It’s not really about the acidity or the origin or the undertones or the aftertaste or the barista. Not really. Coffee became something different long ago. Speak, memory, about my own first full cup of coffee ever. I was a skinny sixteen year old and I had been given a summer job working with some small-time ranchers. We were out building fence on the plains. On the first day, the foreman gave me a roll of barb wire that I was supposed to carry across a field, laying down the line as I went. In my flabby, television-conditioned, thin-muscled arms, the roll felt as though it weighed 200 pounds. I didn’t think I could carry it a step. The foreman saw me totter, and said something to me that has stayed with me for over forty years. “The secret is this,” he said in a steady voice as he looked at me directly, “every step, you take, it gets lighter.”
He was right. Somehow I made it through the day, sweating, tasting dust, having grasshoppers bounce off my pale arms, listening to the workers curse each other with a laugh. The next morning, for the first time in my life, I felt as though I was a part of a group of men, rather than part of a group of kids. My dad or my older brother weren’t there to lighten the load–I guess that I worked hard enough that they let me stay. At sunrise on the second day, we went to the small town diner. The smell of the dew on the grass of the plains at sunrise, when you have worked hard the day before, is one of sweetest highs I have ever known. That high is far beyond any alcohol or drug intoxication one can talk or write about in the city.
On the other hand, the smells of the diner, once we arrived, were different from the smells of the morning outside. Sweat and dust, because the workers only washed once a week, cigarette smoke, frying bacon, eggs, pancakes, and most of all, coffee. The booths had aged plastic on the seats, with metal rims around the sides of the tables, curving at the corners. The plastic cups, crystalized with overuse, held water and crushed ice. Somewhere in the background, country music played on a juke box. The men, with their skin as brown as a boot, made good-natured jokes at my expense and at the expense of my other friends who were also working there for the first time. I was so skinny, they called me “husky.” Before I knew it, a plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns, fat pieces of bacon were set before me. I gulped down the food, seasoned by laughter, loud laughter, men’s laughter–the easy roar of workers after a joke. No church chorus had ever sounded so good, or so holy.
I had never had coffee before. Dare I order a cup, like everyone else? Would the large waitress refuse, and call me “honey”? Would I wither in humiliation at the awkward silence? I took the chance. The waitress hesitated for the slightest blink, and then brought me a weathered cup on a beat-up saucer, and poured out the steaming black liquid. I put in milk and sugar as if I had been doing it all my life, and lifted the heavy cup to my lips. The coffee snapped the back of my brain like a bull whip. As I left the diner for another day of work, I strutted in my work boots like a rooster.
So that cup of coffee in a diner in Oklahoma was the best cup of coffee I have ever had. Portland, or Williamsburg for that matter, could never compete.
Upside Down Devotion