by Summer Block Kumar
From Sunset to Sun Valley, here are eleven of the city’s finest free coffee establishments.
1. Milt and Edie’s Drycleaners, Burbank
Milt and Edie’s, which has been open twenty-four hours a day since 1962, offers far more than just coffee: they have free cookies, free hot dogs and popcorn, free treats for your dog, free flag-cleaning, and on their website, a page of free fashion tips with confident headings like, “How Long Pants Legs Should Be.” The free coffee comes out of an automated machine set beside a plate of Hydrox cookies, both types, and under a bulletin board advertising local businesses, mostly dog walkers and dialect coaches.
2. Sunset Car Wash, West Hollywood
There was nothing I loved more when I was a little girl than going with my father to Sunset Car Wash on Sunset Boulevard, a low-slung Brutalist monument with an interior viewing window through which I’d watch our red Mercury Topaz slowly trundle through suds-covered tentacles. We referred to our car as “The Sharkmobile” because it would instantly overheat if you tried to stop or slow down. Then we’d have to pull over and my father would lift the hood and bang at the radiator with an old espadrille that we kept in the trunk specifically for that purpose. My father would pour himself a free coffee from a Mr. Coffee set into an alcove alongside an uncovered pitcher of cream and an open box of sugar cubes. I always begged for a sugar cube but my mother had forbidden my father to give me one because she’d heard somewhere that fiends would dose unattended sugar cubes with LSD just for kicks.
3. Emergency Room, Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, Burbank
I went to Providence St. Joseph Medical Center Emergency Room after my eight-month-old tumbled face-first off the kitchen counter and landed on his fortunately pliable eight-month-old nose, chipping his front tooth and severing the frenulum that once connected his upper lip to his gums. The free coffee is not located in the main emergency room waiting room with the vending machines and the TVs playing soap operas, nor in the triage area to which you will later be assigned to sit and chat about infant head trauma with a man who looks like Sting, but in a smaller subsequent waiting room in an area called, without apparent irony, Rapid Care. While drinking your coffee you can try to avoid eye contact with a room full of people who look perfectly fine to you and one person who definitely doesn’t, a gardener who sliced through his forearm on the job and is now standing with his arm wrapped in a jacket, his demeanor calm and slightly apologetic, like a man sorry for getting blood all over your perfectly nice waiting room.
Three and a half hours later the cheerful doctor assured me it’s all but impossible to break a baby’s nose (“at this stage it’s all cartilage”) and that most healthy American boys have torn their frenulums by the age of six; she should know, having two young sons of her own. The baby had no signs of brain injury, though she did recommendI check in on him every two hours overnight “to make sure he’s still breathing.”
4. Peekaboo Playland, Eagle Rock
Free coffee and free wireless are the twin stars in the firmament of indoor playgrounds, and Peekaboo Playland offers both. The coffee is served in an airpot, weak, bitter, too cool to scald a unsupervised baby, and accompanied by packets of sugar and cream.
Peekaboo Playland subscribes to the contemporary design philosophy that “everything belongs in a basket.” They have some really nice baskets at Peekaboo Playland. I’ve more than once fantasized about stealing a few. (A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation leads me to believe I’ve spent $272 on attractive toy storage baskets in my life so far, or $91 per child.)
Peekaboo Playland swears they clean all the balls in their ballpit with some sort of ultraviolet ball-cleaning device. It never even occurred to me that ball pits would be festering troughs of human effluvia, but now whenever I look into one I can’t help but think about what those UV lights nightly reveal.
The Peekaboo Playland soundtrack is a perfect expression of the “Songs That Were Cool The Year Your Kid Was Born” playlist — the last songs you remember enjoying before you bid farewell forever to the froth and churn of popular life, like Grizzly Bear, Phoenix, Neon Indian. Rock on forever, 2009.
