Recently I had to make an urgent trip to the States, from my home in Australia, after my sister passed away. I arrived late at night and was picked up by my nephew who’s house I would spend my first night back in America.
After a long night of reflection, tears and a broken sleep, my nephew and I ventured into the sultry August morning to get some breakfast at a local diner.
The diner was one of those American icons, silver plated glowing in the sun, with wide bench seating and a counter where locals read the newspaper or chat about politics and fishing.
We made our way past the “Please seat yourself” sign and sat down at a stall with a view of the parking lot filled with pickup trucks and retirees slowly coming and going. Within a minute, after seating ourselves, we were greeted by a waitress in a black dress, a fresh white apron and a nametag which stated that her name was Melissa.
Melissa was polite as she took our order of creamed beef on toast and home fries. She smiled and said that she will be back in “just a sec.” as she spun away with our menus in her arms. Melissa disappeared for a moment and returned to place on our table a small bowl filled with portions of half and half and a tiny white pitcher of milk resting on a saucer adorned with a paper doily. Melissa quickly scurried off and then a magical almost religious moment occurred. Melissa reappeared at our table with two pots, one with a deep brown collar, the other dusty orange. “Regular or Decafe?” asked Melissa before filling our thick china cups with coffee. It was shortly after this ritualistic time that my nephew and I began to fall into deep conversation while sipping on our coffees. It was at this time I truly realised I was back in America and far from the coffee culture of Australia.
It is not just nostalgia that makes me feel comfort in American style coffee. It is a deeper physiological bond that cannot be simulated with a cappuccino or café latte. In Australia we speak of coffee in lengthy dialog in busy cafes, amongst the hissing sounds of espresso machines. Within Australian cafes coffee is analysed, discussed and holds a great presence at the table. In America coffee is not the topic of conversation but the instrument used to accompany the discussions. It is the fluid consumed between the breaks in the words, between pondering and response. It is also the silent milky swirl we gaze into, with no need to feel rushed, as we sit and contemplate. In America coffee sneaks up on you, silently, only making itself know by the appearance of a human being asking if you need to “a refill”. It is this silence, the insignificance of the actual beverage, and the centring of human interaction that creates the physiological bond.
It is American coffee which takes the mind into the film noir stylings of the Americana of Tom Waits songs and Jim Jarmusch movies. American coffee is entangled in our collective memories, either real or manufactured, of the drifting sounds of a jukebox, of cigarettes burning in silver foil ashtrays, and of pie. It is part of the background stuff to which life is played out. American coffee is undemanding, it is a prop, not a main character.
American coffee is what I drank from a Styrofoam cups at high school football games on cold Friday nights. It is the beverage that my college roommate and I would share time to, drinking cup after cup while filling our empty guts with scrambled eggs and toast at three in the morning after a night of drinking beer. It was the brew in our cups when I listened to my Grandfather’s failing voice after I picked him up from the Veterans Hospital for an afternoon out. It was an endless flow that only stopped when we stopped, not when the foam reached the bottom of the cup. American coffee gave us time to solidify relationships. It was there, it was cheap, it was “background”.
I have not had the same bonding experiences over an extroverted Macchiato, or the stage ready Mocha latte. It is not I who has changed, I am still human, it’s the coffee that has changed.