beverage. A second or third cup would be prepared in the same way. Every sip, from first to last, was hot, fresh coffee.

          Although this was the right way to make coffee, I quickly learned that the kind of coffee mattered. In those distant days, the national commercial brands were the only coffee choices in grocery stores, but I found that a few specialty stores sold something different—whole beans from all over the world. The first place I started buying non-grocery coffee was a few blocks away from my office across from City Hall in the neighborhood then nameless but now called Tribeca. The area was not then a luxury residential neighborhood but a place for small industries. One of those concerns roasted coffee beans; I am not sure of its name, but Simpson’s comes to mind. The business must have been selling in bulk to restaurants and other commercial establishments, but it would sell a pound or two of freshly roasted coffee to anyone who was willing to trek up to the fourth floor of the loft building. I did and found a few desks hidden among piles of burlap bags of coffee beans with the incredible smell of roasting coffee permeating everything. It was then I started purchasing freshly roasted beans.

The coffee was good, but as I remember there were only a few kinds. Then I learned that there were specialty stores and roasters in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn– McNulty’s, Schapira’s, Porto Rico, and Damico’s—with multitudes of coffees. There were roasts of different darknesses that made the resulting brews taste different. I learned that coffee came in an array of beans and that arabica produced a different taste from peaberry. Coffee came from Africa, South America, Central America, Indonesia, the West Indies, Hawaii, and they all tasted different. Coffee grown at high altitude would taste different from something planted at sea level. And I learned that such beans could be mixed into an almost infinite number of differently tasting blends. I learned that some coffees were rarer than others and their prices could vary sharply.

I found that making good coffee was within my capabilities. I found that coffee tastes had many possibilities. And when I made it, compared to many other sensations, it cost me comparatively little. New coffee equipment became available. Eventually, even though I still think it is the best way to make coffee, I gave up the one-cup-at-a-time method and bought a drip coffeemaker for home, for travel, and for the office. I never amortized the cost, but two or three daily mugs (a cup and saucer never suited me) cost me less than a dollar a day, and maybe only quarter of that.

(concluded July 17)