I like coffee. I really do. However, I am the farthest thing from being a coffee connoisseur there is. Simply put, I like plain, black coffee. No cream, no sugar — nothing that gets in the way of enjoying a good, hot “cuppa joe.”
I enjoy going to fancy coffee shops, even if I sometimes have fits with the baristas trying to get just a plain cup of coffee. The kind of coffee I like is usually referred to at such places as “Americano,” but Americano is never really the same as a plain cup of, say, truck stop coffee. That’s where my coffee story begins.
My dad was a truck driver. Lots of Saturday mornings when I was a kid, he would take me to a truck stop for breakfast. He and his fellow truckers would drink coffee and talk for hours. Dad drank coffee with “the fellows” all his life — black with just a sprinkle of Sweet’n Low, to “take off the edge” off the bitterness, he always said. So little Sweet’n Low that one packet lasted him all morning.
Even though I was around truckers all my life, I didn’t really get into the coffee habit myself until college. College students are another bunch of inveterate coffee drinkers. When I was an undergraduate, lots of us drove over to the Waffle House after supper to drink coffee. That was about the cheapest entertainment we had — coffee there was about a dollar then, and the waitresses kept filling our cups way past the official “one cup and a warm-up” level.
In fact, most of my early coffee drinking experience was at night, not in the morning. I didn’t drink coffee to wake myself up; I drank it to sharpen myself up so I could study. To this day, I can drink a cup of coffee and go right to sleep. I usually don’t, though These days, I have a couple of cups in the morning to sharpen up for the day — it’s amazing how a couple of cups of jamoke melts that morning fog.
Another group of plain coffee drinkers is veterans. I have never met a former Marine, soldier, sailor or airman who doesn’t like a good cup — particularly sailors and airmen. Dad’s days as a flight engineer in the Air Force may be where he first learned to love coffee.
In fact, the story is that we call coffee “joe” after Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who banned alcohol on U.S. Navy ships more than a hundred years ago — not a popular decision at the time. Sailors later developed such a taste for coffee that the naval historian and World War II veteran Samuel Eliot Morison once jokingly observed, “The Navy could probably win a war without coffee, but would prefer not to try.”
And then, there are teachers. I’ve never known too many teachers who didn’t like a cup of coffee. In fact, just Google “coffee cup teacher” to see a vast panoply of gift mugs for teachers, usually with something funny inscribed on them.
My favorites? “I turn coffee into lesson plans” is great, but the best one is either “Tears of my students – Just kidding, it’s coffee” or “Coffee. Teach. Sleep. Repeat.”
Other groups of professionals are similar — Google “coffee cup engineer” for a hoot!
I could go on, but the point is made. The magic of plain coffee unites so many different groups of people. It’s as much for the ritual of it — the coffee break — as anything. Long before any management guru figured out that groups of people engaged in professional pursuits profit from regular breaks throughout the day where they can come together and chat, people had already figured it out for themselves. “Experts” are always discovering things that people already know.
There’s nothing better than an agreed-upon time for a coffee break in an office setting, for example. Just as plain old coffee sharpens up thinking, the ritual of coming together at the coffeemaker at certain times sharpens those thoughts by sharing them in conversation. I’ve read a lot lately about the concept of “everyday creativity,” and most of those books stress that chance meetings between colleagues increase both the quantity and quality of ideas. Many of those books suggest ways to “plan” chance meetings in the workplace, but people had already figured out how to do it long before the “experts” did. As the coffee flows, so do ideas.
Even when I’m working alone on personal projects, coffee helps. In fact, I have a couple of cups “during” every column that I write. My coffee consumption is more limited now than in my student days — not because I’ve lost my love for coffee. It’s because coffee has lost its love for me. Too much coffee gives me heartburn.
When I retire from teaching, I think I may start writing coffee cup slogans. My dad, the trucker with millions of safe miles in his logbook, gave me a great one. Once, when I was complaining about having to drive a long distance, he said, “Son, I’ve logged more miles searching a coffee mug for the handle than you’ve driven.”
I still laugh about that one — usually when I’m having a cup.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions reflected are his own.
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