Since we are no longer content to merely brew the stuff ourselves at home, coffee houses have become the hangout of choice for many. They have flourished in a society of 25- to 30-year-olds who are burned out on bars, and kids who are too young to get into those bars and clubs.
My caffeine-induced odyssey began at Coffee Plantation, which, in days gone by, was the place to see and be seen -- the only choice for hipsters and the smart set to get their fix. I became a regular Sunday morning fixture, reading the newspaper or a book while sipping a cafe mocha. As the years went by and the pigeons multiplied to biblical numbers, I remained steadfast in my loyalty, sitting at poop-encrusted tables, my clothes and hair spattered with white splotches, watching the regulars come and go.
I became one of them.
I have fancied myself in Paris, sipping espresso and smoking brown cigarettes with the expatriates, wearing a beret, not wearing deodorant and getting into violent arguments over Camus.
I have played bongos with beatniks and read poetry in the evenings, brushing my hair out of my eyes and mumbling, "Decaf is for squares, man."
I have driven up in my Range Rover, worn my sunglasses indoors, thought only of myself, my cell phone, my Palm Pilot and my abs of steel.
Coffee Plantation became Diedrich's. The owners brought in boxcars full of new pigeons and encouraged them to breed, walk wherever they damn well please, and pounce on anything even remotely resembling food. The secret Diedrich family recipe for muffins, closely guarded for generations, tastes like a mixture of sawdust, pencil sharpener shavings and shredded newspaper. The muffins and pastries look as if they have sat for days in cases where flies lounge around in stained tee shirts, smoking tiny cigarettes and playing poker.
Still, for years I didn't think of looking elsewhere.
Then suddenly there was a new kid in town.
I readily admit that I was resistant to Starbucks because of its ubiquity. I mean, head in any direction and you'll run smack dab into one within 10 minutes.
But one morning the siren call came to me, and I drove trancelike to the Park Central location. I entered a whole new world where people actually pound their fists against their chests and exclaim, "Damn, baby! That's good coffee!" Exotic concoctions abound with names reminiscent of drag queens: Caramel Macchiato, Mocha Valencia. The cases are stacked with baked goods you want to try.
In the hearts of many, Starbucks is king. The company, which started in Seattle, has created a "third place" to hang out when you're not at home or at the office. The employees greet you by name when they get to know you, and remember what you like to drink. It's a neighborhood place you feel good about entering and lingering.
Accustomed to years of metal chairs scraping across concrete floors, I was instantly seduced by an environment that invites you to come in and stay a while. Deep-pile carpet and comfy furniture. I have been working for months on a cunning plan to abscond with a couple of the big purple chairs. I'm still ironing out the details, but somehow an accomplice will create a diversion and I will get two overstuffed chairs that weigh more than I do out the door and into my car without being detected.
Employees tell me that regular patrons will stay anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours. The hairdressers and artists come in the morning; confident men will order fancy drinks while those who are less sure of themselves go for plain coffee; the worst people to wait on are high-maintenance women who come up to the counter on their cell phones; and yes, the baristas do notice the lousy tippers.
Many admit that some of the greatest pleasures of coffee houses are the people-watching and eavesdropping opportunities. Pretending to be engrossed in our own world, we are in fact not minding our own beeswax, but shamelessly listening in on anything we can pick up on.
And like an ever-present Greek chorus, the extras are there, living their strange lives and going about their business, apparently unaware of their strangeness, or of the fact that they are being watched.
A 300-pound bald man sits reading a self-help book called If I'm So Wonderful, How Come I'm Still Single?
An 8-year-old girl wearing red lipstick and knee socks sashays up to a 40-year-old man and says suggestively, "You got a cigarette?"
A group of flannel-clad women sporting crew cuts has a heated argument about drywall.
And a man claiming to be the founder of the Moody Blues promises to send me a tour jacket, free tickets and backstage passes to the next Phoenix concert.
Just last week I overheard a woman going on and on about that painting of the dogs playing poker, trying to convince her companion of its artistic integrity. And I often see a woman who is obviously a man, dressed in skirt and pumps, briefcase in tow, but never in a hurry to get anywhere.
These days I snort with contempt as I drive past the old hangout on my way to the new. I doubt it mourns my absence. It's always packed. Obviously, many people would never dream of looking elsewhere.
Now, there's another new place on the horizon -- the California-based Coffee Bean, soon to be popping up everywhere. Those who have been there speak of it with a reverence usually reserved for sites of religious importance.
I'm willing to give it a try. Who knows? One day I may even defect. There's something for everyone out there. Coffee drinkers are a nomadic tribe, easily lured, easily distracted. There will always be something new and entirely different just around the corner.
John Roark is a freelance writer whose aversion to pigeons has left him cowering under tables. Given time, medication and weekly therapy, he may one day feel safe drinking his white chocolate mocha outdoors.