An Ode to Beautiful Brown Sludge
In an age of pour-over pretention and venti half-caf caramel macchiatos, a love letter to the mind-jolting, tongue-burning, time-killing power of a regular old cuppa joe.
by Lilly O’Donnell
When I quit smoking, the hardest thing to give up wasn’t the nicotine or the flavor; it was the symbolic time-out. To smoke a cigarette is to pause life in order to mentally process it, or simply to step out of it for a moment. A cup of coffee can be a prolonged version of the same experience: both the fuel that keeps us going and the indulgence that keeps us sane.
A watered down, slightly burnt cup of cheap coffee in an even cheaper paper cup with a lid that doesn’t quite fit can be one of life’s most satisfying small victories. Hold that leaky cup in the air like Lady Liberty’s torch as proof that your life is still your own, even during a brutal commute, too early in the morning, to a job you hate that doesn’t pay enough.
Stop and think about how many moments and memories were formed over a cup of coffee; how many daily activities are vastly improved by the addition of hot brown sludge. The coffee itself doesn’t have to be Venti or half-caf, fair trade or artisanal, topped with whipped cream or chocolate shavings. In fact, it’s better if it’s not.
I make good, strong coffee for myself every morning; it’s part of my routine. But the taste of kind-of-watery, kind-of-burnt, all around kind-of-shitty coffee from a diner or a deli brings on a flood of memories for me, not unlike the way too much coffee brings on the urge to pee.
I had five hours to kill. Not quite enough time to commute an hour each way from the Village home to Queens and back, too much time to window shop (I’d cave and go broke). The weather wasn’t nice enough to wander aimlessly or sit in a park. It was springtime, but not a bunny-rabbits-and-daffodils kind of spring day—it was one of those spring days that’s nearly indistinguishable from an autumn day. The sky was a hard, impossibly bright white, almost metallic, threatening to rain like a bully whose hand is always clenched and ready to punch, never letting you forget it.
Walking up Sixth Avenue but not sure where to, I traced old steps and ended up at the corner of 11th Street, where I used to go to school. I walked into French Roast, the restaurant on the corner with small tables and low light, where I spent many a lunch hour.
At a table by the window I ordered a cup of coffee and took James Baldwin’s Another Country out of my purse. I was only about one hundred pages into the nearly-four-hundred-page novel; I’d figured out how to spend my afternoon.
The coffee at French Roast is not very good. It’s weak, a little sour, and it comes in a very small cup so it cools too quickly—especially when drowned in milk to mask the flavor. But every time I got halfway through a cup and abandoned it, lukewarm and unappealing, to the far side of the table, the waiter with the geometric bird tattoo on his forearm came over and filled it to the brim, bringing it back to life and getting me through another chapter.
The Flavor of Mischief
Lots of people go to a bar or a friend’s house to have a few drinks and get in the spirit before heading to a party. They call it pre-gaming.
Pre-gaming is like stretching before a workout: if you dive right in without first warming up, you can hurt yourself. Especially if everyone at the party is already drunk when you get there. Pre-gaming is the responsible thing to do if you take having fun seriously.
Often just the idea of being social and friendly and excited to be anywhere other than at home in my pajamas is exhausting. Any excuse to stay home is a good one. But arriving at a party where everyone else really is social and friendly and excited to be out (read: they got drunk and forgot about the effort involved, or they’re just the type of people who are genuinely chipper) can be enough of a shock to make me just turn around and go home. Hence, pre-gaming.
But I live a pretty hefty subway ride away from just about anywhere I’d ever go, so in order to fit in social stretches I’d have to get a huge head start, leaving my house at senior citizen hours. That would get in the way of the other essential pre-party ritual of changing clothes a million and a half times, so it never happens.
Luckily, I’m a big proponent of multitasking. Whenever I do two things at once (write when it’s slow at my bar job, deal with Time Warner on the phone while I clean my apartment, do crunches while I watch Law & Order), I feel victorious, like I beat the system and inserted extra time into the day.
So, sometimes I like to pregame on the train. Since I’m not a homeless person this doesn’t mean a tall boy in a paper bag, or even a plastic bottle of vodka in a paper bag. It usually means a large iced coffee with a generous serving of whiskey in it—the classy way to drink in public.
The caffeine sets you up to stay awake for the whole evening, and nothing sets the tone for a wild night like a little casual law-breaking. The cheap coffee flavor (usually cheap because it’s gotta be a really big cup to last the whole train ride), when mixed with Jameson or maybe sometimes Jack Daniels, becomes the flavor of mischief, which is enough to make me forget my curmudgeonliness; enough to make me want to be social, and friendly and excited to be out.
Bartenders’ Best Friend
I work in a dive bar. The kind where the regulars aren’t just people who stop in once in a while, but people who come in every single day and stay for several hours, and even more drinks. On good days I think about how lucky these people are to have a place where they can come to be alone together—a safe little bubble of camaraderie.
