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Coffee Lovers Are a Pretty Tame Lot--for Junkies : Lifestyles: Sure, a new report says caffeine addiction is a lot like being hooked on alcohol, tobacco or street drugs. But java drinkers are tired of hearing about it.

October 06, 1994|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are lined up by 6 a.m., shuffling in the damp, dark morning, waiting to get into Phillipe the Original restaurant in Chinatown. They can't be described as a joyful lot--no one feels much like chatting.

The door lock clanks and the half-dozen people drag themselves in orderly fashion across the sawdust-covered floor, stand at the counter and politely order the first of 42 gallons of coffee that will be poured into 6-ounce cups on Wednesday.

As far as junkies go, caffeine addicts are particularly well-behaved.

Some of them haven't heard about the report in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., a publication despised by lovers of cigarettes, lo mein and meatloaf. Wednesday's report stated that caffeine addiction is a lot like being hooked on alcohol, tobacco or street drugs. The research was done at Johns Hopkins University.

Who would name their kid Johns?

Bud Clark, 70, has two steaming cups of joe--20 cents worth--sitting in front of him. His partner, Don Schaefer, 51, also has a cup. Clark's been drinking coffee for 50, maybe 55 years. Ten years ago, he was drinking 40 cups a day, but now he's down to six to eight.

He says he's tired of hearing it.

"Everything's bad for you," he grumbles, "everything causes cancer or something. I been lucky, I have good health."

Back when he was mainlining the stuff, he says he was under a lot of pressure in the construction business. He would sit in the trailer swilling pot after pot. He drank coffee to replace the cigarettes he had given up because they were bad for him.

He quit smoking for 15 years, then one day about five years ago, he was sitting at a table and a painter came and sat across from him, lit up, blew smoke into his face. At the time, the job was crazy. "Everybody," Clark says, "was bitching about something." Before he knew it, he cracked. Clark reached across the table, grabbed the guy's smokes and was lighting up.

During the 15 years he had kicked nicotine, he found himself spending a lot of time at places where other people were smoking, which presents a whole different set of problems. "Secondhand smoke was almost as good as firsthand," he says. JAMA, of course, would not use the word good .

While he was drinking 10 pots a day, he noticed his stomach was bothering him a little. Schaefer points out that one's stomach would be bothered by drinking 10 daily pots of anything. That, Clark says, is a good point, as he reaches for his second cup.

Georgina Veliz is behind the candy counter, her perch for the past 15 years. She's not selling much candy. Most of the sales this time of day are cigarettes and newspapers. She, too, raises a good point.

"You can't have a doughnut without coffee."

She drinks only a cup or so a day, just to warm up a bit and get the doughnut down.

Mike Mercado is working on two cups of coffee and a piece of coffee cake. He's been drinking the stuff for about 20 years. Sometimes, he says, he has a cup before bedtime. Seems to help him sleep, he says.

His buddy and fellow city industrial waste systems employee, Benjamin Silva, is eating a bowl of fruit. Never developed a taste for coffee, he says. The only time he touches the stuff is when Mercado's buying.

"I don't pay much attention to that stuff," Mercado says of the JAMA report. "Everybody's worried about living longer. I think it's more important to live better."

He puts a spoonful of sugar in each cup.

"These results suggest that caffeine can produce a clinical dependence syndrome similar to those produced by other psychoactive substances," researchers concluded.

They also noted that when addicts were given a placebo instead of caffeine, all hell broke lose. One person made mistakes at work, another shut the lights off in her office and put her head down. One person stayed home and didn't even try to work.

Not to worry. No one at Phillipe on Wednesday morning ordered a placebo.

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