rejectomorph (flying_blind) wrote,

On the Brew Generally Served Hot

I have coffee. I'm enjoying it. I'm not sure exactly when I bonded with coffee. It was probably the result of a long process. There were a lot of pleasant coffee-related events in my childhood. Whenever we went to visit people, for example, the adults would invariably have coffee at some point. It always seemed a very convivial activity, accompanied by much cheer. The musical clink of spoons on cups and saucers was enjoyable too, and often there would be cookies or cake to accompany the beverage, and that would be shared even with children. Sometimes there was coffee cake. Coffee was so important that it even had its own cake!

The smell of coffee brewing came to have positive connotations. The fact that I wasn't allowed to have the stuff myself, aside from maybe a teaspoonful from my mom's cup (hers was always fairly heavy with cream and sugar) now and then, made it more attractive, of course. Adult prerogatives are always appealing to kids. Then, too, there were those various coffee-flavored candies we used to get once in a while. Some kids don't find that flavor appealing, but I always considered it a special treat.

This is not to say that coffee had no negative associations. I was always offended by the smell of the dregs of a cup of coffee. I recall times when I had to take seat at a busy dime store or drug store lunch counter from which the remains of the previous customer's repast had not yet been removed. I was amazed at how unpleasant the dregs of a cup of coffee could smell, and would hold my nose until the waitress took away the offending utensil and its odious contents. But then, the dregs of just about anything can smell bad (as when the partly-empty cup was adjacent to a plate containing the shards of a club sandwich or a hamburger, or an uneaten bit of pie crust, and maybe a wadded paper napkin smeared with a residue of condiments and blotches of lipstick.) So it was that, even immediately after the old brew had been removed, the smell of a fresh cup being served nearby would delight my senses.

It is odd, then, that once I was old enough to go out and about on my own and could order coffee without raising the eyebrows of a disapproving waitress, I found that I didn't much like the stuff. I tried the stuff a few times, at a few places, but discovered that I greatly preferred the popular soft drinks, or, on cold days, maybe a cup of hot chocolate. Perhaps this unexpected rejection of a long anticipated privilege was merely a manifestation of that state at which one arrives when nearing adulthood, when you suddenly find that you don't much like lots of the things your parents like. But whatever the reason, I found coffee to be a bit of a disappointment. It was not the delightful elixir of my imagination, but just another beverage, and less interesting than many others. Even when I began to frequent the bohemian coffee houses which then dotted the livelier neighborhoods of Los Angeles, I would usually order something else, such as apple cider, hot or cold, and would eschew those establishments which offered no drinks other than coffee.

I do remember the day that my childhood attraction to the energizing brew began to reassert itself. Near my house was an old hangout of my older siblings which had changed owners and been converted from a hamburger joint called Tyler's Drive-In to a Mexican restaurant called Benny's. When first I went to Benny's it was mainly out of nostalgia, and in somewhat mournful mood at the fact that Tyler's, which I had long seen as another one of those rewards of aging into greater freedom, had not survived long enough for me to enjoy it, but I soon found that Benny made some enjoyable dishes himself and that the atmosphere of his establishment, though different from that of the lively hangout of which I had received only brief glimpses as a child, was pleasant and relaxed, and Benny himself a cheerful and tolerant proprietor. One blustery October day, when ordering a combination plate (which I would ordinarily have accompanied with a serving of the ubiquitous Coca Cola), the aroma of a freshly brewed pot of coffee reached my nose, so I impulsively ordered a cup. The waitress brought the steaming brew, and as I reached for the sugar, I noticed that she wrinkled her nose.

"You disapprove?"

"Cream and sugar just ruin good coffee," she said. I realized that I had never even tried unsweetened black coffee before, so I refrained from the adulteration. After all, if it turned out that I didn't like it plain, I could always add the cream and sugar later. Perhaps it was the fact that the flavors of Mexican dishes are a particularly good complement to the flavor of black coffee, but, with some surprise, I discovered that the beverage had regained somewhat of the appeal which it had once held in my childhood imagination. In fact, it was a downright tasty cup of coffee, and I didn't refuse the proffered refills. I left the waitress a big tip.

The timing of my discovery was propitious. A few nights later, a friend introduced me to a coffee house in Hollywood which served no other beverages than coffee. To my delight, I discovered that they made their brew with the same brand that Benny used. Both that coffee house and Benny's became the most frequented hangouts of my circle. I also began sampling the brew at various other places, from pricey restaurants (or as pricey as I could afford at that age) to greasy spoon diners. I found that the price of a restaurant was not the most reliable indicator of the quality of their coffee, but I also discovered that, in Los Angeles at least, the best coffee was almost invariably that served in Mexican restaurants. They have a knack, I think.

There followed a number of years in which my consumption of coffee became quite high. It was my habit then to wander about the city with a notebook, and jot down my thoughts and impressions of the scene at hand, and the best place to do this was at the counter of a restaurant or diner. I tended to frequent them during the off hours, as many proprietors were loath to have counter space occupied by a non-eater during the busy lunch and dinner times. I went to bowling alley coffee shops in the suburbs, and truck stops in the industrial area east of downtown, to well-appointed establishments in big hotels, and little hole-in-the-wall cafes in declining backwaters, to hamburger stands equipped with outdoor seating (then the closest American equivalent to a sidewalk cafe), and to the busy coffee shops of the downtown bus depots. Some places the coffee was better, and some it was worse, but almost without my noticing it, my concern with the importance of the quality of the brew diminished.

I came to think of my consumption of coffee not as an end in itself, but as an adjunct to my observation of the city. Essentially, I was renting counter space or table space at which to write, and the consumption of coffee was only a formality to which I was required to attend in exchange for taking up space. This may be why I so long failed to notice that I was drinking so much of the stuff that I was becoming sensitized to it. Though caffeine energizes, in time it also enervates. After a day of downing eight or ten cups of the stimulant, I would find myself both wired and exhausted. Always prone to anxiety, I was aggravating that tendency through over-stimulation. I had become a caffeine junkie! Eventually, I was forced to cut back, and then quit almost entirely. Propitiously, again, it was about that time that Benny got a license to sell beer, and that I reached the age at which I could legally consume this other popular brew of our culture. However, while I had, for a while, been able to consume what I now see as prodigious quantities of coffee, I have never had the ability to match that feat with alcoholic beverages. A bottle of Bud at Benny's was a possibility, but I lacked the capacity for consuming alcohol to carry on my frequent peregrinations about Los Angeles, renting counter space with a glass of beer in lieu of my former steaming cup of coffee. Unable to drink either beverage in quantities sufficient to justify any extended tenure in the various establishments at which I had been won't to pass my time in observation and recording those observations, I ceased the activity. An era had ended.

Since that time I have come to drink coffee only rarely. So sensitive did I grow to the effects of caffeine during that time that I will now find myself still sleepless a dozen hours after drinking a single cup of coffee, or two cups of tea. I do miss the coffee sometimes, but having it only occasionally has also brought back to it that value of rarity which it had before I became an over-consumer. When I smell the aroma rising from the pot into which I have just poured the boiling water, I experience the anticipatory sense of well-being which that same fragrance brought when I was very young, before I was allowed to drink the beverage itself. And, limiting myself to a single cup on those occasions that I do indulge, I find provides one more advantage: Not wanting to waste any of so rare a treat, I make sure that there are never any dregs.

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