Paula Lantz and Quentin Paquette

Paula Lantz

Response — Coffee Ritual

Quentin Paquette

Inspiration Piece — Coffee Shop

Hey,…Hey wake up won’t you?  There’s a hand on your arm that provides a stationary point keeping you still in the disorientation as the world you thought you were in falls away and dissolves into the world you might be in now.  The transition is gradual and less than complete; the darkness and the lateness of the hour hold back full realization at first.  Still, you have a vague recollection of a destination.
“Are we there?  I thought it’d take longer.”
No, we’re still on the way, but I’m starting to lose focus.  I thought maybe a quick stop just to refresh…
“And get your bearings?  I know what you mean.  You okay?  I could do some driving now.”
No, thanks; it’s cool.  Let me just get out and take a break here and I’ll be okay for the few more hours until morning.
“You just don’t want to listen to my CD’s.”
Tsk, tsk, always underestimating my interest in you.
Unfolding from the seat is a process; a few shrugs to pull my shoulders back, lean my neck back and side to side, push the heels of my hands into the small of my back.  Yawn in a big breath of fresh air and let the chill get to the back of my neck.  Now a big stretch grabs hold of me from shoulders down.  One second, two seconds, three,…  Yeee-argh!  Pull my cap off with my left hand to vigorously rub through my hair with my right.
“Hey that’s an interesting look for you.  You better put the hat back on.”
I don’t doubt it, and don’t worry.  I slip the hat back on with a quick one-handed adjustment as I look up to check on the stars.  Nothing, all washed out by the electric glare of the mercury lights of the parking lot.  The neon at the edge says, “Chinese 24 Hour Diner” in English with those incongruous serifs meant to make it look like asian printing.  Somebody put a lot of effort into making that work out in neon tubes.
The place is completely empty except for some insomniac in a paper hat leaning over from behind the counter working on the crossword puzzle from yesterday’s paper.
I’m not very good at this brother: can we just cut through the game-playing and you just tell me how much I have to tip you to end up at the best table in the house?
/The choicest are always reserved for friends and celebrities./
Well, won’t you let us be celebrities tonight, then?
/Oh yeah.  I thought I recognized you coming in: she’s the teacher and you’re that guy on the radio.  You look different with a hat on./
Writer, actually.
/No, that’s not it.  You’re in that ad for motor oil, cereal maybe./
No, really, it’s words.  Written words.
/Maybe we should just switch to “friends” instead of “celebrities” and not fight about it./
Done.  We take the choice seat: window booth with neon lighting, jukebox, and view of the empty lot next door.  Our new friend comes by with water, menus, and the folded-over newspaper he now holds his pen up to.
/Okay mister “written words”, how about a nine-letter word for “fondness”./
Starts with?
/”A”, I think./
/Hmm, let’s just see,… Okay, you win, you can be the writer.  That was a good one./  Then to you: /That was fast./
“Yeah, he’s quick on his feet.”
When I’m with the teacher here, certain things are constantly in the front of my mind.  Any clues in there about ‘allure’, or ‘beauty’, or ‘cleverness’, or ‘delightful’, or ‘exuberant’?  Just give me the letter and I’m on it.
“He’s not always like this, honest, I think maybe he’s a little over-tired.”
/No problem, I get hyper like that in the middle of the night too.  Anyway, too much talk is better than dead quiet for me around here.  You both want coffee?/
Yes, please, and two more waters.
/Alright, here’s your menus.  I’ll be back with your drinks in a minute.  I just gotta brew some fresh coffee./
So’s it gonna be breakfast, or just coffee?
“I thought we were going someplace,…”
This is someplace.
“Yeah, this is some place alright.  What do you think, this place was put up in what, the 70’s, and maybe supposed to last 20 years?”
It’s really the company that matters – aren’t you always the one telling me to enjoy the ride?
“You, you’re devious”
/Why don’t you let my coffee help you decide?/  The voice rings out from behind the counter.
Excuse me?
/It’s a big place, but empty; voices carry.  You guys are still talking in your we’re-alone-in-the-car voices./
“Sorry about,…um,…”
/It’s cool, I like the retro look, but you don’t have to./
Sounds like a good way to decide.  Let’s have those coffees.
/And your waters.  Here you go./
I can already tell from the smell and look of this coffee that it’s going to be right.  I can taste it off the smell of it, and it looks like you could stand the stirrer up in it.
“Coffee Ritual?”
What’s that you say?
“Coffee Ritual.  You’ve mentioned the coffee ritual, but never explained it.”
Oh, right, some of the origins are unrecoverable.  I was there, and it all had a purpose, but some of the details have faded in memory.  There’s a mystique to it that might not translate in a quick demo…
“Try me.”
Okay.  You set your coffee cup up just so: you need to be able to see straight in, the handle needs to be out of the way, either straight at you or straight away – it becomes important later.  Stir, preferably with a spoon.  You need to create a vortex, center it in the cup as well as you can.  Now open a creamer.
