The Perfect Cup of Coffee (in twenty-two easy steps)
First, if you don’t already live there, move to St. Louis, Missouri. It’s best if you do it in the fall, for reasons that will become evident at a later step. Get a job that requires you to be to work around 9 AM. If this is not possible, arrange to have an appointment at that time, perhaps with a librarian or an accountant, someone who prizes punctuality but can’t really complain if you are late. It’s best to do this on a Monday.
Now. Start by heading along Highway 64/40. It doesn’t matter which direction, although the morning light will be a bit better if you are coming from the East. Get off at the Skinker road exit. While you are at the stoplight, marvel at the ginormous Amoco sign standing over what is unmistakably now a BP gas station. Try to imagine the mixed feelings this would breed between those two entities– the sign and the gas station below– if they were somehow alive. Would it be like two long-time enemies (perhaps an FBI agent and a mafia boss) forced by the Witness Protection Program to live as neighbors on some quiet suburban cul-de-sac? Or would they have long-since forgotten their differences and perhaps play checkers at night when the streets were quiet and no one was watching?
When the light turns green, turn right. Notice Forest Park on your right. There will be lots of runners and bicyclists there. It’s always fun to watch other people exerting themselves when you are relaxing on your way to coffee. Wave at one of them.
Turn left onto Northwood. Notice the interesting old brick apartments that line the left side, as well as the old-growth trees that front them. Now slow down as you approach the grade school on your right. There are often some attractive moms hanging out there at this time of morning, chatting in the wake of dropping off their kids. Smile at them if they make eye contact. This is a close neighborhood and most of the people are pretty friendly, despite the snarky liberal bumper stickers on most of the cars that line the road.
Northwood ends at a large park. I don’t know the name of it. Do pause to notice the brilliance of the autumn colors, and the way the trees are spaced out enough that each tree is lit with its own halo of morning sunlight. Now look left. Kaldi’s coffeehouse will be there on the corner.
You will likely have to park somewhere along the adjoining boulevard. You won’t mind this because of how absurdly quaint the boulevard is, lined by the park on one side and a row of old shops and restaurants on the left. You will see that this is a classical boulevard, with a grassy berm bisecting the lanes. Find a spot seventy or eighty yards away from Kaldi’s and enjoy the mundane challenge of parallel parking between what will likely be an ancient four-by-four AMC Eagle with fake wood panels and a Volvo Cross Country with a labrador grinning at you from the back.
Walk back to Kaldi’s. Peek in at the fancy Italian restaurant along the way. You might see the owner inside sweeping the floor and some of the cooks standing around out front smoking their morning cigarettes.
The coffeehouse, as you will see, is sort of oldish. While the Kaldi’s brand has done fairly well throughout the area (there are three or four hip new Kaldi’s joints scattered here and there) this is the original location, and still has that sort of grungy, college-y feeling, with its hand-made wrought-iron railings around the outdoor seating and the community dog water bowl and the corner entrance plastered with advertisements for naked bike rides and local drama performances. This location, you sense, is more hippie than hip. Go on inside.
Notice the smell. Notice the huge silvery carafes along the right wall, beneath the hand-lettered chalk board, next to the too-small table with the creamers and sweeteners and lids and stirrers, set somewhat awkwardly close to the entrance to the crowded seating area.
It is likely that there will be a little bit of a line. That’s OK. Even though you are already rather late for your appointment, you will somehow manage not to be in a hurry. That, in fact, is why you have the appointment– to give you a place not to be yet; a place to be playing hookie from. Waiting in line gives you an excuse to stand around in the lovely, crowded little serving area, with the huge jars of whole coffee beans lining the window on your left (and catching the sunlight blindingly) and the little tables behind you crammed with people reading Tolstoy and the Bible and Advanced Statistics and working on their iPads and chatting happily about a million things.
If you happen to be male, notice the women working behind the counter. They seem to enjoy the hustle of the morning rush, and all of them are interestingly quirky, almost accidentally attractive. If you happen to be female, feel free to check out the thirty-something bicyclist guy standing by the counter, chatting up the female employee who looks like she might have come from some interesting Eastern-block country. The bicycle guy is dressed appropriately for his hobby, trying hard not to look like he doesn’t want everyone to notice his tanned, rock-hard calves beneath the black biker shorts.
Look over the confections inside the glass case next to the cash register. Consider a sugar bun then decide, at the last minute, that you probably don’t need it. You’re here for the coffee, after all.
Once you reach the register, resist the temptation to order anything with the words “soy” or “skinny” or “macchiato” in the name. Ask for a large coffee. Hand over three dollars and put the change in the tip jar.
Cup in hand, take two steps to the right and read the chalkboards over the carafes. Amuse yourself with the way coffee descriptions have evolved. Notice the use of phrases like “toffee undertones” and “smoky caramel” and “receding citrus aromatics”. DO NOT POUR YOUR COFFEE YET.
This is important.
Approach the too-small table to the right of the coffee carafes. Squeeze in next to the mom with her two toddlers, waiting for the double shot Americano, and locate the tall glass bottle with the pump stopper. This is natural liquid sugar; it will blend much better into your coffee, thus avoiding the too-sweet last few sips of most large coffees. Pump one and a half squirts into the bottom of your cup. Add some half and half to this. Swirl the cup in your hand. Now you are ready to add your coffee.
Read all the coffee descriptions again, then choose the Cafe Kaldi. Gently swirl the cup beneath the carafe as the coffee pours in, mixing all the ingredients thoroughly. Lift the cup and take a deep breath of the result. Satisfied, put a plastic lid on it and turn carefully, wending your way back through the amiable throng of morning people, all waiting their turn at the magic caffeine fountains.
Step back outside. Enjoy the contrast between the crispness of the autumn air and the hot cup in your hand. Check the time on your phone, knowing you are already late for your next destination, but that the world will still continue to turn nonetheless, and that you are not a slave to it. Return to your car, taking the longest way along the boulevard as possible.
Notice the park again, with its freight of orange, red and yellow leaves. See the shadows of the trees laid out on the lawns like rented tuxedos. Listen to the kids playing in the yard next to the nearby grade school. And finally, with a sigh, get on with your day.
And, oh yes. Take a sip of the coffee.