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.

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