It was a simpler time, perhaps.

You’d pump your gas, soaking up various fumes, sure in the knowledge that any foodstuffs offered by the gas station could not possibly be found in your finer dining establishments. Snickers, Doritos, Little Debbie Snack Cakes: this was the expected bill of fare–or maybe warmed-up corn dogs if the owner fancied himself a master of haute cuisine. Reeking of gasoline, hands smeared from checking the oil, you could walk inside, plunk down your crumpled bills, and smugly avoid the one item that you knew was actually made on the premises: the coffee.

Sludge. Paint thinner. Battery acid. These were words too polite to describe the black death offered by your friendly service station attendant. Only in times of direst emergency would you deign to ingest one cup of the seared, lord-knows-how-old brew. In fact, it’s safe to say that gas station coffee was a universal constant in our lives, an all-American laughing matter as consistently mockable as Congress itself.

But all that’s changed now.

The strange new devices arose practically overnight, as if in a strategically planned invasion. One day, all you’d see were the usual racks of novelty candies and plastic-wrapped men’s magazines. Then, sprouting mushroom-like, wedged in between the Icee machines and cola fountains, they suddenly appeared: cappuccino machines.

They’re everywhere now. Apparently, the shrouded overlords of commerce have divined a new need in Americans–an appetite for quick, efficient cappuccino.

But this wasn't the case until very recently. This arcane coffee drink was once the stuff of mystery, to be found only in chichi Italian restaurants, formulated by cagey old waiters wrestling with giant copper kettles that hissed like contemptuous dragons. Then, with the advent of widespread coffee houses, the drink reached new popularity among the hipster masses–but was still concocted in cryptic incantations by studious-looking art students in black apparel. Lately, a few brave souls have ventured into making their own cappuccino at home, purchasing expensive German-made contraptions … that look really, really good on the kitchen counter while collecting dust.

Now, however, cappuccino has finally become a drink of the people. Any Joe with a dollar in his greasy pocket can walk proudly into a gas station, wipe his hands on his jeans, and confidently say, "I desire a hazelnut cappuccino, mon ami." And then, with a push of a single button, the drink will be concocted before his very eyes within a matter of seconds. Instant cappuccino gratification.

Rather than bemoan the loss of traditional gas station coffee–which surely can still be found–I decided to join this new cappuccino trend. Why fight it? For these machines are not merely in gas stations, they're also appearing in convenience marts, department stores, diners. You cannot avoid them.

In fact, it's my hope that these machines will engender a new American cappuccino culture, not unlike that to be found in the cafes of Paris or in crowded Italian squares. Perhaps right this very instant, huddled over cans of WD-40 and STP Gas Treatment, men and women are warming their hands with steaming cappuccinos as they discuss the vicissitudes of art, politics, and nature. These squat little machines could very well be fomenting a new wave of cultural discourse.

I had to be a part of it! Therefore, I decided to take a tour of instant cappuccino cafes–the gas stations, diners and department stores–on a quest to find the new American coffee culture. Naturally, I would have to dress the part; I couldn't risk not blending in. Thankfully, I still had my black turtleneck from when I used to go to those quaint "poetry slams" back in the early ’90s. And I managed to find a liquidation sale on berets at the nearby Big Lots. Thus equipped (and clutching a copy of The Dharma Bums) I boldly headed out to sample our new cafe culture.


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