With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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When I was eleven, I’d ask my mom if I could have coffee. “Certainly not,” she’d reply. “That’s for grown-ups.” But when she slipped out of the room, I’d take a sip and, if there was time, a drag from the cigarette she’d left burning in the ashtray. It was the coffee I wanted most, though. She always whitened it with Milnot canned milk instead of cream. When she went to tend to the washing machine or answer the door, I’d strike, taking two generous slurps, then adding a shot of Milnot to make up the difference. I wondered how I could get more.
I also wanted to earn money to buy a moped. I’d been bugging Mom to let me have a paper route, but she kept saying no. One morning I agreed to help Tommy Hendricks deliver newspapers on his route. He greeted me with a deepfried doughnut and a steaming cup of coffee. As I snapped rubber bands around copies of the Muskogee Phoenix, I was in heaven.
Now I wanted a paper route not only for the moped but for the freedom to drink coffee. I continued helping Tommy without pay, hoping my dedication would convince my mother to let me have my own route.
While the rest of the town slept, Tommy and I drank our coffee and dreamed out loud of fast motor scooters, pellet guns, and girls. After we’d delivered the papers, we’d go to the truck stop and have even more coffee. The first time we ordered it, the waitress scowled at us. “Do your mamas let you drink that stuff at home?”
“I’ve had it since I was five,” Tommy said. “So has ol’ Randy here.”
Tommy always left a nickel tip, a lot considering he earned only sixty dollars a month. Once, old bachelor Biddle, the sixth-grade math-and-science teacher, drifted by our table and stared disapprovingly at our coffee cups. “Don’t you know that stuff will stunt your growth?” he said. We didn’t care. If he wanted to scare us, he should have told us it would shrink our peckers.
One morning Mom drove up at the truck stop and caught me having a cup of coffee, a cigarette, and a doughnut. She shouted for me to come home right after school that afternoon. For the rest of the day, I braced myself for her rage. When I got home, Mom was at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee in front of her.
“Do you want a cup?” she asked.
While I drank it, she lit a cigarette and lectured me on the evils of smoking.
Wichita Falls, Texas
My fourteen-year-old daughter, Anna, attends a private girls’ school a thirty-minute drive from our house, and each morning I rush to get her to school and myself to work on time. I hope that the all-girl environment will help her heal from her father’s abuse. My new husband, William, is a caring man who begins every morning with an hour of meditation, but Anna is distrustful of men in general and has been reluctant to accept him.
One busy morning I ask William to drive Anna to school. I worry that this will be awkward for both of them, but they find they have a lot in common. The next day Anna asks him to drive her again, and again the day after that.
William starts waking up an hour early so he’ll have time to meditate before taking Anna to school. Though he’s tired from lack of sleep, he’s happy to have found a way to get to know his stepdaughter. One chilly morning William tells me Anna asked him to feel how cold her hands were, and she reached over and placed her hand in his. They held hands in silence for the remainder of the trip. It seems that something shifts in Anna after that. She becomes less angry and depressed.
During exam week Anna stays up late to study and is tired the next morning, so she and William stop for coffee on the way to school. This becomes their regular routine, which means they must leave even earlier every day, to allow time to stop. I worry how this will affect William’s meditation practice, so I buy a coffee maker and two travel cups to help them save time. When I bring my purchases home, I see a look of desperation in Anna’s eyes. William catches it too and announces that I should return the coffee maker. Anna visibly brightens. The two of them continue to set off early each morning for the neighborhood coffee shop. My once-frightened child is growing into a confident young woman.
I ask William, an experienced father with three grown children, for his thoughts on her transformation. He responds casually, “Oh, it’s mostly the coffee.” But I know better. He offers her the constant, dependable love she needs from a man — from a father.
It always began with a phone call. My mother would cup her hand over the receiver and order me to start a pot of coffee. I knew then that someone in the family was ill, or in trouble, or dead.
While my younger siblings and cousins were sent to the bedroom to play, I poured coffee, set out cream and sugar, and emptied ashtrays. My aunts and uncles arrived, and the adults all gathered around the kitchen table. My grandmother reigned over the proceedings. She had the final say before the doctor was called or the police notified.
When the adults wanted more coffee, they would simply raise their mugs in the air, which meant: “Fill it up, girl.” I learned our family history while refilling their cups. I found out about my uncle’s brain cancer, one cousin’s DUI, and another’s adultery.
