I was somewhere outside of Burger Bar on the edge of the French Broad River when the caffeine began to take hold.
My third Asheville coffee shop of the day was just over the hill and around Beacham’s Curve. By then, I was having trouble telling if my perkiness was from the bean juice or the face-to-face, unmasked interactions with some of the most fun and interesting people I could think to meet up with on a Wednesday.
The quest? Visit a different caffeine dealer in North, South, East, West and downtown Asheville to have a cup of something delicious and legal, while pretending I was in the mid-’90s heyday of such establishments. That meant the phone stayed in my pocket on silent; replicating Jennifer Aniston’s and David Schwimmer’s fashion senses, however, remained merely suggestions.
Who would show up for such shenanigans without assurances that Spin Doctors would be strumming away in the corner? Famous last words, but I was confident that author Stephanie Perkins, Get Right Band guitarist/vocalist Silas Durocher and St. George’s Episcopal Church priest-in-charge Erin Maxfield-Steele would all arrive on time at their respective locations — mostly because they’d yet to ghost me when I interviewed them for previous articles. Elsewhere, Melissa Williams, lead press secretary for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, is known for her punctuality, and Matt Kane, general support representative for TherapyAppointment, hasn’t barred the door to his house yet when I’m invited over — so optimism was likewise high regarding these final two parties following through.
North Asheville, 9:59 a.m.
At the chime of 10 a.m., as the contract stated, I meet Steph at PennyCup Coffee North. (She’d arrived five minutes earlier — the rascal.) Introducing myself and my mission to the staff, I ask barista Raji Hewavita for a recommendation that encapsulates PennyCup’s work. He steers me right with the Northside, a blended coffee with house-made lavender syrup and honey that packs just the right amount of sweetness.
Building on our shared love of movies, Steph and I talk Oscar nominations — those French Dispatch snubs are looking worse by the day — and discover that we’re the world’s two biggest fans of David Fincher’s Zodiac, all while a mix of activity buzzes around us in the small but sufficient space on Merrimon Avenue. Neither of us has been to this particular PennyCup location, nor have we spent much time indoors over the last two years with nonhousehold members. Yet the conversation flows as if between old friends.
During a lull in sales, Raji joins us to discuss his lifelong love of coffee shops despite the convenience of homebrewing. Steph observes that he must see a lot of awkward first dates. Raji reveals that he sometimes changes the shop’s music to suit the mood. I forget to ask if he DJs on the side.
11:15 a.m.: Slightly caffeinated, feeling awake
Back out in the chilly air, Steph returns to her literary world, while I head downtown to link up with Silas.
As I trudge past the Xpress office’s Miles Building home, I formulate believable excuses for potential co-worker encounters, before making it to Trade and Lore Coffee right on time (weird). Wisely, I take barista Marissa Lowe’s recommendation of a Pistachio & Rosewater latte, featuring syrup made on-site.
It’s Silas’ first time at the Wall Street café, whose indoor seating is restricted to the front section by the restrooms. We catch up on our recent cinematic viewings (I’m a film critic — these things happen), his music and how we plan to keep wearing masks in many situations for the foreseeable future, especially at concerts and movie theaters.
I happen to look down at my wristwatch precisely as the second hand ticks to noon, officially marking the end of Buncombe County’s mask mandate. Silas and I look outside, expecting an elaborate, professionally choreographed musical number on Wall Street involving the removal and burning of face coverings, but no such In the Heights revelry occurs. This must be Sondheim country.
12:47 p.m.: Is this euphoria or the first signs of death?
Caffeine levels skyrocketing, it’s off to my neighborhood joint, BattleCat CoffeeBar, where — after another bizarrely prompt arrival (I mean, really, I’m not even on time to my own movie events) — barista Orlando Cordero tells Melissa and me the Spicy Mocha is where it’s at.
While the concoction is being crafted, lunch from the feline-themed shop within the feline-themed shop, Tiger Bay Café, is brought out just as the online ordering system said it would. Melissa got the rice bowl; I got the veggie taco salad. We head off to the backroom where I notice a man wearing headphones and … holy Juan Valdez, are we in the quiet room? I think we’re in the quiet room. But we have no plans of being quiet. This is why we can’t have nice things!
I try not to freak out by focusing on our fresh, colorful food, as well as the lovely leaf pattern Orlando drew atop my beverage. At which point a woman to my left takes a phone call. So, either we a-holes outnumber the decent headphone citizen 3-to-1 or else THE QUIET ROOM IS A MYTH. I mean, I didn’t see a sign (sign everywhere a sign).
While I breathe into an invisible paper bag and picture the Caffeine Cops (probably all guys I went to high school with) dragging me away in T-minus 60 seconds, I can’t help but ponder the daily balancing of disparate social bubbles within each café. Even among the maybe 10 people currently within BattleCat’s cozy walls, folks are there to separately work, read and talk, and I marvel at how these dynamics have coexisted in such places for so long. Is the U.N. aware of these peaceful activities?
