Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A hot cup

You're supposed to write 1,000 words a day to be a successful blogger.

Not gonna happen. And I'd like to know that definition of 'successful' anyway.

Been quiet recently.
Haven't had a clear train of thought.

That hasn't...
...stopped me before. I know, I know.

Write about anything that's on your mind.
Nothing other than craving a cup of coffee. And I can't drink coffee anymore.

Write about that.
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A Starbucks morning. “I’d like a cup of tea please. Earl Grey.”

The cashier says “Okay Captain Kirk, would you like a baked good or yogurt with that?”

“No thanks. And I think it was Captain Picard who had a thing for Earl Grey.”

The cashier pauses, rolls her eyes and says “Huh. Geek. That’s $1.27 please.”

She smiles as soon as I do, realizing that I’ve taken it in the spirit in which it was given. I don’t have any particular brand loyalty to Starbucks, it just has the darkest roast of coffee around my office and since I can’t drink coffee anymore, I walk in from time to time simply to inhale. The management (and customers) would probably think it weird for me to stand near the espresso press huffing the drawer for the spent grounds, so I try to limit myself to buying a cup of tea and not looking too wistful.
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I involuntarily stopped drinking coffee around 18 months ago. I don’t have a solid medical rationale for this. Travis suggested it was psychosomatic and I don’t disagree with him, although such low-level psychosis tends to be accompanied by a discernible trigger. But I can’t find it. If I’d been beaten up by a cardboard-cupped double-double or large latte on the way to school as a child and buried the trauma for decades (only to have it sabotage my love of coffee in my early 40s), you’d think it would at least introduce itself at the threshold of my consciousness and explain how the aforementioned cups managed the trick of locomotion and street-fighting.

I’d been drinking black coffee since I was 15, since Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin and Paul Newman drank it black and therefore I believed I could automatically count myself among their number if I followed suit (this was, admittedly, a stretch). My maternal grandfather reminded me of all of those people and as I child I loved the rich scent of my grandmother’s perked coffee on a gas stove. And my grandfather drank black coffee. I could steal a taste from time to time and, like most coffee, it smelled better than it tasted (especially so for my grandmother’s brew). But the association for me was formed: good coffee, properly appreciated in the right tough-guy fashion, had to be knocked back hotter than hell and black as sin.

This habit continued for 25 years or so, until a Friday afternoon when I realized that every cup of coffee I’d procured from the three local pushers to my office (a Second Cup, a Mmmuffins and a Tim Hortons) was nauseating swill to me. It smelled like coffee at first, but every mouthful of every blend would hang on my palate like coffee-flavouring that had been drowned in salt water or grease. I thought that my handy-dandy environmentally-friendly stainless steel mug was leeching residue from cups that had come before, but it was cleaned every night and stainless steel is usually pretty inert. Drinking from paper cups didn’t improve anything, and the coffee I made at home was worse.



Overnight, my body had decided that all things coffee related had become an emetic and should be treated with the associated respect (and avoidance). I wasn’t happy about this. As a four-cup-a-day drinker, I felt that the DTs were inevitable and I missed the flavor of the coffee that I remembered, rather than the coffee that was available to me. I took a wild guess and reasoned that not every coffee outlet had suddenly started selling a chemical-based ill-flavoured alternative, it was just me being weird. Not out of the realm of possibility on many levels. I just didn’t think it would manifest itself as an aversion to coffee.

I’ve survived. I’d always liked Japanese green tea and replaced my four daily cups with that. It’s allegedly better for me, it’s cheaper, and it allows me to feel very zen on short notice before I realize how anti-zen I am at the best of times. I will occasionally be able to knock back an espresso and the first swallow carries with it the glory of past days. The remainder tastes like coffee-flavoured plastic mixed with varsol. If it hits my gut, there goes the day. I can’t explain it, understand it, or hide it. Coffee unexpectedly let me down and donuts haven’t been quite the same since.
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You get off the subway at Eglinton station and get hit with waves of coffee. A Treats outlet, a Cinnabon and four strong blends along with espresso wafting out of a Second Cup in the station itself. I don’t indulge in any of it, but I camped out at that Second Cup often in my early 20s when underemployed, listening to the 3:15 to 5:00pm chatter and thinking that it might be fodder for short stories or a screenplay. All I got out of it was to become part of the 3:15 to 5:00pm coffee crowd and was enough of a regular that the owner started letting me pour my own cups on the honour system. Nobody believes this, including me; I figured that I either looked exceptionally trustworthy or sufficiently broke and caffeine-deprived that she was afraid to make me wait too long. For the record, I always paid.

I didn’t always pay at the Mmmuffins shop close to Exchequer, a former employer. I’d actually used them for catering a few times because they could put it together quickly, charged reasonably and even brought me in under their original quote when I was coordinating a staff function. It was run by two brothers, a nephew and an aunt. There was some friction between at least three of the four of them and the aunt (Russian, very pale with deep brown eyes) decided the best way to revenge herself was to give me free coffee.

I didn’t know any of this at the time; we’d chat in the morning, I’d get a black coffee and a muffin with my co-workers, we’d all make the same noises about how much happier we’d be on vacation, boy the traffic was terrible and have a good day and that was that. I don’t know how long it had been happening before I finally noticed that I received 3 loonies change for a bill of $2.85. I chalked it up to experience and had that same experience happen with her three more times in a week (it didn’t happen when the nephew was manning the cash).