One time the conversation grew unusually hushed. A cousin of mine had died suddenly in the convent. Jack Daniel’s was added to the coffee, and I heard the whispered word “suicide.” My aunt cried, and my uncle pounded his fist on the table. I remember the smell of strong coffee and cigarette smoke. I was told to leave the room.
After each family meeting, I would ask my mother what certain words meant: divorce, cancer, abortion, suicide. She always answered: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
My father’s Italian-immigrant family didn’t take to my mother. Maybe it was because she was as feisty as they were, or because she was from the West Side of Manhattan and they lived on the East Side, or because she was such a stunningly beautiful woman. Whatever the reason, my grandparents didn’t ring our bell, though they would often visit my father’s brother and his family nine doors down. Once, I heard my mother ask my dad, “Does our house have the plague?”
Then one Friday night my mother opened the door to find my paternal grandfather standing on our porch, a five-inch stogie dangling from his lips. My sisters and I gathered around, afraid something bad had happened, but his smiling eyes calmed our fears. “Caffè?” he asked, using the Italian for “coffee.” My mother explained, in her limited Italian, that my father was still at work. My grandfather just repeated, “Caffè?” She invited him in.
Mom made my grandfather espresso in a silver coffee maker that my dad had bought in Little Italy. When it was ready, she poured two inches of black liquid into a yellow demitasse cup with a matching saucer and a slice of lemon on the side. We watched my grandfather heap three spoons of sugar into the tiny cup, which disappeared into his giant hands. After his first sip, he said, “Good. Thank you very much.”
Though retired, my grandfather came to Brooklyn every weekend to help my uncle in the family bakery, and he began to stop by our house afterward. Grandpa didn’t speak much English — and Dad was never home to translate when his father came by — but we managed to communicate. My siblings and I showed him our school projects and artwork, which he praised as if they’d been painted by Michelangelo. He often brought us pieces of dough from the bakery, and we made silly shapes with it and baked it after he was gone.
One day Grandpa brought my mother a tiny espresso maker. It was so small, I thought it was a toy for my sisters and me. Through gestures and a word of English here and there, he explained that my mother should use this coffee maker when he came to visit, because ours was for eight, and this one was for two.
When I moved out of my parents’ house, I asked my mom for the little espresso maker. I tucked it away in a cabinet, where it has remained ever since. Recently Mom was helping me pack for a move and came across the tiny silver appliance. She held it delicately in her hands for a while. “Papa,” she said.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
It was a visit to the Café du Monde in New Orleans that led me to develop a taste for coffee. I couldn’t resist the chicory-flavored brew they served in deep mugs half filled with hot milk. I took a canister of their special blend home, and before long I was hooked. I needed a coffee fix just to get past 10 A.M. at my desk job.
Months later I spent a weekend at a yoga retreat where there was no caffeine available. Watching the yogi demonstrate yoga postures didn’t seem to awaken any energy in me, and I left feeling dejected, the only person apparently unaffected by the retreat.
When I returned to work the next day, though, I didn’t feel a need for my usual coffee jolt. Nor did I need it the next day, or the day after that. Immediately I signed up for a yoga class. I eventually quit my job and worked at the retreat center for more than five years.
When I went to graduate school, I continued to practice and teach yoga. Then I learned that the yogi, who had extolled the virtues of celibacy for his followers, had been sleeping with his secretary. I lost my enthusiasm for yoga, but I’ve never gone back to drinking coffee.
Sarah S. Forth
Los Angeles, California
The first time I mustered the courage to drop in on Walter, he offered me coffee. It was bitter and stale, and I drank it while we chatted awkwardly. I was a coffee snob and brewed mine thick and syrupy in a little European pot.
When Walter and I began dating, I expressed my affection with home-cooked candlelight dinners and the perfect cup of coffee in the morning. Walter’s language of love was different. He broke up the concrete in front of my house and planted a tree. And when the gasket for my coffeepot needed to be replaced, he tried to make one. It didn’t work, so the next day Walter came over with a new electric espresso maker. I had always loathed these appliances, but I was infatuated with Walter, so I feigned delight.
I soon began to appreciate espresso made by machine, and Walter became a coffee snob too. When we married, we received a new espresso maker as a wedding gift, and we put it through its paces.
