By the time I staggered out into the kitchen this morning, The Counselor had brewed up the morning cuppa. It was excellent: particularly excellent, in fact, despite the fact that there is a generally high bar for coffee brewage here. Ah, a brilliant, creative beautiful woman smiles and hands me a steaming cup of delicious coffee on a sunny California morning; life is rich, indeed. Let me make it clear: sometimes I make the coffee. Sometimes.
I grew up around coffee drinkers: my parents. My earliest clear memory about the details of coffee-drinking is the time they decided they’d stop putting sugar in their coffee. I have to ask Dad because I’m unclear about their motivation, though it must, at least in part, have been one more way they could trim the budget by just that much more. That was a long time ago, but I can picture them at the kitchen table in the little house in Ohio and, were I miraculously transported there this moment, I could still go to the cupboard where the cups were, or the drawer with the silverware, and I can see the blue plastic water bucket covered with a wide metal lid that held drinking water from the well, while they sat at the table, drinking coffee.
Coffee-drinking was for adults in our house. They had pulled one of those standard adult stunts in response to requests to try some coffee, saying, “Sure. Here, take a big gulp: it’s delicious.” It was terrible, of course: bitter, dark, nasty stuff, and I went back to my orange juice which, combined with the aftertaste of coffee, was now equally terrible too.
As I mentioned recently, my English grandmother lived with us at various times (rotating around the far-flung households of her many children), and she retained her afternoon tea-drinking habit throughout her life. I’d have tea with her, and just didn’t really think about coffee.
I laid off the stuff entirely and was never tempted ’til I was at the end of my first term in college, when there was a note posted on the message board that the dormitory cafeteria would have coffee available all night long for late-night exam study. Ensconced at my scrap of desk in the dorm room, the idea of wandering down to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee to keep me company while I ground through my Introduction to Educational Psychology or Principles of Geology — or whatever I was trying to master — appealed to me. I toddled down, dispensed the cupful and put in some sugar, and resumed my seat at the desk thinking, “Yes, the scholarly life. I was made for this.” The later it got, the more often I felt that another trip to the cafeteria was necessary. Finally, I decided to hit the hay. I hit it,all right, but it didn’t take. I lay there, wide awake. An hour. Two hours. Then dawn. Perhaps as the sun dawned, so did the realization that there was something not so beneficial in the effect of four or five cups of coffee (with sugar). I don’t know how much I learned about Maslow’s Hiercharchy of Needs or synclines and anticlines that night, but I learned something about the effect of caffeine on those unaccustomed to it.
More than a year passed. I was a tea drinker again after that first-term debacle. Incredibly, unaccountably, I started dating a brilliant, fascinating beautiful young fellow English major. There wasn’t much money for extravagant outings for dates, I didn’t have a car, and the little college town didn’t have many extravagant venues, to begin with. But — she was a coffee drinker. The best and most affordable way to maximize my time with her was to have coffee at Al & Larry’s, where they would, indeed, in that primitive pre-Starbuckian era refill your cup as long as you sat there, and you could snack for free on the little bowl of dill pickles on your table — meant, no doubt, to accompany genuine sandwiches and other food, if one had the budget to invest in sandwiches and real food. Coffee and pickles? In the company of a stupendously mesmerizing woman, it was nectar and ambrosia. I became a coffee drinker.
Off at graduate school a couple of years later, coffee came in two basic forms. I rented a room from a married couple, and each morning Chip, who was pursuing (though he never caught) his PhD in European economic history, signaled the start of each day by grinding beans in a nasty, noisy little coffee grinder that emitted sound well beyond the 110-decibel pain threshold. Never did the concept of “Time to rise and shine!” adopt such a brutish, offensive stance.
Off at class, one could between classes resort to the graduate student lounge in the English Dept. where there was a “coffee machine.” Nothing like that device exists now in the civilized world. I take that back. Things like it exist today, but they produce genuine coffee. I don’t have to detail for you the unending variety of coffee machines that proliferate in the world, grinding coffee of various degrees from fresh beans, sometimes roasting the beans to your specifications; simple drip machines that use premeasured ground coffee packets; others that use packets containing mysterious fluids that you insert into a drawer to be injected into hot water; and, of course, fantastic Rube Goldberg devices from Italy or Switzerland that cost thousands of dollars and replicate the espresso/cappuccino experience of the most rarified kind.
