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New Generation's Drink Has Its Perks

February 04, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

"Let's go drink so much coffee our heads itch," a friend suggested recently. Once, that could only mean going to IHOP, spending 50 cents and drinking so many free refills that the manager would start to seal off your section of the restaurant, Edgar Allan Poe-like, with a wall of international pancakes.

I have friends who wouldn't mind being thusly entombed, as long as the coffee pot is left on their side of the wall. It's an ugly addiction, as you probably know if you've ever kissed anyone with coffee breath.

Here's a brief history of coffee: Once, your parents drank it; now you do.

I've been trying to figure out this turn of events. My generation came up on ginseng and Zig Zag papers, and of the people I knew, it was only a few misfits who looked to Juan Valdez as their personal guru. Coffee was supposed to be nine ways bad for you, and ads trying to entice a new generation to it--remember the chirpy "Join the Coffee Achievers!" spots?--had the same desperate ring as those '70s commercials telling us that today's Army was just one big butt-shakin' disco.

Now, coffee costs as much as a mixed drink, comes in scores of varieties with names like Kona Gold and Libyan Strongman, and everyone drinks it, even me if I can get whipped cream on top. Espresso bars are popping up faster than mushrooms after a rainstorm, just like in the Pacific Northwest where this mess started.

Call it "The Revenge of the Tree People." For years, the low-keyed Northerners have had to put up with their once-pristine paradise being destroyed by an influx of BMW-driving wallet-heads from down south. They were helpless to do anything about it since, unlike us, Pacific Northwesterners are "aggression disadvantaged." They need to get dosed on caffeine just to work up the gumption to fight dental plaque. So they could only mutter meekly to themselves, while their bravest souls would put bumper stickers on their cars reading "Californians--We'd Shoot You If We Knew How."

But all the while, they were quietly exporting death, or at least the runs, to Southern California, in the form of espresso bars. They need espresso up there, since the rain dilutes it immediately. Down here, it's playing havoc with our already accelerated lifestyles: news radio now gives you the world in 40 seconds; you see surfers moving so fast they're catching the same wave twice.

When the Spanish padres first came to California, they planned their missions so that one would be a day's travel from the next. Coffee bars seem to be cropping up along a similar idea: You can walk to your next caffeine fix before you've finished your cup from the last shop.

Some friends and I decided to test this recently by making a "coffee crawl" down Costa Mesa's 17th Street. Most of the people involved have families, so I'll only mention those I'm quoting: frequent Times contributor Rick VanderKnyff (pronounced Shabalala ) and Mark Soden, who drinks his java at Fountain Valley High School when he's not playing bass in the band the Trouble Dolls. While the rest of us were coffee lightweights, Mark stays so caffeinated that he once went two years without ever sleeping deeply enough to enter an R.E.M. state.

We started our crawl at one end of 17th, at Starbucks Coffee. Starbucks is the premier chain in the Northwest and the branches down here look just like the ones up there, very modern with clean, glossy surfaces. Not being so sleek and modern ourselves, we didn't find it especially conducive to hanging out. They make a frisky Caffe Mocha, though. It burned the tongue evenly and left a rich froth around the rim of one's mouth, a good thing to have if you're thinking of running for Congress locally.

The next fresh espresso stop was only two doors down at Hickory Farms. We decided any place with Gummi Bears was beneath our notice and moved on to venerable Diedrich's Coffee. Diedrich's is quite the comfortable hangout and, in the daylight hours at least, isn't overwrought with young fake poets, though there was no explaining the guy walking around with a plastic sword this particular afternoon.

On our second cup of brew, the conversation turned to coffee and its social effects. I asked if it made a difference in anyone's sex life.

"If being awake is a part of your sex life, I suppose it's helpful," Mark opined.

It turned out to be quite a long walk to our next espresso encounter, so I'll liven up the interval with a little coffee joke:

"Did you hear about the fire at the coffee warehouse?"

"Yes, the police have grounds to believe it was arson."

Our next stop, Aromas, was just awful. We decided this on the basis of it being closed. It's not much damn use if it's closed, is it? Would a hospital close? A church? Our cups were nearly empty.

We found salvation at Cafe Concerto, a ferny establishment that's a curious mix of Jesus and java. One of the cafe's owners is Christian singer Jon Gibson. There was a steam-enshrouded picture of Christ behind the bar, while a sign announced "Coming: Christian Karaoke."

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