A CUP OF JOE
by Melodie Johnson
There is an expression that I detest: “Wake up and smell the roses.” I not only hate it for its inane mediocre sentiment, but for its tone. It insists. It demands. It’s not unlike the Nike ad that snapped, “Just do it.” Another version of this command is, “Wakeup and smell the coffee.” This one really irritates me because I like to wake up and smell the coffee. I just don’t like being told, with all the pious philosophical value of a Happy Face, to do so.
My husband makes me coffee in the morning. Even before I open my eyes I am sniffing the air for that wonderful enveloping scent that is created by hot water drenching beans that have been ground to something that resembles a deep rich loam. I love to sit up in my bed holding my first cup of coffee. (I drink from a mug. Cups are just not hefty enough for me. Coffee is a bold statement. Tea is a nuance.) I love to feel the warmth of the mug in my hands. I try to savior the first swallow because I know this coffee will be the best of the day.
Coffee is succor for writers. Honore Balzac drank over twenty cups a day. (I do not recommend this.) I find that getting up from my desk to make a fresh pot of coffee is a ritual that I need to go through in order to write. In The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler describes Phillip Marlowe making coffee:
“I turned the hot water on and got the coffee-maker down off the shelf. I wet the rod and measured the stuff into the top and by that time the water was steaming. I filled the lower half of the dingus and set it on the flame. I set the upper part on top and gave it a twist so it would bind. The coffee maker was almost ready to bubble. I turned the flame low and watched the water rise. It hung a little at the bottom of the glass tube. I turned the flame up just enough to get it over the hump and then turned it low again quickly. I stirred the coffee and covered it. I set my timer for three minutes. Very methodical guy, Marlowe. Nothing must interfere with his coffee technique. Not even a gun in the hand of a desperate character. The coffee was all down and the air rushed in with its usual fuss and the coffee bubbled and then became quiet. I removed the top of the maker and set it on the drainboard in the socket of the cover. I poured two cups and added a slug to his.”
The beauty of this scene is not only do you see Marlowe fussing in the kitchen, but you glimpse Chandler, the writer, and his connection to the ritual of coffee. The same with Ken Bruen and his character, Jack Taylor, in The Dramatists:
“I made some coffee – had moved up to real coffee – yeah, beans, filters, the whole nine yards. What I like best was the aroma: just let it cook, simmer and allow that smell to bounce off the wall. I never ever tired of the sensations. …When you’ve drunk instant all your life, you are seriously fucked. The real thing is too much; you can’t get your taste around it. Plus it packs one hell of a punch: two cups and you’re off your feet. All my years of caffeine, it was purely to punctuate the hangovers.”
I know coffee is not an American discovery, but like so many things we do we’ve made it our own. We’ve called it Joe and Java and many other names that I can’t remember. (I need another cup.) Diners exist because of this magical brew. They exist in novels and the movies for the PI, the desperate blonde, or the guy on the run, to sit at a counter and stare into a greasy mug of burnt coffee. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain, the reader can smell the java brewing in The Four Oaks Café along with the smells of the enchiladas and flapjacks being cooked. I’m sure that Mildred Pierce not only reeked of pies but also of coffee.
Now we’ve stripped away all artifice and we call it caffeine. We go directly to the addiction, the high. No time to linger, to enjoy. Or we’ve Starbucked it to death. Latte Vente. Or Is Vente Latte? (I need more coffee.) Can you imagine Marlowe ordering a Half and Half No Fat Latte? There is a very funny scene in Steve Martin’s L.A. Story where all the Hollywood people are ordering coffee, each wanting it prepared in a special way down to a half decaf, half-half decaf espresso. I love my coffee. I love the jolt. I love the memories it brings me. The memories are borrowed from mystery novels and black and white movies. Take another look at Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks. The only warmth, the only connection between the people in that startling piece of art comes from the two big shining urns in the back of the diner. You can almost smell it: A cup of Joe.