First Person: Mourning Caffe Med and the best latte in Berkeley

Caffe Mediterraneum. Photo: Rosemarie Alejandrino

By Rosemarie Alejandrino

I visited UC Berkeley for the first time on Banned Book Week 2010.

College still felt years away, and I had no intention of staying so close to home for school. I remember very little about that first trip: we went up to the Campanile, but I don’t remember the view; we walked around campus, but no quirky student groups or Sproul regulars caught my eye. What I do remember, though, is stepping into the old student store and seeing a shelf of once off-limits books for sale, front and center for the whole world to see.

I ignored all the Cal sweaters and other Berkeley paraphernalia and stayed at the bookshelf for what felt like an endless amount of minutes. When it was time to go, I carefully picked up a thin, pamphlet-sized book and gave it to my uncle at the checkout counter. On the front cover in big, bold capital letters was a single, four-letter word: HOWL.


. . .

There are 27 libraries on UC Berkeley’s campus, with over 11.5 million books between them. As a campus tour guide, I stand on the steps of Doe Memorial Library and tell this to hundreds of anxious applicants and their over-involved parents, and mention that every building in this immediate area either is a library or has a library inside of it. I say that my favorite place to study is North Reading Room, then joke that I love sitting around leather-bound books in hopes that I might absorb all the knowledge within them through sheer proximity.

This joke is a lie. Now, in my defense, it didn’t used to be a lie. When I first stepped on this campus as an undergrad, I was enthralled by North Reading Room. The floor-to-ceiling windows were a nice reminder of the existence of the outside world after during locked-in hours of studying, and the long, wooden tables made me feel like an old-timey scholar who needed lots of space for manual research, or like Belle from Beauty and the Beast.

But after a few weeks, I became fed up with the silence. Yes, it was a library, and yes, the thrill of sneaking in a steaming hot cup of coffee in my jacket pocket without spilling was the adrenaline rush every college freshman dreamed of, but the silence was suffocating. It was so quiet that I couldn’t hear myself think, and the subdued lighting after 6 p.m. was an instant snooze button. I began to crowdsource suggestions for new study spaces, but none of them seemed to fit. Main Stacks was too underground and depressing. I couldn’t even find the SLC. I used to be a regular at Free Speech Movement Cafe, until a squirrel jumped up on my table and tried to scratch my laptop screen. There was too much movement on campus, too much mounting stress from other students, and too much wildlife. So I ventured elsewhere.

I Goldilocks-ed every cafe within a 5-block radius of campus. Cafe Blue Door was my spot for a few weeks, until I stayed there a bit later than usual and found that my path home was dangerously unlit. Cafe Milano was fine, but so close to campus that I could feel the stress of other students permeating it. Caffe Strada was out  —  literally outdoors, but also out of the running because I was done running from squirrels.
Until my second semester, anything past Amoeba Records was uncharted territory. But I was desperate for both a good study space and a good cup of coffee (Berkeley had raised my once Starbucks-golden standards), so I ventured into the great unknown.

Caffe Mediterraneum in 2014. Photo: Ted Friedman

I spent most of my freshman year loitering inside of Moe’s Books, buying out the Music/Pop Culture section little by little until I owned practically every book on the shelf that wasn’t about Bob Dylan or Radiohead. Because my coveted shelf was on the basement floor of the bookstore, I rarely peered outside the 3rd and 4th floor windows overlooking Telegraph Avenue. One day, however, while snooping around the upstairs fiction section, I looked out and saw the end of my search before me, hidden in plain sight, printed across the building in big, green letters: CAFFE MEDITERRANEUM, BIRTHPLACE OF THE ORIGINAL CAFFE LATTE.

. . .

When my parents first got premium cable, the brand-new music-video-only channels played the video for Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” over and over again until Train stopped being relevant for the next eight years.

What I remember most clearly from that song is the bizarre bridge, where the guy singing this seemingly romantic song about a girl from outer space starts listing all the earthly wonders she’ll miss when she goes back into the atmosphere, including “deep-fried chicken,” “the best soy latte that you ever had,” and “me.”