After our second daughter was born, I was awake with her several times a night, and Walter started bringing me coffee in bed in the mornings. I would hear him in the kitchen grinding the beans and frothing the milk, first his and then mine. When he brought the cup in, I would sit up and savor it while our baby slept at my side.
The day after Father’s Day 2002, my daughters and I went to visit my sister. Four days later we came home to find Walter dead.
I don’t know how I survived the months that followed. Nothing gave me pleasure anymore. I stayed alive only because my daughters, who were two and four, needed me.
It’s now three years later, and the girls and I have our morning drinks in bed. One gets warm milk, the other cocoa, and I have a giant mug of espresso with steamed milk and sugar. The espresso maker Walter and I got for our wedding is still going strong.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I got pregnant at sixteen and married the baby’s father, who immediately began molding me into his idea of the perfect wife. He didn’t want me to finish school, or express an opinion, or even drink coffee; he liked tea and insisted we couldn’t afford both.
Eventually I got a job working in a rehabilitation center for people who had suffered neurological traumas. Though my husband welcomed my paycheck, he resented my being outside of his control for part of the day.
Sacha, my boss at the center, was a hard worker and expected the same from everyone around her. She had earned both a master’s in social work and a legal degree while working full time. I welcomed her high expectations. The longer I worked with her, the more responsibility she gave me. I gradually became the center’s liaison to local medical offices, matching patients with physicians. With Sacha’s help, I devised new ways to market our center, and we were able to expand from twelve to thirty-two beds.
Sacha wanted to promote me. I had the ideas, the work ethic, and the skills. The only thing I didn’t have was a college degree. I couldn’t rise any further until I’d completed my education.
Over the years I’d enrolled in night school a half dozen times. Each time, my husband had forced me to drop out, telling me I was too stupid to go to college and a rotten mother for leaving my children with him while I attended classes.
One day Sacha came into the office with two cups of coffee. She gave me one, then told me to open the bottom drawer of my desk. Inside I found a backpack, a pencil, a few blank notebooks, a pocket dictionary, and other school supplies.
Sacha laid out a plan: I would come to work an hour early every day. At 9 A.M. I would go to school. After class I would return to the office and work until it was time to go home.
I thanked her, but told her the cut in pay would be a hardship for me.
“Who said anything about a pay cut?” Sacha asked.
I was having a hard time taking it all in. I took a gulp of my coffee.
“Well?” Sacha said.
I asked if I could buy her a cup of coffee when I graduated.
Santa Clara, California
During summer break from college, I worked as a waitress at a country club. One night I served a couple whose two-year-old son was playing with his trucks on the floor of the dining room. I nearly tripped over him every time I came to their table. When I brought their food, the parents made no effort to move his toys out of the way so I could set the plates down. Instead they were put out with me for taking so long.
Later the mother ripped into me for not having put a plate under her bowl of ice cream. When I asked if they wanted refills on their coffee, the son screamed, “I want coffee!” I politely explained to him that coffee was a grown-up drink. The mother beckoned me with her finger and said, “My son is a member at this club. You are his waitress. Whatever he asks for, you get for him.”
I got the two-year-old his coffee. After that summer I never waited tables at a country club again.
Jeanine O’Brien Waldron
My father was a short-tempered man. Everyone in the family made an effort to appease him. He remodeled homes for a living, and my job as a boy was to get up early and load the truck with everything on the list Dad had made the night before. If I forgot one item, the consequences were dire.
After the truck was loaded, I would wash up for breakfast. To be on the safe side, I would double-check my room to make sure it was in order: everything in its place, no wrinkles on the freshly made bed. Then I would wait to be told whether Dad needed me on the job that day. If he did, I would not be going to school.
I loved school. It was my only opportunity to mingle with other kids my age and at least pretend I was like them. I was a precocious child, and twice school officials petitioned my parents to allow them to enroll me in a school for the gifted, at no cost. Dad said that if I was so smart, I didn’t need to be wasting time in school. Look what he’d achieved with only an eighth-grade education. Dad was the son of a sharecropper, who was the son of a sharecropper who’d once been a slave.
My breakfast usually consisted of a bowl of oatmeal. As I ate it, I could smell my father’s breakfast cooking: bacon, scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, pancakes covered in butter and maple syrup, and a steaming cup of coffee. My siblings and I tasted these foods only when he allowed us his leftovers. But he never let us have his coffee. That was for him alone. He drank Maxwell House instant, with sugar and cream.
