Ode to a Coffee Urn: Common Grounds

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When did it become all about coffee?

Just last month, this column featured a makeshift Starbucks set up by U.S. troops in Iraq and what a boon this little piece of home has been to soldiers' morale. In the September 2002 column, we tallied how much it costs a year if you order a latte five days a week on your way to work every week (deducting vacation time). The total: $921.20; that's not counting the weekend frap and was before a price increase. I've even heard a financial planner on TV calculate how much more money people can have for retirement if they just give up their designer cup of java every day. The amount saved with compounded interest is substantial. And, yet, the luxury seems worth it to many people.

Why hasn't Jerry Seinfeld asked, "What's the deal about coffee?"

It's not the coffee. It's the coffee culture we now share as common ground--or should I say, grounds? (coffee humor) Getting a coffee, going out for coffee, is our little space in the workday to call our own. The corner Starbucks (and it does seem as if there is one on every corner) is the one place in the world where we can be choosy, idiosyncratic even, and get away with it. "I'll have a half decaf triple shot no sugar vanilla skim latte wet extra foam, with whip."

"Retail! Half decaf triple shot no sugar vanilla skim latte wet extra foam, with whip," the cashier shouts to the barista. And no one rolls an eye (except maybe the person standing behind you in line).

Culture migrates, so you can pretty much order your personally crafted brew without a fuss at the other coffee cafes cropping up since Starbucks arrived on the scene. Still, Starbucks is the proto type, the standard, the ubiquitous one. There are 14 within a 1-mile radius of my office.

I haven't yet narrowed down my drink to one choice. I alternate between a tall skim latte with extra foam, a grande iced Americano (I plan to try it "dry" soon, which means without added water), and an iced decaf venti skim mocha. For this latter, I silently practice the correct order of the words while waiting my turn. …