It was the middle of the afternoon when I drove through my community’s downtown on a recent Friday, seemingly late in the day for coffee. Yet there they were, nearly two dozen customers lined up outside Starbucks to pick up orders to go.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by that throng. It’s been a very long time since coffee was just coffee, and that’s more true than ever now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
There was no turning back a few decades ago when the once-humble cup of Joe found a new identity as something of a deluxe item, an emblem of Epicureanism, a lifestyle statement. This was due in large part, of course, to Starbucks, whose green-awning stores became ubiquitous, verging on inescapable. When a Starbucks cup made an anachronistic cameo in an episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” it registered as simultaneously inadvertent and inevitable.
In my little town, the arrival of Starbucks a few years ago was a big deal, proof to some that we’d made it. The café culture spawned by the success of Starbucks (which is nearing its 50th anniversary) took hold so completely that even my beloved Dunkin' Donuts (celebrating its 70th anniversary this year) got a bit chichi on us, rebranding itself as just Dunkin' to signal it was a beverage-led retailer, and introducing items like “Nitro-infused Cold Brew Coffee.”
Yet those of us inclined to roll our eyes at the pretentiousness of coffee-as-cultural-signifier have to admit that in our current moment the simple act of buying it provides a measure of reassurance. The emotional importance of everyday pleasures is magnified when you can’t enjoy them every day. So when coffee shops were allowed to reopen earlier this year after the initial COVID-19 lockdown phase, it felt like a balm to our battered spirits.
Grabbing coffee was how people met up with friends or had a first date in the Before Time, so it now feels like a small taste of normality. When we’ve had to put so much on hold, coffee offers instant gratification. A visit to a coffee shop now feels like a break from the routine rather than just part of the routine, a little treat to go along with the caffeine fix. With so many people working from home and so many of our encounters taking place on computer screens, the coffee run offers a rare chance to see other human beings in the (masked, distanced) flesh.
What was striking to me about that line outside Starbucks was the youth of some of the customers, who appeared to be in their mid-teens. When I was that age, coffee was the vile-looking beverage adults for some reason drank, often with a grimace and a cigarette. Quaffing that molten brew seemed like part of the price you had to pay for being a grown-up.
In fact, I didn’t have my first cup of coffee until I was in my 20s, and it came from a vending machine. To be honest, I haven’t really evolved much from that point. A connoisseur I’m not. To me, coffee serves as fuel to jump-start the day or an accessory to a conversation. Vital functions for sure, but I’m still a bit nonplussed at the widespread exaltation of coffee qua coffee. Even a blue-collar guy like Jack Reacher, the rugged hero of Lee Child’s string of best-selling thrillers, can get a bit precious when it comes to how he takes his java.
In “Jack Reacher’s Rules,” a 2012 compendium of excerpts from the novels, Reacher opines: “A bad coffee mug has a thick lip — too wide, too shallow, too much mass — it will cool the drink too fast. A good coffee mug is cylindrical in shape, narrow in relation to its height and with a thin lip.”
If I were a fellow diner patron, I’d be tempted to tell him to just shut up and drink, but that would be unwise. Fictional or not, Reacher isn’t a guy you want to mess with, especially before he’s had his coffee.