Coffee has been a constant in my life since I was seven or eight years old. My mother always had a pot of coffee on for as far back as I can remember. I can’t imagine how many cups of coffee she drank during her lifetime, but it must have been in the millions. Back then it was brewed in a percolator that sat on top of the stove. It was one of those metal things where the boiling coffee bubbles up into the little glass cap that sits on top of the lid. It was store bought coffee with names like Folgers, HIlls Brothers, and Maxwell House (Sanka wasn’t real coffee and was considered undrinkable in our house). Coffee came in a big can that you had to open with a can opener. Some of them used one of those keys that attached to a metal strip on the side at the top edge and rolled around to open it, like a sardine can. Later on, in the sixties or seventies sometime, they invented those plastic lids that snapped on so the coffee would stay fresh. Of course, that sort of coffee was never fresh to begin with, so it didn’t much matter if you kept the lid on the can or not. The coffee always tasted pretty much the same. It tasted great, and it’s still the best coffee I ever had.
As a kid I started out taking my coffee with cream and sugar—lots of each. It was more like a mocha milk shake than real coffee, but I felt grown up when I drank it, and I liked it better than hot chocolate, which was just about the only other hot drink they served to kids back then. I don’t think any of my friends drank coffee, and some of them gave me a hard time about it, but I didn’t much care. Coffee was something that accompanied things you did. For me at first, it was mostly reading. I loved to sit and read with a cup of that milky white, ultra sweet hot liquid. I felt like a grownup and looking back, I think the coffee provided incentive to read those books. It helped to provide an escape for me, especially after my old man left. I felt comfortable when I was alone with a book and a cup of coffee. Still do.
If we had company over, my mother would always have a pot brewing and everyone would sit around smoking cigarettes and drinking cups of coffee while they visited. I usually didn’t take part in these grownup discussions, but often sat quietly and watched. And eventually for me, conversation became the second thing that accompanied coffee. As I entered my teens I hung out at the local malt shop in my hometown. Most of the kids sipped malts or root beer floats, but a few of us drank coffee. By my mid teens I had dispensed with the milk because it didn’t look as cool as black coffee did, but I still added sugar to it. I learned that for ten cents I could sit in a coffee shop and read, right in the middle of the bustle all around me. And the waitress would fill my cup up over and over, all day, while I sat reading my book. Sometimes I had conversations with friends or strangers who wandered in. Eventually, when I was playing in bands, I would sit with my musician friends and discuss life over a cup of coffee. None of us had regular jobs then, so we sat for hours at a time, solving the problems of the world. Having coffee in a café was a social experience, and it became a sort of ritual to me. It’s one that continues to this day, a cup of coffee and something to read.
As I got older, into my late teens, the coffee switched from black with sugar to just plain black. Hardcore, no frills coffee. I was facing some hard truths in my life and I suppose my choice in coffee mirrored them. Cream and sugar were for kids. I was an adult. The prospect of being drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam loomed large. I was against the war in principle, but I didn’t think of myself as an antiwar activist. I did perform at those sorts of events, and I was caught up in antiwar rallies and other events that young people did in those days. Looking back on it, black coffee seemed to coincide with all of that.
The black coffee phase lasted through my stint in the Navy, but I started taking a little milk with it (no sugar) after that. Oftentimes a roadside diner would only have powdered creamer (“whitener”, they called it), that came in a cardboard can, like salt, and I’d use that. If you poured it over an open flame it would almost explode, and you could do cool fireworks tricks with it. There’s no telling what was in that stuff to make it so flammable. Coffee shops also had what they called half and half, either in a small metal pitcher that sat all day on your table, or in individually packaged miniature plastic cartons. They still have those in a lot of places. Real half and half was basically just light cream, but the stuff they put in those little plastic things… I still have no idea what’s really in them. They could be left out all day and never go sour. They lasted for months. But I didn’t care back then (and I still don’t), because the half and half tasted okay with my coffee, so I used it.