Dad continued to sip coffee on the way to work, and I was often lulled to sleep in the passenger seat by the smell of it. No sooner would I nod off than he’d slap me and call me lazy. Throughout the day I’d sneak sips of coffee from his thermos. I had to be careful not to get caught, because I never knew when he might make good on his threats to kill me. But the risk was worth it. When we arrived home late at night, I would unload the truck and sneak Dad’s lunch pail up to my room, where I’d drink all the coffee left in his thermos.
I ran away from home the day I turned sixteen and never went back. I quickly discovered there were many things a sixteen-year-old couldn’t do, like rent a place to live, pay utilities, or work full time. Though I had to bear many humiliations, I eventually grew strong and independent.
One way I convinced myself I was a man was by openly enjoying a cup of coffee as often as I wanted. It represented freedom to me. I could drink it black, or with sugar and cream; hot, warm, or even cold. I kept a coffee maker at the foot of my bed and sometimes woke up in the middle of the night, drank a cup, and fell right back to sleep. Once, I rented a house in a seedy neighborhood. I’d brew a pot of coffee before the sun came up every morning, then stand on the front stoop with it and look over my very small piece of the world and think, Everything is all right. I’d imagine other people waking up to the aroma of my coffee and envying me.
I’ve made two trips to prison and have been serving my current sentence since 1991. Prison is a hell that never ceases. But I still have my stolen moments of pleasure. I wake up in the morning, sip a cup of coffee, look out my small slit of a window, and pretend that everything is all right.
Mineral Point, Missouri
While struggling to complete a grueling classics degree, I fell deep into debt. I worked odd hours at a doughnut shop, a gas station, and a motel to pay my tuition and the thirty-five-dollars-a-month rent on my remote cabin. I was so tired I had long since forgotten why I wanted to go to college.
Going back and forth to class, I rode my bike past Amish farms where families still traveled by horse and buggy and women wore bonnets. I ached to be like them, to get my hands dirty, to raise sheep, to spin wool, to live a meaningful life and not get lost in academic abstractions.
One cold night I was trying to read Homer but kept falling asleep. Looking for something to keep me awake, I found a jar of Folgers instant coffee in the cupboard. I couldn’t heat the kettle because I was out of gas for the stove, so I dissolved the crystals in hot tap water. I drank cup after cup till my heart raced. I couldn’t stop.
I didn’t sleep for another twenty hours. I put Homer aside and gave in to the caffeine-inspired epiphanies and visions. Within days I had dropped out of school. Five years later I was raising sheep.
On my first day of work as a school secretary, the principal stood at the coffee maker and asked me, “Do you drink coffee?”
“I love coffee,” I said, “but I already had two cups at home.”
“Great!” she said. “I’ll make the coffee if I get to the office first, and you make it if you get here first.”
A co-worker later explained that the principal had not been asking me if I wanted coffee; she’d been telling me the coffee was my morning chore.
Though I didn’t drink the office coffee, I made it, cleaned up afterward, and kept the kitchen area free of dirty dishes. (The principal would not abide dirty dishes piled up in the office sink, though she was the only one who left them there.) At first I made the coffee badly, hoping that I would be relieved of the duty, but this was wishful thinking.
The principal carried a tankard-sized coffee mug around campus with her. She preferred Yuban coffee with artificially flavored creamer. Part of my job was keeping the kitchen stocked with five-pound cans of Yuban and a variety of Coffeemate flavors — anything but hazelnut. I once brewed a pot of hazelnut coffee as a treat, and the principal strode out of her office and shouted, “What’s that smell? It’s disgusting. Don’t ever make it again.” Another time, we ran out of creamer, and the principal told me to buy more using money from the emergency cash fund. “If this isn’t an emergency,” she said, “I don’t know what is!”
Eventually I let go of my resentment and realized that my status was not determined by the fact that I made the coffee. As a face-saving measure, though, I always tried to brew it before the principal came in, so she wouldn’t see me do it. I soon found that I actually enjoyed making the coffee, because it gave me an excuse to leave the front office, which was usually teeming with disgruntled parents complaining about teachers, and students reporting vomit on the sidewalks or non-functioning water fountains.
