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  • Writer's picturePhilip Bryer

Coffee Mates

San Francisco, a dozen years ago:

There was a coffee shop at pavement level right next door to our hotel. In its favour, it opened at 6 a.m., a good hour before the hotel started serving breakfast and it provided much better coffee than the watery fare on offer in the hotel’s reception. In the debit column: it was staffed by two extremely scary old ladies.

If I want a cup of coffee, then I’ll generally have had one at home, so if I’m out it’s likely that I’ll be intent on getting on the outside a pint of ale. I’m not, as you will see, a seasoned coffee shop customer and the two women in this shop obviously sensed the fact by employing their magic powers as I hovered, jet-lagged and nervous, in the middle of the café and wondered what the hell to order from the menu on the floor-to-ceiling blackboard.

Clearly, no slack was to be cut nor quarter given, however hard I tried with my puppy-dog eyes.


“Yeah?” one replied, as if I’d spilled her beer and she was slipping on the knuckledusters.

“Can I just have two cups of coffee, please?”

The old dears looked steadily at each other, and then they went in for the kill. Anyway, having digested some direct advice, I returned, as directed, to the wall-mounted menu, made a hurried selection and wandered out, knees-a-tremble, with two concoctions which bore no resemblance at all to Maxwell House and appeared to have been topped with expandable filler.

“Where are the pastries?” asked Mrs B, after I had crashed back into the sanctuary of our room and bolted the door.

“I forgot,” I babbled.

“Can you go back and get some?”

“Go back? Go back! Are you out of your mind?”

I tried to explain, but I guess you had to have been there.

Pleading PTSD, I didn’t return to the coffee shop that day but when I went back the next morning the reception was more on the warm side of hostile; like they'd still like to beat me up but wouldn’t use any weapons. Although, by the end of the week, we had formed such a bond that we were almost lacing daisies into each other’s hair.

Peace and love. It’s known for it, San Francisco. However:

“Two lattes, oh, medium please. Sorry? Er, whole milk, please. And an English tea, sorry. Yes, medium as well please. Pardon? Some room for the milk would be lovely, yes, thank you. Ah, can I have an iced donut as well please? Thank you. Ahem ‘to go’. Thank you very much. Cheers for that. Thanks.”

The busy New York coffee shop in the morning rush really isn't the place for an Englishman who is hazy about the rules.

American adventures notwithstanding, they were both far better experiences than I had in a Cardiff Starbucks.

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