“You don’t take cream”
I know, but the ritual requires you to bend to it, even, maybe especially, if that involves some sacrifice.  Non-coffee drinkers are probably the ideal candidates to perform it.
“Can it be non-dairy creamer.”
No, but I know something else that’s good for, put ‘em in your pocket for later.  Now, while I’m stirring, pop that creamer open.  Then I take the spoon out, observe the vortex a moment for suitability, then take the cream and pour it in the center of the vortex.  Watch, don’t miss a detail, as the clouds spread and contract, then spread again, and contract again, eventually filling the cup.  If you’re going to go all out, you tap the side of the ceramic cup with the handle of the spoon, listening to the pitch change.
“Why would the pitch change?”
You must learn to accept the ritual for what it is, do not question it.
“And what is it exactly, the ritual?”
It explains itself.
“You’ve been up too long. I’m driving after we’re done with ‘breakfast’.”
You neophytes, all the same.  You do it, I’ll pop the creamer for you.  Ready?
“Yeah, hand it to me… Huh, look at that… that’s kinda cool.”
“Okay, but I still don’t see why the pitch,… would,… The pitch is changing.”
Now do you get it?
“A little, maybe, wait a moment.  It’s simple,… yet,… “
Intricate, irreproducibly intricate.
“Yeah, the same four steps, always with a different result.”
Five steps, sorry, now that the tone has stopped changing, you put your hands on either side of the cup and let the warmth radiate into your hands.  Don’t just watch it, feel it.  Then I guess there’s a sixth step: drinking the coffee is implied.
“Right, feel it, then take it into you.  Marvel at it, make yourself a part of it, make it a part of you.”
Wow, that’s good.  The student has become the teacher.  Don’t leave out the ‘different result’ part though; every moment, every cup of coffee, is unique.
(“Where do you come up with this stuff anyway?”
Killed a lot of time drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in my misspent youth, hanging out with people who can’t help interpreting every little thing.  The humanities folks, always looking for Meaning.
“And you?  You weren’t a humanities major.”
Maybe I just liked the coffee and cigarettes.  Now it’s just coffee.
“Better keep it that way, I’m not gonna put up with ashtray floors, dirty clothes and filthy jokes on these trips.”
If it were that way, we’d have to find ‘Someone [to] Take the Wheel’.
“Nice pickup.”
You should know better than to try to sneak that one past me.)
/What’ll it be for you two, more than just coffee?/
I’ll have the number 5, over easy, wheat toast, homefries, extra egg, and regular coffee, of course.
/How’s that again?  Did you even look at the menu?/
Well, it used to be my usual at the Salonika, though no matter how many times I ordered it, there was always some detail I’d leave out.  The Greek waitress always needed one more thing.  Now that I’ve finally got my order down, I hate not having the chance to use it.
/Translate for me, what’s the number 5?/
Two eggs, any style, sausage, toast or muffin, grits or potatoes.
/And you want an extra egg, so that’s three, over easy./
I said that.
/And that’s patties, or link sausage?/
Augh!  You don’t look Greek to me.
/You shouldn’t assume…/
I’d like links please, thanks for asking.
/It’s really no problem.  And for the lady?/
“Maybe just an omelet, white toast.”
/Okay, coming right up./
Wait a minute?  Aren’t you gonna ask what kind of omelet?  Aren’t you gonna ask what starch?
/Well, it’s a feta omelet of course, and no starch.  Right?/
“Exactly.  I wasn’t sure, but that sounds good to me.”
/Lucky guess./
You can do that, but you couldn’t guess what type of sausage I was having?
He shrugs as he walks off.
(You have a way of getting into men’s heads you know.
“See, now I was afraid you’d be all jealous.”
Who says I’m not?  Maybe I’m hiding it.
“You do understand that it’s better that you’re not jealous?”
In that case, totally not jealous, confident in fact…
“Now you’ve gone too far in the other direction.”
Okay then.  Honestly?  I’m still trying to figure it all out.
“I’ll try to help you make up your mind.”
Oh.  Yes please.)
We take our time with ‘breakfast’, and it’s good, every bite of it.
“You’ve got a bit of yolk on your lip there.”
Mmm, thanks, I got it.  I’m wide awake again, you ready to go?
“I’m gonna quick head to the ladies’ room before we start out again.”
I’ll just finish my coffee, I’ll get our check, and I’ll meet you out at the car.
Thanks chief, that was good.  Here sit across the counter from Snowman, I‘ll put a coffee cup in front of him, you make like you’re showing him the puzzle.
/You two stop in whenever you’re back in the area, I’ll get you right into the ‘friends’ table./

Out at the car, it’s still chilly, and I’m leaning against the hood turning something between thumb and index and middle finger.
“Whatcha got there?”
Book of matches.  You still got those non-dairy creamers?
“Yeah, here.”
Okay then, here’s the ‘non-dairy creamer trick’.
At the moment, I mistake the light in your eye as a reflection of the trick.  But it doesn’t fade after.
“There’s got to be a story behind that.”
Well, sure, get back in the car and I’ll tell you more as we go…

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