Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cuppa Joe

I hadn’t been to Seattle since the late 70s and I was looking forward to seeing it again.  Despite the almost ever-present rain, there were snow-capped mountains, water, or trees every which way you looked.  A city where you could be in an asphalt parking lot and yet there was a spectacular view in any direction.  Hilly and beautiful even in the rain.

That first morning Linda told me we were headed out on errands, "but first we'll stop and get coffee.”  As she drove around, it surprised me to see coffee places on three out of every four corners. Every block! [This was before the advent of Starbucks in every city and state.]  Starbuck’s was certainly a presence, but another brand I hadn’t heard of, Tully’s, was also prominent, along with lots of other little nondescript coffee places, street after street.  [From Wikipedia: “There's a running joke in Seattle that the easiest way to find a Tully's is to stand in front of a Starbucks and turn around.” See what I mean?]

After a bit, Lin pulled the car over and we got out in front of what could best be called a storefront shack.  Sandwiched between two buildings this place had been built astride the alley between.  With two people furiously working the "counter," there were about nine or ten people ahead of us on line.  Most were dressed in business suits and had briefcases (this was before laptop cases were de rigueur), in their morning hustle, singing out their orders:
    "Tall caramel macchiato with a double"
    "Venti Americanos with half caf and whole"   
    "Short mocha latte stirred"

I was trying to think what language were they talking in. I never drank much coffee and usually filled half the mug with milk. 

“You should get a latte,” Lin said, and then placed her order, “Grande skim latte, please” and turned to me.

“I’ll have a latte, but could you make it half what you usually do?” I asked.

“What do you mean half?” the guy queried. His partner stopped to stare.

“Well. I don’t like strong coffee and I add a lot of milk so maybe you should just give me half the amount of coffee you give everyone else and then the rest milk,” I answered meekly.

“Oh. You don’t like coffee,” he said knowingly, “Well, I’ll give you a latte and you taste it 
and let me know how to adjust.”

“Please don’t do that,“ I protested.

“Why not?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face.

“I don’t want you to waste it and besides, there’re all these people waiting.” I was embarrassed.

“Well,” he said to me in an slightly exasperated voice, “we HAVE to get a baseline!”  

Coffee was everywhere.  In drugstores, in take-out windows cut out of the side of supermarket buildings, and in cozy, comfortable shops with back rooms set up like living rooms  complete with oversized club chairs and blazing fireplaces.  We entered one of these another afternoon  a dark wood paneled place with dark wood floors and black wrought iron details and a beautiful nickel countertop with lovely pastries and cookies and assorted mugs for sale.  It was a Tully’s and it was quiet and inviting.

“Shannon’s got soccer today,” she told me, “so after we have a cup, we’ll need to pick her up from school and drive her to practice.”

“But it’s raining Lin, won’t they cancel?”

“Are you kidding?” she laughed, “If they called things here because of rain, these kids would never play a single game!”  Lin went to put her things down on a coffee table while I ordered.

“I’ll have a light latte please.” I told the smiling young girl at the counter.

She looked uncomfortable with the request.  “A light latte?” she asked in a questioning voice with a bit of a furrow crinkling her brow.

“I just want a lot of room for milk, so just make it light,” I explained, trying not to sound like an alien in this world of coffee aficionados.

“Heather,” she called toward the back of the shop, avoiding eye contact with me, “Can you come out here?”

“Listen,” I said, trying to put her at ease, “it’s OK  you can just make it any way you usually do and that’s okay. Honest.  I can always pour out some of the coffee to add more milk,” I pleaded.

Ignoring me she turned to her manager and said in a blank way, “She wants a light latte.”

Heather turned to me, “What’s the matter?  You don’t like coffee?”

“Well, not very much,”  I said sheepishly, “and  ” I added trying to make my case,  "I have an ulcer, so I really need to watch the coffee.”  I wanted her to know that I wasn't a complete oddball, that I had a good excuse.

“You want a ristretto.” she said confidently and barked to her assistant, “Make her a ristretto.”

This cup is from Crate & Barrel
“A ris-STREH-toe?” I echoed, “What is that?”

“It’s a restrained latte.  Less espresso.” she deadpanned. “Sorry, she’s new.”

Now, years later when gourmet beans, blends, brews, and fair trade coffee permeate every facet of our lives, I wondered back to what made Seattle a place where coffee first reigned supreme in the United States.  

In a region where the weather is described by newscasters as “light gray” or “...medium gray out there today!”  maybe these folks need a continuous jolt of caffeine to propel them through their gray rainy days.


  1. Clinging to my religion and guns........... BobMarch 19, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    ah.........i love the smell of liberal cities in the morning

  2. this makes me smile! every coffee shop has it's own language. i'm a coffee drinker so i got right into it. we had a place around here for a short time called tea lux. i went in a few times with friends (thinking afternoon tea would be so civilized) and could never get anything straight. a lot of eye rolling was happening behind the counter when i ordered.