Simultaneously wondering if my accomplices and I are being model customers by buying something, staying for an hour or so, then leaving and allowing for the cycle to continue, Melissa and I discuss her strategic social outings with her group of close liberal friends and commiserate at being the only two people in the world to dislike The Lost Daughter. (Yes, I am wearing my Martin Scorsese T-shirt with the text modeled like the Marvel Studios logo. Why do you ask?)
1:58 p.m: I’ve got how many more stops?
By 2 p.m., Melissa must resume saving the world, and I’ve got to head east to meet Matt at Filo Pastries, where, after another bout of timeliness, I run my spiel by the barista who, noting the business’s Greek leanings, suggests the baklava latte. (And there’s no way I’m turning one of those down.) Requesting her name “for the record,” she says “Jody Bettencourt.” I ask, “Are you a musician?” She confirms this, and I compliment her on her Shadow Paint side project, which made Xpress’ Singles Spotlight in late 2021. Cue “It’s a Small World,” but also … don’t. Instead, let’s go with G. Love’s “Milk and Sugar,” famously tracked at our very own Echo Mountain Recording, or Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee.” (When Dylan sings, “To the valley below,” does he mean the Swannanoa Valley? I like to think so.)
I’d not seen Matt much over the winter, but before frostbite became a concern, we’d have fairly regular deck hangs at his Beverly Hills home with Thom “O.G. Beer Scout” O’Hearn, prior to the latter’s move back to Florida, which he does more frequently than melanoma-tinged retirees. A fellow native Floridian, Matt can smell warm weather on the horizon and is ready for more frequent socializing but is also willing to take out a home equity loan to satisfy the Ticketmaster gods in order to see that very same Dylan character at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in early April. It’ll be his first concert in … well, he quit counting a while ago.
While both of us would rather be at a brewery, it is midafternoon, we’re both professionals on the clock, and, hey, this article has to be a success for that article to get approval. I lob my 70th “Friends” joke of the day, and Matt makes the keen observation that coffee culture has held steady despite the ubiquity of screens, largely thanks to its newfound artisanal offerings. Those bums at Central Perk weren’t exactly picky about what was in their cups, he notes, but by the time the reunion special rolled around, there had better been some rare roast for the actors or they would have hopped a Lyft to Williamsburg.
Our time winds down and, uh oh, my throat is a little sore. Is it COVID? Worse? After some soul-searching and internal pep talks, I’ve determined it’s from talking with people for four hours and drinking delicious, complicated caffeinated beverages. Is this the “real life” they told us about? Not sure I’m ready for that.
3:01 p.m: Jesus (from The Big Lebowski), take the wheel!
South I go, via I-40 (hello, Barstow!) and … wow, am I a better driver while highly caffeinated? Should I have taken an Uber? I’m pinballing between these two likelihoods when I arrive at Round Earth Roasters, where Erin, who’d threatened to cosplay as Phoebe from “Friends,” complete with guitar, has apparently bailed on this idea.
Behind the counter, Rae Simonson says the Golden Milk Latte, featuring a yellow viscous liquid made with turmeric, is the ticket for my tingly throat, so I take the ride and, damn, she is right. These baristas have got to be the most trustworthy people in Asheville, I think, as I head around back to chat with an honest-to-god priest.
Curious of my preceding adventures, Erin is impressed with my hand having only a slight tremor and, as a drizzly rain gives way to inconsistent sunlight, she talks about the role that coffee shops played in her life. From the place where people of alternative lifestyles could gather in her small Virginia hometown to a place where she could study and feel safe in college outside of Boston, such spaces have been a constant for her. Meanwhile, I ramble on about not even liking the taste of coffee until I was 26 — with major assists from sugar and milk — and a reticence to study or read in public during my student days lest my sleep-deprived self conk out for all to see and, potentially, draw things on my face.
With rush hour looming, we say our goodbyes, and I arrive home just before 5 p.m., at which point the caffeine crash hits and, wary of doing anything important for fear of certain disaster (yet somehow able to type out a few coherent notes that will later require intense editing), I go take a nap. Ninety minutes later, my bass guitar teacher Ryan Furstenberg claims that I’m making progress on Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me” at three-quarter speed, though he is getting paid and wants me to return in two weeks, so who the hell knows? What I am certain of is that I’m fading by the end of our lesson, yet back home I somehow get through a screener of the aggressively mediocre new Channing Tatum movie, Dog, then turn in my Night Owl card, do the unheard of and fall asleep before midnight.
Reflecting on my exhaustion the following morning, I wonder, “Are we built for constant face-to-face interactions anymore?” A day of phone interviews and meetings is one thing, but the presence required to physically share a space — albeit in a series of appealing java joints — with a string of people is something else entirely. Maybe John Boyle is right: We are a generation of wimps. Time will tell. But for that one brief window, I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger … a Man on the Move, and just caffeinated enough to be totally confident.