Coffee is one of the most perfect foods I’ve ever known. It’s an incredible motivator. The prospect of coffee to come is almost as much of a morning stimulant as the drink itself. But I’ve been trying to stretch out my savings. It’s been a revealing exercise; I had a lot of routine expenses that were easy to shave off. I looked at my account the other day and realized that if I’d been making the same money I was making but living like this, I could have a pretty penny stowed away in a year’s time.
All things considered, coffee is not a huge expense. But as one of the few expenses essentially guaranteed to occur daily in my former life, I’ve been trying to adjust my coffee habits. Not my drinking habits, of course; my buying habits. Turns out it’s approximately half as expensive to make your own cappuccino as to buy one at a café. Even more cost effective if you’re transitioning from a daily Philz outing to making your own drip. And unlike the drip coffee in my old office, which began over time to taste like work, drip coffee made on your own turf with your own beans can be both delicious and meditative.
Still, sometimes it’s nice to treat myself to a café outing, as much for the excuse to be out as for the coffee itself. I occasionally need to be alone in a crowd to think straight, because most of my schooling was spent doing both. I thought to do this today. I’d been oversleeping lately, and thought this might motivate me out of bed at a reasonable time.
I managed to wake up a full eleven minutes early, but the morning was immediately derailed by a plumbing problem. All of the water was coming out all the faucets a weird, yellowish color. Too dark to trust for showering, not dark enough to pass off as coffee. The morning was spent talking to the water company. It turns out the water’s fine, though not in a Jacuzzi kind of way.
After that, I looked up “espresso” on Yelp, on my computer. San Mateo’s espresso game does not match its food game. So I searched Burlingame. If I was going to treat myself, I ought to do it right. A five-star result came up: “xoxo Espresso.” It was close, and somehow I’d never heard of it. One review raved: “I’m a coffee snob, but this is hands down the best coffee in the country.” IN THE COUNTRY. I was just looking for the best coffee in Burlingame but okay!
On closer inspection, xoxo Espresso appeared to be an espresso machine vendor and repair shop, which also happened to serve amazing cups of espresso, which I suppose is a pretty good way to sell espresso machines. It was settled. I rode my bike up to Howard street and walked the length of Howard street from California Drive to just short of El Camino Real. There was no xoxo Espresso. There was no coffee. “All right,” I said. The sun was beating down, so I backtracked to the bench mysteriously built into the side of Powell’s Sweet Shoppe, which unmysteriously was otherwise vacant (I’ve never bought a bunch of candy and thought “Whew, I’ll need to sit down with all this–no way to eat candy on the go!”), and pulled out my very bad phone. It’s an iPhone 4, which runs most modern apps with the framerate of a long-winded slideshow. Each and every touch command is followed by so much lag that by the time the app responds, there’s a new firmware update available.
I searched again for xoxo Espresso, to double-check the location. Maybe I could get an exact address. My first search yielded one result, its pin on the map marked “2” for some reason. It was some dud locale in San Mateo. “Boo,” I said. “Where’s number 1?” There was no number 1. There was no xoxo Espresso.
“Maybe this, too, is my very bad phone’s fault,” I said out loud to a passerby. I retried the search. This time, xoxo Espresso came up on the map, its pin marked with a question mark. I’m not sure, but I think the question mark signified the question, “What does the question mark signify?” Touching the pin took me to a mostly blank page which reiterated the name of the business, had a bunch of blank space because I guess something failed to load, and then a couple user reviews. “Oh good,” I said to the same passerby, “Maybe one of the users will have confirmed that the business no longer exists.” I spotted one review which began with the sentence, “I loved this business.” Loved. “Hmm,” I said, “This could be informative.” I clicked into the review, and just before the page transitioned, I noticed that the review was marked “Ad,” and that it was actually a review for an unrelated bistro. This is a dumb thing Yelp does. It places “Ad” reviews for unrelated businesses above user reviews for the thing you’re currently trying to read reviews for.
