On Quitting Coffee

That awful fall of 2016 needs no introducing. But we all have our associations with it. My sister had just then learned she was pregnant for the first time, and I sensed the political calamity registered as little more than background chatter against her joy. For me, though, November truly did feel like the end of the world. Antarctica was melting. Markets would fall. There would be war. I would lose my job.

The season also offered personal indignities: Our family’s planned year abroad in Auckland, for example—cause of the sweetest expectation—was suddenly postponed until 2020. The two popular histories of New Zealand, along with a dozen other regional texts piled beside my fainting couch, were now hollowed of their significance, reduced to miscellany.

Most consuming, though, was the cancer diagnosis a friend was dealing with. I’d been visiting Dan in Manhattan every month or so, and to keep our mind off the inevitable, we’d direct our attention to politics, both before and after the election. Subjects such as: the Democratic analytics effort and the purported genius behind it, Elan Kriegel, the columnist David Brooks and whether he was a genuine seeker of truth or a captive to his ideology, the Republican repeal-and-delay tactic on Obamacare, and where Mike Pence and Paul Ryan fit on the spectrum from opportunism to callousness to evil.

Compared to Dan’s situation, the nagging health problem I was fending off didn’t merit even a footnote. Well, maybe actually it did merit one—because, around election time, I thought I shared a condition with Hillary Clinton: seasonal allergies that had morphed into pneumonia. I was quite pleased with this self-diagnosis until my doctor dismissed it. It wasn’t pneumonia, he assured me. But this illness—a daily menace about which I refuse to impart further details—was the thing that convinced me once and for all to quit coffee.

Even in light of this medical situation, I still might have kept on drinking coffee had it not been for my brother-in-law, Michael, who on Christmas morning in the Boston suburbs announced that he’d be taking a black tea, not coffee, and that he’d been off coffee for two months. His announcement carried the force of a blow—of truth. His health profile, I had to concede, was not dissimilar to my own. To not follow his lead would be to demonstrate the cravenest weakness of character.

My brother-in-law, I’d noticed besides, had better dietary discipline than I did. But he had also been a far more prodigious coffee drinker—subsisting, before he’d quit, on a four-shot iced espresso that he’d nurse over the course of the morning at work, whereas I was having a single, solitary coffee, which I’d also drink over many hours.

That Christmas morning, I spilled out the remaining ounce or two of coffee into the sink, inhaling its weakened fragrance first, as I had been doing over the past week at home in upstate New York.

My first day of true quitting was a few days later, during my flight to Los Angeles, where various siblings, including Michael, would be congregating for New Year’s week. My flight had required a three-thirty a.m. wakeup, so I spent much of the journey sleeping, unaware of any coffee-related headache. Yet despite taking a Tylenol while flying over the Grand Canyon, the headache eventually came anyway, as I rode with my sister-in-law’s new girlfriend, Natalie, her boxer, Henry, in the backseat, on the freeways south from LAX to Irvine.

In the tea- and kombucha-filled days to come, I didn’t terribly mind not having coffee. Drinking coffee with relatives in a suburban house, even an elegant aerie of a suburban house like my sister-in-law’s, was not a particular loss. This, I guess, you could call utilitarian coffee drinking. And as California exerted its salutary effects, coffee didn’t seem like such a big deal anyway.

It was only after we returned to wintry upstate New York that I found myself engaged in that most ironically pleasing of exercises: meditating on what exactly I’d lost. In those dreary coffeeless days, reading about coffee and its journey across the Mediterranean turned out to be an infinitely absorbing antidote. Thinking about coffee was self-reinforcing. It was caffeinating. Begin in Yemen, around the 1400s, when coffee was first consumed as a beverage by Sufi mystics, “evidently [giving] them a certain nimbleness of mind, which they were keen on cultivating during their night-time vigils and symposia,” according to the historian Cemal Kafadar; then travel northward into the Arabian Peninsula, where the term marqaha emerged to denote the coffee high, or “coffee euphoria”; and detour west to the primitive coffeehouses around Al-Azhar University in Cairo. This bitter beverage, taken boiling hot, faced but ultimately eluded various bans tied to an interpretation of Quran verse 5.90–91, the one that forbids Muslims from consuming alcohol.

