We wake up early, before the sun, and gather our gear for the day. There’s a chill in the early summer morning. My head is foggy from too little sleep and too much beer. There is a cure though. By the time we reach the boat and the first winks of daylight are stretching up from the horizon, our fishing poles and tackle boxes neatly stored below, I’ve got a greasy breakfast in my stomach and a steaming cup of coffee in my hand. The coffee jolts me awake, flipping the switch in my brain from dim to fully lit. The fog clears and I am ready to catch some walleye.
Dining complete. The glorious meal consumed. Wine bottle emptied. Plates cleared. A beautiful woman sitting across the table from me glowing by candlelight. The waitress brings two cups of cappuccino, each flanked by a cookie, and paper straws of raw sugar.
Rushing out of the house to get to work. Grab a cup and race off.
Working late. The moon up and most others gone for the day. Burning the midnight oil they call it. A cup of Starbucks gives me the added oomph I need to finish the job and get the hell out of there.
Christmas morning. The presents are opened and wrapping paper is scattered around the front room. Two aromas fill the air: cigarette smoke and brewing coffee. Grandma is here.
Coffee. It is my drug of choice. I need it to wake up. To feel right. For that, I’m not picky. I can slam down swill in a Styrofoam cup from a gas station or whatever K-cups are handy in the house from the Keurig (instant coffee gratification, no-fuss, no-muss, no wait, not great, but quick and good enough). I’m not looking to savor the flavor, I just wanna gulp it and get it working. Hot and black and bitter and satisfying.
But, on a Sunday morning, the skillet breakfast downed and the morning paper spread out, I care. I care what it tastes like. I have expectations. I’ll use cream and sugar, not too much, just enough. I’ll sip it from a ceramic cup. At just the right temperature, a good cup of coffee can be among the best things I will taste in my life. Better than cookies, better that steak, better than beer, better than wine. It is wonderful. It stands alone as one of the best treats we can spoil ourselves with.
Coffee runs in the family. My maternal grandmother, Grandma Sis, made arguably the best coffee in all of Chicago. Though third-generation Irish, she made her coffee in a Swedish enamel pot decorated in Berggren art. No filters in the pot, you used a strainer to catch the grounds as you poured it into your cup.
There was always a pot of coffee on her stove. When visitors would stop by, she’d either have a pot already made, or she’d put on a fresh pot for her guests. I don’t know how much coffee she drank a day, but it was a lot.
When I was a little boy, I think about three years old, but whatever age, I was too young to walk down the stairs so I had to turn around and crawl butt-first from our upstairs apartment to her first-floor apartment. When I reached her door, I stood up and knocked. “Who is it?” she called in her grandma voice, as if expecting a puppy or a fawn or a little grandson. “Me,” I called back, as if there were only one ‘me’ in the world.
“Me who?” She opened the door and feigned surprise, “Oh, Brine!” (Her thick Goose Island accent made Brian sound like Brine.) “Come in.”
She escorted me as if I were an old friend from the neighborhood to her kitchen table and offered me a seat. Just as she did when her brother Tommy would come by, or when my Mom or one of her siblings would visit, Grandma Sis pulled two coffee cups, each with a matching saucer, down from the cupboard above the kitchen sink and poured, through the strainer, two steaming cups of fresh coffee. She left a lot of room for cream and sugar in mine though, then added a splash of half-and-half and a teaspoon of sugar and had me stir it. We sat there talking and drinking coffee together and I felt special. I wasn’t some little kid sipping root beer or milk from a sippy-cup. I was her special boy having a cup of coffee and talking like I was a real person, like I mattered.
A small, shy, uncoordinated kid with thick glasses and a crossed-eye, I rarely felt special and almost never felt as if I belonged. Throughout my life, whenever I would get down about feeling like an outcast, or tread toward the depths of self-loathing, deep inside, there was always a part of me that knew that no matter what the rest of the outside world thought, or what I myself thought of me, I was special to someone, and there would always be a fresh pot of coffee on the stove and time to let me know she loved me.
Now, even though I’ll gulp down a cup of Kuerig something in the car, or Starbucks while I write, or even sip a decent cup at a diner, the best coffee I have these days I make myself from an old recipe in an enamel coffee pot, no filter, decorated with Berggren art inscribed with the Swedish saying: Kaffetåren den bästa är av alla jordiska drycke, which means ‘Coffee the best of all earthly potions is’ — Ain’t that the truth.