But there are bad days, too. And on bad days the whole scene looks very different. One bad day—not just your usual ‘my shoe broke on the way to the train’ bad day, or your slightly worse ‘I think I’m getting sick, again’ bad day, but a real whopper; a ‘just fresh off of a breakup, there was ice cream drool and mascara tears on my pillow when I woke up this morning’ kind of bad day—I stood behind the bar, leaning against the ancient cash register, holding a paper coffee cup in both hands. And as I stood there, scanning across the bar, looking for empty drinks to refill, eyes trying to catch mine, I laughed a little at how thin a comfort my lonely-hearts club theory of bar regulars was. How naïve.
These people all came into the bar alone, they’ll all leave alone, and maybe, I thought, right now, as they sit and make small talk with each other, this is when they’re the most alone of all. This pessimistic train of thought wrapped around itself in my brain, distorting like a funhouse mirror of human misery until it became less sadness and more mirth. The little seed of pathetic desperation grew to Little Shop of Horrors proportions, becoming such a caricature in my mind that the whole thing—their misery and mine—became hilarious.
“Order one more drink, because why not?” I thought, as though I was luring in unsuspecting victims. I buried a super-villain laugh in a sip of coffee. Glad it wasn’t beer; I told myself that this somehow separated me, that I was just an observer of this ritual of loneliness, rather than a key participant. “It’s not like anyone’s waiting for you at home. Sure, you’ve already had two or three too many, but maybe if you’re hungover enough tomorrow you’ll oversleep and temporarily delay the start of yet another day that will be exactly like this one.”
In my first semester of grad school, I had an ethics class at eight in the morning. I probably would have been bored and miserable in a class about kittens and cookies at eight in the morning, and I probably would have been bored and miserable in an ethics class at two in the afternoon. But combine them and, just for kicks, make it on a Friday, and the whole thing seemed like a test of how badly I really wanted that degree.
I began the year with a firm promise to myself that I wouldn’t miss a class, that I wouldn’t even be late, all year. This came partly from a conviction that grad school is to be taken seriously, so it was time to leave the kiddy bullshit behind in undergrad along with the keggers I never went to and dorm rooms I never lived in. But just as much, it came from the fact that I was going to an Ivy League school with almost no financial aid and one bored afternoon I undertook the masochistic exercise of calculating how much I was paying for each hour of class time.
So the first time I woke up ten minutes before I had to leave for class, I skipped the shower, skipped the coffee, threw on whatever clothing was in reach, and attempted to tame my hair while speed-walking to the subway and hoping that I’d grabbed the right notebook.
I fell asleep in class.
Not only did I miss as much as if I’d just stayed home, but I convinced myself that the professor now hated me and would eventually exact some cruel revenge rife with dramatic irony (even though it was a huge lecture and he probably didn’t even notice).
The next time I slept through my alarm, which was a couple of weeks later, I skipped the shower, skipped making coffee, threw on whatever clothing I could reach and tucked in my shirt while speed-walking to the subway and hoping my socks matched.
But this time, when I got off of the subway at 116th Street at exactly 7:58, with just enough time to slide into a seat in the back of the lecture hall with action movie timing, I stopped at the coffee shop instead.
When I walked in, panicked and guilty about being two whole minutes late, everyone was still settling in their seats, the professor was sifting through his notes, and for the first hour of class I had something enjoyable to sip on while listening to painstaking dissections of hypothetical situations.
Beacon of Normalcy
When I was a teenager I floated. Not the serene cloud-like floating of a dream of heaven, but an untethered, nauseously buoyant floating that made interaction with the world impossible.
I dropped out of high school not out of defiance but out of necessity. I physically couldn’t force myself through the doors of what I viewed as a prison, existing only to keep me from enjoying the sunshine and my youth. But floating out the doors, freeing myself of rules and a schedule, didn’t help ground me at all.
My mother and I didn’t speak, but we often screamed. And since we shared a studio apartment and I didn’t even have a bedroom door to slam in teenage fury, I stayed out of the house as much as possible. I slept on the bedroom floors of people I’d just met. I rode the M train to Brooklyn and back at dawn just to watch the sun come up over the Williamsburg Bridge. I took naps in the park with the homeless junkies, to whom I felt more connected than anyone else because they, too, lived outside of the rest of the world’s routine.
The friends my age that I did have were still in school, so while we would gallivant together in the afternoons, I was left to float alone in the middle of the night, which inevitably bled into the early morning. Sometimes I would surprise them outside their apartment doors and walk them to school, just because I was still up, hadn’t spoken to another person in hours, and it was something to do.
Late at night, when my feet were tired from wandering the empty streets, I would buy a sixty-cent cup of coffee, pick a good stoop, light a cigarette, and record everything I’d seen that day, starting with the facts and then expanding them into elaborate fictions.
Even though the little sleep I did get usually took place in the afternoon rather than at night, the cup of coffee right before dawn marked the beginning of a new day. When I went into the deli to buy it there were usually a few early risers there to do the same, and I exchanged knowing nods with them, letting them believe that I, too had just dragged myself out of bed and was on my way to start another work day—it was the closest I came to being part of the rest of the world’s routine.