For many the traveler (and perhaps even more so for the traveling artist or entertainer) an important role is played on the road by coffee—that friend that wakes us in the morning, keeps us alert behind the wheel, picks us up for the next gig, keeps us going. And while I don’t drink it in the hours immediately preceding a gig, any other time coffee provides that combination of stimulant and old familiar friend for me in much the same way that public radio and spring creeks ground me, pick me up and pique my creative sensibilities anywhere I go.
As important as the drink is in my travels, the coffeehouse serves an equally significant function. A perennial source of artistic energy, caffeine and wireless internet, the coffeehouse de jour, like the trout stream and the NPR station, grounds me, calms me, focuses me and keeps me in touch.
When time allows, I love seeking out the local coffeehouses. There, the internet is usually free, the clientele predictably free-thinking, the music usually independent, and the coffee beans are rarely over roasted. There, I feel at home.
But let’s face it, there isn’t always time to do the research and driving to find that oasis. Often, the local house is on the other side of town—out of the way and inaccessible in the time available.
Yes, Starbucks. I don’t drink their coffee. It is always way over-roasted for my taste. I don’t understand their menu board and they don’t understand what it means when I order anything in the “regular” size. They ask if I want a grande, which sounds really big, but then a tall sounds even bigger and I have no clue what venti means. Their tea wears labels such as zen and calm and when asked, they are all green. Unless they are chamomile, in which case they smell alarmingly like mint. But the cake is usually good, the chai is predictably sweet and the chairs are always comfortable. Unfortunately, the internet comes at a cost – $9.99 for twenty-four consecutive hours. In other words, Ten bucks for twenty minutes – usually all the time I need to check email and send a response or two.
I have been to two Starbucks in the last two days. The first one, a suburban strip mall joint, played reggae so loud that I couldn’t concentrate. I asked them to turn it down and they very quickly and politely obliged, but just as quickly the volume of the baristas increased so that I was hearing the sexual exploits, preferences and wishes of the teenaged staff over the music complete with the most colorful of language bandied about as if they were in their parent’s basement drinking cheap beer. Looks were shared among the customers and several got up and left. I stuck it out but was not very productive.
The next day I visited a smaller, urban ‘bucks. It was morning rush hour and there was a line of professionals being hustled efficiently through the assembly line by a young woman who knew half of them by name and knew the preferred drinks of half of those. When I reached the counter, I was unsure of what drink I wanted. Definitely no caffeine. I scanned the board several times for tea offerings before finally spying a row of boxes behind the barista. I had to lean over the counter in order to read the labels.
“What do you want, Honey?”
“What is Zen?”
“China Green Tips?”
“Green Tea. Which one do you want, Honey?”
“Do you have Sencha?”
“No, Honey. We have Envy, Zen, Om…”
“That’s Ok. How about Chamomile?”
I held up my cup.
“One bag or two, Honey? People are waiting.”
“Make it two.”
She pulled two bags from a box labeled “Calm,” dropped them into my cup, and added steaming water. As she handed it to me, the aromas of apple and mint found their way to my nose. I sensed no chamomile, but I didn’t question it. People were waiting, after all.
“Thanks, Honey,” I said, but she didn’t hear. She had already moved on to the next one.
“What can I get you, Honey?”
I left the shop and headed down the street to the festival. It was raining and cool and the warm travel mug felt good in my hand. Comforting. Grounding, even.