By Matthew Dicks / Illustrated By Sean Wang
I’m standing at the coffee counter at McDonald’s in Bradley International Airport. I have something called a premium roast in my hand. This particular McDonald’s does not offer cream and sugar on the side. Instead, there are machines designed to dispense a variety of milk, cream and sugars into the coffee.
So, I make a phone call.
“Honey, I have your coffee, but they don’t have cream and sugar packets. How do you like your coffee?”
“You don’t know how I like my coffee,” my wife says. It’s not a question. It’s a definitive, assertive statement. She’s not acknowledging my ignorance. She’s informing me that I will not be making her coffee today or any day.
“Hold on,” she says. “I’m coming.” She’s at the other end of the terminal, sitting with our children at the gate, but now she’s moving, walking, navigating through hordes of early morning travelers so she can make her coffee because I don’t know how she likes her coffee. We’ve only been married for 16 years.
The problem is that I don’t drink coffee. I have never even tasted coffee and for good reason. This very reason, in fact. Coffee is complex. Too complex for my liking. The options are dizzying in their number and intricacy. The cream, with all its various flavors, fat contents, and now a bizarre and growing collection of animal, vegetable and legume sources. The endless variety of sweeteners…everything from plain old sugar to cane sugar to artificial substitutes like Sweet & Low, Equal, Splenda, and Stevia.
Add to this the complexions that even suck in the self-important black coffee drinkers: caffeination, temperature, blend, brew and brand. Layer atop this mess are all of the coffee-like products that one can also consume: cappuccino, espresso, double espresso, iced coffee, latte, Americano, macchiato…It’s all too much for me.
Even the cups are complex. Paper or wax. Sizes that make no earthly sense to me. Different types of lids. Different types of stirrers. Stirrers that also seal the lid.
I drink water, apple juice, orange juice and Diet Coke in the morning. That’s it. Simple, fast and absent accouterment. As a result, I have saved myself about 9 years of my life by avoiding the monumental search for the perfect cup of coffee.
But this “I need to make my own cup of coffee” moment that my wife and I are experiencing in the airport is just the tip of the iceberg because autumn is approaching when all hell breaks loose.
The complaints began even earlier this year. Sometime in late August, I heard the first grumblings of “pumpkin spice” from the angry coffee mob. In shops and cafes around the world, something called pumpkin spice has found its way into the lexicon and on the menus once again. As someone who does not drink coffee—and therefore has never experienced pumpkin spice—here is what I know about this autumnal mainstay:
- It’s made from pumpkin, I think.
- It’s made from spice, I think.
- It’s added to oceans of coffee every fall.
Coffee drinkers presumably love this seasonal coffee additive; otherwise, it would not be everything everywhere all at once.
Most importantly, if it arrives on the scene too early—at the end of August rather than mid-September—coffee drinkers will absolutely begin drinking it by the gallon while simultaneously complaining that it has arrived way too early.
This, too, has been another enormous time saver for me over the course of my non-coffee drinking lifetime: I have never talked about coffee. In fact, I’ve managed to avoid talking about any of the beverages that I consume. But coffee drinkers talk about coffee a lot. They talk about it all the time. Relentlessly and endlessly. Coffee challenges the weather and traffic for dominance in the “Inane and Incredibly Boring Topic of Conversation” championship every year.
Coffee drinkers—which is to say almost everyone—have their standard, repetitive, inane phrases. Nonsense like:
- “No speaking until this cup is empty.”
- “This feels like a three-cup day.”
- “I need to get my Starbucks on.”
- “Coffee! The most important meal of the day!”
But they also talk about coffee in painful, grinding, endless detail. Machines and flavors. Beans and roasts. Milk frothers and bean grinders. Corny mugs and heated mugs. Starbucks versus Dunkin. Almond milk versus acorn milk. They give it names like joe, java, dirt and mud. Low and high octane. I know a guy who calls it wakey juice.
And boy do they like to talk about pumpkin spice. And if it arrives early on the scene, they are happy to complain about their pumpkin spice while drinking gallons of the stuff. They are both thrilled to add this autumnal wonder to their liquid drug while somehow resenting its appearance, for when it graces the menu in their favorite brew house, they know summer is coming to an end.
It’s like the moment when your friends have their first baby. You’re thrilled about their new arrival, but at the same time, you know that the appearance of this ball of snot and tears will forever change their lives, and therefore your life, too. No more late-night poker games. No more last-minute jaunts to New York. No more tacos at 2 a.m. Babies are cute, but they signal change. A terrible, tragic change.
The appearance of pumpkin spice may tantalize the taste buds, but it also signals the closing of the swimming pool, the unpacking of cashmere, the raking of leaves and the inexplicable need to pick your own apples.
During the summer, apples can be purchased alongside your cans of tuna and toilet paper. But in the fall, entire Sundays are surrendered to harvesting one’s own tree-based fruit.
All of this is signaled by the emergence of pumpkin spice. It’s no longer the first hint of red in the leaves of the maple tree or the first early morning chill.
Autumn arrives with pumpkin spice, and for those who love it and drink it by the quart, it always seems to arrive too early. And like the ceaseless changing of the seasons, they always need to talk about it and whine about its early arrival, forgetting that they said the same damn thing last year.
Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher, bestselling novelist and a record 55-time Moth Story SLAM champion. His latest books are Twenty-one Truths About Love and The Other Mother.
Sean Wang, an MIT architecture graduate, is author of the sci-fi graphic novel series, Runners. Learn more at seanwang.com.