How I learned to stop worrying and drink coffee already | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

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How I learned to stop worrying and drink coffee already

A caffeine newbie tries not to lose his mind


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Here's the thing about Starbucks: it's not bad at all, it's just juiced with caffeine. Not Barry Bonds juiced, more Rafael Palmeiro juiced—because he didn't seem like he had it in him. Making such a significant jump in caffeine seems ill-advised, but I went ahead and ordered a 12-ounce—ahem, "tall"—anyway, nearly doubling the amount of caffeine from yesterday's ten-ounce serving of Dunkin'. I've been in a Starbucks before because I am a human, but once I was ordering something other than decaf tea or coffee cake, navigating the menu of mochas, macchiatos, lattes, and cappuccinos felt on par with placing a bet at a Vegas sports book.

My desk at work is positioned in such a way that I can see the entirety of the floor occupied by the Reader editorial staff. This works mostly to my advantage, because I'm able to avoid ambushes by editors and click over from playing Scrabble (a hilarious joke—am I right, editors?). But today I'm distracted . . . constantly. And hot behind the ears. And cracking my neck, my knuckles. Every time someone gets up I raise my eyes from my computer just long enough to lose my already-compromised train of thought. If I was a member of the Queen's Guard, I would've flinched or gone into full-body convulsions five minutes into my shift.

On my second day of Starbucks I begin to enjoy the appetite-suppressant qualities of caffeine—an attribute that nearly makes up for the heartburn and stomachaches. (I uncharacteristically got motion sick at a movie the night before. It likely had something to do with the shaky camera work, meant to emulate found footage, or the fact that the movie sucked, but the caffeine jitters didn't help. That being said, it is nice not craving Twix bars every 15 minutes.)

I'm en route with a friend down I-65 to Louisville for a wedding. It's a chilly and rainy day, or a scene that iPhone commercials tell me would be perfect for sipping on coffee, ordering tomato soup, and dancing in my pajamas with Zooey Deschanel. Sadly, though, I'm sipping on another "tall" coffee and playing the role of backseat driver more compulsively than normal.

My next morning in bourbon country, U.S.A, begins with a headache. Usually the types to go for a hair of the dog in an emergency such as this, my friend and I head to Starbucks instead, and I order a 12-ounce "blonde roast" coffee. The lightest roast of the Starbucks coffees, it's supposed to yield more caffeine because less is burned off during the roasting process (see, I'm learning). And I want to go record shopping. And I want to drop a hundo. So I need the caffeine.

At Better Days, a major destination in the Louisville record store scene, I immediately get into a discussion with the owner, who, barely prompted, reveals that he has boxes of mint-condition old hardcore-punk records tucked away for "private browsing." He asks if I want to look at them. Flipping through pristine—and I mean absolutely perfect condition—original LPs from Black Flag, JFA, GG Allin, Bad Religion, and Circle Jerks while tweaked out on a foreign (to me) substance is too much. If Indiana Jones can show the wherewithal to look away, then I need to follow suit and get the hell out of here before my face melts off.

DAY SIX: Relearning anxiety, ounce by ounce

I suffered through crippling anxiety attacks in the early aughts—like get-this-kid-on-Xanax attacks. While others may feel like their hearts are about to explode in the midst of an attack, I felt like I was going to barf. Sweating and fidgeting and sweating and not trying to puke during countless short-story critiques in undergrad was the closest I've come to hell on earth. Once the attacks were under control and medicated, I mostly swore off caffeine.

And so by the time we're heading back from Louisville, I'm out of whack. Fatigued and dazed and sweating, I'm over this experiment. I prefer the endorphins from a solid run over the caffeine "rush" I get from the Circle K coffee I just bought. Sixteen ounces of it, actually. Fuck it, lousy gas station coffee at some point is obligatory.

But as we ironically sit in a Starbucks parking lot siphoning Wi-Fi and drinking low-grade "morning blend" brewed next to a slushie machine, my mood turns. More observant and, as opposed to about an hour ago, actually confident Felix Baumgartner is going to survive his world-record space jump, I begin to fear I'm turning into a detestable "Not until I have my coffee" morning droid.

This road lunch of Mike and Ikes and White Castle cheese sticks couldn't taste any better, by the way.

   *   *   *

To combat the grossness of Circle K coffee, I'm starting my tour of Chicago coffeehouses tonight with a visit to Gaslight Coffee Roasters at Fullerton and Milwaukee. Only open a couple months, the spacious, rustic corner spot gives off a warm air, not like the smoky basement coffeehouses I became accustomed to in the late 90s, featuring a barista who'd much rather puff on a clove cigarette and read Vonnegut than lift a pained fingernail to crack an IBC Root Beer.

I order a 12-ounce mug of coffee, take a seat, and open my laptop. How very right-on of me. Having my Mac at a coffee shop feels something like wearing a crisp Starter jacket to junior high in the 90s. I settle in, ask for the Wi-Fi password, try not to look at Facebook, sip on my coffee, and look at Facebook anyway. A few minutes later a group of volunteers making cold calls for the Obama campaign sets up shop next to me. Kismet, I tell you.

Considering my diet thus far today has consisted of fried food and candy, I feel like crap (a running theme in this narrative, it seems). Compound that with drinking coffee on an empty stomach, and this is maybe not the best way to introduce myself to Chicago's indie-coffeehouse scene. Still, Gaslight's coffee is full and rich—a considerable improvement over everything else I've sampled. And the aroma of beans roasted in-house is comforting.

But this just in: drinking coffee at 7:30 PM is stupid. I mean, I knew it was stupid as I was doing it, but, as a semilegitimate researcher conducting a controlled experiment, it's important to better understand the cracked-outness as a dependent variable—and to be as groggy as possible the next morning. Am I right?

So now it's midnight and I'm watching reruns of Roseanne and devising cutthroat Obama campaign strategies.

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