Cafe Society

Free French Underground

I’ve quit a lot of things in my life. Sometimes it seems as though my entire adult life has been just one long bout of giving things up. Often, I feel like I can split my life cleanly down the middle: on one side of the division, the years I spent acquiring bad habits, on the other, the years I’ve spent trying to kick them.

In college (my first attempt), I developed a taste for all manner of accelerants with a minor in depressants. I tried, with varying levels of success, to give them up for years, then quit entirely on January 1, 1999. From the date, I know that it looks like a New Year’s resolution kind of thing, but trust me: It wasn’t. January 1 just happened to be when I woke up after a three-day, interstate bender that began in Buffalo and ended on the floor of a friend’s kitchen in Santa Fe, New Mexico, not entirely sure what had happened or how I’d ended up there.

I’d actually been pretty sure that I’d accidentally killed myself at the point where I lost consciousness and, upon waking, was so pleased to find out that I hadn’t that I immediately decided I wasn’t going to do drugs anymore -- mostly because I didn’t have any left and was a thousand miles away from the nearest person I thought might have some.

I’ve given up weed (informally, and mostly because of lack of dependable supply), given up girls (save the one I’m married to), given up drunkenness (though not drinking) except for every now and then when it simply can’t be helped. And most recently, I was forced to give up drinking coffee.

I really had no choice in the matter. It was making me sick as hell. It’d gotten to the point where, no matter what I ate, by six or so in the evening, I was either laid up on the couch feeling like hungry wolverines were trying to chew their way out of my belly or curled up in the bathroom after losing whatever lunch I’d eaten.

Bear in mind here that I’m not talking about a couple of cups a day. Like a reformed alcoholic, I take a certain amount of grim pride in my former consumption and can say without exaggeration that, since about age fourteen, I’d more or less lived on a steady supply of coffee from the minute I woke up until the minute I went to sleep. On an average day, I would put away three or four pots of coffee before the sun went down, then dump some liquor down my neck and chase that with another pot of coffee at the diner after last-call before going home and going to bed. And none of this was Starbucks. None of it was the good stuff. No, this was all office coffee, gas-station coffee, diner coffee or (at home) imported bags of Dunkin’ Donuts house blend -- the greatest coffee in the world. For me, going without coffee would be like a normal person living without blood.

Except that, out of necessity, I’ve now done it for three or four months. And as anyone who’s done any time in a recovery program will no doubt be familiar with, I’ve managed it by way of substitution: exchanging one damaging addiction for another, slightly less damaging one. In my case, the trade-off has been a nice, hot cup of joe for a tepid, sour cup of dirty water called tea. Green tea, in my case. And actually, more like ten or twelve tepid, sour cups of green tea a day.

Don’t get me wrong: I really don’t hate the stuff that much. In sushi restaurants and certain other Asian establishments, I’d become accustomed to having green tea. At home, I have a stockpile of really good, high-quality imported bancha that I rather enjoy. But none of it is like coffee at all. None of it even comes close to being so satisfying, so stimulating, so friggin’ delicious…

But I digress. Along with giving up the java, I also had to give up some other things that I enjoyed -- like sobering up at Tom’s Diner (because showing up there with my own tea bags in my satchel just seemed inconceivably twee) or ducking out of the office for a couple of hours in the afternoon to go sit at the Breakfast King, drinking coffee and pretending to work. Unwilling to simply suck it up and remain behind my desk, instead I started going to Aviano Coffee at 955 Lincoln Street where I could, at the very least, smell the fresh-ground espresso and double lattes going out the door while sitting at my table drinking tea.

The problem with Aviano? The tea is awful -- just completely and irredeemably abysmal. I forget which company it is that supplies them, but they have all the teas sitting there in sealed bottles on the counter: all organic, all loose, all coming in ridiculously hippie-ish flavors, mixing proper tea leaves with all manner of herbs and flowers and what-not. I can’t even get a cup of straight green tea there, but have to suffer with either raspberry green tea (which turns a noxious shade of bright magenta in the cup and makes my pee pink) or green tea with jasmine that just tastes like a mug full of dirt and cheap perfume.

And yet, I keep going back for one reason: Free French lessons.

Well, not free exactly. Someone’s paying for them. It’s just not me.

See, whenever I go, there’s always this gorgeous, dark-haired young woman sitting at a table, patiently teaching a succession of students the ins and outs of one of the most tricky languages in the world. And I, always having been a sucker for a pretty girl who speaks French, can usually be found sitting behind her, reading the paper, sipping my godawful tea, and listening to her correct the pronunciation and conjugation of people actually willing to pay money to better themselves by learning a foreign language.

Because I’m at the mercy of her and her student’s schedules, I never know what I’m going to be learning but, over the past few weeks, I have begun to acquire a sort of liberal arts smattering of knowledge. One day, I’m learning phrasebook basics (Où est la station la plus de métro proche?) on the back of a businesswoman headed to Paris for work; the next day I’m getting a lesson in ordering in a French restaurant (the one thing, other than cursing, that my own limited command of the language allows me to do); the next, I’m listening to a man practice his pronunciation of basic verbs and nouns --doing the kindergarten lessons of some precocious French toddler with an accent as gentle as a bag full of hammers.

Through all of this, though, my charming, unknowing French teacher is patient, charming, encouraging. I have learned how to ask Claude the time of day (Claude, quelle heure est-il?), inquire as to the location of the bathroom (où est la salle de bains?) and say, “Please, do you speak English? My French is terrible” (s'il vous plaît, parlez-vous l'anglais? Mon français est terrible) -- probably the one phrase that will serve me better than any other should I ever find myself wandering les arrondisments, looking for Claude and a bathroom.

And while giving up coffee for a piecemeal language course is not exactly my idea of a fair trade (what’s the point of learning French if I can’t sit in a Parisian café, sipping café au lait and making fun of the American tourists?), it’s better than nothing. It’s making me a better, smarter, more rounded person, one cup of terrible tea at a time. – Jason Sheehan

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun