Mom travels with her French press and a bag of Oren’s Daily Roast. She flies economy, but scoffs when she passes the Admirals Club: Armani suits unbuttoned within, guzzling airport Joe as their shoes are shined. She stops at the Starbucks in Terminal C.
“What would you like, Ma’am?” Outside, a New York blizzard wreaks havoc.
“Grande, extra-hot-no-foam latte, please.” Her winter drink. It flows off her tongue like a prayer. No foam, I’ve learned, leaves more room for milk. She swipes her Gold Card.
“Ma’am, that’s your 12th star. This drink’s on us.”
She spreads a satisfied smile. Starbucks has subtly re-implemented the star system one might see in a Kindergarten classroom for kids on good behavior. You need just 30 stars to remain at gold status. Mom amassed 250 last year — class valedictorian by a long shot.
“What would you like, sir?” says the barista.
“Water, please,” I say. It’s vacation, and coffee — for me — is off the menu.
I must have been about seven years old when I first encountered the drink. I was always an early riser and so was Mom, and she had her routine — a breakfast of one mug, French-pressed, no sugar. Nothing else.
I would sit across the table, more focused on landing the perfect ratio of syrup to challah French toast. Coffee was for grown-ups, I had assumed. And then she asked,“Wanna try a sip, Dain?”
I had looked into the brown blackness and wondered how old grown-ups were. I sipped, and yucked.
“Bitter,” I said.
Mom smiled. She knew I wouldn’t like it.
But then Mocha Frappuccinos happened.
It’s visiting day, and my first summer as a “two-monther,” at camp. I’m twelve maybe. We’re walking around the quaint town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, leash in my hand. I couldn’t believe she schlepped him on that long drive, but he looked happy — a soft coat of brown black and gold, blended like a cup of coffee right when you add the milk before it vanishes. His name was Starbucks. Mom chose the name. No, I’m not kidding.
“I need a coffee,” Mom says. I groan and we walk into Starbucks, Starbucks the dog unaware of the irony.
“What would you like Ma’am?”
“Grande iced dopio, please.” Her summer drink. “It’s identical to an ice latte, but at half the price,” she says. She tells me: “Just add the milk yourself.”
“I’ll have a small Mocha Frappuccino,” my older sister says.
The barista looks at me. I usually settle for a hot chocolate, but I like the sound of ‘whipped cream.’
“Um … I’ll have the same please, with whipped cream.”
Mom looks at me, surprised.
“Dain, you know that has caffeine in it?”
“I know it has whipped cream in it.”
“Please make it decaf, miss.”
I couldn’t have cared less. The frappa-whatever tasted like ice cream and there was even caramel drizzle on top.
Was this coffee too? Was I a grown-up now?
No, not yet — just a pubescent high schooler. When my parents got divorced (only Dad cried), we moved from the sheltered suburbs of New York to the big city. I grew six inches in two months, and Starbucks, our dog, died from prostate cancer. But Starbucks was also everywhere now — Manhattan, I discovered, had one on every other corner. I wondered why Mom hadn’t moved there sooner. Lucky for me, my allowance didn’t cover four-dollar Fraps. I say luckily because I was only beginning to understand the danger of caffeine.
It was a month before Yom Kippur — when Jews don’t eat or drink for 25 hours straight — and Mom was reading the paper without her typical morning coffee. When I asked why, she said she was weaning herself from caffeine so she wouldn’t get a crippling withdrawal headache during the fast. It scared me to think she couldn’t last a day cold turkey, that caffeine had become a staple of her existence, an obligation like water, an addiction if you must. I didn’t want to be dependent on anything, so I stayed warily away.
But then college happened and I grew up just a little. Suddenly, coffee was pervasive and free: It was in the dining halls, during any number of three daily meals and access to bottomless coffee dispensers; in my room, with the electric tea kettle Auntie Nancy bought me as a dorm-warming gift; and on a campus with cafés up the ass — there are over 21 on Central Campus alone.
I tried to stay away but its utility overpowered my discipline. I was studying more, sleeping less and filling up with more brown sludge to keep the engine chugging. It lost its allure of sophistication, its “grown-ups only” label. It granted me the bitter power to stay oiled when my gears started to slow.
I never got addicted, though. I’ve stayed wary of her power and I’ve harnessed it with awareness. I drink it black no sugar, because I don’t want to enjoy the taste. I drink it sporadically and with purpose, because it’s medicine. I drink it not as requisite and not abusively, but in awe of its potion-like magic.
I drink it with all those who abuse it in mind. Like that guy from Afternoon Delight: I was there some time ago for breakfast with friends and observed a friend-of-a-friend drink five cups of coffee without blinking an eye. Like that girl in the Diag some time ago I overheard say flippantly, “Whenever I pop an Addie it feels like three shots of espresso.” Like Mom who no longer depends on coffee, but is dependent to coffee. The benign connotation coffee carries in many-a-mind is evident in our countries overindulgent consumption habits.
So I drink it with respect. Writing now into the early morning, a mug with a green damp Bigelow bag stands emptied next to me. I’m wired and focused when I would otherwise be sleeping. That’s amazing! And I want it to stay amazing so I’m aware that cup is my second and last dose of caffeine for the week. Because a drink a day in my mind is overuse. And with overuse, the stimulant loses its power to tolerance, and tolerance to dependence.
It’s not easy though. I might have caffeine in control but I’m just as guilty of abuse with many other relationships. Maybe I smoke too much weed, spend too much time on Facebook, drink too much alcohol, party too much, work too hard, have too much sex; maybe I don’t relax enough, spend enough time with loved ones, slow down ever, care for my body enough, laugh enough, cry ever.
Each is a relationship and it’s in my best interest to respect them all and find their respective efficacious thresholds. Sometimes there’s no blatant harm and I can easily rationalize a desire that may not be best. It takes a healthy dose of reflection and self-honesty to recognize an overused tool no longer benefiting my life and an even larger dose of discipline to regain control. I don’t have the answers or the fix, but I know how easy it is to ignore it all. So I’m working, experimenting and feel myself improving. One day soon I’m sure, I’ll grow up.