Coffee Clutch

We’re all entitled to one addiction, assuming it’s legal and not terribly self-destructive.

Coffee got its clutches on me early. When I’d spend summers with my grandparents in Lafayette, La., I’d wake up on the fold-out couch in the living room to the sound of a live Cajun band on the TV farm report and Momma Bruce (all Broussards, of which there are millions in Louisiana, answer to “Bruce.”) would hand me a bracing cup of coffee milk to start the day. I was maybe 5 when I got my first cup.

Cajun coffee milk is the perfect gateway vehicle for a coffee addiction — sweet, creamy and lukewarm but subtly stimulating. It was percolated on the stove with Community Club coffee blended with chicory. That taste and aroma define a significant portion of my youth and are forever associated with that part of the world.

I went through an adolescent phase where I dabbled in instant coffee. The less said about that, the better, but the dark pleasures of the drink truly came to life for me when I first traveled to New England back in the 1980s. Visiting a friend in Cambridge, I found the very air to be steeped in the aroma of black coffee beans cut with heavy cream.

The Seattle coffee scene emerged about the same time as grunge rock ‘n’ roll, establishing yet another geographical node for me on the caffeinated map of the country.  Some consider Starbucks to be the Wal-Mart of the coffee business, but I think it really just cut the path, proving the concept that people would gather and spend money at a place that provided the right density of flavor, atmosphere and social interaction (both real and electronic, of course).

Into that path have flowed countless small coffee shops in every town of any note. My hometown of Concord has charmed me by having one of the most coffee-drenched downtowns in the region. And imagine my delight to learn that Manchester, where I work, is, according to data from Men’s Health magazine, the second most “coffee-obsessed” city in North America (right after Portland, Maine).

But, regional divisions aside, the beauty of the modern coffee shop is that each one is a world unto itself, not so much a mirror of its surrounding community but an adornment upon it. A region blessed with more than one is a region of city-states, like a tiny Rome, Athens and Sparta, each with its own committee of philosopher kings holding court (although sometimes doing so while wearing earphones and clicking a keyboard).

The coffee shop will never replace the country store as the hub of the small town. A good country store has a built-in coffee shop, right next to the lottery tickets and the doughnut rack. But for the pumped-up urban spaces of the state, it’s a close equivalent.

And for me, every coffee shop, whether a downtown hole in the wall, a trendy Starbucks or a stop-on-the-fly Dunkin’ Donuts, is also a portal to a deep chord of memory. It’s a memory of a simpler time when breakfast on the fold-out couch signaled the sweet and stimulating start of a brand new day.

Categories: Editor’s Note