In these early years, I learned, respectable Middle East society generally condoned coffee-drinking for ritual purposes but worried about its consumption in coffeehouses, which were inhabited almost exclusively by men. In cities such as Baghdad and Istanbul, cafes could be sites of musical performances by women, opium eating, and varieties of erotic titillation, such as by the “pretty boys, richly dressed” who, in one description, were employed as servers. Later on, a posh coffeehouse culture developed, with the venues often situated scenically along waterways. To get a feel for how grand it could be, have a look at the artist Antoine Melling’s early nineteenth century engraving Interieur d’un cafe publique sur la place de Tophane. There you’ll see affluent Istanbul patrons seated on cushions along the perimeter of a spacious salon, with a fountain at its center and floor-to-ceiling windows affording a view onto the Bosphorus.

Coffee arrived in Europe in about 1615, sold in a row of shops on Venice’s Piazza San Marco to elite customers—an image first put in my mind by the legendary Welsh historian Jan Morris, who glibly misreported the date as 1583. Sailing westward, it reached France via Marseilles in the 1640s. The Marquise de Sevigny, a Parisian aristocrat letter-writer, was among those perplexed by whether the drink carried health benefits or risks. “Coffee,” she mused, “makes one person fat and someone else thin.” Apparently the addition of milk and sugar dispelled the skepticism of many, even as at least one contemporary Arab commentator claimed that adding milk to coffee could cause leprosy.

All this played out against a series of bold, repeated, ultimately failed Ottoman attempts at Western conquest—in Vienna in 1529; in Lepanto, on the Greek coast, in 1571; and again in Vienna a century later, in 1683. The armies were turned away, but coffee, whatever its perceived taint of “Mahometism,” flowed in the shops and cafes and among the street vendors of Europe.

I’m not sure what it was like to drink coffee in upstate New York when our house was built, in about 1838, but I did come across a passage in the novel Winesburg, Ohio, set some decades later and not that many hundred miles away, in which coffee was said to be roasted “on Friday afternoon, preparatory to the Saturday rush of trade, and the rich odor invaded lower Main Street.” Here, the languid youth “Tom Foster appeared and sat on a box at the rear of the store. For an hour he did not move but sat perfectly still, filling his being with the spicy odor that made him half drunk with happiness.”

***

The attribute that unites all coffee drinking is as an intensifier of experience—and I was especially susceptible to this. As I contemplated my own coffee-drinking past, I saw that I’d be bereft of this intensity in any number of settings. The greatest loss, perhaps, was coffee amid the picturesque. Like, for example, in Melling’s Istanbul. Or in my personal experience: A Nescafe in Rabat, Morocco. A cortado in the Sarajevo old market. With breakfast, seated outdoors on a cool Sunday in September, at a converted church in Berlin.

But I also had a place in mind right in my hometown: the coffee shop on Cayuga Street, in a lone three-story brick building as if in a stage set, hardly any indication of the name of the establishment, just a neon “Espresso” sign in the window, the outdoor seating, the creek flowing by on a diagonal. Sunlight on fall afternoons, that kind of thing. The day of my wedding, at Diana’s grandmother’s farm about ten miles north of town, I’d been enlisted to give a tour of my alma mater to some guests, but about two-thirds the way through, I let the group disperse and snuck downtown to Cayuga to practice a song for the reception with my friend David. We sat outdoors, it was seventy degrees and clear, as I remember it, an eternity from the gray winter weekends on which I’ve been writing now. The song, which we’d heard together at a festival in Texas, had the following chorus: “Time, time, time / you ain’t no friend of mine / No, no, no / No reason, no rhyme.” And one of the verses: “In a work of art / You’re just a mixed up part / Singing out of tune / Confessing love too soon.” To whom was I singing, I’m not sure, but it surely wasn’t my betrothed. I was indeed a flawed groom. But the performance later that night was a success, and the chorus was pretty enough to grant me some absolution.

