Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Coffee Conundrum


Providence, Rhode Island, April 1  -  What happens if you leave home in the morning without having had the time to make yourself a cup of coffee?  I mean, after the cursing and moaning has settled down to a fine grumble; after the shock of primal need has become an intermittent pang, or friendly tightening of the chest muscles; after the bungling of a hallowed ritual has become more like a minor loss (like the death of a distant relative that you’ve never wanted to meet anyways.) 

Why, the remedy seems quite apparent: buy one on the way to work!  Phew!

Thankfully, it’s statistically impossible to drive more than a mile without passing a Dunkin Donuts in Rhode Island.  Before I can say “time to make the donuts,” I’m pulling into one of the four establishments within ½ a mile from my house.  When I’m in the place, I remember how there used to be long counters to sit at, and waitresses that would take your order, and how you could have a conversation with other people or the wait staff.  Sounds pretty socialist now—glad we’ve moved beyond that!  I look for a place to sit to enjoy my coffee, but the seats look pretty plastic-y, and the only view is of the hall to the toilets—which is all probably for the best, as I don’t want to sit and enjoy my coffee when I can try slurping it in traffic.  The sign saying “No Loitering 15 Minute Time Limit” confirms my more reasonable choice.  Don’t want to break Dunkin’ bylaws.

Small black coffee, two sugars.  And you never have to worry about what kind of coffee you’ll be getting here: since time immemorial, you have been able to walk into any Dunkin’ Donuts in this country and you would get a coffee that tastes exactly the same as another cup you bought on the other coast 20 years ago.  It’s like magic. 

I grab my coffee and go, heading for the highway, and no sooner do I try to take my first sip than I spill some of the coffee.  Yes, the scalding of my fingers is unpleasant (and I know it’s scalding, because the cup says the “contents are hot”).  Yes, spilling coffee on the crotch of my pants will be awkward later at work.  But those aren’t the worst of it.  The coup de grace was the creamy color of the fluid cascading tan-ly over my fingers and onto my pants.  Cream.  Cream in my coffee.  It hit me faster than the burning sensation could reach my brain.  Nausea sets in.  A sweat breaks on my heavy brow.

Only one remedy remained now, as I approach work: Starbucks.

Starbucks is a very different animal from Dunkin’ Donuts.  There are plenty of comfy chairs to sit in for hours and hours.  Sometimes no toilet, so you’ll be holding it for hours and hours too.  They pipe in Generic Jazz, which is a relief, as who wants to have to think about what they’re listening to for hours on end?  And if you like Christmas candy-cane coffee, this is the place to be.  There are all kinds of mocchiata frappucinita specialties, with enough sweetness and syrups to completely mask the forgotten coffee base.  Who needs to taste the coffee anyways?  (It’s like taking a nice Bordeaux and adding Coca-Cola to it—it’s now a fine spritzer!)  And they have enough fat and calories to fulfill all of your body’s needs.  Four of those frappiata whatevers will get you to your daily caloric intake—talk about simplifying your life!  

I love ordering at Starbucks, mainly because of the size conundrum.  I’ve always felt that a small coffee was plenty for me: just the right quantity of beverage balanced with the amount of time it would take to reasonable and casually drink it before it gets too cold.  And for a long time, “small” at Starbucks was “tall.”  (They must squeeze more liquid in the small cup, or maybe it has a higher density or something.)  The middle selection is “grande”, which means “big”, so you certainly get more than you paid for with that one.  ”Venti” has always been tough for me, though, as it means nothing as far as coffee is concerned.  (I think “wind” when I see “venti”, so I’m just thrown off balance and avoid that choice altogether.)  And now they have the new, even bigger “trenta.”  I’m not sure if I need—or could even drink—31 ounces of coffee in one sitting.  And with no toilet in sight, it is a recipe for a sincere panic in those comfy armchairs.

I get my order, a small coffee, and head over to the side bar to put in my sugar.  The burnt smell of the roast is just right.  All coffee should taste burnt, that way you don’t have to worry if one tastes better than the other—because you can’t tell one from the other.  Simplification again!  Satisfied, I head on to work, coffee in hand, coffee withdrawal held at bay… for now, at least. 

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