Tell Me Everything You Know About Coffee

Coffee at Lassen Nation Park – 1980

In the kitchen of the Hamilton Road house in Pittsburgh there was a percolator where the brew lurked, bubbling, boiling, and emitting the scent of burned food. Years later whenever I drove across the Bay Bridge, as I drew closer to the City, I was aware of the same smell from the Hills Brothers roasting plant on Harrison Street. Charred toast was the scented entry ambience of the City on my way to concerts at Winterland. That roasting facility no longer exists, another element of the old and treasured San Francisco that disappeared when the middle-class was purged after the century turned. The roasted odor was less pleasant than the aroma of apples from the packing plant I visited before we left rural Pennsylvania, but subtler than the acrid reek of cooked pickles at the Heinz plant in Pittsburgh where my Uncle Gene took me on a tour when I was in sixth grade. Though I was not a coffee drinker, whenever I crossed the Bay Bridge I felt as if I was entering a utopia of musical freedom.

Coffee was something that parents, aunts and uncles drank. I was not permitted to drink it. That was okay with me. I had no desire to taste it. The percolator was a suspect piece of technology and I wanted nothing to do with it. It was easy to obey the rules that forbade things that repelled me. There was even a more sinister looking device at my Great Aunt Margaret’s house made of two glass bowls stacked on top of one another that looked like a mechanism from one of the science-fiction comic books that I read under the blankets at night. Aunt Margaret was a stolid woman with a loud voice and her coffee maker burbled in the corner of her kitchen as formidably as she did.
When setting up my home in Bollinger Canyon I tried making my own coffee for the first time. It was something from a can, Folgers probably. Stale and vile. I poured it all down the drain and made a cup of Constant Comment tea, something that I could taste that matched up with the subtle thoughts that came to mind as I lived quietly in the country. That flavor seemed like the poems I was trying to write. Coffee was for novelists and storytellers.
I no longer remember when caffeine captivated me. It must have been after I met Candace. Everything she made in the kitchen was miraculous. Throughout our marriage there were moments when she would insist that I try something for the first time: escargot, red cabbage, artichokes. It’s an adventure, Richard, she would say to me whenever I hesitated. We brewed our coffee in a drip filter on top of a thermos, a device we later used when we camped. A few tablespoons in a paper filter and the methodical addition of boiling water were the components of the ritual. White filters. Later we switched to the unbleached brown variety at the suggestion of my mother, who claimed that the white ones contained nasty chemicals.
We had an unconventional espresso maker, a perplexing Italian device. Valves and curved pipes protruded from it like something from a steampunk story. I have no idea where it came from; strange kitchen implements came to Candace like lost orphans looking for parents. It sat directly on the stove and threatened to explode if it was not watched carefully. We used it rarely because we did not have the courage or the patience to wait for it to gradually leak espresso when the valve was opened. For three decades it sat in a box of kitchen tools, unused, balefully gleaming. I no longer have it. I got rid of it when I purged my possessions before moving to Oregon.
When I reached middle-age, coffee became a daily vital fluid, and I became the coffee master, though I never took the role as seriously as some of my friends who developed an unfortunate tendency to coffee snobbery. In the morning I would grind the beans (never the night before, the grinding was a part of waking up) and either use one of the many drip coffee makers that passed through our kitchen through the years or, if it was a weekend, a French press. Then I would bring coffee to my wife and sit on the edge of the bed as we sipped and talked in low voices so as not to wake the children.
In 2003 when I began working South of Market at Second and Brannan, I would stop at the Peet’s on the corner of Mission Street and buy a giant cup of brew. There was a public atrium in the building that overlooked the busy intersection and I would sit and read Buddhist texts, write in my journal, and compose poems once more. Coffee was no longer just for prose. I loved the intense taste of Major Dickinson’s blend, something I cannot find here in Portland, where local roasting dominates the market. For months I would stop at that seat of quiet reflection, the High Place as I called it, because I always sat at a table on a balcony where I could look down on reality as if I was transcending normal space and time.
After Candace died so much of the joy of tasting new things left me. I still made coffee in the morning in the kitchen that she designed, but it was not the same ritual anymore. After the initial shock of her sudden death I started journaling again. I would sit at the dining table, or my desk in my office upstairs, and drink coffee that no longer seemed associated with a vibrant time and place. No poems, no fiction, but many words that allowed my grief to ebb and flow out of me until I was emptied of sadness for that day. Major Dickinson did not taste the same without her. I moved on to other blends, and other rooms.
She had given me a small espresso machine years before and I would use that to make flavored brews with whipped milk, a sort of ersatz cappuccino. There was a period when Ariana worked as a barista and her tips on how to steam the milk lingered with me after she left home to live her own life.
I have always wanted one of those elaborate and expensive Breville machines that make perfect espresso. My friends in Santa Cruz own one; a present from Eileen’s eccentric brother, a massive device that dominates the kitchen like a silver god when they bring it in from its storage place in the garage. When I stay with them, Jainen makes the coffee in the morning using the tried and true drip method, pouring water carefully with great care and mindfulness. Coffee made by friends always seems better than what I make and drink alone.
This morning, before I came into my office to write, my brother made coffee. He is living with me now and has taken the responsibility for the morning brew. Over the past few days we have made some adjustments in its creation. He likes his coffee “black as the devil, hot as hell” as Talleyrand said. I am more sedate. I require half and half with no sugar. For me, that is where the poetry lives, and it has returned in this new land of contemplative rain and subtle grey skies, where I am waking up all over again. It’s an adventure, after all.

