On Natural and Artificial Stimulation (or, Coffee as a Slow Beverage)

Recently, I discovered a new mixed-use development downtown.  There were upscale-looking row houses lining intimate streets with wide sidewalks.  The first floor of each building often housed a shop or an office, while the second and third typically housed residents (the commute looked awfully appealing).  The atmosphere was peaceful without being antiquated—it felt like the neighborhood of the future, yet it was grounded in the past.  I was thinking to myself how much I would enjoy living there, when I saw it—the coffee shop.

It was located on the corner.  It had a lot of windows, cozy-looking tables and armchairs inside…it looked like a pleasant place to pass part of the morning.  As I watched, a man left his house, walked three houses down, and entered the coffee shop.  He probably ran into several friends and acquaintances inside, since the shop’s primary customers were undoubtedly his neighbors.

This scene, common in a few of the older neighborhoods in America, was an unusual one in this town.  The suburban area in which I currently reside is best typified by the name of another local coffee shop—“Allegro Coffee.”  The purpose of coffee is to serve as an artificial stimulant, and the purpose of a coffee shop is to provide it as quickly as possible before people return to their cars.  Most coffee shops around here (Starbucks or no) don’t have many tables, because the managers don’t expect people to linger.  Coffee is fuel to keep people awake.  People might order their large white chocolate hazelnut double-shot expressos with extra whipped cream and chocolate syrup, but they don’t really taste them.

So this rare sight—a neighborhood coffee shop—struck me when I encountered it.  One thing I miss from a previous phase of my life is the ability to take a break from florescent lights and take my work (or a good book) down the street to a cozy coffee shop.  In that kind of environment, coffee didn’t exist to keep me awake, but rather to enrich my life.  I have good memories of hours (or even minutes) spent curled up in a corner, soft rock or piano music playing in the background.  I took a small swig of the coffee from time to time, reveling in its rich creamy taste as it went down (never been a black coffee man).  I could glance over at other people in the shop—the professor grading papers, the wannabe hippie writing poetry, the other wannabe hippie talking to the girl he’s hoping will be his girlfriend soon.  Practically speaking, I was still doing what I needed to do (namely work), but the coffee wasn’t an artificial stimulant—the whole experience of coffee was a natural stimulant, feeding my creative juices, my love for the local community (the people I saw every day), and my quality of both work and life.

As I watched the man in the mixed-use development enter his own neighborhood coffee shop, I confess to a twinge of longing for the lifestyle encouraged simply by the presence of a real coffee shop on the corner.  Drinking coffee merely to wake yourself up is like drinking wine merely to get drunk—it can work, but you’re missing out on the fullness of the experience you could be having.  As for me, my hat is off to coffee shops whose staffs understand their own product, and consequently foster peace, community, and a happier lifestyle.

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