Saturday, December 7, 2013

Inherent Sorrows of the Tea-Drinking Countries

My memories of leaving a place are always soaked in coffee. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps, I get up earlier when I’m preparing for a move or because I am overwhelmed by a box-crowded apartment, I have to go out to get coffee in the morning. The coffee always tastes better when you go out for it. It’s a deeply satisfying feeling to walk out of the cold, gray morning into one of those steamy, brass and oak cafés with a bell that chimes at the door, the kind of places that usually have a resident cat and assorted mugs hanging on the wall. Some of the regulars request certain mugs, so that, eventually, the mug with a picture of, say, a snowman on it becomes ‘Jerry’s mug.’ Maybe there’s even a sign above the mug which proclaims this, drawn by Jerry himself one particularly humorous morning. The oil roasted out of the coffee beans evaporates, rises and condenses on the ceiling. The tables are damp with newsprint and the smell of ceramic mugs like wet sand.
It would be better inspiration to actually be at such a café to write this, but I decided to stay home this morning. We still have some coffee to use up and sometimes I’m too impatient to walk through the cold morning before having my first warm cup of the day. Of course, we’re packing away all the coffee cups. In the middle of a long, satisfying draught, my cup is pulled away and its contents unceremoniously dumped into another cup, one that isn’t being packed, a cup that’s cold and dusty on the inside. The hot coffee immediately cools to tepidity and the dust rises to the top of it resembling the ‘skin’ that forms on top of pudding. I continue to drink it anyway.
Two days ago, Gina and I decided to get up before dawn and climb up to the top of Grandview Park over in the Sunset Neighborhood which is on the other side of Golden Gate Park from us. My alarm went off just after 5, and I immediately threw myself out of bed just to silence it. It took me a few minutes to remember why I had set it so early. It was still completely dark outside and the heat hadn’t come on yet. I stood in the middle of the dark apartment, cold, my conscious returning like a Sperm Whale surfacing from the Marianas Trench. There was a light on the window in the house behind us. “Why do we always live next to some place that keeps one light burning all night?” I wondered. The wooden floor was cold under my feet and even in the dark I could see the wind stirring over the ivy on the back porch; the leaves shook off the jaunty window light from next door and then settled into it again. Gina mumbled something in her sleep and I thought about getting back into bed, but instead decided to make some coffee.
Making coffee in the dark reminds me of my parents. We had a coffee maker when I was a kid that sounded like a distant thunderstorm. It was a great comfort to wake up and here that thing fulminating and my dad shuffling around and swearing under his breath in the kitchen. It was a signal that the long night was over and listening to those sounds, I’d pull the covers back over my shoulder, turn over and immediately fall asleep listening to the soft chime of a spoon slowly stirring.
Now, the responsibility of making coffee in the morning has fallen to me. There are no children around to be comforted by it, but it gives me a sense of accomplishment to be up this early and swearing under my breath. Because Gina and I share a small studio, I wrap a pillow around the coffee grinder and tuck it into my chest before starting it. It looks like I’m throwing myself on a grenade. Although the noise is muffled, it’s still much louder and rasping than the sound of a distant thunderstorm. There is nothing peaceful about grinding coffee in the morning, especially before 6 AM. Luckily, Gina is a selective deep sleeper. If she hears something uncomfortable in the morning, her defense is to go deeper into sleep, rather than waking up to confront the offending noise. I greatly admire this talent.
When the coffee is finally percolating, I pour a little into two demitasse cups and dump the rest in the thermos to have later, when we get to Grandview Park. I have made the coffee strong and with a little sugar, it’s like espresso. I wake Gina up and we drink our 4 oz. of coffee together. It’s hard to believe that people can content themselves on such a small amount of coffee. Europeans may condemn American gluttony, our incomprehensible desire to consume copious amount of soda or fried foods, but they will never understand the satisfaction of holding a large, warm mug of coffee under the nose and slowly breathing in lustrous steam, because it doesn’t work with a cup of espresso, much less Nescafe.
It takes longer than we expected to get to Grandview Park. We have to cross Golden Gate park to get there and this always takes longer than expected. The maps make it look like it is only a few blocks wide, and maybe it is. I wouldn’t know because it is impossible to walk through it in a straight line. You take a curving street, then follow a bike path to a jogging trail, then cut across a soccer field only to find yourself back on the side you started from. After we emerged covered in burrs and panting from Golden Gate Park, we pass an open café on 9th avenue. In the front window is a man with a pint glass of coffee, newspaper majestically stretched open before him, drying the fresh newsprint like a butterfly drying its wings. I nearly sigh. The cold fog and the bilious lights outside are precisely what gives the scene its warmth, but it seems best to exit this world of dying night for the warm café interior. After all, we can watch the spectacle well enough from the window. But we’ve prepared coffee and the park isn’t too far away; without a word, we decide to press on into the tortuous maze of a terraced neighborhood.
There was so much fog, I couldn’t even see the Grand View, even when it was right in front of us. A neighborhood jogger pointed us in the right direction. (I always ask for directions when I am exactly a block away from whatever I am looking for.) The stairs were steep, I moved up them quickly because A. I was cold; B. I wanted the coffee we had in the thermos and C. I wanted to sit down. Up on Grandview, the fog was so thick it dripped of the Eucalyptus leaves in great, plashing tears. Every few seconds you could hear the dripping fog bang into clump of succulent plants or thump on a wooden fence post. We huddled together and saw nothing but whiteness. We were in the clouds. There was no sunrise to be seen, indeed there was no reality to be seen. Gina claimed it was a view so deprived of view as to be a thing that would surely drive one insane after a long enough exposure. After staring into the grey abyss for a moment I agreed with her. Grey, in its way, is more threatening that blackness. At least, blackness mimics sleep and unconsciousness. Grey is what you must see when the cable between your brain and eye is suddenly severed. Black is what comes when something is intentionally switched off. Grey is a malfunction.
I poured the coffee from the leaky thermos into the leaky cap; we passed it back and forth, drinking quickly. Birds could be heard chirping and fluttering nearby, but we couldn’t see a trace of them. Their wet wings would beat past us in the grey. The little birds passed in barely perceptible tics and the ravens sounded like someone shaking out a quilt. When the sound of the wings ceased, there was only the shifting grey fog falling to the wet sands and our green bench; we were entirely without context. Not long after we finished our coffee, the cold forced us up. We had watched the sunrise without knowing it. Gradually, the steely and oceanic hues in the fog had brightened to smoke and cloud colors; it was day. I wiped the moisture out of my beard and started for the stairs, hoping I’d be able to find them again.
It had been tacitly decided that we would return to the café we had passed earlier. The man was still there with his paper, his pint glass of coffee and his wobbly table. We joined him. The coffee had the texture and consistency of light shining on a waxed, oaken banister. I held the cup under my nose and let the coffee steam carry the rheumatic fog away.

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