Noble Coffee (downtown)

Friday, September 9, 2011

When it was first warming up sometime in early July (summer came late this year), I used to pay $2 for the tiniest but most delicious cup of coffee from Mix, walk along the creek across from Guanajuato way, and sit on a very sunny bench across the street from Sesame. It was there, soaking up as much warmth as possible, that I wrote at least two posts on this blog. I believe one of them had to do with shoes. Today I payed $2.50 at Noble Coffee's tiny booth downtown to do the same thing, but the cup is larger, and the weather is hot enough that I'm seeking shade, not sunshine.

It's not a new habit. When it really began for me was back in Bar Harbor a few years ago. A friend and I were going on a walk in the winter (although it could've been fall--every season but summer is too cold there), and she demanded with characteristic zeal that we get coffee to go on our way. We didn't exactly know where we were going, but every walk in the direction we were going inevitably ended up at the baseball and soccer field next to the YMCA, at which point you realize that you are nowhere and turn back. But that didn't matter; you have to feel wilfully whimsical to enjoy these things. The coffee was not just fuel for our whimsy, but also warmth. We held our cups to keep our hands from freezing, and drank it to warm the rest of us.

In subsequent years there I repeated this ritual (which even the crinkle the plastic top reminds me of today) on my own, sometimes when the weather was just warm enough that a cup of coffee was what I needed to feel that it actually was pleasant out. I would take the same walk to the same place, because I was bored and because it gave me, I thought, time to think. I did it to step back from the stuffy interiors I inhabited and try to think about the future, try to summon up a space in which to be deliberate. The coffee enabled this. Well, briefly. The cup would run low and tepid, the taste would grow unpalatable, the cold would seep back in, and I would go home (such as it was).

In New England coffee is drunk that way: as a heating element. In some ways it hardly matters what it tastes like. Dunkin Donuts coffee is hot, it has caffeine. Why not quaff several pints a day of battery acid?

I'm reminded of Karen Pelletier's big, Polish cop companion, Lieutenant Piotrowski, in Joanne Dobson's academic murder mysteries. Every scene he appears with a 32 oz. cup of coffee, and sometimes with another for Karen. In some books I am agape at the amount of alcohol everyone drinks; in these I am at the quantity of coffee. He must drink two gallons a day, and she one gallon. Their intake of coffee is the only way that they function. Just woke up? Coffee. Questioning a witness? Coffee. Doing research in the library? Coffee. Traumatic event (murder, for instance)? Coffee. What a professor and a police detective have in common is coffee, apparently.

I have only known the excesses of Pelletier and Piotrowski in college, and it was almost always bad coffee. Unfortunately, it was also free and plentiful. Well, the students insisted that it was free while the kitchen staff insisted that it wasn't. The cafeteria had an industrial coffee maker with two drip-brewing outlets, and several insulated urns. At every meal time (breakfast, lunch, dinner), the kitchen staff (including student work studies) would brew more coffee, filling about six of those giant urns. There was a flurry of people squirting coffee into mugs, perhaps half of which bothered paying for it. Often I wouldn't pay because I wasn't getting anything but coffee, and waiting in the long line just to pay $1 for coffee seemed absurd. When the meal ended, and the kitchen closed, there would usually be coffee left in the urns, which would be grabbed up quickly, sometimes in assorted recepticles (bowls, paper cups, plastic cups, travel mugs) other than ceramic mugs because they would all be dirty.

Then, at night, there would be more free coffee. Through means unknown to me, there was almost always a bag or two of ground coffee in the cabinet under the coffee maker in the cafeteria, which at night we would brew up. The grounds left in that cabinet at night were always fairly nasty. One time I think pumpkin-flavored coffee was there, which was nauseating. But I drank it because hell, I was tired, I had things I needed to do. I don't think it ever really helped; after fifteen minutes I would have drank a cup of it and would feel overwhelmingly sleepy again. So I would drink more. Sometimes three or four cups a night. Basically, I was an idiot. Staying up into the wee hours hyped up on caffeine hardly ever helped me get anything done. More often it helped me dink around on the internet or have be shownyoutube videos. But that's what everyone else seemed to be doing, so surely it must've worked.

By contrast, Dobson's excessive coffee culture is romantic. The way she describes the coffee is tantalizing. It sounds like salvation. Caught in up in a murder mystery plot and the stress of academia, they live lives that require salvation, whereas I, poking around Ashland, do not require anything. I only want the coffee to elevate my experience to something that seems worth writing about.


The woman in the cramped booth says "have a good Thursday" when she puts the cup of coffee on the counter. I'm not sure I have ever heard anyone say that. I've heard "have a nice Sunday," certainly, or "have a nice weekend," or maybe even the same thing about Friday. But Thursday? There's nothing special about Thursday.

That oddness attuned me to a more or less unrelated oddness: that the interaction I was having with her was what I was paying $2.50 for, as well as the cup of coffee. I depend on such transactions to write this blog. I pay for coffee, and the way that that payment is received and the coffee given flies off, ricochets around the walls (or trees in the park, in this case), and becomes in a roundabout way a blog post. When she said "have a good Thursday," I was getting what I needed, which, oddly, was being shown that I was getting what I needed.

Maybe this blog isn't about cafes at all. It's about getting a cup of coffee. One cup, one post. (Which is bullshit, of course, most of them involve multiple cups, even multiple days, which, when you think about the crap I write here, is ridiculous.)

What is a cafe without the cafe? The question makes me think of an ad for an ultraportable laptop, "your office, without the office," showing a photo of someone typing away happily below picturesque mountains, beside a lake, or on a beach. Or maybe "the world is your office." Because, yeah, the world is my cafe, for the time being. Or rather the nearby park.

There are, in other words, two ways to think about psychocafegraphy: place, or coffee. These two have in the past been linked (a cafe is a place where one has coffee). Now they must be seperated, or this whole endeavor must be scrapped. Having run out of places, I must move on to coffee.

Coffee tastes better when prospects look good. Writing this is my attempt to make the coffee taste better. Right now it tastes vile (I could swear that the coffee served from their booth downtown is drip-brewed, whereas at the cafe and roasting facility, they serve french-pressed) because I don't know what else to write. I want to stop, to do something else, and to drink better coffee, but then, cup after cup would taste just the same.

What you do ends up being a metaphor for how you think: When I'm walking I'm led down a path, towards what destination I don't exactly know, but it seems as if I'm getting somewhere, and when I sit all I can do is survey, staying in one place, skimming the surface of everything, not a rabbit hole.

The trouble with this kind of wandering is that it is in fact destinationless. When the slats of the imagination fall away, the feeling of going somewhere fall with them, and I find myself lost. Where was I going? Why did I begin writing this, other than to write another blog post?