The Coffee Shop
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, wrote about the coffee shop as an anomaly, a place where a dedicated introvert like herself can go to be around people, to experience kinship, but in a snug, liminal way.
This phenomenon, of drinking coffee and working alone yet feeling, somehow, completely connected to everything alive, coincided with the rise of the internet that solidified coffee as the center of the world, analog or digital.
In many ways, the coffee shop itself is a ritualistic expression of hope. In the 17th century, the British called their coffeehouses, which were fashioned after their original Turkish counterparts, “penny universities.” The drink fueled conversation, energized debate, and connected all of the people in the room where it happened. In America in the 1960s, coffee shops were hubs for community and political outreach, as well as hosts to musicians and countercultural thinkers.
The coffee shop represents a dream of a people that converses and listens, that takes time to pause and reflect, that gathers to plan and deliberate and socialize. The porch chat for the community perch. There is a sophistication to the coffee shop—come one, come all, come however you like in this moment—that’s democratic in its basic premise that we’re all the same contented blob of a human when placed in front of the perfect cup of java.
Love happens over coffee.
It's not uncommon to see people from all walks of life eating, drinking, and working together at Compass Coffee's cafes. They are a pillar of the community--a place for anyone and everyone to share a cup of coffee. The steam mixes with the pheromones and creates another sort of spell, another fixed enchantment. I’ve often closed my laptop—what is work, when coffee is working love right in front of me?—in order to sit back and admire two humans on a first date. The way they dance around each other while reaching for napkins at the sugar and cream station. The way they negotiate which table to sit at (“Which do you prefer?” It does really say a lot) and slowly inch closer and closer, laugh easier and easier. Even the date that perhaps won’t lead to a second is still a wonderful trick: two people, stirring conversation, keeping the flame alive until the coffee dregs can be read and they decide to go their separate ways. I’ve seen old flames reunite at a coffee shop and young lovers say goodbye. But none of these are quite that different at all: they share the same fixings, a desire to laugh and love, an understanding that coffee contains the key to it all, the magic ingredient.
I know I’ve fallen in love over coffee—specifically, a cup of Compass. In college at Georgetown, it seemed as if every student ran on Compass grounds, which were served and doctored at the student-run cafés on campus. My roommates and I would trot over to Hilltoss for vanilla lattés practically in our pajamas, at ungodly hours of the night, hoping no one important saw us masquerading in the dark. Back home, we’d curl up on the couch and drink our coffees together, sharing the minutiae details of our days and gossiping about our love lives and dreams for the future.
We'd get coffee to be seen.
Other times, during sunlight hours, we’d get coffee to be seen. My roommates and I would put on our brightest get-ups, don our wildest sunglasses, stuff our backpacks with the work we were definitely going to get done, and saunter over to Midnight Mug, the café nestled in the basement of Georgetown’s brutalist library, and get our Compass fix. We’d sip our coffees and whisper way too loudly (and, not that anyone’s surprised, study barely at all). There was an ongoing joke at Georgetown that everyone went to that floor of the library, with the coffee shop and coffee tables, when their intention was to not get any work done.
But, like Cain above said, there is something inexplicably magical about coffee, whether you’re drinking it alone or in a cozy, crowded room. Coffee opens you up (I’m resisting the urge to write a “spill the beans” pun here). Coffee brings you closer to that thing that connects us all. Love? Hope? Creature comforts? Joy? Some frothy combination of all of the above?
I know that I, as a journalist, have conducted my best interviews over coffee (and so often, over Compass coffee). There’s something about sitting face to face and drinking the elixir that loosens everyone’s guard, that reminds everyone involved of what’s at stake, of what we’re fighting for. I find that people are more willing to speak—and listen—with compassion and complexity over coffee. The story is fuller, somehow, when it’s told through java.
My Coffee Rituals
So now, if you’ll bear with me, I’ll tell you my story over coffee, in the hopes that it illuminates something for you about your own, multifaceted, ever-evolving coffee rituals:
That’s how I greet my sister good morning. She’s usually still in bed, just a warm bundle in a sun-soaked room. She responds with a barely legible “yes.”
But this isn’t how I wake her up.
The real awakening comes when I return to her bedroom door, knock twice, and place her coffee in her hands.
This is our morning ritual: I make coffee for my sister; my mom makes coffee for me; and my dad makes coffee for mom. (My dad, kind soul, makes coffee for himself. Though I’m sure everyone reading this is familiar with the bottomless pleasures of that act, too.)
My sister takes her coffee Americano, with exactly five grains of salt—for bitterness and for luck. My dad drinks espresso, while my mom prefers a complicated latté with bee pollen honey and frothed oat milk. I go for the regular stuff, whisked and warmed, poured over a cube of demerara sugar.
Our orders change, nearly every time I come home. And when I’m away, I repeat the ritual for my friends, roommates, and found family. It’s a small act of a big love, which is also, perhaps, the scarcely kept secret modus operandi of coffee.