By the time the ride started I drank it as I do today, black with a bit of milk (though I still take it black sometimes). I have never gone back to sugar or sweetener, though. I just don’t like it. Nor do I like the designer coffees they make nowadays, where you have to wait in line for them to make a single cup for you. Since most cafes no longer offer coffee in a pot, I’ve had to adapt. Now I drink what they call an Americano, which is like an espresso with a some hot water added, so it’s in a big cup. Then I add a little cold milk to it. I don’t care for all that fancy fluffy steamed milk stuff. Whenever I find a café that still has a pot of coffee brewing, I’m happy, though those places are getting harder and harder to find.
The ride presented a problem because I couldn’t really carry coffee. In fact, I had a headache for the first four or five days of the ride because of my caffeine addiction. It was the first time I had been without coffee in a very long time, and I hadn’t considered the effects. I was a bit surprised when that headache started blasting the inside of my head, but having no alternative, I just had to toughen up and soldier on until it went away. And it finally did, and I kicked the physical addiction cold turkey. But the social addiction never left me, and whenever the opportunity presented itself I always had a cup of coffee someplace. If it came to a choice between spending money on dinner or spending it on coffee, the coffee won out every time.
A cup of coffee in a café, along with a book or a newspaper or magazine, creates a social contract between you and your environment. This environment includes the coffee shop, its work staff, and its other customers. It even includes the street outside. The contract requires that you notice what is around you and learn something from it. The knowledge usually isn’t earth shaking, but you can observe people’s habits, their actions toward each other, and sometimes you even notice another who is observing you. The social part of the contract allows you to communicate with the staff and patrons. It doesn’t require you to, but you’re allowed to because you’re sitting there with a book and a cup of coffee, minding your own business, so a casual comment or hello is acceptable. You can converse with people, you can say hello, and you can strike up a conversation if you like. And you can respond to others who might want to join in.
There were times during the ride when a simple hello between me and the person next to me at the counter would turn into a conversation, and that exchange would somehow leak out into the room and eventually, I would find myself in the middle of a group of people all taking part in the discussion. Some would know each other if we were in a small town, but often they were all strangers to each other. And though we never acknowledged it, the coffee bound us together in some way, if only for a few minutes. I experienced this many times during the ride and, odd as this sounds, it was something I wished Gizmo could have experienced.
If you walked into a café back in 1974 you would see that most of the customers had a cup of coffee in front of them. It was the drink of choice. The coffee back then was a thread that bound all of you together for the short time you were in the diner. It wasn’t made for you, individually, like it is today. There wasn’t a different, made to order cup of coffee in front of each person. They didn’t call out, “Double trim mocha andante decaf chai with extra foam” in place of your name. They didn’t call out anything. They just turned over the cup that was already on your table and filled it from the communal coffee pot. Back then, all of the coffees were the same. Some had milk or sugar or both in them, but it was the drinker who doctored it and not the waiter. All those cups of coffee came from a community pot that sat on a burner behind the counter. Everyone drank from the same pot. Each dipped his ladle into the same well, so to speak. Everyone received the same coffee, like it or not. That no longer happens in today’s self-centered world, where each of us is the center of our own universe and expects everything made to order.
Today a community coffee pot at a fancy coffee bar is ridiculed and scoffed at. Brewed coffee is considered substandard and unacceptable, shoddy and second rate in a growing number of places. People in restaurants turn their noses up at coffee in a pot. But just as their handheld digital phones divide and isolate them from each other at their tables, so do their individually made lattes and espressos and long blacks and flat whites. You can make the comment, “This is really good coffee,” but no one else can truthfully say, “Yeah, it is,” because they are experiencing a different drink. They’re not drinking the same coffee you are. We’re no longer sitting in the same café together. We’re no longer a small community that has come together for the moment, tied together by a common thread.
We’re not drinking from the same coffee pot anymore.