I wrote this when I was pregnant with Edward, seven years ago. Now, in the middle of the pandemic, it makes me more wistful than ever to hear the clatter of the screen door, the hiss of the percolator, the fragrance of the drip coffee. But most of all, it makes me wistful for that moment when coffee is offered and accepted and you know you’re going to have or be company for the next little bit.
In certain middle class precincts of New York City and its surrounding area, whether you are Jewish, Irish, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Mexican, Southern, or from any culture on earth that values both caffeine and hospitality, the first thing you will be offered upon arrival in someone’s home is a cup of coffee. Likely the owner of said home is over the age of 60, for the offering of coffee is a bit of a lost art.
This will be done casually, with nearly a shrug. “Can I getcha something? Some water? Coffee?” Coffee might be pronounced “cawfee”. And though it may be proffered nonchalantly, it will be anything but lazy, because unlike water, coffee needs to be made.
A percolated pot may be sitting, made long ago that morning, and is now nodding out, kept cozily warm in its glass pitcher on its metal platter, white plastic hat askew. Or, it may brewed fresh, but likely not “brewed” in the way that some newly minted coffee snob would do it… there will be no grinding of fresh beans, or measuring on a digital scale; there will be no French Press, nor a Chemex. What there will be are: a filter, a percolator (probably CoffeeMate), and pre-ground “Chock Full o’ Nuts” in a tidy metal canister. That’s because it’s heavenly coffee. And you will be offered milk and sugar to your heart’s content. It will be cow’s milk. It will not be squeezed from nuts or oats.
Who knows where this ritual began? All I know is that even though I don’t drink coffee anymore, I’m still slightly shocked when I go to someone’s house and they don’t offer me some. Then, I recall myself, and put the shock aside. For people my age, our age, why bother? We mostly go out for coffee, to leave the heavy lifting to the pros. We like our lattes with leaves of foam and coils of espresso. We like ours fair trade and organic and grande. Maximus!
Does anyone still drink plain coffee?
This was not always the case. We once had Mr. Coffee percolators too. They were the first thing our parents bought us when we went to live in dorms and our first apartments. It was a benediction: now you are old enough to be in charge of your own coffee. And so, jauntily, coffee was the first thing we made for ourselves, cigarette in hand, since we could do that too. We bought different grounds and roasts and experimented. The smell of it filled our grocery bags and our hearts. Sure, it was a just an “add water” sort of thing, but we could now figure out ways to make it ours; adding a scoop, or a cinnamon stick, or who knows what other nonsense we came up with?
Although, Coffee wasn’t really every truly forbidden. At least not in my house. My father, for much of his early and middle adult life, was a coffee drinker of Voltairish proportions, sipping at about seven cups of coffee a day! (I learned about Voltaire’s coffee addiction on a Tetley tea bag. Ironic, no?) I think my dad inherited this rather pernicious addiction from his parents. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my Grandmother Sara’s woolen knee, as she encouraged me to sip at a cup of what was 80% milk and 20% coffee, helped by a lot of sugar. I loved it- it tasted like hot coffee ice cream- and ever after begged for it whenever she came. I was probably around three, and no more, because there is no Robin in sight and we are in the brown and bright kitchen in our old house on Sleepy Hollow Road, from which we moved when I was about seven.
The first of my dad’s daily cups was purchased from the truck at the Scarborough train station, and prior to arriving, there was a complex ritual involving having the exact right change for the coffee and the papers in order to save time. My father is not by nature an early riser and would do anything to improve his efficiency at getting everything he needed to taken care of, so that he could wait the absolute minimum for the 7:17 Hudson Line Express to Grand Central, hot coffee (dark, sweet & low) in one hand, briefcase in the other, The Times and the Journal tucked under his arm. The Don Draper of Skadden Arps, off to make his case and win!
I learned up close how to replicate this ritual by commuting with him, first during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and then between my junior and senior years, and finally after graduation, my first spurts and forays of real world occupation. By graduation, I was a pro.
I, also jonesing, joined him in the coffee part of his ritual, learning to ask for “light and sweet” and generally chucking my change at the poor coffee guy as my dad charged away, lest we be late. By the time I had my coffee in hand, my dad generally had completed the collection of his papers and was heading to the platform. I trotted along after him, wanting to keep up, afraid to spill on my work clothes.
I was already a coffee drinker. I had started drinking coffee for real in late middle school/high school. It was natural! First of all, thanks to Grandma Sara, I loved the stuff. And there was always a pot on in my family’s house, including the necessary and customary post dinner pot of decaf, from which my mom and dad and I all partook. (My mom often had a cup of tea instead which was a habit I simultaneously developed.) Then, there were the glorious, perfect, cappuccinos we drank at Orfino’s; in the summer, iced, they came to the table in milkshake shakers. Because that’s what they were. Milkshakes for grownups. And who wants to be a grown up more than a 14 year old?!
