White Coat Underground


Yes, this post is a repeat from long ago, but I was reminded dig it up after reading a piece at a friend’s blog. Thanks for indulging me. –PalMD

If Bob Dylan provides the soundtrack for much of my life, then coffee provides the “smelltrack”. I did not start to drink coffee until I was about 20. My best friend of 18 years told me I should learn to, as I might need it. He also told me to drink it black, because I might not always have cream and sugar, but I still might need the coffee. So, I started to drink it. Now, this was terrible coffee…institutional, stale, sour, just generally bad. And the coffee revolution of the 90s had not yet hit. I had nowhere to go but up.

The next year, a real coffee shop opened up in my college town. I came to like sitting there and reading, enjoying my free refills. The coffee was unspectacular.

I lived briefly at a YMCA camp after college, where I taught children from all over the Northeast about nature. The kitchen was run by a retired Navy chef. The coffee was abominable. One morning, on an early walk, I spied his wife looking at the old grounds, sniffing them, putting them back, and adding water. This was a coffee low point.

After that, I moved to the Southwest where I flirted with hazelnut, cinnamon, and other flavors. Mostly, these masked poor quality beans. I began to read up on coffee, from plant to cup. I experimented with brewing techniques, and found that I enjoyed french press coffee. But this period’s aroma is definitely dominated by hazel nut.

Then, I moved to San Francisco. It was 1991; the internet boom hadn’t hit yet, and there was still a nice Bohemian undercurrent. And coffee. Glorious coffee. Peet’s coffee. If you haven’t had it, let me explain. First, it is not for the faint of heart. If you have ever walked into a Starbuck’s and been sickened by the smell, don’t go to Peet’s. The aroma is fierce, aggressive, and permeating. Even a brief stop will leave you with a reminder of your visit in your clothes and hair. Your first sip will overwhelm you. Not bitter, really, just forceful. You cannot just sip and forget it. This is no gas station coffee. Your first sip may cause you to swear it off forever, but perseverance pays off. The next several sips bring out the complex, earthy, caramelized aromas. Then, no other coffee competes. But Peet’s isn’t a sit-and-read cafe, so for studying, reading, and relaxing, I had to find other haunts.

My favorite was the Blue Danube, on Clement St. The large front windows fold open, releasing the usual smell of better-than-adequate SF coffee. The tables are comfortable, and they have a liquor license. I spent untold hours there studying biology, organic chemistry, physics, and other fun things. And, after a long day of studying, I exchanged my coffee cup for a wine glass and half carafe.

But, SF wasn’t to be. After a few years, I was accepted to medical school in Chicago. I hoped they had adequate coffee. Good luck! The medical school had a good espresso cart, and my neighborhood had several good cafes. And…the first Peet’s coffee outside California! It so happened that there were so many SF exiles there that it seemed a good place for them to start. They even had a few tables! But my usual daily coffee shops were Unicorn and Kafein. Both had their good and bad points, both had decent coffee. And I could identify either one blindfolded.

In every town, a developed a set of “cafe friends”–people whom I sometimes knew by name, sometimes shared a book or game of chess, but rarely saw outside the shop. It was part of the experience. Good coffee, companionship. My friend was right about the coffee…I do need it, and I still drink it black. And he is still my best friend, after 40 years.


  1. #1 D. C. Sessions
    July 19, 2009

    The love of my kitchen.

    The only things it’s really missing are a vacuum carafe and a way to turn off the heater so it doesn’t scorch the brew. Other than that, it’s got it all. Add a pair of airpots and $HERSELF can have her lighter high-octane stuff and I can have my dark roasted decaf, all without having to do more than dump the grounds and rinse the screen.

  2. #2 Rowan
    July 19, 2009

    I didn’t discover coffee until i was in my late 20s. I have a french press which gets daily use as I can’t go about my day without a cup of coffee each morning, sweetened with honey and a touch of half & half.

