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The 40-Year-Old Coffee Virgin


Rod Lott July 29th, 2010

One man's journey into java proves brewed with a latte bumps.

Until recently, in my almost four decades of existence, the only bean to pass these lips was jellied. The only joe in my life was the guy who works across the hall. The only jitters I got were if my basement office was too cold in the dead of winter.

No lie! I am That Guy: the freak who never drank coffee before.

'Bucking the trend
Bean there, drank that
It has its perks
Caff-tastic!

To be technical, I had tried sips in all that time, but you could count them on one hand. Whether in childhood or adulthood, I found myself repulsed at the taste. It's hard to describe, but I'll go with Miracle-Gro Garden Soil boiled in stagnant water. Wait, make that grains of despair strained through Satan's tighty-whiteys. (Those atrocious coffee-flavored hard candies at Grandma's didn't help, either.)

While everyone else in existence bows to coffee daily, I've opted for teas, sodas, energy drinks and even one ill-advised encounter with Vivarin to perk up. But with my body worn down by ceaseless chronic pain, I seemed immune to these alternate caffeinated substances. I could down several servings and still yawn like a sleep-deprived terrorism suspect.

Rather than become unproductive and risk that biweekly paycheck, I instead surrendered to what I long had labeled My Last Effing Resort.

With no warnings to friends or family, I announced my life-changing decision via Twitter, at 1:10 p.m. May 27: "For nearly 40 years, I have successfully lived without coffee. Today, I threw in the towel." (Not all my tweets carry such gravitas; witness May 9's 7:21 p.m. proclamation of "I smell like propane.")

For my indoctrination that following Saturday morning, I relied as I often do on the assistance and advice of this chick I'm sleeping with.

"Can you make me a cup of coffee?" I asked my wife, Malena, long a true believer in the theory that the best part of wakin' up is Folgers in your cup.

She agreed. After all, it's not like the task was insurmountable. Fruitless, maybe, which is why she introduced an unscientific mix of Hershey's Syrup, Splenda, cinnamon and lowfat milk to the piping-hot liquid.

As a supernatural British nanny once sang, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," and ... well, that chim-chim-cher-ee bitch lied. There was no delightful way about it; my pleasure receptors cried foul as I e'er-so-slowly sipped from the mug of misery known as Folgers "Gourmet Lively Colombian."

I could live with it, but I wouldn't like it.

Malena suggested I try out specialty drinks at several of the coffee places around the greater Oklahoma City metro area. While it wouldn't be financially or calorically prudent, perhaps one initial week of exploration would ease my way into a daily habit of drinking the no-frills straight stuff from the office pot.

Perhaps. Especially if one started at Starbucks.

'Bucking the trend
Ordering at the corporate coffee behemoth known as Starbucks is like cracking a code " one so complex that you might expect Ron Howard and Tom Hanks to make a rather pedestrian thriller out of it.

For example " and this I've never understood " despite being synonyms for "large," a "Tall" is a small, while a "Grande" is a medium. Plus, the menu is littered with unfamiliar words like "macchiato" and "misto," phrases like "con panna" and "au lait."  That Sunday morning, only "Frappuccino" rung a bell " isn't he an Italian mobster?

So my wife ordered for me: "Venti Cafe Mocha, light, no whip."

"Mocha," I said, my head swimming. "That's chocolate, right?"

"Close enough," she said.

Once seated, I brought the cup to my lips for a sip "¦ and promptly burned my tongue. Malena appeared to have no such troubles, veteran she is. Receiving first-degree burns would prove to be a recurring event in the days that followed, worst of all when I somehow managed to get a good portion of a scorching Seattle's Best on my hand while affixing a plastic lid to the small cup at Borders.

But back to the $4.26 Cafe Mocha: To my scalded palate, it tasted like hot cocoa, if the beverage had swapped a majority of its sweetness for bitterness. Not great, but certainly not bad.

Feeling brave, come lunchtime Monday, I ventured to Java Dave's Gourmet Coffees and Teas, 10 N.E. 10th. Strangely, its parking lot is so huge, it rivals the Chesapeake campus. Still, I couldn't find a single spot to park, so I decided to get my coffee via the drive-through.

Easier said than done. With cars already idling behind mine, I pulled up to a menu so towering and imposing, you'd expect apes to dance around it while "Also Sprach Zarathustra" blared over the loudspeaker. So jam-packed it is with sandwiches and desserts and drinks, I couldn't even locate the coffee when the employee asked what she could do for me today.

Sensing the pressure, this is what my tongue-tied self said:

"Um "¦ deh "¦ bluh "¦ I'll come back!"

I quickly tore out of there, circled around the block, found a curb, hiked indoors and plunked down a few bucks for a Snickerdelicious. True to its name " and ingredients that include French vanilla, cinnamon and hazelnut " it tasted not like coffee, but like a snickerdoodle cookie, only wet. To my surprise, it was mighty tasty.

Tuesday morning, before hitting work, I stopped at Coffee Slingers, 1015 N. Broadway. On the advice of Oklahoma Gazette photographer Mark Hancock, I was on a mission to sample the Americano. He said it's so caffeinated that "it makes my hair stand on end." Like me, Mark doesn't have a full head of hair, so that's really saying something.

I'd heard Coffee Slingers was a rather hip hangout, so I was certain I would make a newbie fool of myself. Luckily, no other customers were at the counter when I ordered.