5. Commerce Casino, Commerce
California state law forbids casinos from giving away free alcohol, so the Commerce Casino gives away free coffee and soda instead. Mountain Dew appears to be the most popular choice with the hundreds of gamers sitting down to play poker, baccarat, blackjack, and Pai Gow on a Saturday night. The casino is sparsely decorated (at least by the standards of a casino) but a pair of giant golden statues in the lobby gesture toward the same vaguely Assyrian theme found in fuller force at the nearby Citadel Outlet Mall as well as the Babylon Gate at Hollywood and Highland. (Several conspiracy sites delve into the connection between Old Hollywood and ancient Babylon. Hint: it involves Freemasons.)
Players at the two-hundred-dollar-and-up tables also get free food. (Options include grilled salmon, prime rib, and for the large number of Asian patrons, bowls of beef brisket noodle soup and braised fish head hot pot.) Beside each player is a small wheeled table piled high with empty coffee cups and plastic soda bottles and mostly untouched meals.
I’ll be honest: I never tried the free coffee. I was intimidated. Commerce Casino is a serious place. There are no slot machines, no floor shows or day spas or cover bands, only two hundred and forty closely packed tables filled with middle-aged men and women, heads down, jaws tense. Overhead, sporting events are broadcast on the largest televisions I have ever seen.
I bought a Starbucks coffee from the kiosk near the entrance and drank it while gazing down at the card room floor.
6. Commerce Truck Stop, Commerce
Commerce Truck Stop is very, very clear about what is and is not free. Coffee is free for anyone filling up on gas. Tea is not free. Soda is not free. Ice is not free. Coffee is not free, either, to anyone not getting gas. If you are getting gas, however, you can choose between two types of Boyd’s Coffee: regular and Hi-Rev. The slogan for Hi-Rev is “HI-CAFFEINE PLUS HI-FLAVOR EQUALS HI-PERFORMANCE.” This is presumably marketed at the thousands of truck drivers that pass through Commerce on their way to the Port of Los Angeles, the country’s busiest container port. Hi-Rev allows you to stay up all night focusing on the highway; it also engenders a ragged, throbbing paranoia. The coffee area provides a wealth of presumably-free condiments, including sugar, honey, two types of sweeteners, five types of cream, and a box of Moon Pies that was presumably misshelved, though you could probably make a case for their inclusion if you crumbled one up into your cup.
7. The Boo Hoo Breakfast, Bret Harte Elementary School, Burbank
To get free coffee at Bret Harte’s annual Boo Hoo Breakfast, you’ll first have to enroll a kindergarten student in Bret Harte, but it’s a small price to pay for access to a generous supply of real Starbucks coffee, as the PTA president repeatedly emphasized. The Boo Hoo Breakfast is an event for parents dropping off their children for their first day of kindergarten. The idea is that after that painful parting, new Bret Harte parents could congregate in the school’s library to drink Starbucks coffee and eat Porto’s pastries while bemoaning together the remorseless march of time. (“The Boo Hoo/Woo Hoo Breakfast,” the principal called it cheekily, reminding us that time can bound as well as march.)
The Starbucks part is important because the PTA is seeking to distance itself from the ancient coffee pot in the PTA-designated campus bungalow, a pot manufactured so many coffee fads ago that hardly anyone remembers how to use it anymore. It is always important to a PTA to seem youthful and relevant, which is why when I was in sixth grade in 1989 my best friend’s mother asked us to deliver the annual recap in the form of a rap.
The Starbucks coffee ran out less than halfway through the event, leaving me to stand around holding an empty cup. Both white sugar and raw were provided, along with what seemed to be several varieties of dairy milk.
8. IKEA, Burbank
Coffee and tea are free at the IKEA cafeteria if you sign up for a free IKEA family card, which also entitles you to small discounts on a handful of IKEA products and an extra thirty minutes in Småland, the supervised play area. Children also eat free at IKEA on weekday afternoons and all day on Tuesday, a fact of which every single person with children within 15 miles of IKEA is already aware. I live only about a mile from IKEA and I regularly take my children there on Tuesdays for a free meal followed by ninety minutes of play in Småland. You have to be thirty-seven inches tall to play in Småland and attaining that milestone is a rite of passage. They measure the kids barefoot, too, so don’t even try it.
