Coffee Jones

I just woke up and need a fix bad. Can't think straight, flesh nagging, can't hardly move until my addiction is sated, till the stuff gets in and makes me OK for a couple hours.

I begin by boiling water. Find the bag of dope and spoon some of the fine, pungent grains into a paper filter. Run water through the machine until I get dark-brown liquid. Now the drug is ready. I take mine with one sugar and a splash of half-and-half.

So it's past time to wring out the following confessional, to catch up the unhip on the hap and describe my habit. Spring brings motivation, the brilliant weather colored by a luminescent sun, melodious chirps blending with sweet, mysterious fragrances. But instead of enjoying these natural pleasures I spend the morning balled up on our green couch, stuck to CNN, listening to President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and other cats tell me what a great nation I live in.

Then I take some pills and a hot shower to get some minor relief from my chronic back pain, let the early hours wear on and, though I've had two hits of a viable alternative (Coca-Cola) I begin feeling dope sick, nauseated, pukey, eyes burning, head uncomfortably numb, a malaise that makes me want to pump everything out, like regular people do with herbal detoxes, enemas, self-induced regurgitation.

Nothing brings relief, so I go for the Sumatran. Filter up 25 grams of number-four grind (ultra fine) and pour into the machine 12 ounces of fresh water. Heavy dose of heavy stuff. Got it from my primo connection, 30 years in the biz and probably the hottest source in the world, though I haven't actually compared its size to that of the Cali Cartel or the Medellin gang. But the hottest connect, for sure, and everyone knows it.

Maybe a bolus of this coffee will fix me up. The cup that cheers.

Perfect. Four doses of Sumatran with additives gets me right. We stick with artificial sweeteners (blue bags, aka "NutraSweet" and "boy" or pink bags, aka "Sweet'n Low" or "girl"). Refined sugar is damn unhealthy and deeply tied to slavery and environmental immoralities. I mix in about half a bag of blue and an extra splash of dairy juice, figuring the foreign brown will be stronger than standard American.

Habit Forming

It wasn't until I was an adult that I picked up the habit. Within weeks I was up to downing two pots of brew every day, gormandizing for reasons I didn't understand or care to. Soon that would lead to the hard C, the exotics that became popular about that time, in the early '90s.

Coffee shares all the best aspects of the other drugs that rule lives. The delivery system is important and varied. I like to draw out a bolus, make it build and last, slow until unsteady. Others hit hard and fast ... a one-ounce jolt of café cubano or espresso ... then ride the internal waves.

As for me, I enjoy placing the grounds into the filter, filling the pot, pouring the water through, placing the full mugs on saucers, plattering sweetener and dairy and maybe some scones or shortbread, placing the wood stir sticks on a napkin aside each serving of dope.

Procedure had less meaning a generation ago when coffee was coffee. Christ, I even drank instant on occasion. But lately coffee has enjoyed a remarkable upgrade, a complete transformation from lowlife get-by to connoisseur high. Just recently the advertising spokescharacter "Juan Valdez" (played by one-trick actor Carlos Sanchez) was disappeared after nearly three decades of pitching South American product. Sanchez said the pink slip was "like losing a limb." But the era of muddy speed in metal cans has given way to the days of double mocha latte grandes, and someone's gotta pay.

I recall the whole exotic rage exploding about a decade ago ... Barney's in gas stations, Millstone at the grocery stores, even flavored coffees and creams at the 7-Eleven. Mistos, lattes, ventis, chais, machiattos, americanos oiled with hazelnut and French vanilla and Irish creme. The other day Honey copped some French dope, Cafe Du Monde, from New Orleans. It's cut with chicory. It doesn't taste so good, but at least it generates a sense of nostalgia.

It wasn't long before I drifted into the scene of Starbucks and the big-chain bookstores that feature coffeebars with all kinds of coffee-based concoctions, plus scones, cake, cookies and other go-alongs. All of it pricey, but that was the haps and I fell hard. Now, even Maxwell House sells gourmet grounds, including vanilla and a fair house blend.

Pretty soon I learned that Starbucks was headquartered in Seattle and hopped a plane to that far-away city, where I immediately hit the streets, tongue a-tingle.

Moonstruck by Starbucks

A guy name of Howard Schultz is to coffee abuse what Lucky Luciano was to the Mafia. In 1982 he joined up with Starbucks and began dealing its stuff to restaurants and espresso bars. A year later he went to Italy and saw the thriving espresso scene in Milan, persuaded Starbucks to open a coffeehouse -- much like the speakeasy clubs of prohibition -- in Seattle. Schultzy then left and formed his own company, Il Giomale, buying his stock from Starbucks, tricking it up, then dealing it to the culture mongers he'd created with the coffehouse concept. In 1986 he set the standard by introducing an eggnog latte.

