June 1999
s m u g
by Steve Kleinedler

The Hard Stuff

The post office near my workplace is undergoing minor renovations. As a courtesy to customers who may be inconvienced by this, they've set up a table with free coffee and donuts. This coffee is not fancy, name-brand, or catered. Instead, it's served from one of those large, stainless steel, institutional-looking cylinders. As I sipped from their eco-hostile polystyrene cups, I sighed contentedly . . . real coffee, the likes of which I had not savored in many years.

I don't know when I became inured to overpriced gourmet coffee--it's all that seems to be available anymore. Growing up in Michigan, this was the coffee of church halls, auto plants, and family parties. My first cup, when I was 12, was at my great-grandfather's funeral. I mixed in a heaping dose of sugar and artificial powdered creamer (which I soon after began eating out of the jar), and sat on a stuffed chair and sipped away with my cousins and second cousins. Thereafter, I drank coffee only at funerals and weddings until I reached college, where I would begin to consume it regularly.

My coffee consciousness in the late 1970s was shaped by the insistent commercials that urged everyone to be a 'coffee achiever.' In the mid-1990s, when explaining these ads to people ten years my junior, they looked at me blankly like I was making it up, like it was a Saturday Night Live parody. But coffee achievement was big then; I guess I never noticed that Julie McCoy, my cruise director, was a cokehead because I assumed she was being a dutiful coffee achiever.

Perhaps, however, no other institution serves institutional coffee better than the diner. Chicago (like many other Midwestern cities and towns) has hundreds of these purveyors of Denver omelets and blueberry pancakes. They also know coffee.

When I walk into a Chicago diner, and even in most restaurants, I smell the freshly brewed coffee. At my table, laid before me, is a plate, silverware, and an empty coffee cup. In places that truly understand the ethos of dinerdom, within moments a server glides over and, simultaneously with the greeting, pours me a cup of hot coffee.

(For those who don't drink coffee, the very first thing one does in such places upon sitting down is to turn one's coffee cup upside down.)

For me, good service is synonymous with the server never allowing me cup to go less than one-quarter empty. (This only holds true because I drink coffee black. Those who take sugar and especially those who take cream have their own conventions as to when refilling is appropriate, lest the proper cream/sugar/coffee ratio go out of whack. Good servers are cognizant of these customers' coffee orientation and would never presume to upset the balance.)

So, imagine my shock in moving to Boston, which may have culture, but it doesn't have a coffee culture. In Boston's too-far-and-few-between diners, I will rarely be greeted by a coffee cup upon arrival. In restaurants, I'm never greeted by coffee, and, in fact requests for coffee throw seem to shock the server. When I am served coffee, I inevitably find the bottom of the porcelain cup staring back up at me. Then, the server stops by the table without a coffee carafe in hand.

Finally, this mystery was explained to me once when ordering lunch:

"You're from the Midwest, aren't you?"

"How could you tell?" I asked, fearing that my vowels had reacquired their Michigan nasal qualities and done the Northern Cities Vowel Shift on me again.

The reply: "They always get coffee first in the Midwest."

Then it hit me. In Boston, one drinks coffee as an after dinner drink, not before, not with. It's tragic, but it's another aspect of New England I've been forced to accept. It makes moments, like the one in the post office, all the more special.

Over the past decade, sadly, the availability of institutional coffee took a back seat. With the diminished presence of pubs and the rise of cafes, the expensive allure of coffee seems to have increased profit margins handsomely. And, for several years, I've gone along with it, plunking down up to $1.50 for a basic black coffee, more for the fancy stuff.

This morning, that all changed. The post office reminded me of the simplicity of coffee. It doesn't have to be an overroasted paean to conspicuous consumption. Instead, without its pretentious trappings, I am reminded that cofffee is merely a pure, hearty vessel of caffeine--which is exactly what I want.


in the junk drawer

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