David’s relationship with coffee, I should say here, was not unconflicted. He would quit for a few months here, impulsively renounce drip coffee there, but altogether spend large amounts of time in cafes and always return to the habit. Some years earlier, when David was doing his graduate work in Chicago, I was in a phase of supreme wandering, having just returned from several months in Jerusalem, where I’d begun dating a French woman. Not wanting to settle for New York, I decided an open-ended stay in Chicago made sense. The Midwest sounded so anonymous and cleansing. I arrived in the Loop on a warm August morning, having taken an overnight Amtrak from Buffalo. David met me with a flamboyant gift—maybe a bouquet of flowers, or a wig—and drove us in his red Volkswagen down Lakeshore Drive for Hyde Park, the district Barack Obama still represented as a state senator. At Bonjour, a French bakery in a strip-mall plaza on Fifty-Fifth Street, we dined on morning rolls and coffee. That’s where he told me that his new girlfriend had chided him for getting the hazelnut because it wasn’t manly. She was an art historian with a husky voice and dyed red hair. I knew that relationship wouldn’t last three weeks, and it didn’t.

From my subsequent dalliance with Bonjour, I learned something else about coffee drinking: that even unexceptional venues could be anointed by association. Bonjour offered about seven varieties which you could pump for yourself. Those pleasant months in Chicago, nine in total—during which I earned close to nothing—I would read and write until four, sometimes five in the morning, then phone my girlfriend in Jerusalem, before calling it a night on my three-inch-thick mattress. I’d sleep till noon, work on a memoir-editing project for an hour or so, then walk the three blocks, by the supermarket, to Bonjour. Drinking a coffee, sitting in the window, eating an apple “slipper,” watching pedestrians against the gray cold, I’d consider Chicago—city of progress, the American city, muse for Saul Bellow, line of high rises against the lake. Bonjour was the deepest-rutted coffee routine I’d developed to date; it was indispensable to my functioning. (My roommate, and the baristas, noticed this.) Afterward, I’d have lunch at some Asian place toward the lake, then walk back to my room. Sometimes in the evening, David and I would drive the several miles to Filter, across from the Flatiron building in Wicker Park, a part of the neighborhood that felt like a gateway to the West. After a stack of pancakes, I’d get an espresso and edit or perhaps write with manic focus. Yet altogether, that Chicago year’s whole experience, that outer-cusp-of-youth, issued from the August day I arrived, when David picked me up and drove us toward Hyde Park for that first coffee, which was followed by a swim in Lake Michigan at the Point, in view of the skyline.

The Filter experience, the espresso at night, linked to another I struggled to resist. Coffee as vice. Coffee at diners. Coffee consumed to excess. I’m told that my parents’ abstinent views on alcohol and meat eating and other relatively commonplace activities have distorted my perceptions in this area. And when I first began trying out coffee in my early twenties, availing myself of the Keurig at my Boston workplace, a publisher of health newsletters, I became so preoccupied with the obvious transgression associated with coffee—the caffeine lift—that I simply couldn’t understand how the government allowed it. A colleague put to rest my concerns: coffee was different from alcohol, she explained, because coffee doesn’t break up families.

(Hearing this, Diana interjected, “But your quitting might break up ours.”)

The ethos of the diner coffee drinker was brought to mind recently when I discovered, in a drawer, an uncollated, unbound travelogue by an unknown author, probably picked up a decade ago at some bookstore, maybe even the used bookstore in Chicago across from Filter. Why I had kept this literary artifact all these years, I do not know. I can’t remember if I knew the author personally or not. But the writing, accompanied by droll sketches, perfectly conveyed that sense of youth in search of meaning.

At Ohm’s cafe in Mandan, North Dakota, the writer reports: “The place is full of railroaders and wannabes . . . I ask for some French toast and I sip my coffee and I stare at the coal train idling on the tracks out front.” And, in Toronto, waiting to travel to Chicago: “At about 4 a.m., I finish my millionth cup of coffee and I decide to head back to the train station.”

