Are you there Dana? It’s me, coffee.
I didn’t drink it until I was twenty-one, during a fateful late-night study session during a fateful finals week my junior year of college, sitting around a big wooden table with Sebastian M. (impresario!) and Melissa, his model girlfriend, was she there? Albert A. and Jeanie T. and everyone smoking cigarettes, trying to undo the master thought-knots of literature with our teeth. Everyone was drinking coffee, loads of it.
I sat the coffee-drinking out. When I was three I’d toddled into our kitchen and spied my older sister lifting a steaming cup of chocolate-colored brew to her lips and I’d begged – begged – for a taste. It was likely something 1960s and horrible, like Folgers with some powdered creamer, and I was not yet a coffee snob, lugging my own mini-french press and Ohori’s French Roast to campuses and hotel rooms across the country because I had known them all already (known them all), the weak brews of America’s institutional cafeterias. Back then, at the age of three, the betrayal was not Folgerian but coffee in total: the enormity of my gustatory anticipation – of creamy, sugary, cocoa goodness – made me reach up for the cup like a supplicant, and as my sister lowered it carefully down I took it between both palms as though she were offering a drink from the Grail. Then something bitter sluiced into my mouth, and – Dana! – I spit it out all over the kitchen floor.
For the next eighteen years I refused the bean, but then it was 1am and finals week and we were all trying to write smart papers. About WCW or Calvino, maybe about “Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife,” a William Gass book that had blown each and every one of our minds, though maybe that was the following fall, and we were all mind-blowers in training, or so we thought. I’m not really sure if Jeanie T. was there, but later, at the tail-end of the terrible 80s, I visited her in Seattle and was flummoxed by guys with carts selling espressos outside of banks and supermarkets – who cared so much about coffee? – and Jeanie said, Oh my God, you have to come with me to this coffee shop and try something amazing – and I thought, How could there be something amazing at a coffee shop? But we rolled on down to the wharf and walked into this place called Starbucks, back when the breasts on the logo’s mermaid still had nipples and there were only two Starbucks in the entire world. I kept asking, What did you order? and Jeanie kept saying, Wait, wait― with this twinkle in her eye, and after an inordinate amount of time in which to wait for a cup of coffee, she handed me a tall glass of something frothy and commanded I drink. Oh my God, what is this? I gasped, and Jeanie pronounced, in triumph, Vanilla. Latte. I’d had no idea coffee could aspire to the ranks of my favorite meals of the day, breakfast and dessert.
Anyway, back to the table where everyone was in their twenties and grinding their teeth with nicotine, caffeine and thinking. Who knew thinking could be its own drug? I’d tried many of the drugs known to man at that point, but really preferred weed. Hanging out with amped and speedy thinkers felt like hanging out with citizens of a foreign country, but I’d been doing it increasingly, under the sway of Sebastian M., son of a famous poet, who’d grown up in a milieu as far away from my own Jewish immigrant Southern California desert exile as could be. In his person, preferences, and habits, he revealed daily what it meant to have been raised inside a literati life, some of it pretentious and a lot of it real, and it was heady, this bright eyed talk-streaming energy where you drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and got very jumpy about books and ideas. Plus I was going to have to stay up long past 1am if ever I was going to finish this paper, which of course was due the following day.
Reader, I ordered a cup of coffee.
It was the same year Sebastian introduced me to Thelonious Monk, the year when a visiting editor of some influence hit on me over lunch, the year I started smoking and thinking in earnest. Poetry, jazz and coffee: that was it. It was 1986, and whatever was going on under the fluorescent tents of pop culture, I wasn’t having it.
Dana Levin is an American poet. Her collections of poetry include In the Surgical Theatre (1999), Wedding Day (2005), and Sky Burial (2011), which The New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting.” A grateful recipient of fellowships and awards from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting and Guggenheim Foundations, Levin splits her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Maryville University in St Louis, where she serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence. Her fourth book of poetry, Banana Palace, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in Fall 2016.