The coffee is actually quite good at IKEA, and comes with sugar and half-and-half. Sipping coffee, perusing a free copy of the IKEA catalog, can be very comfortable. Everything is provided for you — free baby wipes and diapers, lockers, childcare, wireless access, electric vehicle charging, pencils, measuring tape. With its mocked-up family rooms and cheerful yet clinical efficiency, it reminds me of a psychology experiment designed to observe private domestic behavior. I have witnessed people at IKEA fighting, crying, praying, studying, playing board games, bathing babies, feeding ribs to a pet dog, and engaging in BDSM role play.
I have no patience for people who claim that IKEA is stressful. I have little patience for people who complain about waiting in lines in general, which I find both weak and narcissistic, as if you expected to be the only person in this metro area of 10 million who might want to buy a bookcase on a Sunday. But for the easily discomfited, I’ll say that if you come to get free coffee on a weekday morning, IKEA is all but deserted, the cafe populated only by young mothers with their infants and small groups of disabled adults with their caretakers. Evenings, it is more crowded; weekends, yet more so. On days when IKEA offers its breakfast special (usually $1.99) at half-off, there is a line out the door. On days when IKEA offers its breakfast special for free, there are lines around the block. I used to live walking distance from IKEA in Shanghai and I’ve been there for free breakfast at IKEA on the weekend in China, which is like beating a special hidden boss level of IKEA. My husband and I have memorized all the little store shortcuts and I love beating the game: first the free coffee, cut through Textiles, then the backwards dash against traffic through Lighting, at last the sweet upswell of scented candles at the finish line.
9. An extra in a music video for The Mountain Goats, Sun Valley
Of course this particular video is already shot, but there are dozens of opportunities to be an extra every day in Los Angeles, and most sets provide extras with a large and varied assortment of snacks that may include anything but always includes Red Vines. Coffee is usually available in Starbucks traveler containers, and everyone with a proper job to do will be eating out of a Styrofoam container.
I had expected extras to be too lowly to merit attention, but on this set, at least, everyone was relaxed, jocular. John Darnielle stood joking with the extras and posed for cell phone photos. It hadn’t occurred to me we would have to act — I imagined my role would just be to stand in the background somewhere — but we were instructed to act first interested, then angry, then furious, then excited, as the exigencies of the script demanded. I was acutely aware of how much I didn’t want to ruin an otherwise good take by doing the wrong thing with my face. It’s hard to know just how furious your face should be.
The video was shot in the boundless, terrible Valley. There is little in this world I love more than the Deep Valley: Sherman Oaks is basically just Santa Monica after climate change has boiled away the sea, but the Deep Valley is a world to itself. You can start driving in any direction and drive forever, it just keeps looping, like the Lost Woods in The Legend of Zelda. Miles and miles of medical marijuana stores, tattoo parlors, sex shops, and junk yards, all baking under a sun like Sauron’s unblinking eye. Then just when you’re convinced you’ve seen it all, you drive past a place that rents giraffes, a storefront that promises to remove curses, a man counting five hundred thousand dollars in cash in the back of Russian restaurant, a young woman pushing a baby carriage full of live crayfish. When the Great Old Ones are recalled to power someday, they will be summoned right here in the Valley, in a strip mall between an El Pollo Loco and an adult bookstore.
10. Coffee Reading, The Green Man Store, North Hollywood
It may be a technicality to call the coffee at The Green Man Store free, but as Hovik, the psychic who read my coffee grounds joked, the coffee is free, it’s the reading that costs fifty dollars for half an hour. The Green Man Store is a New Age emporium housed in a Tudor-style building surmounted by the picture of a placid male figure wreathed in leaves. Inside, floor-to-ceiling shelves hold hundreds of glass jars with handwritten labels that say things like Valerian and Mugwort. A woman in the back was giving a lecture on herbalism. Everything smelled mystical.
The middle-aged owners were leaning on the glass counter tops, listening to KDAY. They directed me through the store, out back, and up the stairs. I walked up the very non-mystical stucco stairs, glancing into the neighbor’s yard filled with corrugated metal awnings and protected by a barrier of razor wire over which The Green Man store had draped some twinkle lights. At the top of the stairs was a dark, empty room with three doors labeled 1, 2, and 3. It was then I had the distinct fear that someone was going to murder me.
