Is there a biological predisposition, a genetic marker, for loving coffee houses? I remember walking down Columbus Avenue with my father in the middle nineteen-fifties when North Beach was the centre of San Francisco’s beatnik culture. We walked past the Co-Existence Bagel Shop and I caught a scent of espresso and saw people with beards sipping from small cups, reading big books, gesticulating with closely held opinions, and a voice deep in my soul spoke up in my nine year old self and said, “I’ll have what they're having!”
It was the start of a downward spiral, though it stayed quiet for years, only resurfacing when I was a student in Eugene, Oregon in 1969, with an evening visit a coffee house which had all of the above plus live folk music. I returned the next day with a slim volume of James Joyce plus my journal and it was the beginning of the end.
For most of the decades since then I have measured out my life in coffee spoons. In most of those years I knew exactly where to go to sit, drink and read and write: to fill numerous journals with innumerable outlines, epiphanies, confessions, poetry, prose, plans for the future, laments for years past.
I will admit I spent too much time as a student. As one of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury characters said of his life as a sophomore, “They were three of the happiest years of my life,” and I understand that completely. But a large part of that was the proximity to Coffee Houses. In the nineteen seventies at the University of California at Davis the Student Union had both a dining commons and a co-operative coffee house. I had a the habit of a regular table. After extensive peer pressure, to say nothing of strident urgings from the teaching faculty and University administration, I graduated in the late seventies but soon reemerged in a Master’s program at the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium one block north of the UC Berkeley campus. It was there my using escalated. It was just too easy with a cafe on every street, even on the sidewalk, walking one block in almost any direction brought easy access to latte’s, mocha, short cups of espresso. You could get an omelette, Italian pastries, even gelato. And it wasn’t just the drink and food. They had books and magazines piled in the corners, rotating art exhibits, windows to look out and the world going by. it was a glorious time, and at the Olde Egg Shop and Apple Press, a name that evoke some moisture in the eyes of old Berkeley alums, they gave free refills! I felt like I had arrived in my final spiritual home.