Our new principal this year is a self-proclaimed coffee snob. She brings her own coffee in a thermal carafe each morning and pours it into a dainty white china cup. On her first day she asked if I would like a cup. I declined.
My father loved to treat my siblings and me to expensive dinners at an outdoor cafe that he said served the best espresso in town. No matter how much he ate, he always had room for dessert and coffee.
One Father’s Day he called to say he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer and had only months to live. I flew to California and soon found myself sitting in a lawyer’s office and listening to the details of my father’s will. It was the first time I’d ever seen my father cry.
At sixty-six, my father had a lot to live for. He had just received a large grant to continue his research on neurological disease in Guam. He had two grandchildren under a year old, and I was pregnant with his third. And he played a mean game of tennis.
He started on an aggressive course of chemotherapy, radiation, and living. As it turned out, he had another year and a half. In that time he spent two Christmases in Hawaii, went to Guam six times, and welcomed the birth of my daughter.
The last time I saw him, he was suffering greatly. I asked if he was afraid to die. He cried, and I thought I’d said the wrong thing, but he wanted to talk about it. He told me he wished to be cremated and to have his ashes buried on a hill overlooking the Pacific.
Thoroughly drained by our conversation, I suggested we drive to the cafe and have an espresso. He said he didn’t want one; coffee didn’t taste good to him anymore.
San Francisco, California
In the 1940s my family lived on an isolated farm in the Austrian mountains. We had no radio or newspaper, and our only news of the war came by mail from my grandmother in Silesia (now a part of Poland). Her last letter arrived in February 1945, on my sixth birthday. “The Russians are approaching,” it said. We lost touch with her after that.
In May 1946, with the help of the Red Cross, my Aunt Hilde located my grandmother in a small village in the East German Soviet Occupied Zone. She and her brother lived in a tiny room with one bed and no bedding. They were starving.
My mother, Anneliese, made plans to visit my grandmother, whom she had not seen in five years. But before my mother could get permission to enter East Germany, my grandmother died.
One day a package arrived containing a few of my grandmother’s belongings, including a small bag of coffee beans, marked in shaky handwriting, “For Anneliese’s visit.” Coffee was worth its weight in gold after the war. How my starving grandmother had gotten ahold of any was a mystery. Perhaps she’d bartered food for it, wanting to have some coffee to celebrate her long-awaited reunion with her daughter.
Though my mother couldn’t afford coffee, she could not bring herself to grind those beans. They sat in the cupboard for years, a reminder of my grandmother’s love.
Before we moved to my husband’s native Costa Rica, I’d never seen coffee bushes before. We went there to convert a section of his father’s conventional coffee operation to a shade-grown, organic farm.
Rather than stay in my in-laws’ house, my husband, Arturo, and I lived in a pickers’ cabin divided into two living spaces by a corrugated tin wall. We laid a rug over the eroding concrete floor, hung tapestries on the walls, and planted rue and mint around the outhouse. His parents thought we were crazy, and his mom was embarrassed to have her son and daughter-in-law living in a pickers’ cabin.
Olga Rios and her family migrated every year from the southern lowlands to work the three-month coffee harvest at my in-laws’ farm. That year they moved into the other half of our cabin. They arrived just before harvest time with their clothes and a few dishes packed in cardboard boxes and plastic fertilizer sacks.
Each morning during the harvest, I woke long before dawn to the smell of Olga’s wood fire. I lay in bed and listened to the rhythmic slap-slap of her making tortillas and the sloshing of water as she hand-washed her family’s clothes. The kids whined when she woke them for work. The Rioses were always the first family to start picking and always picked the most.
In the early morning the coffee bushes were covered with chilly dew that soaked my shirt sleeves, but it didn’t take long for the sun to warm us. Our hands turned black from the raw coffee pulp, and my back ached from carrying the heavy harvest basket at my waist. Conversations were about politics and soccer rivalries and English lessons. I taught the Rios kids how to say, “We are picking coffee.”
Sharing one outhouse and two showers among eight people brought us all close. Olga made me feel as if she and I were old friends. She told me she wanted to save money for a washing machine and windows for their home in the lowlands. Her impression of the United States was that everyone lived in a two-story house with a washing machine and a dishwasher and wall-to-wall carpeting.
One afternoon, as Arturo measured everyone’s harvest, Olga touched my arm. “If I were you,” she said, “I wouldn’t be here.”
