While the widespread fluoridation of the nation’s water is a fine thing to be sure, the greatest achievement within my lifetime is that it’s now possible to get a decent cup of coffee anywhere in the land of the free and home of the breve. Time was, you’d cross the wide Missouri River and the potable java would soon be a pungent cross between 10W-40 motor oil and chicory. (Coffee was two bits in those days, but so was gasoline.)
I can remember driving all night down the East Coast and stopping in grim Greek diners in New Jersey, places out of Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks,” that served industrial sludge. This was coffee prepared in the traditional manner: a long-simmering La Brea Tar Pits-like cauldron of black, nasty brew that left the mug and your teeth stained. Now, even in fly-blown wastelands— the Red States— the cognoscenti are hunkered down over lattes and latteccinos.
My own day is a pilgrimage of coffee drinking, moving from one cup to the next in a caffeine-fueled quest. I believe that you can’t drink too much coffee, a gospel I proclaim to those who will listen. (I never understood the inexplicable popularity of the TV show “Friends” but I salute it for promoting coffee.) I fully expect to be honored by the government of Brazil for my ministry. When I make a pot of coffee, the peoples of Colombia, Kenya and Sumatra call to me. I feel obligated to the sainted memory of Juan Valdez and his burro to drink the whole pot. I may sweat and my hands may shake. I may occasionally hear things or hallucinate. Sometimes it feels like Buddy Rich is playing a snare drum in my chest. But it’s all a small price to pay for the pleasure of coffee’s company.
Coffee has not made me a more tolerant or better man, but it has opened up new worlds to me. I have wonderful memories of an espresso booth on the banks of the Snake River in Idaho … a used bookstore on the Maine coast in the old fishing port of Rockland … a rainy winter morning in San Francisco’s North Beach listening to Puccini … a shack in the Florida Keys with the sunburned citizens looking like runners-up in a Jimmy Buffett look-alike contest. And the Flying M café in Boise, where the girls have purple hair and Chinese characters tattooed across their lower backsides.
I love coffee places, with their rancid couches and mind-numbing music. I even love the chai drinkers. (I had a chai once when I had a cold. I got better anyway.) And the latte ladies with their complex chemist-like orders— extra, extra soy!— who always pay with a debit card. Inevitably, there are scones (Bisquick, sawdust and raisins?) and walls bedecked with undergraduate photos of pale nudes (always holding their cats), girls with names like Aurora and Shay and Wendi (always with an “i”) sitting in a bathtub or at a 1950s kitchen table. These are places out of Tom Waits songs. There’s the kid in the refrigerator repairman’s uniform, the waif/girl in an old housecoat, the furtive smokers clustered by the door, the halitotic dogs baying outside.
Recently, what I have been saying for years was officially confirmed by the Scientific Community: coffee is the elixir of life! Not merely Chock Full o’Nuts but, by gosh, chock full o’ antioxidants, too. Whatever they are, I’ll have another cup. (Actually my third!) Wheeeeeeew. That feels soooo good.
So, these days I also drink coffee because it’s good for me. And unlike alcohol or drugs or the evil sot weed, it does not impair one’s motor skills or ruin one’s health. In fact, I think coffee makes you a better driver, though one must be careful about choosing musical selections while motoring if large amounts of coffee have been taken. I had a little misadventure mixing French Roast with the works of Mr. Jerry Lee Lewis during a drive to New England.
“I’ve had a lot of coffee to drink, officer,” I told the state trooper in Connecticut that morning.
He smiled and said, “Me too, pal.”
I got off with a warning.