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My first sip of coffee came with a glare from my mother. We were visiting one of my father’s friends in Dubai; we lived in the United Arab Emirates at the time. At the end of the evening, the hostess asked who’d be drinking coffee. My sister and I were probably eight years old, and our beverage choices were limited to chocolate milk on weekends and the odd glass of Pepsi. But we insisted. We really wanted coffee.
Our hostess was too polite to ignore our pleas, despite my mother’s protests that we’d waste it. She brought it around in large cups filled to the brim. I could barely hold mine. It was too hot; the coffee tasted odd. I gave up after a few sips. My mother declared to our host—and with a pointed look at me—that she’d told us so. My parents and their friends sipped and talked. From that moment, coffee was cemented in my head as a forbidden, grown-up object.
It’s not that caffeine was off-limits: Coffee was just new and mysterious. My parents usually drank tea. My mother served what she called “separate” tea to guests: brewed in a glass teapot with a mirrored tea cozy, and a jug of condensed milk. For themselves, they made a brewed mix. I’d dunked and lost many a biscuit in tea. But coffee was special; something they drank only with other adults.
We moved to Karachi, Pakistan when I was ten, and there was no coffee shop culture there when I was growing up. Traditional coffee houses and cafes—where artists and students had once gathered for drinks and long-winding talks—had fallen on hard times as public intellectualism and activism faded and old districts were commercialized and turned into heaving markets. The only coffee shops that existed were in the atria of five-star hotels. In the winter, roadside shacks would rig up ‘espresso machines’ and serve milky, hot coffee.
But even what little there was for coffee in my city, I wasn’t aware of then: My parents mostly eschewed eating out. It was an unnecessary expense—one that definitely did not fit into our middle-class lives—and they were very firmly in the “we can make this better” at home camp. The irritating bit was that this was true. They could make everything better. My father’s specialty was meatloaf topped with an egg glaze, which he’d exclude when he’d share the recipe, leading to dismayed reactions from people wondering why their versions weren’t as shiny and lustrous. They’d make garlic bread, too; it would emerge light and crisp from the oven, cheaper and better than the version we could get out. And they knew how to make coffee, something they’d probably picked up a taste for when they lived abroad.
One night, at a relative’s house in Karachi, my mother whipped up a version of "churned coffee"—the way my dad used to make it—up in a mug at her niece’s request. As we watched, she mixed instant coffee with a bit of water and sugar, whisking it to the point where I imagined her arm went numb and the mixture turned a light brown. Then she added hot milk and water. It made a frothy, steaming cup of coffee—the foam speckled with the coffee, the sugar blended in to undercut the bitterness. She even let my sister and I have some.
As I grew older, became even more drawn to coffee as part of grown-up, glamorous adulthood. Every single TV show featured coffee prominently: It was what everyone had on Friends, all the time, in mismatched mugs, what Ally McBeal was holding a cup of as sexist remarks flew past her in the office, what Niles and Frasier drank as they tried to one-up each other.
I wanted to drink coffee too; but what I really wanted was the bonhomie of cafés. More than the drink itself, it was the ideal I craved: the sitcom-style camaraderie, the idea that there’d be an eccentric Günter behind the counter. Drinking coffee in a café was being transplanted to a wondrous, independent world, where I could be different: witty and happy and fuelled by caffeine. I imagined being alone in a coffee shop, writing away, with a big cup of coffee in front of me. I wanted the life that came with being a coffee drinker.
And then Dunkin’ Donuts opened in Karachi. On my first visit, I walked smack into the clear glass doors. I marveled at their menu of accompanying coffee: regular, cappuccino, ‘Alaska’ coffee, which was a heavy coffee shake with whipped cream. Dunkin’ was my first proper coffee shop: not an overpriced restaurant or a street stall.
Over the next few years, Dunkin’ Donuts became my hangout. I tried everything on the menu, from the sandwiches to pints of ice-cream. I ate enough Boston Creams to develop a lifelong aversion to custard-filled donuts. The bright lights, the pink and orange color scheme—everything about the place, to me, said come, sit down, and relax. There was nothing pretentious about the space; no sense of judgment.. Dunkin’ was where I could finally live out my fantasy of life as an adult. This was what grown-ups did: they went to coffee shops and read books and drank coffee and talked about their lives.
My friends and I went to Dunkin’ after classes and on weekends; we’d order trays of coffee and bagels and donuts. I’d write blog posts about our lives, our banter and in-jokes. By the time I was in my first year of university, I started studying at Dunkin: a cup of coffee next to an open sociology textbook, diligently taking notes; my life finally matching up to the ideal. Dunkin’ became my refuge on exam and quiz days, when I was sure I’d flunked. I’d hail a rickshaw from the main road near school and go to Dunkin’. Inside, I’d sit at my favorite booth and quickly scarf down my coffee, while my friends would text asking where I’d run off to. Sometimes I’d sit there alone, trying to come to terms with the melancholy of my teenage years.
When specialized coffee shops started opening up in Karachi, my forays into Dunkin’ dwindled. The new shops had far better coffee and chic décor. Over the years, Dunkin’ became a stop-gap venue for when I needed to kill time between assignments or interviews and wanted a cheap cup of coffee. I’d occasionally buy a doughnut or take one home. Sometimes I’d still walk by and stare through the glass doors, looking at the people comfortably ensconced inside.
Last year, I walked into a Dunkin’ after months. I had to write a story between a field assignment and an interview appointment, and it was the only place in that neighborhood that I could work out of. The icing on the doughnuts was still as crumbly; the coffee—to my somewhat more refined palate—not as great. There wasn’t even WiFi. But as I edited a draft and wrote and rewrote and ordered more coffee, I couldn’t remember why I’d given up on Dunkin’. But mostly, I wondered why this ideal—the stress, the frenetic gulping down of a black brew—had ever looked so unattainable, and so beautiful.