I understood. Why would a gringa like me want to pick coffee, when I had money and a passport and access to a very different life?
After my dog died, my boyfriend and I adopted a German shepherd from the pound. We named him Walt, after Walt Whitman.
Life had not been kind to Walt. His previous owners had filed his teeth down to nubs. We could tell he had been abused by the way he ducked his head whenever we reached to pet him. He ate as if every meal were his last, which likely meant he had been starved, too.
But we channeled all our grief into caring for Walt, and over the next two months he changed from a depressed, frightened animal to a sweet, loving dog.
One morning I was putting the coffee away when the lid accidentally came off in my hand, causing me to drop the can. Walt was beside me, and the can hit him in the face, covering him in coffee. I expected him to yelp or run, but he didn’t even move. He just looked up at me with coffee-rimmed eyes, trying to comprehend why I had hit him in the head with a can.
What could I do? I begged his forgiveness and then vacuumed up the grounds. Ultimately I think Walt forgave me, and maybe even understood that it was an accident.
My maternal grandmother was a wonderful woman, but she could often be a handful when she came to visit. My father, always eager to please his mother-in-law, made sure we had plenty of gin and tonic on hand to make her favorite drink. He also brought her interesting picture books from the library to satisfy her love of art. And he made her piping hot coffee, served with cream and sugar on the side, so she could add as much or as little as she liked.
Unable to carry three things at once, Dad always brought my grandmother’s coffee before the cream and sugar. For thirty years, every time he placed the cup of coffee down in front of her, she would look up at him and say, “Oh . . . is there cream and sugar?”
One time he thought he would preempt her question by bringing the cream and sugar first. When he set the little pitcher and bowl before her, she looked up at him and said, “Oh . . . is there coffee?”
I learned to make coffee in prison in Deer Lodge, Montana. Coffee is important there. It’s the water that makes or breaks the coffee, and Deer Lodge has good water. The older cons taught me to make cowboy coffee: let the grounds float in cold water, with salt and eggshell to take out some of the bitterness. Once, I had to make coffee for the whole prison. The urn was so big you had to put the grounds in a pillow cover, hang it from a chain, and stir it with a metal paddle while you stood on a ladder. Some con rewired the toaster wrong, so when I accidentally touched it with the paddle, I got a shock that threw me to the floor.
After I got out, I took a trip to Pryor, on Montana’s Crow Reservation, to visit my mother. When I got up early and made coffee, my sister Lucy took a big swig and choked. “I think my teeth just melted. How much coffee did you use?” I told her Mom liked it that way, but when Mom took a sip she poured it out and made a new pot. After that they got up before me and made the coffee.
One night I drank four or five bottles of cough syrup, a quart or two of Bali Hai and Pagan Pink Ripple, and two pots of coffee. The next morning my mother-in-law saw me shaking like a leaf as I tried to get a coffee cup to my mouth. She told her daughter, “Your old man got the coffee shakes.”
I gave my first daughter the name “Coffee” as a baby name. She has a grown up name now, but I still call her Coffee. My six-month-old granddaughter, Pretty Girl, used to wake up early, and I’d sit with her in the kitchen. One morning I gave her coffee. I got chewed out, and after that she wasn’t allowed to sit with me anymore.
I used to play piano at churches. At one the preacher’s wife would pray over the coffee. I got the Spirit once or twice there: my shoes flew off my feet, and I played with my toes. I thought they liked for people to get the Spirit, but one Sunday the preacher said he wanted someone else to play piano. I moved to another church. Good coffee there, with no theological strings attached.
I know a man who used to be a drug addict. He is HIV-positive and suffers from hepatitis C and emphysema. He has grown weary of toxins and blood transfusions. To purify his body, he has even given up coffee.
Now when he awakens each morning, he whispers the word “Tea.” He tells me there are countless flavors of tea at the store, each one unique: Mint Jubilee, Cranberry Dream, Citrus Mango Waltz. Tea makes him feel his life is his again. Coffee represents the lost years of addiction. It would take him by the balls, squeeze tight, and say, “You are mine.”
Whenever I see him, he asks if I still drink coffee. I lie and say I drink only a cup a day. He hands me a tea bag — Raspberry Stars — and for the rest of the day its sweet smell rises from my fingers.
