|Try as I might, I can't seem to convert my mother. I bought her a coffee grinder, bags of my favorite bean blends and flavored syrups. Still, whenever I trek home to visit, she produces a thick gray mug full of industrial-roasted, tin-can, supermarket brew. She pours a good cup, still the kind you can linger over, but it's not exactly what I'm used to sipping.
But she'll never change. During the parallel period when our parents sock hopped or twisted, met at diners or fountains and sipped malteds and egg creams served by soda jerks, we were whispering in dusky coffeehouses over steaming mugs of mocha conjured by magical baristas. We were in high school and clamored in our coffeehouses for our drinks of choice: regular joe, cappuccino, latte, mocha. We sipped and slurped and cried out for more, aging a bit and educating our palates along the way. Soon, perhaps subconsciously influenced by the 1980s battle cry of "More! Better!" we sparked a surge in the specialty-coffee scene and industry.
As espresso seeped into our souls, the people who roast and blend and hand exotic coffees across the counter began to cater to our steadily improving tastes, influenced by European flavors. We didn't want just a grande mug of regular joe any longer. No, we pined for pristine cups -- demitasse half filled with short espresso crowned with crema. We started drinking better coffee and more of it. Coffeehouses answered our desires by offering gourmet blends, signature concoctions and utilizing high-tech equipment that whirls out perfectly pulled espressos with correctly calibrated timing. We embraced the lingo that confounds critics who just don't get it: single short decaf cappuccinos, triple Americanos, double tall non-fat vanilla lattes. It's a way to say we're a part of something. That we belong.
But just what is it that we belong to? Well, it's a community of our own creation: A community of caffeinophiles housed in neighborhood cafés. In this, our day, coffeehouses make sense. Answer the call of earthy French roasts that beckon from bean bins or respond to the plea of swarthy espresso blends waiting in grinders to be transformed into caffeinated pollen, and you enter a world of coffeehouse comfort. The best cafés tend not only to serve up cappuccinos topped with dense billowing foam, but also offer overstuffed chairs into which you can ooze. Once sufficiently sunk into your favorite spot, you can talk to your friends for hours while you escape into cups filled with Mocha Java or Kenya AA. Coffee is a social lubricant and has served as such not just since your mother's kitchen-nook klatches but even before 17th century English salons used the brew to grease up the minds of the day's political and social luminaries. Unlike a bar, where conversation risks confrontation with noisy patrons, thumping bass, meatmarket mentalities and pricey cocktails, a café generally provides a safe, quiet haven for intimate discussions and mood music to match. And for those who prefer cyberspace conversations, plenty of cafés cater to just this, answering the needs of an offshoot community of coffee lovers. A great example is Cyberfeld's in Manhattan, a two-story brownstone with a Kinko's-style copy shop on the first level and an Internet café above and complete with an ultramodern superautomatic espresso machine. What could be more quintessentially ours?
We clasp onto cafés and the community they help us create for other reasons. Most people would never go solo to a bar with a notebook or a novel and hunker down over a Martini for a few hours, yet they feel comfortable in a neighborhood coffeehouse sipping a frothy cappuccino or two while reading or writing or merely daydreaming. No one bothers you at a café, which is exactly what we need and want. Given the society in which we live, we can't strive for that Miami Vice lifestyle and expect to wake up and smell the coffee tomorrow. We've had to be a bit more enlightened and realistic than that.
Some members of preceding generations tend to unjustly portray coffee as a slacker beverage sipped by flannel-wearing grungemeisters or, alternatively, as a common drink that's become too snooty for its own good. While our elders can see the beauty in a fine vintage Cognac, some are slow to envision the idealism of a cup of rare Jamaican Blue Mountain brewed to perfection. There are no age boundaries to enjoying gourmet coffee but still, today, it really belongs to us. Our love of specialty coffee -- thick, bittersweet, steaming, pungent, strong -- says something about who we are as a generation. It's our soma against the Brave New World we face.