By 1987 Schultzy had taken over Starbucks and opened 17 outlets. Then he went mail order and opened 16 more coffeehouses. He built a new roasting plant and by 1992 made an IPO. He brought Barnes & Noble into his gang and, in 1993, with 272 Starbucks around the nation, he split the stock. At this point Schultz was dealing in tens of millions of dollars on every deal he made, all of it generated by people who feel better about themselves if they pay four bucks for coffee with fancy names and unusual preparations.

When I visited, Seattle was boiling. While Starbucks still rules its hometown, there are identical chains such as Tully's and Seattle's Best everywhere you turn. In between the big sit-down-and-read, ornately furnished chain joints you find kiosks and indie shops that'll serve you anything from a white, double-mocha, caramel daisy-chain triple latte to something really fancy and tricked up.

If you have any doubts that Starbucks makes the Mafia look like three boy scouts lost in the woods, consider this: In the four-week period ending Jan. 27, the cartel netted $229 million. Last year's consolidated net revenues from the same period were $184 mill, meaning the 'Buckers increased their take 24 percent despite all the competition. It takes Starbucks 17 weeks -- less than a quarter of a year -- to scoop up a billion bucks. That amounts to a hell of a hill of beans, junior.

Orin Smith recently took over as the Godfather, though Schultz still runs things behind the curtains. Orin and his top capos use terms such as "the Starbucks Experience" and "experience-enhancing interactive initiatives." These articulate speed slingers are not your everyday drug dealers. These are big-time businessmen with a medicated goo everyone wants because everyone else wants it.

In North America, as of Jan. 27 (so you know these are lowball numbers), there were 4,105 Starbucks serving up the potulent brown. There are also more than 1,000 of the brand's coffee shops in other nations. Total: 5,175 plus however many have opened in the past three months. We're talking, like, 30 outlets every week. Show me a crack dealer that takes turf that fast and I'll buy you a $4 cup of coffee.

I had to make the big connection, penetrate the cartel, get in good with Starbucks' capos, but after two trips to Seattle, I decided to wait and let them come to me.

Kenyan to Columbian

I finally got the hook up. Nicole Doering, "coffee education specialist" for Starbucks, has a half-dozen big silver espresso machines lined on a table. She is here to teach the crowd of about 30 how to make espresso so Starbucks can sell espresso machines and the hard drug that goes with.

It's a rainy night and I have no interest in espresso. No, I'm here for Nicole, my Seattle Starbucks connect, but unfortunately everything quickly turns into a whir. Just as I finish off a grande of straight house blend a Starbucks worker slips me a sample cup of some killer Kenyan (much like the way crack dealers give new customers a free rock so they'll come back for more).

At a table I sample some premade Kenyan and declare it bitter. I whip out a notebook and pretend to be some sort of reporter or critic. Another young lady, sussing the scene, blurs by and drops a sack of Sumatran on my table. I see into the future.

My future is a couple, Morris and Minnie Rosen. They were the first customers at this particular Starbucks, five years ago, on Feb. 22. They come in every day. Morris used 2,500 wood stir sticks to build a large replica of the Starbucks building; his sculpture stands inside the store. It takes lots of hot brown fuel to complete a project like that. Minnie explains that she and her man got hooked after hitting a Starbucks in Seattle during a trip. "We always look for Starbucks wherever we go," adds Morris, a retired general contractor. I feel a gnawing fear that I will die addicted.

Nicole steps up and my chance to hook up with a Seattle-based Starbucker disintegrates. She is presenting "The Art of Espresso" seminar, something she's repeating in different cities on a cross- country tour.

She promises the audience of about two dozen users "a hands-on opportunity to empower you to make your favorite beverages." I take this to mean she's gonna get me high. But then, as she waves her hand like a wand across the row of espresso machines lined up on a long table, she adds, "All the machines are at their lowest prices of the year, so if you fall in love with one�."

At that moment a screaming motor drowns her out, my head spins, heart palpitates wildly. A clerk serving a nonseminar customer has turned on a machine that sounds like a lawn mower rolling over my caffeine-riddled body.

Nicole is now "priming the pump," which means running water through part of the espresso machine. She saying something about steaming milk then letting it cool, tamping correctly, Italian Reporrto filters, and that if you pull the shots too soon, you'll burn the coffee. The words fly by like the floaters I'm hallucinating.

Proper pressure, the importance of the water used, how the bottom is dark brown and called the heart, the middle medium brown and called the body, the top light brown and called the crema. "You must use the espresso within 10 seconds or it will taste different." She likes Yemen Sunami because it's spicy, it intensifies espresso. Like espresso needs intensifying.

A man in the back asks if it's possible to OD on coffee. Nicole says, "Physiology is an individual thing. You have to judge that."