I’d been feeling a resurgent existential unease in those weeks of the new year, carried over from the fall, political and personal both. Before falling asleep, I’d skitter from topic to topic—basketball scores, bank account balances—failing to soothe myself. But that travelogue cheered me up and nearly restored my inner direction, perhaps even as if I were drinking that coffee in Mandan, North Dakota, and watching the trains and feeling the awakening of personal narrative, the intense concentration, like I had in years past during my own travels.

The daily urge for coffee, though, hadn’t dimmed. My health might have been 40 percent better after quitting, but I was probably 45 percent less happy. I missed the transaction at Cayuga, not to mention the pastry, followed by the two hours of elevated thought the caffeine delivered—the expansive, if fleeting, sense of a future. When I occasionally ordered a tea at the café, I felt embarrassed for not being able to partake of the more satisfying group ritual of coffee drinking.

While visiting Dan in New York, I intimated I’d be open to relapse to recapture our old magic, the formula for which was brunch at an upscale place, where we’d discuss art, ambition, family dynamics, women we’d known. As those brunches neared an end, we’d accept a refill, and the three o’clock intervals that ensued were some of the most optimistic of my adult life. Now, with his illness taking its course, Dan and I would sometimes skip brunch out and eat granola and smoothies in his apartment, on the twenty-sixth floor of his high rise on Twenty-Sixth Street. To neutralize the extra bitterness caused by his medications, Dan now drank his coffee with several spoonfuls of sugar, whereas previously he’d taken it unsweetened. (A few months earlier, following a ketogenic diet aimed at slowing the disease, he had drunk that trendy butter coffee, with no sugar, which I struggled to stomach.) As for my proposition, Dan, a therapist—and an addiction specialist at that—was clear: “I’m not going to enable that kind of behavior.”

As happens with these sorts of stories—quitting stories—this one came to a crisis. It was a Friday, four weeks since I’d had a coffee. Diana and I had just dropped off our son, Eli, at school and were heading to Cayuga. I had been planning vaguely to break the streak—to have a coffee. Why continue to deny myself this one daily pleasure? In a Tolstoy story I’d been reading, the protagonist finds ultimate comfort in his routines: his card games but also in his morning coffee with newspapers. Perhaps that was the fate of adults. Solace in routines. But at the corner of Seneca and Cayuga Streets, I asked Diana what she thought, and she said, “Why don’t you wait a while longer? Then when you have the coffee it’ll be easier not to fall back into the habit.” I agreed. I got a green tea—she a cappuccino—and we drove home for the workday.

Whereupon I learned a possibly useful lesson. My brother-in-law—and so many other sensible people—had told me that tea actually provided a steadier lift than coffee. Michael, too, admitted to pining for coffee. He wasn’t planning to quit forever. But in this jasmine tea from Cayuga—resteeped once over the course of the day—I found myself buzzing. Productive and happy. And I thought, fine, those tea bags from the co-op which I’d been using were just too weak. Later in the day, still aloft, I concluded that I’d just have to buy those mesh tea bags, the ones from Cayuga—and I could add local honey for an incentive, which anyway was said to deter allergies, the gateway to my earlier misfortunes.

So this must have been it. The problem was solved, the attachment cut. I had found a replacement source of pleasure, and I had accepted it. But in the weeks to come, the longing for coffee persisted, especially on those cold dark mornings before taking Eli to school. Plus, my attachment to the tea revealed itself to be impermanent; I’d barely make it through a few sips of the second cup. I didn’t really like tea. More than that, though, certain mornings at the café—overtaken by an espresso being pulled—I’m not sure why I felt my heart break.

 

Jason Warshof lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife, Diana, and two kids, Eli and Miriam. A companion essay to this one, On Creek Swimming, appeared in the winter 2018 issue of Isthmus and was nominated for a Pushcart. He dedicates this piece to the memory of Dan, who died in March 2017.