My nephew Nat, a writer and musician whose music you can listen to here, was inspired by John Steinbeck’s Breakfast to write the following:
What I Didn’t Say in the Yelp Reviews by Nat Barr
When we moved in together, I noticed that she didn’t like to drink coffee at home. I’d kept a coffee pot in every dorm room and apartment I’d had since college, when coffee seemed to go well with cigarettes and vague existential angst. I drank coffee at home in our 440 square foot studio in upper Manhattan, just as I had in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Bellingham, Washington. I was as religious about having three to four cups each morning as I imagine some people might be about praying the rosary, and I had kept the ritual going.
I hadn’t realized it was her ritual when we were only just dating, but she preferred to walk to a nearby coffee shop every morning, order an iced coffee with simple syrup, add a chocolate or butter croissant, and sit and enjoy the ambiance of wherever she was. To me, this was antithetical to how I thought about coffee—namely, it served as a pleasurable jolt of energy that I would follow with additional doses, as needed, for addiction maintenance. But I was in love, so I started walking with her every Saturday and Sunday morning to get coffee.
I followed her north to Starbucks and Darling Coffee, south to Forever Coffee and Uptown Garrison, and west, up the hill, to Café Bunni. I came to know these different spots well.
Starbucks had a consistent menu, of course, but you could not count on a consistent cup of coffee at our location. They once served her an iced coffee without ice, for instance, explaining that they had run out as they gave her the drink.
Darling Coffee was exactly as I might have imagined—a place where the people of Inwood came together over a cup, with good pastries, great coffee, and walls painted robin’s egg blue and decorated with local art. It was my favorite until it was bought out by Café Bunni. The Café Bunni at the former location of Darling Coffee was no good—you would often find grounds in your coffee without expecting it, and she once had to toss an iced mocha out when she discovered a small stirring spoon nestled in the ice.
The Café Bunni location up the hill, in the heart of an affluent enclave overlooking the Hudson, was pretty good. The coffee was sourced from Ethiopia, the baristas were trendy but not intimidating, and the young, bearded, pony-tailed owner who spoke with a Russian accent would often smile as he greeted the customers. Although it was a small shop, we could easily take our coffee to a park nearby, which had a plaque noting that this was the highest natural point in Manhattan and the site of a strategically important fort during the Revolutionary War.
Uptown Garrison was nothing special—the hipster baristas were cold, and the coffee was merely ok.
Forever Coffee had a better vibe to it—a scrappy upstart with charming, mismatched furniture that seemed like it was cobbled together from flea markets and second-hand stores. The coffee was good too. Yet we both felt a bit guilty about getting coffee there.
Forever Coffee occupied a contested space on 181st Street, less than a block west of Broadway, and the staff and clientele were all white. East of Broadway toward the Harlem River and the Bronx was exclusively Dominican, as we understood it, where Spanish was spoken in the street and all the signs in shop windows were bilingual, if not exclusively in Spanish, except at Rite-Aid and Chase Bank. At our second or third time visiting Forever Coffee, when it was still a new shop, two strong, slender, and proud-looking Dominican women came in and walked a full circle around the tables in the shop, taking it all in with quizzical looks. “This might be a good addition to the neighborhood,” one of them said as they were leaving. I had felt something similar—guilt and a gut punch of recognition—when I noticed a pricey natural food section appear, seemingly overnight, in the grocery store across the street from where I had lived in Harlem, just as the demographics of the neighborhood started to shift. We didn’t want anything to do with Forever Coffee after that, and we stopped going.
At home in our studio apartment, I do remember that she would sometimes drink coffee with me in the bed that we kept half-inside the large shallow closet or at our two-seat table pressed tightly against the window near the stove. I had a French press, which she liked more than my coffee pot, with an electric kettle to boil the water, a grinder with a setting to get the beans roughly but not finely ground, and I kept some honey in the cupboard for sweetness. The ritual of making coffee in that way could be as pleasurable as the coffee itself, letting the water cool down just below boiling to not burn the caffeine off, pouring a little into the press to open the flavor, catching the smell of the steam rising from it, and then going all in with the rest of the water, letting it sit for five to six minutes before pressing the lid down. I would pour the warm coffee over the honey in our cups, and we’d discuss our lives and the future. What are coffee shops like in Portland, Oregon? Chicago, Illinois? Seattle?