Coffee, Tea, or… This Stuff?

Cafe au lait in Paris, France, where I first learned to love coffee

Cafe au lait in Paris, France, where I first learned to love coffee

As a rule, I am not a particularly early riser.  I’m not a milkman, we don’t have kids that need tending to, and we have the Golden Girls in the DVD player in the bedroom almost all the time — I am happy to seize any opportunity to loll in bed that may arise.  It is definitely not my habit to leap from the bed at the first sign of the new day, but when I’m working, it is kind of my preference.  I like to get my flying out of the way early in the day, before the operation has had a chance to fall apart and people have really had the chance to miss connections or otherwise be disserviced (read: before people have good reason to turn cranky).  Morning flights are generally low-key, as many passengers use the first portion of a morning flight to come to terms with the idea of being up and at ’em at what airlines are dictating to be a more and more ungodly hour.  (Yesterday, we worked a flight that started boarding at five in the morning.)  I like the pink light of the sunrise in the cabin, and I like to get home and have the day ahead of me, even if I am going to end up spending much of it napping.  (There go those Golden Girls again…)

Here’s the thing about me and morning: there’s gotta be coffee.  Not in-room brown water, not some instant powdered mess, and certainly not the swill made from grass clippings and the remnants from the chicory factory floor that it embarrasses me to serve on the airplane, but please: real coffee.  At home, this is easily achieved.  I buy yummy coffee — nothing fancy, half the time it’s from Cost Plus (sorry: World Market) — but it’s dark, it’s strong, and the dispenser-style coffee maker that Jared got me for my last birthday makes it easy (and fun!) to drink way too many cups of it every day.  Yes, at home, I look forward to getting out of bed (at a reasonably leisurely hour) and going coffee crazy.  

Alas, on the road, getting my hands on a halfway decent cup of coffee presents a constant challenge, and one that can be far more aggravating  than any passenger with an over-sized carry-on could even try to be.  I’ve just returned home from a tremendously un-coffee-satisfying four-day trip, and have been moved anew to find a solution to this problem, mostly by wondering if there’s room in my suitcase for the box in which I’d have to lug this around.  In all but the best hotels (I love you, Vancouver, now home of the in-room Keurig coffee maker), in-room coffee is a non-starter.  It’s weak and crummy and almost always offered only with powdered creamer.  Many hotels “proudly serve” Starbucks coffee somewhere in their lobby, and this is certainly acceptable Road Coffee if time allows, but after half-drowning in my own hot mess on a particularly bridge-tastic van ride from midtown Manhattan to JFK airport at the dawn of my career, I elect not to “enjoy” my coffee on the way to the airport (which often only affords an opportunity to “enjoy” cleaning it up off of your pants).  The world’s airports are, as a rule, stocked with coffee options, and if there’s time to stand in the line, Starbucks, Peet’s, or Caribou (although not Dunkin Donuts, sorry East Coasters) can easily satisfy my relatively modest coffee requirements.  But when the line is out the door and halfway down the concourse, I am often thwarted, working, as I do, for a company run by the worst kind of tyrant: that who doesn’t consider “I needed coffee” a reasonable excuse for delaying a whole airplane full of people (many of them drinking coffee) with places to be.  At airports that don’t have a designated Crew Line at security, we cut, cuz nobody wants to be delayed waiting for their crew to stand in that line — why should coffee be any different?  That’s where airports really drop the ball: we need a Crew Line at the coffee place!  Run and get a pencil:  Dear Congressperson…

Layovers aren’t always any better.  A lot of airport hotels close their little coffee counters at 10 or 11 o’clock — a late night followed by a late morning often means No Coffee For You, unless you’re enjoying a rare and exotic Downtown Layover.  Good — or, well, at least “brewed” — coffee is now widely available in the big cities in Asia, but I’ll never forget my first Seoul layover:  Abroad in the streets of Itaewon, a flying partner and I searched high and low for coffee.  The coffee in the room had been instant, the coffee at the hotel restaurant had been instant, and we’d foolishly missed our chance to stop at Mister Donut in the train station before heading out.  It was late in the day when we rejoiced to find a “coffee house” near Namdaemun, and we were happier still when a friendly hostess showed us to our plushly upholstered antique chairs.  We were the only patrons ensconced in the air conditioned haven who weren’t middle-aged Korean businessmen, and we knew we had stumbled upon success, knowing, as every traveler does, that you can’t go wrong in a place packed with locals.  Our server was as eager as the hostess to make us feel welcome, and we perched giddily on the edges of our seats, barely even able to make small talk with our coffee needs so close to being quenched.  Our server had scurried with our orders behind a screen not far from our table, and we had to laugh to keep from crying when our day-long mission culminated in the unmistakable tink-a-tink-a-tink of tiny spoon preparing instant coffee in tiny cup.

We’ve recently changed brands of coffee on the airplane, and, while the old stuff was no great shakes, the new and “improved” is undrinkable.  Forgetting what it tastes like, it doesn’t even smell like coffee, and there are days when it doesn’t look much like it either.  Because of this, I am of the opinion that we shouldn’t be required to report for work before the sun comes up except at airports where the coffee place is already open.  But our coffee’s like everything else in the airline industry: a poor substitute for what it once was, the good stuff gone with the wind. So I carry tea for emergencies and look forward to opportunities to seize the day. South Florida is a great place to lay over, with dark, rich, and sweet Cuban coffee so easy to come by.  A gift shop in the airport in Lima, Peru offers free samples of a popular coffee they sell, and the staff obligingly ensures a full dispenser when they see crews coming up the concourse.  The Portland airport has not one but two outposts of Coffee People near our gates, whose employees rival their coffee in terms of sheer Portland delightfulness, and I wrote a whole post about why we love ZaZa in Orlando.  My job loves to teach life lessons, and my unending quest for halfway decent Road Coffee handily illustrates one of them: You take the good where you find it, don’t let the bad get you down, and get up to Vancouver as often as you can.  Most importantly: next time you find yourself in line for coffee at an airport with a flight attendant in line behind you, think of me… and for Heaven’s sake, let him cut!


Big surprise, sitting around and drinking coffee features prominently in my book, Kiss Me, Straight, and so of course I loved it when Coffee Time Romance & More, of all places, gave it a thoughtful 3-cup review.   

6 thoughts on “Coffee, Tea, or… This Stuff?

  1. Some flights in Boston start at 4 am!! If its not nice outside (which alot of times its not) I leave the house Java-less!! Been down those steps too many times wearing the brew instead of drinking it!! Yes, pass many Dunkin’s on the way, but, being someone who likes to sleep late, ummm, no time! Can you figure, a drive from Worcester to Boston is less than 2 hours but I’m not a huge morning person. Coffee at Logan, swamp water.

  2. Eight years on the East Coast and I still don’t understand why Dunkin’s coffee was ever (EVER) a big deal. It’s worse now than it was when everyone was squeeing about it but that it wasn’t ever very good. On price/quality you might as well hit the better bodegas or street carts.

    • I’m kind of with you. When I first started flying to the East Coast I really, really wanted to love Dunkin’s coffee because everyone else TOLD me I should. I tried and tried but it was always just weak coffee crap. I’m finally okay telling die-hards to just zip it and try some real coffee.

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