I Remember


Now begin with “I remember” for ten minutes and see where it takes you.

I remember the dream that awakened me this morning. One of those cold dreams that are anchored to the night with icy chains and images that mourn my losses in life, unwilling to let go of me so I can get on with the day. It was a fantasy in which I was running around the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, a SOMA that had changed from the resilient and credible opening titles of The Streets of San Francisco to the gleaming outlandishness of a Philip K. Dick novel.
I remember all the other times I have had that dream of places that I used to haunt in my real life, places that were taken from me, where I was left dangling like a spider that could not find an anchor for the next corner of the web it was weaving. These are dreams of a past that is mingled with fantasia that has no real significance except to remind me that the past is past. It is good to be reminded of that fact. It keeps me from holding onto something I can no longer have, whether it be labor, or love.
I remember being a small boy sitting in the alcove before the front door of the church a few doors down from my parents’ house in Roaring Spring, Pennsylvania. It’s a Catholic Church now. I can see it on Google Street view. I remember when my brother, Paul, was born in 1957, just ten days before my fourth birthday, July 26. I remember the gas station next door. Today it’s a pizza place. That town is probably all Trump country now, a land of hopes and dreams that have miscarried.
I remember a night when my father carried me out to the back yard behind the gas station to observe the Northern Lights, the only time I have ever seen that emerald radiance. It was unusual for the glow to appear that far south. It seems symbolic of something, an event like the dreams that are filled with meaning that I cannot understand. Yet in retrospect it seems a sacred moment. I wrote a poem about it many years ago. I would quote from it, but my copy of it is packed away someplace, just like everything else in my past.
I remember the sunrise I saw this morning from the back porch of my home in Oregon. Stunning rose-tinted eastern light. Unlike my dream it seemed filled with consequences that I could understand, even though I cannot explain what they may mean, just as I cannot explain the dream.
I remember that yesterday Paul handed me two boxes of archival material: black and white negatives, 8mm and 16mm movie film, all captured by our father. There are recorded events on that film, halted in silver chemistry, that I do not remember now. But the memories are there, and the pregnant objectivity of the captive past comforts me. Unlike my dreams I know there is meaning in those images as well as remembrance. Despite my knowledge and experience of impermanence I still want to excavate significance from my own past, and from the madness that currently engages the world.
I remember previous folly: assassinations, war, and riots. 1968. Sleeping in a bed in a new home in California, amid farmer’s fields that are now full of crackerjack houses. The world is always insane. I have just grown used to that reality.
Yet I will never dodge the discomfort of those cold dreams. At least not until I have my morning coffee, the elixir that softens reminiscence and transports me to the world with my eyes open, clear, and overflowing with the color of the sunrise in each present moment.