Friday, May 06, 2011

How a Chicago Mocha Changed My Life

How a Chicago Mocha Changed My Life

Erik is out of the office this week, so we are reprinting this column from 1998, several years before he became a coffee snob, and before Starbucks threatened to dominate the globe.

I'm not a real coffee drinker. I don't like coffee, unless I load it down with all kinds of sugar, cream, and little umbrellas, the kind you get in tropical drinks that come in hollowed out pineapples.

"How can you call yourself a journalist if you don't drink coffee?" you're probably saying.

Actually, I don't call myself a journalist. I'm a humorist. And humorists drink stuff with silly names, like Sarsparilla, Harvey Wallbangers, or Beer.

I don't know why I don't like coffee. I just don't. I've tried it before, but always thought it tasted like smoky, muddy water. I would much rather drink tea, beer, water, milk, Tang, sea water with a dead fish in it, or real smoky, muddy water.

My wife keeps telling me I'm not a real adult until I drink coffee. This is fine with me, since I like being a fake adult anyway. However, I decided to try coffee one day while we were in Chicago.

My wife and I were walking along, and it was a little chilly. Down the street, there was a little Starbucks coffee shop. For those of you who aren't familiar with Starbucks, let me offer a hearty welcome out from under your rock.

Starbucks is a large coffee shop chain with trendy little coffee shops all over the US, parts of Canada, and even on some remote South Pacific islands. Starbucks sells coffee like McDonald's sells cheap plastic Disney movie crap for your kids. The only difference is you don't step on a cup of Starbucks coffee as you're walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night. (If you do, you have a serious addiction.)

My wife has a keen eyesight, and can spot things, like Starbucks coffee shops, that even an eagle would be hard-pressed to see. Before I even saw the place, she started dropping hints:

My wife: Boy, it sure is cold out today. Are you cold? I'm cold.

Me: No, it's only 50 degrees, so I'm pretty warm. Besides, you're wearing your giant Eskimo parka, and I've got my arm around you. Isn't that enough?

My wife: Oh sure, that's nice, I guess. But I'd like a cup of coffee. If we find a coffee place, can we stop for a minute?

Me: Sure, if we find one.

Five seconds later...

My wife: There's a Starbucks!

Me: Damn!

When we got to the store, it didn't matter how much I protested. Even saying that people would only laugh at me, not because of me, didn't deter her. I was going into that shop whether I wanted to or not.

When we got in, we were greeted by a barista. "What do you do?" I asked, naively.

"Oh, I'm here to help the customer decide which of our many types of coffee he or she should drink at that particular moment," she said in a verbal blur. "Excuse me a minute? I need another fix." She raced off, screaming that there were ants all over her.

"That's okay," said my wife. "I've been to these places enough, I know just what you need." She ordered a mocha for me, and got a skinny half-caffe decaf double latte for herself.

"Huh?" I stared at her blankly. "I only understood the word 'double' in that last sentence, and I don't think it means what I think it means."

After watching a crew of other baristas carefully handcraft our coffee in a machine that hissed like a thousand tires were losing air, they handed me a paper cup with a little sleeve on it.

"What's this?" I asked. "I thought coffee came in those huge swimming pool-sized cups."

"No, you don't get those until you have a little more experience," said my wife. "This is for novices. Now drink your mocha."

I hesitated. Could I betray my non-coffee lifestyle after all these years? I looked around the full coffee shop, feeling thirty pairs of bloodshot eyes staring eagerly at me, beckoning me to the dark side.

I took a sip from my little cup.

There it was. My first drink of mocha. I had done it. I had crossed the infamous "coffee line." The room started to spin, and I felt the urge to put on a black beret and discuss existentialism and recite weird poetry.

I looked at my wife with a big goofy grin. "Man, I feel great! This coffee stuff is pretty good. It's kind of sweet too. Hey, let's talk about art and the decline of society in a post-industrial society."

"Take it easy, Johnny Java," she said. "That was only the whipped cream on top."

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

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