She explains that American Starbucks stores don't sell Jamaican Blue Mountain because it's too expensive, but in Japan, where the chain expanded six years ago and has 270 stores in 23 prefectures, it's a hot item.

All I know is I left buzzed, wired, my head spinning like the blade of a grinder, my hands trembling and mind racing.

Bean Juice Withdrawal

Bad morning. I'm jonesing bad, getting real sick, when my friend Emma comes through. She has a giant Styro cup full of con leche she copped on Biscayne Boulevard. I find a small cup in the bossman's private kitchen and Emma doses me.

It's a good time to have the habit. Wholesale coffee prices, at less than 50 cents per pound, are the lowest they've been since the Great Depression seven decades ago. Druggies who huff gasoline to get "high" should be so lucky.

As for me, I'm surrounded by enablers. Andrea installed an espresso machine the minute we moved into our office.

As this spring began she was doing two hot shots of pure espresso every morning and another in the afternoon while also visiting Starbucks on a regular basis (caramel machiatto). Her shots are double size. Still, the girl suffers some denial. She says her use "gives me a little bit of energy," but doesn't hinder sleep. She quit for a month and went through two days of withdrawal before early morning workouts ... she claims ... alleviated the absence of brown in her metabolism. But soon she picked up and was right back on the shit.

Going cold off the bean juice is brutal. A week ago Andrea kicked again. Then she was at a dinner party. When dessert was served she snapped, grabbed someone else's cup and gulped away.

Honey's not human until she gets her morning fix and, despite the knowledge that my addiction is out of control, that I'm going days at a time without sleep and putting away several pots in binges, a few dozen cups without let-up, she keeps acquiring primo product, new grinders, even a special scooper for measuring out hits.

The Gevalia package arrived, so now we have a dozen different types of coffee, some in bean form and some already ground: French vanilla, hazelnut, Sumatran, Kenyan, house blends and hotel blends. Pure Kona beans, French Silk Pie, Royal Zimbabwe, Pumpkin Spice and speedball mixes such as Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey Gourmet. The house reeks of liquid speed.

I scored some stuff called Foglifter. No diggity there ... it's like the heroin called Graveyard by its pushers, or another type of smack its sellers call Assassin. Hell, it's like reading the Surgeon General's warning while you suck on a cigarette.

Decaf Dope

I don't know how many days I've been awake now. A week? A month? The habit has grown faster than Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX). Stupid weather blinding with its piercing sun, annoying chirps and rank odors. Honey and I got in a knockdown brawl when she inadvertently knocked the box of filters into the trash can and I blamed her for our inability to find them.

It's weird, but now that I'm dialed with the big dogs at Starbucks and our house is filled with stash and we have a new grinder and new brewer (and even those elegant new Gevalia mugs) I'm determined to quit for good. I'm trembling, my stomach is churning and roiling, drool edging the corners of my mouth, nausea coursing through me like blood. The flesh nags, I feel old and scared.

Decaf didn't make much sense in the days before the exotics. Coffee was simply the capsule that contained the real drug, caffeine. It was like drinking near beer, or, more accurately perhaps, an empty-handed heroin addict shooting straight water just for the feel of the needle. Coffee was a straight-up kick, not a fashion statement with a rush to go with it.

I tried to get by on decaf (French vanilla and hazelnut), but found myself backing each cup with a can of caffeinated soda. It's not the taste, it's the buzz. It's not a routine, it's an addiction. A bitterly mean one.

Last week Honey and I tried what people in recovery call "the geographic solution." Get to a place where you can't get to the drug no matter how much you want to. We went to stay with my folks in a rural area. Unfortunately my parents, it turned out, are still heavy users, morning to night. I'd wake at 7 in the morning to the gurgling sounds and pungent aromas of fresh brew dripping into the pot and, without so much as a scone to soften the gastric blow, I'd pound cup after cup.

Back home, I swore off again, but the cravings were too much. And then I was at a rock club, eyes wide and tongue coated, when some hips tuned me to the next thing: exotic teas. Maybe in them I can find what I was looking for in Earl Grey and cola and coffee. Drop the frappuccino, the latte, the con leche. Slow it and go it alone with chamomile, orange spice, Lemon Zinger, Chinese green, Plantation Mint, Cinnamon Stick, Kusmi Petrushka, Grace Rare China Black, Gunpowder Imperial, Green Petal Jasmine. Trade the arabica for the pekoe or oolong or darjeeling. Make some connections at Bigelow and Celestial Seasonings, Dean & DeLuca and Luzianne.

And wouldn't you know it? Starbucks has launched a tea campaign and is pushing the stuff hard, with Tazoberry and Tazo Citrus blended teas, even a Tazo and cream.

Damn. Well, I guess for the final fix I'm going to have to turn to X or Special K or GHB. Or maybe yage.

Greg Baker is a staff writer at StreetMiami.

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