Later, in high school, we all smoked. I know, it was gross. But, we really all did in the 90s. I mean, watch “Reality Bites.” Heck, watch “Clueless.” The 90’s were the, er, last gasp of coolness for the tobacco industry, really. And nothing is better with a cup of coffee than a cigarette, an indubitable fact we caught on to pretty quickly. Again, see “Reality Bites.” (I had no idea what a formative movie that was for me, until I caught it recently on TV, and I can see why I wore work shirts and carpenter pants, and sneakers and smoked so much… I mean, Winona! Ethan! Jeanine!) Coffee, you see, was the cheapest thing you could buy at a diner. And you know what else you could do at a diner? Sit and talk forever. And you know what else? Smoke. So from The Riverdale Diner on Broadway in the Bronx, to The Elmsford Diner on 9A in Westchester, we sat and smoked and drank coffee. It was fun. And nice. And smelly, I’m sure. I won’t name names, but a friend I went to high school with and who lived in my town and I used to go and pore over our sad love lives, steaming cups and smoking cigarettes in hand, at nine PM on school nights. It was the best break.
The acceptable part of this ritual was the coffee. Occasionally a parent would object to their kid drinking it, but never mine. (I guess, topping out as I do at 5’1”, no one ever feared for my stunted growth.) We hid the cigarettes like anything. Still, I was good for three cups a day in high school, through college, and beyond.
One hot summer day, when my parents were out of town, and I was commuting alone, the Coffee Truck Man pulled me aside.
“Honey, I gotta ask you something…” He said.
“Sure!” I replied, brightly. Without my dad in town, I was early to a later train, and had plenty of time. Also, Coffee Truck Man was the nicest.
The coffee man frowned. “So your dad, ok, he’s been coming here forever, right?“ I nodded my agreement. He turned to make my “light and sweet,” talking as he worked.
“…And always he gets the same thing: dark with Sweet and Lo…”
Expertly, Coffee Man handed me my coffee and made the next one for the next guy, who threw his 50 cents on the pile as he strode away…
“…But for a week last winter, he had it light and sweet…Then, just as sudden, he went back to the old way, like nothing happened…” Coffee Man shrugged, and looked up. “And I never had a chance to ask him! Do you know why he did that? It’s been driving me crazy!”
“Huh!” I said. “I truly have not a clue!” This was puzzling, for as Coffee Man had pointed out, my dad always had coffee the same way, and we had the piles of Sweet n Lo packets everywhere you looked to prove it.
It niggled at me, so I went directly to the source. For a moment, my dad’s brow crinkled as he thought, and then, he smiled, for the solution had appeared. “I had dental surgery, and it hurt my mouth to drink it dark…it’s so hot!”
I looked so forward to those mornings with my dad, even though I hated getting up early as much as he did. And I showered! The ritual is what made it work, even down to the jokes. As we groggily walked towards the coffee truck to the sound of early twittering birds, my dad would lean over and whisper to me “Vote for the… Furher!” in a cartoon German accent. And I would startle and giggle, without fail, surprised every time. For there in front of us would be a beat up tan sedan with a bumper sticker that read “Vote for Furrer!”
Or if the car wasn’t there, he would lean over and say in the same accent “But wait! Where is dee Fuhrer today? Hmmm?”
And it was sweet to sit quietly on the train, and read my dad’s discarded Arts section, which he merely glanced at and then unceremoniously dumped on my lap, and watch the rising sun wake the Hudson River up. The air was warm and soft and it was light out. The future stretched before me on those tracks.
And so for years, I was addicted the sweet, strong coffee, of the kind procurable at any coffee truck or corner deli in New York City. No fancy pants coffee for me. I liked my coffee in a blue and white paper cup best, strong as crack and as paranoia inducing. (Not that I have first hand experience, but I can imagine.)
So how was I moved to give it up? To chuck the whole enterprise? Some time in my early 20’s, I started getting sweaty and smelly and my stomach constantly ached. I was anxious and panicked all day. Not much for going to the doctor at the time, I self diagnosed that coffee was my problem. This was much easier than giving up cigarettes, which, if you worked long days in TV production like I did, where at the time they were a necessary social glue. Also, cigarettes went nicely with tea too.
And so it went. My dad gave it up too, thanks to wretched headaches, though not as completely. A man of simple pleasures, his Keurig is one of his favorite appliances to this day, though we try to sway him to Team Nespresso. He savors his caffeinated cup, the one he has a day. He may follow up with a decaf too, later in the morning. Always dark with Sweet and Lo. (And don’t fear, I soon quite smoking too.)