Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/21/2011

“Coffee, Tea, or Grief?”

There was a rabble going hither and thither. . .
Some came, others went;  some were scribbling,
others were talking; some were drinking coffee,
some smoking, and some arguing. . . On the
corner of a long table, close by the armchair. . .
were earthenware pitchers, long clay pipes,
a little fire on the hearth, and over it the
huge coffee-pot. Beneath a small book-shelf,
on which were bottles, cups, and an advertisement
for a beautifier to improve the complexion,
was hanging a parliamentary ordinance against
drinking and the use of bad language

No one understands coffee. Coffee does not come from an expensive high-tech stainless steel coffee maker in a chic corner shop, a steam punk creation with magnificent machinery in the mist of comfortable ergonomically correct chairs at little round tables surrounded by Victorian-appearing, hard-wood display cases for merchandize to satisfy the post-modern coffee drinker at prices that please young urban (or older suburban) palates.

Neither is coffee the tepid brown delicacy served at the Baptist ladies’ “circles” in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, in the ‘50s in small pressed-glass cups that fit small circles in matching pressed-glass fan-shaped plates (fan-shaped the easier to hold on one’s lap) for serving delicate sandwiches or home-made snicker doodles or toll-house chocolate chip cookies.

Nor is coffee the dark brown drippings of water through pre-packaged ground-up beans placed in a little black machine sitting on the vanity counter in a hotel bathroom charging $139 per morning for the privilege of offending one’s taste.

Coffee is a black liquid that results from piling ground coffee from a moderately-priced package from the super market and named “Dark French Roast” twice as high as recommended in the basket (with or without filter) of a machine that heats half as much water as recommenced to a perfect temperature, liquid so dark it barely turns caramel color when mixed half and half with half and half. Real coffee is disgusting to most people.

This morning the little machine with its pre-packaged mystery grounds in my hotel bathroom designed to make a $139 cup of something referred to on the guest information card as coffee would not work.  The young man behind the desk of the hotel was not to blame for the misrepresentation, nor for the non-functionality of the machine, but—unfortunate as he was—he received my, shall I say, not gentlemanly description of the machine and my feelings about it.

What he did not know and had no business being apprised of was that yesterday at almost exactly the same hour, I was also in search of a cup of real coffee. I knew, however, that the closest approximation I could find within walking distance was a cup of the almost-acceptable stuff brewed in the steam-punk machine at one of the three chic shops within three blocks—certainly walking distance—from the skilled-nursing facility where I had spent the night.

Drinking coffee is not an activity I ever associated with my father.  He did, of course, drink coffee, and my mother nearly every morning of their 69-year marriage (until the time they moved to assisted living in their retirement community) made coffee them for breakfast. But other than that and one cup at dinner time (later in his life, decaf, of course) I do not think of my father as a coffee drinker.

Yesterday at about 6:30 AM I left my father’s room in the skilled nursing facility that was his home for about a year. I was headed for a coffee shop. I think the description I used as a foreword here by Ned Ward for his newspaper the London Spy in about 1700 captures the mood, if not the exact detail, of the coffee house where I was headed. There is no hearth and fire, and the scribblers are working furiously at their laptops. I’ve sat there myself and “scribbled” on occasion.

As I approached the elevator, a woman wearing a jacket got off, and I asked her if it was cold enough for a jacket. She said, “It’s a little chilly out.”

I went back to my father’s room to get my jacket. He was rhythmically (a perfect 17 breaths per second) gasping for breath as he had been for several hours. I picked up my jacket and he took in a long gasp of air and held it for a second too long. And no more.

How bizarre can one’s experience, one’s connections with the mundane, one’s sense of the numinous, one’s grief, one’s need for coffee be?

How is it possible for me to be upset about the frustration of getting a $139 cup of coffee I don’t like—just twenty-four hours after I was with my father at not the hour, but the moment of his death?

My understanding of the rhetoric of argument is that questions (yes, even those odd phrases we are taught to call “rhetorical questions”) obliterate logic. So please understand I am not asking questions “rhetorically.” In my grief, I want to know the answers. How bizarre can my experience be—the new world in which I search for a cup of coffee this morning, the world new without my father. I am now, at sixty-six, an orphan. “Behold all things are made new.”

Is coffee mundane? It is

the only addictive psycho-active substance that has overcome all resistance to its consumption. In many countries, alcohol, tobacco and narcotics are increasingly banned completely or at least highly regulated. Coffee has escaped that limitation. . . Coffee is a major global commodity. More than 400 billion cups are consumed each year. It is the world’s second most traded commodity . . . some technologists are now speculating about the end of the petrol era . . .  no one is predicting the end of the coffee era (2).

Can the world’s second most traded commodity be mundane even in the face of death? Surely commerce is less mundane than death.  I think of the student’s essay that began with, “If one looks at society, making money off of others is what makes the world go round.”

The mundane, the numinous. My sense of the numinous is totally a function of my experience of my father’s death. I will try to talk (write) about that someday.

My grief, I should probably realize, is out of proportion. I am 66, my father was 97. We are both well beyond the age that our deaths are in any way tragic. I am, in fact, relieved and grateful that his suffering has ended. But he is my father.

And so, to mask my grief, to make it bearable, to prevent my grief at the death of my father from touching all of my other griefs and bringing them to life—the death of my mother, for one—and overwhelming me, I will look for a cup of coffee. The real stuff. Not the chic stuff. Not the Nebraska ladies’ stuff. Certainly not the $139-per-cup stuff. It’s time for my brother to fetch me from this place and help me find a cup of real coffee.
(1) Pelzer, John, and Linda Pelzer. “The Coffee Houses of Augustan London.” History Today 32.10 (October 1982): 40.
(2) Suter, Keith. “The Rise and Fall of English Coffee Houses.” Contemporary Review 286.1669 (2005): 107-110.


  1. May peace be with you, my beloved friend. I am here when you get home.


  2. Dear Mr Knight,
    I came across your blog quite by accident and soon became very interested. I, too, spent several of my wonder years in Scottsbluff during the 1950s and, as you did, attended Longfellow. I also spent 1 1/2 years at Bryant. Although I’ve lived in Florida many years, what I think of as the mystery and mystique of the that little city in Western Nebraska has remained with me always. Oh — I also took piano lessons from Rudolph Barta.

    At present, I am working on a novel set in Scottsbluff. It focuses on children and deals with themes you mention in one of your posts — sorrow, grief, anxiety, death.

    all best,
    Jon Wilson
    St. Petersburg, FL



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