I had a cup of coffee for the first time in 25 years, and it didn’t kill me.

Not only that — it tasted so good, I had a few more. It was one a.m. on a Friday, and I had joined another journalist filling in on overnight talk radio, as his sidekick. We would be on-air until 5 a.m. and that meant not just staying awake, but having a clear enough head to be vaguely clever.

That was before last week’s
column came up.

Although researchers have reported coffee might help prevent Parkinson’s disease, they can’t seem to agree; in this game called life, is caffeine a hero, or a goat?

Scientific “studies” — let’s thank “Time” magazine for the factoids — have shown too much coffee may cause:

  • Phobias, panic attacks, 1986

  • Heart attacks, stress, osteoporosis, 1990
  • Underweight babies, hypertension (high blood pressure), 1991
  • Higher cholesterol, 1992
  • Miscarriages, 1993
  • Intensified stress, 1994
  • Delayed conception, 1995

And yet, scientists say coffee may also help prevent:

  • Parkinson’s disease, 2000
  • Heart disease, gallstone, 1999
  • Fatal car accidents, suicide, 1996
  • Mental sluggishness, heart disease (instant coffee only), 1992
  • Colo-rectal cancer, impotence, 1980
  • Asthma, 1988

Like almost anyone, I drank loads of coffee in college. Maybe nine cups a day. I loved pulling all-nighters. I loved “coffee dates.” I loved the tropical beverage’s urgent tang against my tongue, and the kick it gave to my sluggish metabolism. I loved the way it cleared my head and let me think “deep thoughts” about Being and Nothingness, because wasn’t that the essence of what it was like as an undergraduate? I liked my coffee dark, thick, bitter, which became a metaphor for any number of things, including life.

The first time my mother had given me coffee as a little girl, it was drowning in milk, but instantly, despite the extreme dilution, I felt nearly grown-up. Drinking coffee was a rite de passage, a ritual, and rituals give life its rich texture.

Then came another ritual, my freshman college physical, and suddenly there was a doctor waving his stethoscope in my face and looking concerned. “You must stop drinking coffee immediately. You have tachycardia, fast and rapid heart beat.” That’s how he said it, redundantly, as if to hammer his point home.

How annoying.

Immediately, I switched to tea, the other white meat, and saw that just as the world was divided into good and evil, it was also divided into Coffee Drinkers and Tea Sippers and that inadvertently I had fallen into the wimpier camp.

Since I never was a smoker, forever was I deprived of the post-coital cigarette, which lingered into the inevitable romantically ruminative cuppa coffee.

And then feminist dogma ruined coffee even more for me, associating it in the workplace with a kind of gender subjugation — if a woman made coffee for her boss she would surely never escape the ghetto-grind.

Worse still, in late 20th century America, caffeine became associated with cajones. If a man said he was decaffeinated, you suspected him of having, um, at least a vasectomy, perhaps even being a castrato.

Tea-drinkers became overly familiar to me, those uncommitted shillyshallyers, the way they slid so promiscuously from English breakfast to jasmine to Constant Comment, their loyalty negotiable.

While I once believed I had romantic feelings for an emotionally minimalistic Zen psychoanalyst who squatted cross-legged on a tatame mat to drink his green tea and who had installed, on the wall above the headboard of his bed, a photo-blowup of a burning monk, I came to understand I might be better served, relationship-wise, if the man in my life was a coffee-drinker, which of course translated into a coffee-maniac, for there is no such thing as one cup of coffee.

Your first sip begets another, increasing exponentially, in some textbook example of the chaos theory. Coffee in the morning will doubtlessly preceded a disastrous evening spent restlessly tossing and turning later on in the arms not of Morpheus but the haggish Insomnia Sisters.

While I hesitate to say here’s an unjaded view of the evils of coffee from an unregenerate hippie masquerading as a corporate cowboy (let’s call “Derbyshire” of Detroit), yes, that’s what it is:

    Did I tell you I had a double espresso, highly watered down with a carload of cream about a month ago? Son of a gun messed me up for at least three or four days. I mean, I was ill, sick, despairing, really strung out. Totally mucked me up. Just caffeine. Yet, I could smoke an ounce of pot and do anything. One morning millions of years ago, I smoked a load of pot with a friend of mine, an extreme amount, really. Then, he got in his car, drove to a nearby tennis club where he proceeded to win the annual club tournament, beating a former Big Ten champion in the men’s finals. Oh well. Lock ’em up.

And as far as the meat and the coffee and the cigarettes, well, they go together — so much so that didn’t I see Michio Kushi the Macrobiotic King still smoke cigarettes and drink coffee? Certainly, but that’s no excuse, is it?

Is coffee the work of the devil? No wonder in a campy “Austin Powers” flick, the capital of the so-called Evil Empire was portrayed as Starbucks headquarters.

The entire world seems coffee-mad. And so, sitting solo in, where else, a caf?, sipping my dark, rich, blackberry-sage tea, I distract myself with coffee’s hagiography: Its putative discovery when an Ethiopian goat-herd named Raladi noticed his charges became energized eating berries from a certain shrub. During the coffeehouse craze in 1600s Europe, cafes were called “Penny Universities” — PU for short, I note irreverently. How the Boston Tea Party made coffee drinking de rigueur, a patriotic pastime overnight. Then in the 1960s, coffeehouses again became hip gathering places for artists, musicians, poets, writers. Even my own ex-husband the musician, in his first flush of ’60s ardor, or coffee-nerve, dreamed of running one.

Then is coffee a drug? Here’s what alternative medicine guru Andrew Weil MD has to say about that: “Caffeine can make you jumpy, anxious, and fearful. It can interfere with relaxation, rest, and sleep. What’s more, it’s an
addictive drug.”

“Few people realize caffeine is a stimulant that can activate the sympathetic nervous system and trigger the ‘fight or flight’ reactions which prepare the body to respond to emergencies.” And it’s not so simple to ‘kick,’ he points out, because “if you don’t drink coffee for 24 to 36 hours, you become “lethargic, irritable, and develop a throbbing headache.”


And yet, the good doctor contends, when it comes to shaking a caffeine addiction, that’s a “much easier habit to break than alcohol and tobacco addictions.” His recommendation: Eventually, like the old commercial, take Tea and see. But, in the meantime, plan ahead. Take three days. “Arrange to keep yourself distracted and comfortable, and resign yourself to being without energy — and possibly having a headache.”

If y’all don’t mind, I think I’ll brew myself another pot of lapsang souchong instead.

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