Murky remembrances


I can still remember my first encounter with the coffee shop at 3211 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, VA, which is surprising since I didn’t actually go into it. I was visiting DC on college spring break — in those days that seemed to me a fun destination — and meeting a friend from the Institute for Humane Studies for dinner in Clarendon to talk about policy jobs in DC. He wasn’t a coffee drinker and so the place barely merited a mention from him as we walked briskly by, yet I felt an almost gravitational attraction to it. It was, I thought, the kind of shop where I could happily spend a lot of time.

It turns out I was very, very wrong for thinking I would enjoy working in public policy, but the coffee shop became more significant to me than I’d ever imagined. Back then it was called Common Grounds and when I returned to DC for my first internship a few months later I immediately sought it out. It became my escape from the depressing realization that I had no real interest in the career I’d been working towards. Nearly every night I’d come home, change out of my business attire, and walk the two miles uphill to relax with coffee and a couple of books. Though I was rarely joined by anyone I knew, I enjoyed the sense of community one feels in a busy cafe even when alone.

I returned to Virginia following college graduation for lack of any better plan, my new apartment just three blocks from Common Grounds. I applied for a job there following one more failed attempt at enjoying public policy. When I checked in a few weeks later, the manager admitted that they’d lost my application. This turned out to be a moot point, for the shop was about to be sold to Nick Cho of Murky Coffee. For some reason Nick hired me.


Nick has an intense passion for coffee and he passed that on to me on my first day of training at his existing Capitol Hill location. He gave us new employees twenty bucks and sent us down the street to Starbucks to order whatever we liked. Then we came back to experience the same drinks the Murky way. I’d consumed thousands of coffee beverages and spent countless nights in coffee shops, but I’d never paid close attention to what was in the cups. This all changed when I watched Nick deftly pour perfectly textured milk into espresso, a lovely rosetta forming on the surface of the cappuccino as if by magic. I’d never seen or tasted anything like it. To this day the memory informs my work as a barista and bartender; the best gift I can give new customers is recreating that feeling of astonishment that comes from witnessing a mundane drink transformed into something wonderful.

I spent only eight months working at Murky but I continued as a customer far longer. The friendships and relationships that bloomed there are the reason I stayed in Virginia for as long as I did. Our cast of characters — a Pilates instructor, an opera singer, and a medical consultant, among others — formed a welcome community outside the cocooned world of politics. Every Sunday we gathered for coffee and a late lunch. This ritual was so valuable to me that for the year following when I worked at Open City my only requirement was that I claim the painfully early Sunday morning 5:30 am barista shift; I felt it necessary to get off in time to meet for coffee at Murky, despite spending the entire morning working the same model espresso machine and serving exactly the same blend.

I wrote above that I felt a gravitational pull to the shop. Looking back at the five apartments I lived in during my time in Virginia, I realize I was literally in orbit around it. Murky is in red, my various apartments in blue.


That’s no coincidence. Though I moved frequently and made many compromises, always being within a short walk or bike ride from my favorite coffee shop was an essential amenity.

Many people drifted in and out of our circle of regulars over the years. By the time I packed for Oregon just two of our original crew were left, meeting every Sunday to drink coffee and smoke cigars at the green light pole. Like many things at Murky, the pole was weathered and useless, existing mostly to annoy people trying to park their cars around it. Yet it was charming in its way and was the perfect place to prop up our feet and light a couple stogies in the breeze.

Hanging out at ye old green pole

If I could be there today, that’s exactly what I’d be doing. This Sunday was Murky’s last day open for business. Nick and his staff are opening a new shop, Wrecking Ball Coffee, in downtown DC. The space at 3211 Wilson Blvd. will soon become a bakery, the newest sleek addition to Clarendon’s redevelopment. Murky’s end removes one more of my tethers to the city. The thought of moving back to Arlington is now less tempting.

I could go on, but the important thing for me is saying thanks to Nick and the Murky community. Thanks for teaching me how to taste, for showing me the beauty in craft, and for giving me a place to call home in Virginia. You’ll be missed, and I wish you the best of luck in your new venture.


11 thoughts on “Murky remembrances”

  1. Murky did the same for me, thanks to your brave offer to let me tag along to an espresso tasting, despite my never having had an espresso in my life. I didn’t realize it until I read this post, but you shrewdly introduced me to coffee the same way Nick had done with you. First you took me to some random coffee shop serving average espresso. My first. Then you took me to Nick’s espresso tasting, where I tried 8 or 9 of the best espresso blends in the c0untry. I’ve been drinking espresso with increasing appreciation ever since.

    I never lived anywhere near Murky, but it remains one of my happy DC memories. I studied there a bunch of times, met you there a few times, stopped in for a drink whenever I had business in Arlington, and brought two different girlfriends there, handily impressing them with my insider knowledge of DC’s coolest coffee shops, the mysterious $5 hot chocolate, and my ability to be snobby about yet another thing.

    It didn’t have the same importance to me as it did to you, but I’ve missed it since moving away. Its passing severs yet another tie I had to D.C. Thanks again, Jacob.

  2. I echo the same sentiments. When I took a sublet in Arlington, I planned to eventually move to the district. I quickly learned that the district’s culture wasn’t my style and realized I preferred lounging on Murky’s tattered couches instead. Murky was a much-needed reprise from very hectic, very DC day job. Since leaving DC in 2005, Murky was amongst my first — and favorite — stops on every visit back. Lately I’ve had moments when I miss life in DC. But knowing that Murky is gone, at least lets me know I’m not missing much. May Arlington save *some* piece of its vanishing soul.

  3. Thanks, Nick! Things are great in Portland.

    I forgot to mention that you also introduced me to my first really bad hangover, but that’s another story.

  4. Jake,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I miss working with you. It was a real treat to spend the day sitting by someone as original as you are. I hope you are well and happy.

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