ON COFFEE

I need coffee. Coffee’s my first thought on rising, often my last at night. I’ve never, in a life of opportunity, tried a drug of any kind. This is with the exception of coffee. For I’ve used coffee. And I’ve used a great deal of it.

No coffee drinker will deny its power as a narcotic. I became one later than most, in my early twenties. And it took a week, only, of swallowing the dark stuff before I began to wake each morning clambering for it. I could not go without it. A cup, and I was soothed. Two, and I grew louder, more animated – a cartoon. Three, and my pupils were pools of deep, black coffee. In the words of the Hatter (approximately), “Everything percolated after that.”

Of course, like any narcotic, its effect dropped off with tolerance; so that now, to match the four-cup jolt of ten years ago, I drink, I’m prepared to admit, no fewer than 20 cups of brewed coffee per day. Not all at once, of course (that, I’m convinced, would kill me), but there and here, with meals, and between them, socially, and alone. It’s gratuitous to point out that I’m drinking coffee as I write.

Yet I’m no gourmand, no connoisseur of coffee. Roast and bouquet are, to me, worthless incantations. The smell of coffee is pleasant, the taste agreeable; but any one’s as good as any other; and the whole culture of mochas and au laits is so much lucrative madness, an en mass pageant of the emperor’s new clothing line. I drink, like your garden rummy, for the upshot – that thrilling spur to the nervous system that really gets one kicking. Decaf is the devil.

The appeal of such a drug to a writer is easy to imagine. No one wants to be intelligible first thing in the morning. It can be a difficult enough thing, at the best of times. And if coffee can change shuffling slugs into marvels of wakeful industry, it may well be the most wonderful drug that ever was, or will be. A popular one, too. At this very moment, hearts are fluttering, fingertips by the millions trembling, over worn-down keys, the world over. The current pandemic of personal journalism must owe its vitality – and perhaps its origin – to overcharged nerves desperate to ground themselves in some (apparently) productive activity.

When asked that stupidest of questions, one that only a person who’s never created anything puts to someone who has – i.e. “Where do you get your inspiration?” – I answer, minus hesitation, “Coffee.” This typically incites either a grimace, or slack-jawed stupefaction. The preferred retort, I suppose, is “nature’s majesty,” or “the moon,” or “a divine marble goddess who plunks down through the roof on occasion.” Some give these answers sincerely (the “flakes,” as they’re called), though most know the lie as they speak it, quickly, to get rid of the asker, who goes back to sweeping floors, or teaching, or whatever it is that dull people do to pass the time. But I’ve outgrown deception. Coffee, black coffee, is all I’ve ever needed – or ever will. And I’ll drink to that.

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