Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Missing Drug

I’m an addict. I admit it. My first thought when I wake up is caffeine and I want it right away, in its purest form—freshly ground beans, roasted as dark as possible and bathed lavishly in boiling water. Tea is not an acceptable substitute, instant coffee is pure perversion, and I refuse to discuss the milky, sweetened swill that Japan exports in tiny cans, but these miseries were all I could find when I went downstairs on my first Chungking morning.

“Coffee? Later,” promised the gentlemen who presided over food stalls, but” later” is not in my vocabulary when it comes to coffee. No wonder the halls are dark and empty here in the morning, I grumbled to myself, the hundreds of people who mill around on the ground floor at night are all out frantically looking for some decent form of caffeine. I looked wistfully at the guys in the currency exchange booths who were already counting their money with enviable energy, but when I considered their ethnic backgrounds, I realized their early morning efficiency was probably attributable to chai. I shivered, and hoped that this wasn’t a sign of withdrawal already kicking in.

I detest Starbucks but when I walked outside and saw a green sign emblazoned with the little mermaid in a window of the large shopping mall across the street, my spirits improved beyond all measure. I raced with indecent speed up a long escalator and burst into a space that was filled with cushy armchairs and bordered with a wall of windows overlooking Nathan Road. My double-short latte was brought to my table as I read the shop’s copy of that morning’s International Herald Tribune, and I was a very happy woman indeed.

I tried not to gulp my coffee as I looked down on my new neighborhood and the decaying elegance of the gilt and marble sign over the door of Chungking Mansions. A clothesline full of laundered garments stretched from what was now my home toward the middle-class comfort of the neighboring Holiday Inn, and on every one of Chungking Mansion’s sixteen floors clothes hung from windows. They provided a cozy touch of color to the building’s leprous-looking cement façade and a vague brightness to the gloomy clouds that hung over it all.

A man pushing a cart across Nathan Road transported a well-wrapped double-sized mattress past some sari-clad Indian matrons who resembled like large and regal butterflies. A slow drip of rain began to add an impressionistic watery veil to my view and I realized I was going to need at least two more double-short lattes, perhaps with a couple of espresso chasers.

This Starbucks became my morning living room. I began to cherish it on my second trip, when I heard a British woman in front of me announce jubilantly to her small son, “Look! Bike- on- toast!” This soon was superseded a few days later when a grim-faced woman stood nearby, surrounded by several male dwarfs, whose height did not bring them to the view of the guy behind the counter and forced them to relay their orders to their female friend. “Three very short Americanos,” she told the barista and I longed for the skill to turn her into a New Yorker cartoon.

It was difficult for me to admit to myself that I enjoyed this place. Like anyone who has ever lived in Seattle, I loathed Starbucks—not the original one-of-a-kind store that was in the Pike Place Market for years, staffed by wild eccentrics who actually knew that the drink they made was not “expresso”— but the franchised McDonald’s-counterpart that had spread like eczema all over the world.

I either made my own coffee or bought it from neighborhood coffee spots where the baristas were smart and outgoing and eventually became my friends. The robotic staff who took my order in bastardized Italian at the Little Mermaid outlets simply couldn’t compete with the quirky edginess of an independent coffee stand, and none of the Starbucks I found as I traveled did anything to change my mind. Starbucks existed simply to provide clean restrooms in cities where these were hard to find and that was the only reason I ever went into one—until I found the one in Kowloon which I went to, willing and eager, every morning of my month-long visit.

The people who worked there were young and friendly and charming. We soon knew each other’s names and they often had my order ready before I made it to the front of their line. “You’re late today,” they would chide me when I slept in, and I’d tell them, “Dock my paycheck this week.” Without their warmth and genuine kindness, and very good coffee, I would have soon been strapped into a straightjacket and tossed into the nearest detox center.

During one of my first solitary dinners at Chungking Mansions, a Nepali man sat with me at my table as he waited for his Indian take-out. A resident of the place, he knew Chungking Mansions well, he assured me. “Everybody here does business,” he said, “and some people do big business—hashish, heroin.”

Just my luck, I thought sadly, as he chatted on, here I am in one of the world’s most notorious drug emporiums that makes every junky who enters it supremely happy, unless of course they happen to be jonesing for a good cup of coffee.

But I’m probably the only addict in the entire neighborhood who received a card, a gift and my name written on my breakfast plate in chocolate syrup when I made my last drug run before I left Chungking Mansions. And I know I’ve got to be the only one who keeps up a flourishing email friendship with the people who helped me maintain my habit while I was there.

1 comment:

Kim said...

I love how Starbucks takes on a whole new meaning in a whole new context. That's the thing I enjoy most about travel. The unexpected. And of course I'm SO glad you found your coffee!