Walking to Coffee in America


Coffee and walking. Two things that are incredibly difficult in America. At least, they’re incredibly difficult in the suburban environs of the Pacific Northwest.

At home in Belgrade, it takes me four minutes to walk to my favorite coffee shop. It’s snug and cozy in bad weather, filled with people chatting, while in the summer it’s difficult to find a seat on the spacious patio. But if I were in dire need of caffeine, there are at least two other cafes within a two-minute walk. This is not just a big-city thing; you’re going to find cafes on nearly every street in any town.

It really shouldn’t be so difficult to find coffee here. After all, didn’t Starbucks invent the beverage, bestowing it on the streets of Seattle in the 1980s? Most residents likely don’t think it’s that hard to get a cup of coffee. They hop in the car and drive for five minutes before pulling up to a window and having a hot beverage handed to them.

And therein lies the problem. The suburbs of America were never designed for walking. It took me 17 minutes to reach a business today. Had I selected another street on which to head north, it would’ve taken me 10. To then reach the coffee shop, I would pass a grocery, a pharmacy, a car dealership and a mechanic. Each sprawl out across a vast space, their bulk compounded by the massive parking lots servicing their building.

The neighborhoods are similar, both to the commercial buildings and to one another. The older houses are overshadowed by the massive single-family dwellings crowding in on every side. There’s not even a corner store to break up the monotony. When cars pass, they look at me curiously. I’m not surprised; after all, I’m a white woman lacking expensive running shoes and unadorned with an adorable dog. I have no reason to be on foot. I’ve encountered this same look in Santa Clara, a suburb of Eugene, in Clackamas, a suburb of Portland, and here in Kirkland, a suburb of Seattle. The suspicion is such that I imagine if I weren’t white and female, a call just might be placed to the police.

Finally inside the coffee shop, the suspicion dwindles, although a lack of pricey yoga pants still makes me stand out. This is my native land, so the options don’t confuse me (at least, not totally), but I imagine they might overwhelm a newcomer. A shot of espresso is rare, a cappuccino often not ordered. The smallest standard size is a 12 ounce tall. Additions of vanilla and caramel are normal. The holiday menu features chestnut praline lattes and peppermint mochas.

This is normal, here. A jolt or a sugar rush are the goal. While some linger in the coffee shop, it’s mostly to work or study, not to catch up with a friend. The two-hour conversation over a tiny espresso is inconceivable. And while there are a few tables outside, the prominent no-smoking signs make it clear who belongs to the shunned underclass.

Normal there, normal in the Balkans, is coffee as a ritual. Coffee is an event. It is the time and the space in which to connect to friends, to family, to catch up on news and say hi to the neighbors. Table-hopping is not uncommon. That’s not to say a coffee is never taken to go, or a smart phone is never checked, but for the most part, the focus is on the connection, not the caffeine hit.

In suburban America, there is no time to waste. The enormous coffee fills the role of gasoline, fueling the driver as she pilots from school to her child’s soccer practice to the grocery store nearest — yet still far — from her house. Time spent walking, time not officially lodged under “Work Out”, is time frittered away. A coffee may be enjoyed with a friend, but only if it is wedged between other appointments on your calendar.

The aim is accomplishment, not enjoyment. Anything else is viewed with suspicion. No wonder it’s so difficult to walk to a coffee shop in America.