Tuesday, May 24, 2005


"Do you want good coffee, or gay coffee?"

I am a coffee snob. Details of bean selection, roasting, preparation and how it is properly served, are all dictates of the sensual elitism of it(and of my beer, chocolate, and food consumption generally). I take it all very seriously. I can't remember a time when I DIDN'T drink coffee, sharing cafe con leche with my mom and feeding imaginary cups of it to my stuffed menagerie. Living in my former high school girlfriend's Cambridge basement apartment, I made the leap from canned Maxwell House to Sumatran, Ethiopian yergacheef, and Yemenni mocha matari. She worked at Coffee Connection, one of the first East Coast craft roasters, located in a converted parking garage right off Harvard Square. We ground our precious just roasted beans in one of the several Braun or Krupps electrics on the counter by the ready french presses, and poured the hot (NEVER boiling) water into the glass cylinders over heaps of the richly aromatic grounds, waiting one minute, then pressing the dark nectar from the swirling mixture.

Years later in Philadelphia, during my Golden Age of Coffee Drinking, I was able to structure gallery and restaurant shifts (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday days, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights) allowing most early afternoons to be wasted at the Fairmont bagel institute after a morning of sleeping in. I was a fixture. The staff had my order ready before I reached the counter, a table and chair would be dragged (for me alone) to a sunny spot out front in brisk late fall and chilly early spring, and my (late and lamented) old yellow convertible in the loading zone(never ticketed) was a sure sign that they were open for business. I had my own mug. My world was deeply disrupted when undercapitalized overexpansion closed the small chain's doors for good. Rootless and disenfranchised, a man without a coffee country, I began my wanderings through the city's coffee shops, becomming familiar with all. I formed short tenuous alliances, but never truly shook my refugee status and found a home. Finally, on the other side of the castelated Penitentiary walls at the end of my street, the unfortunately named but exceptionally good Mug Shots (the ball and chain dragging convict striped logo mascot enthuses "Not your usual line up!" *cringe*) recently opened, ending my long Exodus, and giving me a neighborhood sanctuary.

So standing in front of his hotel, I asked my visiting D.C. friend (a coffee conoisseur himself) what exactly he was looking for. A continental breakfast had provided an initial coffee infusion, but the sunshine had beckoned through the leaded glass lobby windows, promising a coffee filled world outside, and we were both interested in some more, some more of SOMETHING.

"Um, I want GAY coffee."

Coffee plays a far different role in THIS section of town. There are four coffee shops in the gayborhood: Stellar, Cafe Joe, Mean Bean, and Millennium. Their patronage is largely based on their visibility, unfortunately inverse to the quality of fare. The best are Stellar and Cafe Joe. Stellar is on the edge of our gay little world, and though excellent, is not ostensibly gay, so I eliminated that one . The spotless Cafe Joe is superbly run by its hardworking and charming namesake. The high quality varietal beans are never over roasted, and the brews are kept in thermal press pots, preserving each batch's flavor. The baked goods are entry level artisan quality, and they stock excellent imported and domestic chocolates(extra points). The large cheerful room opens onto a wide tree shaded brick sidewalk, across from the bustle of Jefferson University Hospital. It should be number one. Regrettably due to it's relative seclusion, it brings up the rear of the big three.

The Mean Bean is halfway between Joe's and Millennium, and middling in all respects. It's especially popular with the Twelve Stepper community. The coffee is fine, the food is O.K., the service is adequate. The room is tiny and cluttered in over the top gay eclectic splendor, like a prop warehouse. A large formerly delightful terrace overlooking a neighborhood garden next door is now claustophobically tented and dark, as year round seating. From it's blue and tan rattan French cafe chairs, your view of the street is obscured, and you are in turn concealed by a forest of palm filled cast iron urns. This is where you go when Millennium is too packed, or you have a fever blister.

Millennium is the home room/cafeteria of Homo High School. It's located at one end of the 12th Street Runway, where queers strut and turn, craning their necks to see who is sitting at the sidewalk tables and lining the banquet beyond the open French doors, and being concurrently evaluated themselves. The 12th Street Gym is next door, with it's attendant parade of buff and aspiringly buff patrons; God's gifts to spandex. Across the street is one of the larger, tonier apartment buildings in the 'hood, brimming with highly sought after Jefferson residents, finance professionals and well-to-do graduate students. The steady stream of dog walking tenants coming and going, cabs picking up and dropping off, and guest arrivals (and especially those closely scrutinized Sunday morning departures) are an unending source of comment and speculation. The coffee sucks. Left to sit carmelizing on the flame, it's the perfect accompaniment to the food; Leaden bagels, sugary lardy pastries eclipsed by any average supermarket bakery's most perfunctory efforts, soggy pre-made sandwiches, and soups rolled off the delivery truck in industrial sized drums. Cliched dance tracks drone overhead, and the strikingly young pretty staff moves to the rythm, ignoring table wiping, half and half refilling, and your presence at the counter. The tip jar is full. The venue is like orchestra seating at the cross roads. In the good weather, naturally, it's packed.

"So where do you think?" the visitor asks me.

We stood next to the awning. Hmm. Cost/beneffit ratio. I ran through my mental files again while the sun warmed my jean jacket shoulders. Groups of men funneled past, down Locust Street and 12TH towards the cross roads, towards the locus, toward the center. The answer was clear.

"Millennium, of course" I cheerfully asserted, "and after that, we can go get us some COFFEE!"
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