The gurgle of the percolator in the middle of the night always woke me. It meant Daddy was home. By day he was a janitor in a swank department store; at night he ran a pool hall in our town’s last remaining black business district, which included a liquor store, a greasy spoon, a shoe-repair shop, and the office of an attorney who kept the patrons of the other businesses out of jail.
My father had a terminal heart disease. The knowledge that he wouldn’t live long gave him license to do things other parents wouldn’t dream of doing with their four-year-olds. At 3 A.M. we’d play checkers, cards, and dominoes while eating barbecued bologna sandwiches. We played outside in our swimsuits during thundershowers. My dad was friendly with the men who drank wine outside the pool hall, and sometimes we’d drive a carload of them to the all-night diner in the next town.
One night when the percolator woke me up, I found Mom sitting alone in the dark with two steaming mugs on the table: one for her, and one for me. I knew then that Dad was gone.
She made me drink the coffee. It tasted bitter, even doctored with cocoa. We talked and cried.
For months afterward the house was full of Dad’s wine-drinking friends, who cooked, cleaned, and painted. They shoveled our snow in winter and cut our grass in summer. Waitresses from the all-night diner brought us groceries and did our washing and ironing.
I’m in my forties now, and I still see Dad’s friends. One changed a flat tire for me. Another “took care of” a guy in a club who wanted to follow me home.
I can sleep through the loudest alarm clock, but all these years later, the smell of coffee still stirs me from sleep.
Carlota M. Ponds
When a clerk at a San Francisco health-food store told me that caffeine causes breast cysts and liver failure, I quit cold turkey and stocked up on fresh juices, wheat grass, and herbal teas. I planned to live a new life free of all toxins.
The first day I felt marvelous — clean and pure. The next day I experienced my first caffeine-withdrawal headache. My head was heavy, my eyes sensitive to light. Just breathing was a chore. A Darvon and three ibuprofens did nothing to abate it. Finally my roommate brought me a cup of espresso. Within minutes the pain was gone.
I never again went cold turkey, but one summer I attended a Buddhist retreat that was caffeine-free. By the second day my head felt as if it might explode. My meditation instructor suggested I meditate through the pain until I got “to the other side.”
Every retreat participant was given a daily task to do. Mine was to help with breakfast, which meant getting up at 4:30 A.M. On the third day I stumbled into the kitchen and found the cook drinking a steaming mug of French roast with real cream. Tears filled my eyes.
Without breaking his vow of silence, he poured another mug and handed it to me. It was the best cup of coffee I’d ever tasted.
On cold mornings when I was a child, my parents always had a piping hot cup of coffee. I associated the drink with comfort and home and begged them to let me try some. It was the smell that appealed most to me. When my father finally let me take a sip, I was disappointed. How could something that smelled so wonderful taste so bitter?
In college I became a serious coffee drinker. My friends and I would go to an all-night coffeehouse and drink cold pressed coffee, thick as motor oil, until morning. All types hung out there: wanderers, street folks, ravers, punks. It was a place where we could be ourselves and forget about the outside world. “Iowa Blacky,” the unofficial king of the hobos, even proposed marriage to me one night. I just smiled and politely accepted a book of his poetry.
After I had a nervous breakdown, I had to drop out of college. Having failed as a student, I decided to become a glamorously insane artist. I drank and took drugs every day — to stimulate my creativity. For some reason I didn’t produce any masterpieces.
When I was twenty-one, I traveled around Europe and ended up living in London for a few months with a Canadian and three French boys. Instead of coffee, we drank tea with milk and sugar every morning and hand-rolled our cigarettes. At night we went to raves and got stoned and rode our bikes down the city streets. For income my friend Emma and I sold painted flowerpots at an outdoor market, until the police hassled us for not having a permit and smashed all our pots. When the money ran out, so did the goodwill in our household. Having nothing to my name but a plane ticket, I headed home. I drank vodka straight from little airplane bottles and cried the entire way back.
At twenty-two I finally realized I was out of control. Even my alcoholic, drug-addicted friends didn’t want me around. I don’t remember much about detox except smoking cigarettes and drinking bad coffee. We were allowed only decaf, but some people managed to smuggle in the real thing.
In group therapy I had a hard time being honest. I was afraid that if people knew what was going on inside my head, they wouldn’t like me. Finally, after some prodding, I talked about feeling depressed and suicidal. I explained that this was normal for me and no cause for alarm, but an aide took me to the hospital ER. Frightened, I talked my way out of being admitted to the psychiatric ward. Then I returned to treatment and quietly drank coffee until I completed the program. I was eventually diagnosed as bipolar and hospitalized five times in all.