No, the embarrassment came shortly thereafter: While the tattooed barista was brewing my order, a young woman entered and said with a smile aimed my direction, "Good morning!" Thinking she was talking to me, I said it back.

She wasn't. And then I spilled " "slung" would be more appropriate, given the place " coffee on my hand. Not being fancy or sugary, what was left of it went down more bitter than I'd like, but again, Splenda proved to be my Band-Aid. I didn't get the jitters, but it made me alert, so mission accomplished.

Bean there, drank that
Things were less humiliating but more baffling Wednesday when I dropped by Lee's Sandwiches, 3300 N. Classen, to grab a Cafe Latte to go. Lee's sells it by the cup, but I was told by two women in the office to go for the 16 oz. plastic bottles at about $5 each for greater value.

Having never been in the Vietnamese sandwich shop before, I wasn't sure where to locate the bottle, what it looked like or even where to pay for it. Eventually, I found it " Cà Phê Sua Dá Frozen Concentrate, the bottles read.

You pour one part of it over two parts crushed ice and stir. Jill Brown, Gazette marketing director, swears by the sweet stuff, and says it makes her go, "EEEEEEEEEEEEE." (Picture a woman standing in a puddle while grabbing an electric fence to properly visualize this.) I can see why, because it's delicious, as 310 calories worth of condensed milk, sugar, cream and chocolate should be. Lord, is it good, but not only did I not get wired, my wife confiscated the remainder I brought home and promptly chugged it.

My Thursday morning trip was to The Red Cup, 3122 N. Classen, where Joe Wertz, Gazette entertainment editor, demanded I order the Hammerhead with double espresso. The spot is as funky on the inside as the outside, with a genuine earthy vibe.

"House or Uganda?" my barista asked, which to me, sounded like a foreign language. Was he asking if I watch the Hugh Laurie medical drama? Soliciting my take on the recent bombings in East Africa?

Neither, it turned out. He obviously picked up on my lack of knowledge and dumbed it down for me: "Do you want that with the house blend or a Uganda blend?"

"House," I said, not wishing to push my adventurousness across too many time zones. I was already nervous wondering why it was named after a shark, as I don't do seafood.

Finally, Friday took me to my tour's final stop, All About Cha Stylish Coffee and Tea, 3272 S. Broadway in Edmond. Despite the pun, the place is a favorite of my wife's.  

And no wonder. The place is slick and laid-back, with just the right amount of air conditioning and ambient music piped in at equal measure. Glancing at the menu, I was a little frightened, spotting beverages with ingredients that included "sweet potato," "black bean," "cactus" and "microorganisms." Nothing against the Koreans, but some things are not meant to ingested, especially when they sound like they could poke through my throat or establish a viral colony deep within my duodenum.

Malena suggested I opt for the Iced Caffe Mocha. After 17 years together, she knows how picky I am, so that's what I got. And it was so good that I'm keeping her around for at least another 17.

"I hope you like whipped cream," said the kind man who made my drink. "I put a lot in there."

Actually, I could do without whipped cream " until just then. Maybe it was the crushed nuts he sprinkled atop it like angel tears. The whole drink tasted like it was made with dark chocolate, espresso and OxyContin. That last ingredient is absent, of course, but if there's such a thing as a coffeegasm, I had found it.

Mark my words: The Iced Caffe Mocha hit my C spot. To paraphrase Vanessa Williams, we'd gone and saved the best for last.

It has its perks
With a lot of money spent and probably a few pounds added to my waistline, my week of experimentation came to end.

Once again, my wife was correct: Come the next Monday, it indeed was easier to stomach the regular ol' black coffee we get for free at work. A packet of Splenda has become my new BFF, although by cup three or five, I'm now drinking it black. (Say it with me, "Airplane!" fans: like my men.)

The upside is it's allowed me to ditch Diet Coke, which has lessened my headaches. The downside is I'm having to visit the restroom so much that I may have to edit my Facebook profile to include "voiding my bladder" among my hobbies and interests.

But dammit, I'm awake. "Rod Lott | photos/Mark Hancock

Caff-tastic!
Good thing so many people like coffee, because it's good for them.

"I definitely would recommend coffee, less than five cups a day, with minimal or no sugar, and fat-free creamer," said Dr. Lubna Wani, an internal medicine specialist at OU Physicians in Norman. "Some recent studies have shown that coffee decreases the risk of dementia, coronary artery disease and even possibly breast cancer. It is also an appetite suppressant, and I recommend it to people to help lose weight."

Wani said that while the caffeine indeed is a drug, it "is a natural and safe stimulant that gives us energy, alertness and activates our brain to function attentively."

But, she cautioned, it's not for everyone. People suffering from chronic heartburn, gastric reflux disease or irritable bowel syndrome will want to steer clear of coffee and instead opt for black and green tea, which are high in antioxidants and, therefore, may decrease the risk of cancer and other diseases.

Just don't reach for a soda, which Wani said increases one's risk of obesity, diabetes and kidney stones. Even the diet sodas aren't exactly healthy, and studies with rats have shown that artificial sweeteners increase risk for some types of cancer.

"I would definitely encourage people to drink more water, natural fruit juices and even unsweetened tea, and discourage sodas," she said.
"Rod Lott
 
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