I love coffee, this is no secret to the general public. I truly live on the stuff: if you were to cut me open to perform an emergency blood transfusion you better have 3 pints of Sumatra in those little plastic hospital bags. My addiction with coffee started slow, along with the “shove chocolate in a cup, charge 5 dollars and call it coffee” movement of the late 1990s. When you were in high school, taking a girl on a “coffee date” rather than a “burger date” meant you were sophisticated, interested in deep conversation and swapping intellectual banter. Burger dates were a prerequisite to second base in the back seat of a 1994 Saturn, while coffee shop dates were where relationships started.
My love affair with coffee intensified when I went to college and fell in love with a coffee shop directly behind the music building. It was the perfect place, with Christmas lights up year-round, local art on the walls, and a large patio with a cobblestone walkway. Much like high school, it was where you took a promising first date, as opposed to the bar on the corner with the all-Bon Jovi juke box, 5 dollar pitchers, and a graffiti’d restroom that stank like the latrines at Scout camp. At this coffee shop, I got my first taste of what it meant to be a “regular”, a customer so consistent and loyal that the baristas know your name, what you drink, and what flirting works for a good tip. This sensation got them a lot of business from me, I loved all of the whimsy and romance that came with being a regular at a locally-owed coffee shop. All I needed was a massive dog or a single-speed bicycle, and I’m sure they would have stopped charging me for drinks.
The older I got the stouter my coffee got, making the frappa-kappa-whippa-choco-minty-chinos from high school look like an insult to the coffee business. By the time I was graduating from college I was drinking the darkest coffee a shop could offer, only with a splash of cream. I insisted on a dark, caramel khaki color for the utmost drinkability. I had become THAT coffee snob, the elitist jackass that rambles about fair trade products, air-lock canisters, and the oil content of his beans. When I moved to Wisconsin for graduate school I immediately latched onto a coffee shop that provided this level of high-brow caucasian satiation, a local shop that roasted all of their fair-trade coffee in-house. My loyalty to this coffee shop was extreme compared to my shop in college, sometimes resulting in 3 or 4 trips a day to this wonderful establishment. The baristas here knew my entire life story, and instead of asking the customary “how is your day?”, they would ask me detailed questions about my job, or recent dates I had been on. I truly did feel like a character on “Cheers”: not only did everybody know my name, they knew my everything. For Halloween a few years back a friend of mine decided to go as me for Halloween, and the most obvious accessory to his costume was a coffee cup, glued to his hand the entire evening.
After I finished graduate school I got a sleek corporate job, complete with daily suit-wearing and a downtown office in a high-rise. Luckily for me, my favorite coffee shop also had a location downtown, so my habit could continue uninterrupted. It became my refuge from a brutal office atmosphere, a place where the smile was more important than the coffee half the time. It didn’t take me long to realize no amount of coffee could make me happy in this new lifestyle.
When you realize something profound in your life isn’t a good fit, you tend to seek the most polarizing opposite to fill that void. When someone gets trampled on by a witty brunette, a terse and dry blonde is usually the natural replacement. If someone pukes up under-cooked Indian food, they will usually crave a salad the next day. My natural replacement to budget meetings, loafer-wearing, and spreadsheets epitomized this idea. I became a middle school teacher at an urban public school in Texas. To many people this shift in careers was baffling, but to me it fit like a glove. As I began teaching I realized how great of a fit it was: all of the nonsense and hoop-jumping was replaced with innocent children, inspiration, and a good use of my off-kilter sense of humor. The only thing I had not found a proper replacement for in Texas was my coffee habit. It wasn’t that there were a lack of coffee shops in Austin: a town as tree-hugging and Birkenstock wearing as this certainly loves its local coffee. If I learned anything from my relationship with coffee, it is that it has to fit every crevice of your lifestyle. There is coffee for the finer moments, and there is coffee for rolling up your sleeves and getting it done. One morning the absurdly early “teacher hours” were getting to me, so I reluctantly stumbled into the 7-11 across the street from my school. As I walked in the door I was greeted by Joe, a sincere fellow in his 70s wearing a red button down that fit him well. I also met Ignacio and Maria, his two assistants in convenience store operation. At 6:15 in the morning, I was the only lone soul in this 7-11, so the three of them dedicated all of their energy to my experience. I poured my coffee myself, a new experience for a former customer of a high-end establishment. I then paid Joe, and received from him the most sincere smile I have ever felt.
I went back to that 7-11 the next day, and the day after that, until it became the perfect replacement to my coffee shop habit. If this new chapter of my life was an intentional polar opposite for my last, replacing my fair trade yuppie coffee experience with a gas station made perfect sense. The coffee is hot, it tastes just fine, and every morning I get to expand upon a friendship with three wonderful people I would have never otherwise. There is something oddly satisfying about getting your morning coffee at a gas station. I look to my left and right as I pour my cream and retrieve my lid. To my left is a carpenter. with calloused fingers and dust on his jeans. To my right is a maid, ready for the day with her apron already on. I stand in between them, a public school teacher, finally feeling like I’ve earned my morning brew.