I didn’t know if she was a lousy mathematician or whether she was just trying to be nice to me. Nobody had given me free food since I was 15 or so, when a girl named Stacy would flirt with me over the counter and slip me a large order of fries for the price of a small at a food court at Yonge and Sheppard. Their MO might have been similar, but the Mmmuffins aunt looked to be in her early 50s and seemed a bit advanced in years for puppy love to be a motivating factor. This continued for around two weeks before I noticed that my $2.85 breakfast was now garnering me $5.00 in assorted change. I was starting to turn a more significant profit. Which weirded me out. I didn’t want her to get in trouble and I thought that, as short cons go, this was about as short as one could manage.

The problem eventually took care of itself; I might not have been the only beneficiary of that franchise’s largesse. She went to work in the baking area and offered me the occasional grin. And the nephew told me dirty jokes about sailors and counted out the change properly with my morning caffeine fix.
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When you hit the corner of Yonge and Eglinton, there’s a Tim Hortons that is large and cavernous and two Starbucks franchises stand within half a block of each other. Each have their aficionados. I can’t tell them apart on short notice, although there are those who claim that Tim Hortons people stand for Canadian values and Starbucks people have too much money to spend on coffee. Some care about this deeply. Others have better things to do. I’ve seen businessmen in power suits gripping cups of each brand on their way to the office towers and they look pretty interchangeable to me.

I don’t understand the Tim Hortons junkies. I’ve never had a sentimental attachment to the place, although my father did, which dragged me into it temporarily. For the first few years after his death, I couldn’t set foot in an outlet without looking at the travel mugs and flasks while thinking He’d like that. Maybe for Christmas. Or Father’s Day. And the day would fall to pieces. No coffee is/was worth that.

This memorabilia-fixation might be more endemic than I’d previously expected. My son and I went to a garage sale a few years ago when I was still transporting him on a back carrier. There was a small Tim Horton’s branded Thermos on a card table with a few assorted dishes and bits of Tupperware. It was stainless steel, presumably unbreakable, and the perfect size to transport milk or juice in my son’s diaper bag. It also was the only unmarked item on the table so I wanted to be sure that it was actually on sale, rather than having simply been left there by an absent minded shopper.

I saw a woman who looked to be in her mid-50’s with graying curly hair and cat-glasses making change for a man buying a very old toaster. I showed her the thermos and asked how much she wanted for it. This was apparently a very difficult question. She stared at it and at me silently for a few seconds before asking “What do you believe that is worth?”

I shrugged and said, “Three or four bucks?”

She icily said “I don’t think you know how much that cost when it was new. That cost over twenty-five dollars.”

This comment caught the attention of a man in his mid-50s with similar graying curly hair and glasses with oversize 1980’s frames. He caught her eye and she gave him the same cold stare she’d given me. I looked carefully at the thermos over and found a few scuff marks on the sides.

“Is this thermos new?” I asked politely.

“Of course not,” she said.

“So…three or four bucks?” I suggested.

“Give him the thermos,” said the man brusquely.

They had another brief but intense staring contest. I readied two twoonies and made sure they were in the sightline of both individuals, hoping they’d see it as both a sign of good faith and the high end of my initial three or four buck offer. She finally took the money from my hand without looking at me and turned her back. The man cocked a snook in my direction which felt like he was saying I hope you appreciate everything I’ve just done for you and I made a hasty retreat. Something about that transaction meant a lot to at least of one of them, and blessings to all involved but really I just wanted a small Thermos and to carry on with my life.
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Coffee is matching shots of espresso and grappa while trying to play pool in university. Please note that coffee is an upper and grappa a downer; taken simultaneously you sort of go sideways. Coffee was a good excuse to have a date (“Do you want to have a cup of coffee or something?”), a good reason to stretch out the evening (“Just one cup? A fast one?”) and a consistent show of civilization. It smells welcoming. Even bad coffee at least means that somebody thought it was a good idea to begin with, and that somebody at least cares enough to offer you a cup.

Coffee demolished a tentative on-again, off-again relationship I had in my late teens. I’d called Amanda after a few days of silence (which had followed an evening of passion, so I had no idea whatsoever of where I stood with her) and it went like this:

Me: Listen, I’m close to the store. Do you want a cup of coffee after closing?

Amanda: Why?

Me: Pardon?

Amanda: Why?

Me: (unsure) Why…have…a…cup…of…coffee?

Amanda: (with complete sincerity) Yeah.

My time with Amanda had been sweet and weird before becoming all-out weird. This was exactly as much as I could take.

Me: Amanda, nobody says ‘Why?’ when asked to go for coffee! Normal, civilized people in this universe say yes or say no! You can use either word! But you do not get to say why! I will not function rationally around you ever again if you try to get away with saying why!

Amanda: Michael! I’m…

Me: Stand me up! Say no! You can even lie to me! Say you’re busy! Say you’re doing inventory! Say you’ve got a date! I very honestly don’t care! But for God’s sake, you have got to at least be able to know whether or not you want a cup of coffee!

Amanda: OKAY! YES! I DO! SHUT UP! I WANT COFFEE! OKAY?! OKAY?!

Me: GREAT! WHEN?! AND WHERE?!

We met. It was sort of a tense evening and the decidedly last date in our on-again, off-again paradigm. I thought she was nuts and she returned the favour towards me. It’s worth laughing at now. I don’t blame the coffee at all.
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Coffee is bags of oily beans from that place in Kensington Market. Coffee is boiled in a saucepan and poured over a sugar cube in the Turkish style by a Romanian friend from years ago. It’s the brushed metal machine my wife gave me when I was feeling broke and made outstanding coffee until the brushed metal was all that was left of it and the plastic innards melted away.

Tea’s fine. It does the job and has an honorable history. I don’t feel as much like Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum over a cup, but I think I realized I wasn’t truly among their number by my mid-teens. When I have writers block I depend on tea, which (allegedly) promotes clarity of thought.

Tonight, it’s made me want to write about coffee.

You can dream, right?


October, 2011

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