Even as a 6-year-old, something about that line seemed extremely off. If I, too, was a mystical girl from outer space, in what universe would I miss the best soy latte that I’ve ever had more than the man who supposedly was my reason to stay on this planet in the first place.

Well, the joke’s on me, because I grew up to be a hopeless coffee romantic.

My first sip of a Caffe Med soy vanilla latte was like listening to a beautifully complicated but cohesively layered piece of music (not “Drops of Jupiter” at all). Unlike other lattes I’d sampled before (I’m looking at you, FSM), there was no separation between the milk and the espresso. They blended together in my mouth like an effortless symphony that I wanted to spend time breaking down and understanding part by part while still enjoying it as a holistic piece of work.

So I stayed for the next three years.

. . .

Do you believe in destiny?

Well, I didn’t until that Wikipedia entry delivered it to me on a tiny ceramic saucer.

As with any budding love affair, I had to do a little Internet background check on my beloved Caffe Med. We had been going steady for a few weeks now, and I was getting pretty comfortable being myself around it. I chatted with the regulars and the barista knew my order. I was no longer shocked by the sticky, graffiti-coated bathroom, and naturally gravitated towards the prime spots for laptop charging. I was head-over-heels and all-in; I braced myself for whatever seedy underbelly the Internet was about to expose.

The original espresso machine from Caffe Mediterraneum, now on display at Mr. Espresso in Oakland. Photo: Kate Williams

Here’s what I discovered:

During the 1960s, the Med featured a diverse crowd of patrons, and it became a meeting place for Beat Generation artists, intellectuals, Black Power advocates, and activists who were taking part in the Free Speech Movement and post-FSM activism. During this era, the Med also played a role in two important pieces of art. Allen Ginsberg was a regular at the Med and probably wrote Howl on the premises of the Med . Though the owner at the time initially refused access to the film crews, a scene in the 1967 film The Graduate starring Dustin Hoffman was also filmed at a table in the Med, with Telegraph Avenue visible outside the window.

. . .

I only bought Howl because like any moody 15-year-old, I was really into poetry. I had also read in some teen-targeted offshoot of USA Today that a movie production of Howl starring my favorite Broadway actor, Aaron Tveit, and less importantly, James Franco, was to be released in the next year. I knew nothing about the Beats or the 1950s counterculture and its connection to my home in the Bay Area. All I knew was that I loved poems, I loved cute boys, and I loved movies based on books starring cute boys.

To say that Howl changed my life would be overly dramatic. But to be fair, I read it at a time in my teens when everything had the potential to be life-changing.

I read it in a matter of days, and read it again to analyze each line, word, and syllable until it was sucked dry of meaning. I bought Kaddish and did the same to those poems, then became obsessed with the Beats and bought books by Burroughs, Kerouac, and the rest of the gang. I was taken by their boldness to write without borders and fascinated by the blurring of high and low culture. As a teenager, it’s easy to get swept into things that feel dangerous and complicated, and by the end of the year, I was a dustpan full of incoherent poems and uncensored dialogue.

So if to pick up this book on my first visit to my future college campus, have it shape my writing and outlook on art and existence, then be unknowingly drawn to the cafe where it was born  —  if all this isn’t destiny, then I don’t know what is.

. . .

During my earliest days at Caffe Med, I was unfamiliar with the culture of the “regulars” that occupied the space and lived here longer than I had been alive. I had a strange encounter with one of the Med regulars one evening, which ended with him picking up all my belongings and moving them to a different area, away from “his” table. He had sauntered up the stairs in a rice farmer’s hat, dragging tote bags full of books and binders of hand-written papers, dropping them down in front of me before pointing up towards the ceiling.

“The light,” he said sternly, a hint of veiled passive aggression underneath his disconcerting tone. “The light is for people who need it to read. There’s plenty of dark space for people with computers.”

I quickly moved across the second floor to the table that would become my regular spot until the man in the rice farmer’s hat and I stopped having conflicting schedules. And as I scurried across the room in embarrassment, he said to me: “Don’t worry, I’ve been coming here for 30 years. This is how it’s done here  —  it has nothing to do with you.”