This machine, the size of a candy or cigarette vending machine, accepted a quarter, hummed, plopped a paper cup into a slot, and dispensed a coffee-like substance into it. What it really was, where it came from, and how it got into that machine, no man can say. We were scholars at the pinnacle of academia, and we were not expected to concern ourselves the content or qualities of what we imbibed, given that at any minute one of the world’s best-known scholars on Dante’s poetic structure might wander in and strike up a conversation about the use of Latin epithets in the Paradiso. (We can blame Eliot for the association of being an English major and drinking coffee, having penned that famous line, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”)
There, actually, is the crux of the argument of today’s essay, students, which we’ll summarize as: “It’s not the brew, it’s what you do.” By the time I spent a couple of weeks on an assignment in and around Seattle in the late ’90s, “coffee culture” had taken root in a way that went far beyond its humdrum, quotidian existence in the kitchens and dining rooms of regular America. The coffeehouse culture of the 18th Century had been re-introduced; Seattle and the Northwest were awash in coffee, which flowed out to inundate us all. Coffee is now not a drink; it’s an experience. That’s fine. I doubt that the coffee my parents brewed up out of the Folger’s can in that two-part chrome percolator with its fussy metal basket was exactly a gourmet treat, but it was their shared experience of sitting at their kitchen table in their house that mattered.
I’ve drunk coffee in some pretty rarefied places: espresso gulped standing next to the crowds on their way to work at a chrome-topped table in a busy street in Milan on a weekday morning; cappuccino sipped while lounging at a table, looking out at the Campo dei Fiore in Rome, or sitting in the venerable Cafe de la Paix in Paris.
I’ve cadged cups of coffee from the executive kitchen at work when I had a meeting with the VP down in the executive area — although half the time it would be one of those stupid flavored coffees. But heck, if you’re going to poach in the executive kitchen, you’ve got to make do with what the CFO has determined they’re drinking that day.
I had an odd replay of my college-day caffeine extravaganza in a truly exotic location: the Big Island of Hawaii. I was at a fabulous resort there producing a corporate event. As is typical of those operations, my co-workers and I were ensconced in our “office,” set up in a small meeting room, equipped with our computers, files, office supplies, where we put in the typical 12- and 14-hour days that event work requires. We had coffee and soft drinks on hand. It was bona fide Kona coffee: sitting there, simmering all day long, it suffused the place with the earthy, vibrant scent. I drank cup after cup, gallons of the stuff, unable to resist. By the time we left the final rehearsal of the day, maybe 8- or 9 o’clock at night, I was vibrating.
It’s not really the drink, though, is it? How many times, really, can one gush about a cup of coffee? Depending on where you get it, it can be expensive, bitterly nasty, over-brewed, weak, tepid, or it might just spill all over you (I always got a cup of coffee at the lumber company on those early frosty mornings when we were loading up the truck to head to the job site. Just try drinking a styrofoam cup of hot coffee while you’re driving a 2-ton dump truck with a big floor-mounted shifter: you ARE going to spill that coffee. I never learned. The coffee was terrible, did nothing for me, and I spilt it on my lap every time; but it just seemed to be part of that going-to-work experience!)
I could go on, as could any coffee drinker: coffee with friends at 10 o’clock at night at Frisch’s Big Boy, eaten with french fries and endless free refills; steaming coffee from a thermos on a camping trip, or scalded in a tin coffeepot over a Coleman stove; coffee served with great elan in a fancy hotel dining room in exquisite china — but the coffee tastes terrible! A lifetime of coffee, but, in the end, it’s the savor of the experience, not the flavor of the brew.
Now, I’ve come full circle. That coffee The Counselor handed me is ground in a noisy, offensive little machine, identical to the one my old roommate Chip used. It brews in a $20 drip coffee maker, not a $3,400 machine from Switzerland. But the grinding and brewing, incredibly, miraculously, are done by that same fascinating woman I sat with at Al and Larry’s, and in the Campo dei Fiore, and the Cafe de la Paix. Ahhhh! Java! Another cup, my dear?