I’ve been clean and sober for years. I gave up cigarettes long ago, but I’ve not been able to kick coffee. My doctors tell me I shouldn’t have it, but I refuse to give up one of my few remaining pleasures. Coffee is my last crutch. If I let go of it, I just might fall.
Sarah Mahala Andersen
Port Townsend, Washington
In many ways I was a typical little boy, with one exception: I was actually a girl. Unlike the other girls my age, I dressed in bluejeans and T-shirts, wore my hair short, and reveled in a muddy game of football. I’d change to a button-down shirt when my family went out to restaurants, where the wait staff always mistook me for a boy, much to my father’s dismay.
My father has never accepted my masculinity. I think he hoped it would go away with puberty. On the contrary, I embraced it and made it my own. Most days I still wear a white cotton T-shirt and bluejeans held up by a belt with a buckle so heavy it defeats the purpose. My hair is short, my hands strong and able. I do not fit my father’s image of how a woman should be.
My father drinks his coffee black and hot, and I remember as a child watching him drive his truck, a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. He’d take a shaky sip through the bristles of his mustache as we made our way down the bumpy roads. I was always amazed that he didn’t spill any. I drink my own coffee black and hot, in a mug like his, even on the hottest August day. My father and I don’t see eye to eye, and we seldom speak of more than the weather, but sometimes, as I take a sip, I remind myself of him — perhaps more than I care to admit.
When I was nineteen, I moved to southern Oregon and found work slinging espresso at a dinky coffeehouse located in the former front office of a grand old movie theater. The clientele included manicured patrons from the salon next door, the staff of the local newspaper, and assorted quirky characters.
My boss was quiet and shy, but meticulous about every cup of coffee we served. He taught me the proper way to brew the house coffee, and how to perform the ritual tasting: gently swirling the black-brown infusion in the mug, inhaling the aroma, and then slowly taking a mouthful. I became a bona fide coffee snob and even taught my friend’s toddler to say, “Starbucks is yucky.”
At work I loved the morning rush: the whir of the coffee grinder, the hum of the chrome-plated espresso machine, the continuous stream of humanity. I came to know the regulars by the names of their drinks. To this day, I’ll be walking around town and run into statuesque Single Mocha Cindy, or Half-Caf Vanilla Cappuccino Guy.
After the morning rush, I’d talk to the regulars or just watch the rain and the neighborhood vagrants outside the shop window. Sometimes Jeanne, a volunteer from the community art gallery, would keep me company, dispensing maternal wisdom and stories about her adventures in Mexico as a young woman. She had an earthy spirituality tinged with Catholic superstition, and her advice about men was always dead on.
Thirteen years later, I sling a diaper bag instead of espresso. My newborn often wakes me at all hours, and coffee has become the elixir that helps me make it through the day. A lot of the great coffeehouses in town have been put out of business by the drive-through espresso stands on every corner. It’s getting so you can hardly find a latte that doesn’t come in a paper cup anymore. Occasionally, though, on a Saturday morning, I’ll get up early and slip off to one of the remaining coffeehouses to soak up the sights, sounds, and sensations of my old life. Then I’ll go home and have breakfast with my husband, Mr. Double Tall Latte, the one who used to leave flowers in my tip jar.
In the winter of 1980 I worked on the adolescent unit at a Vermont mental hospital. I tended to speak my mind back then and was considered a rabble-rouser. After work each night, I walked to Dunkin’ Donuts to get a cup of tea and a doughnut. I’d weaned myself off coffee four years earlier and took pride in being able to resist the delicious aroma.
Then, in the space of a month, my life seemed to fall apart: The psychiatrist on the unit suspended me from the hospital. One of my patients wasn’t speaking to me. (I’d insisted she attend group like everyone else.) My teenage daughter was sullenly avoiding me. My partner had left me and abruptly moved to Pennsylvania. I wanted to get drunk and tell the psychiatrist to go to hell. Instead I went to the doughnut shop and got a cup of coffee. My mood instantly changed from self-pitying to vibrant. I held the steaming cup and felt joyful and rebellious and alive all at once. Oh why, oh why, oh why had I ever given up coffee?