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Gristmill: Coffee’s On

Wed, 05/17/2023 - 17:56
A truck driver working on his logbook during a coffee break in Mississippi in 1943.
John Vachon / Farm Security Administration Collection, Library of Congress

“Remember,” I started to text my daughter in college, “if you need to pull an all-nighter, coffee, yes, but none of this Starbucks Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew stuff you love so much. Hot. Black. Nothing in it. I’m talking gulps, not sips. That’ll get the chromosomes crackling.”

I didn’t send it because in my usual second-guessed fear of being an annoying parent, I thought better of it. To say nothing of encouraging bad habits.

In repeated acts of steely motivation I’m now amazed to contemplate, when I was in college I pulled more all-nighters than I could keep track of. It became pretty much the only way I could write papers, a thrilling admixture of purpose and desperation, drive and deadline pressure, misery and accomplishment, loneliness in the rock-solid certainty that you were in fact not alone.

And then the sun peeks over the horizon.

I once stayed up two nights in a row. I guess I had a lot to do. While I don’t recommend it, of note was the fact that the second night was far easier than the first. Once you cross a tough 3 a.m. threshold on the first night, you’re in the clear, happily, uh, typing away.

I had a classmate who swore by the late-night fortifying powers of Diet Coke, something about the combination of carbonation and cold. And yet the milligrams of caffeine in that can were swamped by what was percolated in so much as the little Mr. Coffee four-cupper I kept in my dorm room.

Somewhere there’s a midcentury book on the history of coffee that relays the tale of a Turkish ruler once seeking to know more about his beverage of choice and what it did to him, so he confined a couple of his subjects in a tower and gave them coffee to subsist on, long term, thinking they might, who knows, croak.

But they simply relaxed high in their perch, enjoying their cups. Nothing bad happened.

That’s right, only good happens. Years ago I would think of those peons as, somewhat similarly confined, I somewhat similarly kicked back in my Fairbanks cabin through long, sunless winters. I did have it a bit better, though. I had a French press and cans of condensed milk.

What did I do? Perhaps like my two fellow drinkers, I read. Novels. Literature. Normally when you tire of high-minded reading, you watch television. But I didn’t have a TV, so I’d switch to Elmore Leonard. 

One time way up north a co-worker and I were on break from our jobs as drivers and having lunch in a diner. When he made a point of mannishly ordering his coffee black, the waitress raised her eyebrows, impressed. And possibly with interest, if you know what I mean.

While that’s always stuck with me, it wasn’t until just now that I realized it’s straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel.

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