Hovik was in room three, a space hardly bigger than a closet, decorated all over with pictures of fairies. He was young, handsome, and down-to-earth. He asked me to drink a cup of strong black coffee, leaving a bit of liquid behind. Then he asked me to overturn the cup onto a saucer. He let it sit for one minute–he timed this on his iPhone–then lifted the cup and stared inside.
He said there wasn’t much there to see. Over time, though, birds came forth, then a horse, an owl, and slowly a picture developed. We talked for almost an hour, mostly about my career, which Hovik pronounced “stagnant.” Hovik was talkative, somewhat repetitious, and didn’t seem in any hurry to wind up our thirty-minute prepaid session. He advised me to look into self-publishing ebooks, though he made it clear that advice was coming from him, not the spirits.
“You’re married to a man named Dev?” Hovik asked towards the end of my reading. (He pronounced it “Dave,” as my husband does, but I didn’t ask him how the spirits spelled it.) I spent the whole ride home trying to figure out how Hovik could have know that. He had a lot of very positive things to say about Dev, though — the spirits like him.
11. The Dr. Phil Show, Stage 29, Paramount Studios, Hollywood
Tickets to TV show tapings are free. All you have to do is sign up in advance and then arrive at the appointed hour following the dress code (business casual, no white clothing, no logos, no jeans). You can park on the street beside buses full of tourists from Oklahoma and Iowa and a tarp-covered RV that appeared to be the permanent home of a man wearing only the top half of a mime costume and his tiny, hideous dog.
Once inside you relinquish your cell phone, pass through a metal detector, sign a waiver, and then stand in line for an hour with your fellow audience members, all of whom could have doubled as guests on the show “Women Who Don’t Know ‘What Business Casual’ Means.” During that hour you will watch dozens of interns carry boxes of bottled water back and forth with great grins on their faces, like they’re having the time of their lives, and older guys with long gray ponytails doing the same job without smiling. All your needs will be met by a team of solicitous pages wearing uniforms so ill-fitting it seems as though CBS had required the pages to make their own. Two episodes of Dr. Phil are taped back-to-back and in between you can enjoy free coffee, water, juice, and snack crackers.
The most common sentiments among the tourists in line was, This is not what I thought Hollywood was like. I grew up in Hollywood. For most of the country, “Hollywood” has a metonymic association with the entertainment industry. For me, “Hollywood” evokes the elderly man I’d seen that morning wearing a waist-length cherry-red wig and a leather policewoman’s costume, riding a little girl’s bicycle slowly down Gower.
The tourists were uniformly pleasant and game, if somewhat rattled. The two young girls behind me had driven in that morning from Oklahoma. The family beside them, also from Oklahoma, had already been in L.A. a few days and gushed about Rubio’s, a fast-food Mexican chain restaurant with almost two hundred locations in five states. A few audience members were big fans of Dr. Phil but most had just signed up for the most convenient TV show taping. Everyone agreed that Ellen was the most coveted taping but apparently it was booked months in advance.
A cheerful page with a pixie haircut circulated among the audience with a paper cup, brightly requesting that we spit out our gum. Then a man in a suit came out to warm up the audience. Several people danced onstage for a Dr. Phil mug while I sat imagining what would have to be in that mug to induce me to get up and dance for it.
This episode had it all — surprise guests, furious denunciations, shouting from the audience — and yet the whole thing felt weirdly muted. Dr. Phil seemed disconnected, hardly there. His guests, a feuding mother and daughter, would curse and rail against each other when called upon, then sit quietly during the commercial breaks. There was a lot of sad, nervous silence.
In the end, Dr. Phil offered the daughter a free stint in rehab and walked off stage with his wife, then we were dismissed. I walked back to my car past shopping carts plunged into weedy lots and desultory construction sites plastered with peeling layers of posters advertising underground punk shows thinking, “I should have gone to Ellen.”
Photo by rsseattle