I’ve drunk a cup of black coffee every morning since I turned 16 and, apart from the occasional spasm of anxious twitching, I don’t seem to have suffered any permanent damage. It might seem strange that I graduated to the Black Coffee Stage at an age when most folks are still dilly-dallying with milk and sugar, but you have to understand that I am a native of Washington State, and for me, that means black coffee.
I grew up in a household of obsessive coffee drinkers, a world of bleary-eyed adults shuffling groggily through each morning, clutching mugs of java like partially drowned sailors clinging to life preservers. My mother and stepfather were especially avid coffee drinkers, people who brewed a cheap and rugged beverage in a dented percolator during the wee hours of the morning. For them, coffee was an Everyman drink, a drink for the Average Joe that ripped enamel off our teeth and boiled in our guts, emboldening us to persevere through nine months of rain and cold and darkness. It was an unspoken rule in our house that talking was not permitted until we’d had our coffee. Each morning we’d sit around, clad in slippers and bathrobes and staring out into the farthest reaches of the known universe, waiting for the coffee to brew, and woe betide any fool who tried to strike up a conversation in the interim.
Here’s a story that might interest you: once upon a time, about a week before Christmas, a wind storm rushed in off the Pacific Ocean and left the whole neighborhood without electricity for seven days and seven nights (sometimes it seems like my whole childhood consisted of one power outage after another; whoever had rigged the local power lines apparently had no qualms with merrily stringing them through the sagging limbs of the pine forests surrounding our house). I remember my family standing around in the living room, not bothering to worry about the lack of lighting or heating or even running water, but positively agonizing over the bitter disappointment of a morning without coffee. If it were Biblical times, we’d have dressed in sackcloth and ashes and engaged in some good old-fashioned keening. Luckily, however, it was the 21st century, and so my stepfather announced that he was going out to get coffee at the nearest coffee shop. It didn’t matter that the storm had toppled countless old-growth pine trees and rendered most roads impassable: he was tax-paying citizen, by golly, and he’d get his coffee one way or another. He donned his bulkiest cold weather gear and hefted a hacksaw over his shoulder and spent the next hour stoically dismembering the numerous fallen trees blocking our driveway. It was worth it, in the end: he made it to the nearest cafe, brought back the coffee, and we all lived happily ever after, at least until the electricity came on again.
While some folks might scoff at this story, it’s important to understand that, up here in Washington State, coffee is more than a mud-like beverage served at preposterous prices in posh cafes. Instead, it’s an excuse to slow down, relax, and do nothing. If I’ve got a cup of coffee in front of me, I feel no need to be productive or engage in sophisticated conversation with others; all I’ve got to do is stare at my ceramic mug and carefully consider each individual moment as I pass through it. In a world that increasingly frowns upon people who aren’t “busy” enough, coffee offers me an excuse to engage in some well-earned loafing. As such, when I remember that Christmas when my stepfather cut a swathe through the woods with a hacksaw, I don’t imagine he was going to all that trouble for caffeine. Instead, I think he was fighting to preserve an essential ritual, one that rebelled against the world’s insistence that we must all toil like pack mules until we drop dead of exhaustion.
When I was in high school, I was a member of the swim team for two years, roughly the length of time it took me to realize I hated holding my breath. During my brief stint as a backstroker, I had to wake up at 5 AM to go to morning practice in the dead of winter. Since I was too young to drive, my long-suffering mother (God bless her) also had to wake up at 5 to drive her gangly teen to the pool. I mention this anecdote because those mornings always began with coffee. My mother and I fired up our sputtering percolator, poured boiling coffee into mugs, and then we sat together in the living room, not saying a word, unwilling to clutter up the silence with unnecessary chatter. Sitting there in the pre-dawn darkness, I knew I would soon need to venture out into the cold to scrape frost off the car’s windshield. In less than half an hour, I’d be in the pool, slogging through sterile and chlorinated water, egged on by a red-faced coach bellowing obscenities. But all that was still to come, and there was no point worrying about it before its time. Before plunging into the chaos of the day, I had the leisure to sit in a quiet space and enjoy the silence that reigns in the dark moments before the sun rises and the world recalls the existence of language. I had the time to relax, put my feet up, and wait for the coffee to cool.
Author’s Note: This piece is the second part of an essay series called Living in Washington State.
Be on the lookout next week for the third entry: Pine Trees.