Spring turned to summer, summer turned to fall, fall to winter, back to spring, and so on for forty more cycles around the sun. At last, the Ad review page had partially loaded and the back button became once again available for touch-clicking. I did so now. I looked for an address. There was none. I zoomed in on the cryptic question mark pin to reconfirm the location. It was on the same block as me. “Fine,” I said. I put my cursed phone away and walked the length of the block once more. There was no xoxo Espresso.
I wound up at Peet’s Coffee, a place whose espresso is fine, but puts the “average” back in “beverage.” Look, shut up.
This particular Peet’s was particularly filthy. The one in San Mateo is often filthy as well, but this one literally had no clean tables, ten dirty ones, and crumbs all over the floor. About half the tables had used coffee receptacles on them. The place seemed to scream, “Gas up and get out. Coffee is not to be enjoyed in a sedate or leisurely manner. Our sizes are Big, Irresponsible, and Inexplicable.”
I ordered a small cappuccino and took a seat at the least offensively dirty table. A spry man in maybe his fifties or sixties was emptying the garbage and socializing loudly with a customer. He was yelling. The customer was about one garbage can’s width away. I respected the man’s energy, but did not care to attempt hearing myself think while that close to a shouting man. I moved across the shop to a table by the door. It was covered in refuse. I swept it onto the already refuse-covered floor.
A moment later, a Japanese-looking woman with a very cool haircut and business attire walked in and placed an order. “I bet she’s Japanese,” I said to the refuse. “…That’s all I got.”
Minutes later, a barista placed a cappuccino on the drink-getting counter. “Small cappuccino, Greg?”
I approached the counter just in time to see the Japanese-looking woman take my drink. She began to carry it over to the table where I’d just been sitting. She stalled just short of the table, and, I’m guessing due to all the surrounding refuse, reconsidered and headed for the table where I’d initially tried to sit. I stood there. Maybe I’d misheard and they hadn’t actually said “Greg.”
A minute later, another, larger cappuccino came out. “Medium cappuccino, Audrey?”
I heard the same woman say, “Oh.” She stood back up, and brought my drink back to the counter. “Excuse me, I think that one is mine. I took this one by mistake. I’ve not touched it.” (The British “I’ve not” is one of the most elegant things ever to come of the English language.) She sat back down with her medium and the barista asked if I wanted her to remake mine.
“No, thanks, I don’t want to waste it.” I took my drink back to my squalid table and gave it a long gander. The foam had deflated significantly. It felt like I was about to drink a used drink. And that’s when I realized: Coffee Heaven was just a myth fabricated in Coffee Hell.
As I stared, the loud worker walked briskly to my side of the café and began shout-talking to a high-school aged boy who was talking on his cell phone.
“WHAT HAPPENED TO SCHOOL THERE, YOUNG MAN?”
“Oh, I’m on break right now.”
“OH, ON BREAK, ARE YA? YEAH, RIGHT. LISTEN, YOU BETTER BE BACK AT SCHOOL BY NOON OR ELSE! GU-HAW-HAW.”
The boy said the words “Ha ha ha,” still holding the phone to his ear.
Then, a large Asian man with salt-and-pepper hair (mostly salt) sat down at the table next to me, joining a middle-aged white man. The two did not seem to know each other, but I guess there were no other tables suitable for use. Almost immediately, the white man asked the Asian man something about the language he spoke.
The white man said nothing. I wasn’t looking, but I imagine he leaned his ear in to indicate he didn’t understand.
“Burmese. You know, Burma? Myanmar?”
I heard the white man shrug.
The Asian man said something about the Burmese restaurant nearby, and I guess “Burmese” finally clicked, and the white man said, “Well I’m so glad you’re here. I think South Asians, I think they’re really good people.”
The Asian man said nothing.
“…Granted they’ve got a drug problem.”
The Asian man said nothing. I heard myself cringe.
The Asian man moved to another table as soon as he was able. I took a sip of my secondhand cappuccino. It was fine.