. . .

I got the news that Caffe Med was closing on Election Day. There are really no beautiful words to describe how I felt; everything was just going to shit.

The building had been available for lease for over a year, but still I’d hoped, naively, that my daily cup of coffee would be enough to keep them afloat; that hope was dead now. I worried mostly for the Caffe Med regulars  —  the tarot card reader in the corner, or the woman who went table to table everyday trying to sell her self-published book. I worried about where they would go in the month between the original Med’s closure and the new Med’s alleged opening. I worried that the new Med wouldn’t welcome them.

I went to Caffe Med on its penultimate night. It was empty and quiet, two words I would have never thought to describe the place that was constantly full of heart and lively chaos. It took nearly 20 minutes to get my coffee, simply because there was no reason to stay on their toes. No one was going anywhere because everyone was already gone.

The scene at Cafe Mediterraneum’s last day. Photo: Ted Friedman

None of the regulars were at their upstairs long table, and a student business club had taken it over to plan their next round of interviews. Someone broke a glass two tables down from me, and the entire staff seemed to slump over in defeat, as if there was no point in picking up the pieces of something that was already broken.

In the weeks before this, I had struggled to find the motivation to finish my graduate school applications, as I couldn’t imagine leaving Berkeley and all it had given me behind. But my first real home in this city  —  which was literally a block away from my apartment, my very first apartment  —  was closing. I, too, felt like I was being edged out and forced into the real world: a sad, bleak world where the best soy latte you’d ever had didn’t exist.

The next morning, I woke up early to get my final Caffe Med latte before work. As I was paying, a woman was walking around the cash register, incoherently screaming about things that didn’t matter, as her friends tried to push her out the door. The cashier handed me my coffee and apologized, but I told her it was fine. “This is how it’s done here,” I heard in the back of my head. “It has nothing to do with you.”

My day was long, and the coffee was perfect. I submitted my first grad school application but for some reason, I couldn’t celebrate. I was just tired; it had been a long month for everyone, and the closing of Caffe Med just felt like the unsatisfying ending to a terrible chapter.

I walked home that night and Telegraph Avenue had fallen dark, but a light shone through the doors of Caffe Med. From across the street, I could see it was packed with people, many of them the Med regulars I recognized. There was music in the air, muted in the streets but echoing from the inside. I had said my goodbyes that morning with the early commute crowd, but I considered crossing the street and saying one final farewell.

But the laughter coming from inside was the bellowing, deep laughter of a shared inside joke between lifelong friends, who understood each other better than any newcomer could, no matter how hard they tried. It was the kind of laughter I could only experience after sixty years of knowing and loving, and not after four years as a passing fixture in the background of someone or something’s life. It had nothing to do with me.

. . .

Our new student bookstore doesn’t really sell books, and the best soy latte I’ve ever had is out of commission. There are three new poke places opening within a 5-block radius of my apartment, and in six months, I will be packing up that apartment and moving my boxes to god knows where.

Where I end up in the next five or ten or fifty years could become my home, the place that is mine to conquer and rule and hold close. But I doubt I will ever be swept up by a place in the same fortuitous way I was swept up by Berkeley and Howl and Caffe Med and its regulars and its gold-standard latte. Because becoming a local in a city like Berkeley means allowing the city to use you as a part of its history, and not the other way around. I will write about Caffe Med as if it somehow allowed me to slip through the cracks and into its loving arms, then released me into the world along with its final breath. I will not claim it as “my cafe” as much as it claimed me as a temporary regular. And I will always remain a hopeless coffee romantic, stuck in an unrequited love affair with the latte that got away.

This essay was originally posted on The Annex and was reprinted with permission from the author.

Rosemarie Alejandrino is a freelance journalist and writer based in Berkeley. She worked as the Arts & Entertainment Editor for the Daily Californian and is the co-founder of FLASH THRIVE Zine Collective. Her work can also be found in the East Bay Express, Kastor & Pollux and HelloGiggles.