    However, after my recent sojourn in Australia where there isn’t a cup of brewed or pressed coffee to be found in either Melbourne or Brisbane, I have acquired a taste for a “long black”. Now, I have spent the last week and a half since my return going from coffee shop to coffee shop here in the Pacific Northwest trying to find a barista who knows how to make one.

    They all insist on an Americano which is nothing but diluted espresso. ~sigh

    I shall continue to savour my coffee from the press until I can afford an espresso machine actually capable of steaming milk for my kitchen.

  3. #3 leigh
    July 19, 2009

    ahh, the perfect read as i settle in for one of the last all-nighters of my grad school experience. 🙂

    i frankly didn’t really get that into coffee until i was a few years into my phd program. now i can’t write anything without it.

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    July 19, 2009

    i frankly didn’t really get that into coffee until i was a few years into my phd program. now i can’t write anything without it.

    You’ll notice how “friends” will give you your first cup for free?

  5. #5 The Blind Watchmaker
    July 19, 2009

    The best coffee is the free stuff that nice people at work have made.

  6. #6 Donna B.
    July 19, 2009

    I’m such a coffee junkie, the gas station stuff will do. I appreciate the nice selection at Valero.

  7. #7 D. C. Sessions
    July 20, 2009

    I’m such a coffee junkie, the gas station stuff will do. I appreciate the nice selection at Valero.

    Strangely enough, the best on-the-road supply I’ve found is Circle K. A few years back they got serious about quality, it seems. Always fresh, decent brew, reasonable prices. A buck and a half gets you a honking ginormous foam cup of brew that’s better coffee than you’ll get for three times the price at BarfBucks.

    It ain’t the best in the world, but it’s never been bad. That’s worth a lot.

  8. #8 Darren
    July 20, 2009

    I love Kafein! Unicorn was pretty good as well, but in no way did their food (and desert!) menu compare. And Kafein definitely had better late night hours for my undergrad needs.

    I’m curious where you went to med school (though I understand your reasons for not divulging such details) since I don’t recall any medical colleges in Evanston (though NU med students and residents would rotate through Evanston Hospital).

  9. #9 The Perky Skeptic
    July 20, 2009

    I love coffee so very, very much. It makes my life better. And my family’s life better. And the lives of pretty much anyone who has to interact with me on a daily basis. 😉

  10. #10 PalMD
    July 20, 2009


    I lived in evanston for all of med school and residency and took the El. I was there in the mid-late 90’s, move away early 21st century (that sounds weird)

  11. #11 Donna B.
    July 20, 2009

    @D.C. Sessions — there used to be 2 Circle Ks on every corner where I live, now Valeros dominate.

    I do agree with about Circle K coffee. They were (IIRC) one of the first to offer various flavored creamers. Back in the early 90s, I got hooked on hazelnut for a few months.

    My routine in those days was drop my youngest daughter off for ballet, violin, or whatever lessons, go to Circle K for coffee and return to the parking lot or driveway to wait for her. That’s also when I started carrying around a library in my trunk.

    I can do without the coffee, but one of my greatest fears is being stuck somewhere without something to read. A book in my hand (it doesn’t even have to a GOOD book) is better than any anxiety medication!

  12. #12 JustaTech
    July 20, 2009

    My name is JustaTech, (“Hi JustaTech!”) I live in Seattle, and I like drip. I know, it’s just shameful, but, well, I kind of think all espresso smells a bit burned. Which has never stopped me from getting a caramel latte at *$, but people in Seattle really do tend to take their roasts a bit far. As in, on fire too far.

    My parents started making their own espresseo, lattes and whatnot back in the mid-90s, so whenever I hear a grinder or smell espresso brewing, it means it’s time to get up and go to school. Aren’t scent memories interesting?

  13. #13 T. Bruce McNeely
    July 20, 2009

    Tim Horton’s FTW!

    Yeah, I’m Canadian. How did you know?

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