How coffee fuels creativity
A story about the peculiar origins of inspiration
In his unpublished memoir, Dicking Around, the author and hardcore drug addict Philip K. Dick credited his literary output, in part, to benzodiazepine, more commonly known by its street name, benzos.
“The best fiction comes from a chemical reaction inside the synapses of a haywire mind,” Dick wrote. “If I say I am a benzos man, you will agree. Indeed, benzos are my source for furious inspiration, bordering on narcotic incapacitation. Once, I was so whacked out on benzos that I truly believed microscopic insects were swarming all around me, transmitting my precise location to an Orange County sheriff deputy, who at any moment, might haul my prolix ass to a local 7/11, hook up the Slurpee machine to my nose, and freeze my brain with a cherry and Piña colada concoction, preserving my dome so that it could later be presented, as a gift, to the charismatic mutant host of a popular Martian game show.”
Naturally, when I read that passage I was concerned, not just for Dick’s sanity, but also my own literary prospects. Thankfully, in a later passage, Dick offered a workaround for writers who are unwilling to sacrifice their sanity for a bestseller.
“If you’re unable to score decent drugs,” Dick wrote, “try a cup of jitter juice, or as it’s known on the street, coffee. Your prose won’t be nearly as vivid, and your themes will tilt toward sophistry, but on the upside, coffee won’t ruin your life.”
Unfortunately, the options for scoring jitter juice in my neighborhood aren’t ideal. Our corner of Los Angeles County is a coffee desert, where only the biggest corporate jitter juice dispensaries thrive.
The most common local option is Starbucks. There are multiple Starbucks locations within walking distance of our house. Starbucks stores, like Gremlins, multiply when you add water. But I find the jitter juice at Starbucks to be as bitter as their labor practices.
In a perfect world, I’d frequent only indie coffee houses run by fascinating, well-compensated baristas, serving only organic, fair trade coffee that’s perfectly calibrated to send my mind wandering and my fingers racing across the keyboard. Sadly, this isn’t a perfect world. These days, I usually make my own jitter juice at home.
The other day, a new coffeehouse opened in our area. The newcomer wasn’t a member of the Big Three Coffee Cartel, so I figured I’d them give them a try.
“What can I get you?” the barista asked.
“What’s your alternative milk situation?”
“We’ve got ‘em all.”
“Even hemp? A lot of places say they have them all, but then when you ask for hemp, they look at you funny.”
The barista gave me a funny look.
“No hemp, sorry.”
“Macadamia nut milk?”
“OK, let’s try an easy one. What about coconut? Do you have any coconut milk?”
The barista looked over his shoulder and glanced at the menu. There weren’t any alternative milks listed.
“I’m new. Actually, the store is brand new, so…”
“No problem,” I said. “Still working out the kinks, right?”
“Wanna just check the fridge and let me know what milks you do have?”
The barista smiled, checked the fridge.
“Looks like we have almond and oat.”
“Perfect. I’ll take an oat milk latte.”
“Oat milk latte for Michael,” the barista said.
I stepped up to the counter to pick up my oat milk latte. But before the barista handed me my latte, he gave me a warning.
“There’s a tiny a hole in the cup.”
“A tiny hole?”
The barista removed his hand from the bottom of the cup. A drop of coffee dripped down onto the counter. Then another drop of coffee dripped onto the counter. Then another, and another.
“Um… is it possible to get another cup?” I asked.
The barista glanced at a stack of cups nearby.
“I can get you another cup. But the thing is, all of our cups have holes in them.”
“All of your cups have holes in them?”
The barista shrugged as if it was perfectly normal for a coffee house to serve coffee in leaky cups. I returned the barista’s look with my own look, one I hoped would communicate that although I was a jitter juice junkie, I had standards, damn it.
“Yeah, the owner was pissed, but our distributor hasn’t brought the replacement cups yet, probably because the owner tore the guy a new one on the phone. You should’ve heard him. It was intense.”
“When was that, the intense call with the distributor?”
“A few days ago.”
“Yeah, I don’t think the new cups are coming anytime soon,” I said.
“They said it was the supply chain.”
“Do you believe that?”
“So… you’ve just been serving coffee in leaky cups these past few days?”
“Yeah. Well, no. See, most people don’t want it when they find out about the cups.”
“You don’t say.”
“I’m guessing you don’t want the coffee either, do you?”
“I’m gonna pass.”
“I’ll give you a refund,” the barista said.
The barista poured the oat milk latte down the drain, threw out the leaky coffee cup, then went to the register to get my refund.
“Hey, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but is this a good job for you, or just a job?”
“Just a job, man.”
“How’s the pay?”
The barista handed me back the cash I had used to pay for the latte in the leaky cup.
“Keep it,” I said.
“I don’t understand. You’re tipping me, but you don’t want the coffee?”
“Actually, I want the coffee. It’s the leaky cup I don’t want. And it’s not a tip.”
“It’s not? I don’t get it.”
“Honestly, I just don’t think this place is gonna make it, not with these leaky cups and a liberal refund policy. Also, between you and me, the owner seems like a moron. Picking a fight with your distributor is a classic blunder, right up there with fighting a land war in Asia and going in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.”
The barista shrugged, ignoring what I thought was a really solid reference to The Princess Bride.
“My guess is you won’t get much in the way of severance when this place goes belly up,” I said. “Take the cash. I think you’re gonna need it.”
“Thanks! But I just feel bad. You didn’t get your coffee.”
“That’s OK. I got what I needed.”
And that was true. I may not have gotten any jitter juice here, but I did get a shot of inspiration, even if it came in a leaky cup.
TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK!
One of the joys of writing Situation Normal is hearing from readers after every story! If you have something nice to say, please feel free to drop a comment 👇
Or, if you’re the type of person who needs a prompt, consider answering the following questions:
How do you take your coffee?
What’s your favorite Philip K. Dick novel?
What’s something a barista said that you’ll never forget?
Should alternative milks be called milk, or is the alternative milk movement just a marketing scheme that’s gone too far?
And if you don’t have something nice to say, please direct your criticism to the IRS. While the IRS isn’t responsible for the content of Situation Normal, those motherfuckers have it coming.
SPREAD THE WORD!
It may surprise you to learn, but the advertising budget at Situation Normal is zero. Situation Normal grows (🤞) because readers like you share it with your friends and enemies. Please forward this email to a friend, post this story on social media, or hit the share button 👇
Lately, I’ve been hooked on the CAFÉ ANNE newsletter by Anne Kadet. Anne is a New York City journalist who has a real gift for finding unusual human interest stories. Anne asked chess hustlers for life advice, interviewed a nun who is famous for giving beauty tips on TikTok, and as inflation ravaged the land, she set out to discover what, if anything, you could still be in NYC for $1. Give CAFÉ ANNE a try 👇