Just Say Joe

October 07, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

One could just about hear the shock wave thunder through the Coffee Community this week when Johns Hopkins medical researchers announced their stunning discovery: caffeine is a drug.

All over Baltimore, people looked up from their cappuccinos, their lattes and 7-Eleven 20-ounce coffees and uttered a collective: "NO KIDDING, DR. BONEHEAD. WHY DO YOU THINK WE DRINK IT?"

"Can't they tell us something we don't know?" asks Beth Pulcinella, who works the counter at The Coffee Mill in Belvedere Square Market.

She fires up the double-truck espresso machine and serves a short cappuccino to Bridget Sullivan, who is taking the startling news in stride.

Ms. Sullivan, a 30-year-old artist, says she has her habit under control. She's down to about three cups a day after the wild days at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she'd get juiced up on the stuff and push project deadlines through the night and into dawn.

"It got me through college," says Ms. Sullivan.

And through many long talks with a close friend. They drink coffee and eat sweets, raising the voltage so that the conversation flows like an alternating current. Suddenly everybody feels like a cross between Noel Coward and Carl Sagan.

"The conversation is more fluid, it reaches a higher level, as far as the complexity of the ideas we talk about," says Ms. Sullivan. "I guess, in a way, we get high together."

Drug? Yes, yes. But isn't that the point? Where have these Hopkins people been? They interviewed 27 people, 16 of whom were confirmed as hooked on caffeine. Thus the revelation, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: caffeine fits the criteria of a drug of dependence.

Of course. Haven't the Hopkins folks browsed the shelves at the local gourmet coffee emporium and noticed the baffling array of machines, filters, grinders, cleaners, measuring spoons? Check out that little scale behind the counter. Take another look at a French press, considered by aficionados the method of brewing flavorful coffee. Does this device not look remarkably like a water pipe? In another age they called this paraphernalia.

Just the other day at Starbucks in Annapolis, they were offering espresso-laced brownies for $1.75 a hit. Feed your head. At the ** Vanguard restaurant in Baltimore, there's a dish of chocolate-covered espresso beans next to the bowls of goldfish on the bar. Go ahead, pop a few, feel the buzz.

Is something going on here? How much of a leap is it, really, from Timothy Leary to Juan Valdez?

"I don't see the parallel," says Heather Kolasch, a spokeswoman for Starbucks, the coffee bar chain that in the 1990s has moved east from Seattle, the Medellin of the current national coffee mania. Without a hint of a smile in her voice, Ms. Kolasch, who is based in Washington, D.C., says she's never heard anybody in Starbucks' marketing department talk about trying to create a substitute drug ritual for children of the 1960s.

She sounds a little defensive, and quickly mentions decaffeinated coffee. Ah yes, de-caf, the methadone of the coffee world.

Truck mechanic Chuck Smiddy is having none of it. No flavors, lattes, espresso macchiato, chocolate shavings or de-caf. Just Joe, addictive or not.

"It's got to be a drug, it comes from Colombia," says Mr. Smiddy, who stops at the 7-Eleven on Light Street for a 20-ounce black coffee with no sugar, a man's drink brewed on a Bunn-Omatic. It's his first coffee of the day, the first of his usual daily dose of two or three.

Mr. Smiddy doesn't figure he's addicted. When told of the Hopkins finding he merely shrugs. He's gone as much as a week without coffee, without suffering the usual symptoms of caffeine withdrawal: headache, irritability, depression.

"I don't think I'm ready for Betty Ford [clinic]," says Mr. Smiddy.

Renee Kidger might wonder, as she steps up to the counter at the One World Cafe on South Charles Street and orders a refill of macadamia nut coffee. She did a pot before she went to work the night shift at Deaton Specialty Hospital.

"I went camping one time, no one brought coffee," says Ms. Kidger. "I was, like, freaking out."

No coffee, bad trip. It could have been worse, she says: "I had my cigarettes with me."

Michael Galvin doesn't smoke and he gave up drinking years ago. Just one thing is left, perhaps the only socially acceptable vice remaining in America. Even before he started working at The Coffee Cafe on York Road, Mr. Galvin loved coffee. He would roast and grind his beans at home. He read books about the coffee industry and longed to get into the business.

He says he usually does a couple cups of French press in the morning, then gets a couple shots of espresso during the day at work, then perhaps two more press cups in the evening. An addiction? Probably, but "I don't think it's the kind of addiction that's going to put you in the hospital if you go through withdrawal."

Ask him about withdrawal symptoms and he says he doesn't know. He's never stopped drinking coffee long enough. But Mr. Galvin, a bearded man in wire-rim glasses, ponytail and earring, says he'll buy the drug metaphor.

"There is a ritualistic aspect of it for me. It's a big deal when I make a pot of coffee in the morning. . . . It's like the day doesn't seem quite right if I haven't had coffee."

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