Monday, October 09, 2006

Boiled Leaves, or Confessions of an American Misfit

I didn’t realize how far outside mainstream America I was until last February. And I’m not talking about politics. Approximately half the voting public was for Kerry in 2004--maybe more than half if there had been a clean count with no voter suppression in places like Ohio and Florida. I’m a little more left of center than the average Democrat, but not really out of the mainstream. No, I’m talking about that bitter brown liquid most Americans can’t live without.

I was working the early shift that February day. My supervisor, who had not yet met me, came up from St. Louis to check out the station and its relatively new employee. He brought two huge cups of coffee--one for him and one for me. I was a bit nervous at having the boss there for the first time, and I knew that drinking coffee would make me sick. I declined politely. (Even if I had been able to drink it, it would have gotten cold--it was a Friday morning, and the first train--No. 300, the State House to Chicago, was busy.) I got everyone ticketed, and we went out to meet the train. The lounge car attendant had two cups of coffee for us.

There was a slow time between the two trains when I did the station sales report from the previous day. Then it was time for No. 303, the Ann Rutledge, to St. Louis and Kansas City. And the lounge car attendant gave us--you guessed it--two more cups of coffee. I didn’t normally work the early shift on Friday, so the attendants weren’t expecting the only non-coffee drinker in the district to be on duty. (Since then, one very nice attendant has brought me tea.)

I made a pretty good impression on my boss that day, in spite of turning down the coffee. But ever since then I’ve been aware of just how weird I am for not drinking the stuff. I drink a lot of tea--most of it iced, but some hot. And now Patry Francis, the writer and waitress whose blog, simply wait, is home to some of the most elegant prose on the web, has declared the tea drinker to be the bane of the waitress’s life. That blow was softened a little by the fact that many of simply wait’s regular readers, along with Patry herself, drink what Douglas Adams called “boiled leaves.”

While I drink a lot of tea, my favorite morning beverage is chocolate. For health and financial reasons I usually drink artificially-sweetened powdered cocoa, but if I could, I’d drink real hot chocolate. I still dream about the chocolate I had at the Bernini-Bristol Hotel in Rome, where the waiter brought a pitcher of thick, unsweetened chocolate and another of hot milk, which you mixed and sweetened to taste.

If I lived in Britain, or Sri Lanka, or China, where tea is the beverage of choice, I wouldn’t be such a misfit. But I live in America, where most people assume that all adults drink coffee. Maybe the American addiction to coffee dates back to the Boston Tea Party and the tea boycott. Or perhaps it was the Civil War, when Union troops received coffee as part of their rations. (The cigarettes in military rations certainly got a lot of Americans hooked on tobacco.)

I suppose we non-coffee drinkers could get together in support groups, declare ourselves an official minority, and demand the right to order tea without getting rolled eyes or dirty looks. We could picket outside Starbuck’s and spread stories about the dangers of coffee. Tea and chocolate drinkers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your (stomach) pains! But we won’t. We’re pretty mild-mannered. After all, we’re not jittery from too much coffee. We don’t want to ban coffee, or even make it unfashionable. But it would be nice if people who provide beverages--waitresses, well-meaning bosses, lounge car attendants, hotel managers, etc., realized that not all of us drink coffee.


K-Oh said...

I imagine your coffee-drinking colleagues find your abstinence especially peculiar because you're a man. There are all those stereotypes of cowboys hunkered over a fire, boiling up their coffee into a kind of seismic sludge.

You're a tea iconoclast.

I like your blog!

Peter said...

Here we go again, Steve!

I've had coffee once. My wife made me when I was about 38 years old.

Victoria had gotten sick of my answer to, "Do you like coffee?" It was always, "I don't know. I've never tried it." She decided I was answering that way for shock effect, which was true, and so she took me to a Starbucks and ordered me one. Now I have to answer, "Not really."

Sustenance Scout said...

Great post, Steve. I was one at Simply Wait who chimed in as a tea drinker...thanks for stopping by my blog, btw. I just don't get the long lines at Starbucks...though I do love making coffee for houseguests just to fill the kitchen with that aroma. I'll be back to check out some of your archives as well as new posts. Nice writing!

Patry Francis said...

Having a highly suggestible personality, I immediately had to go and make myself a cup of chocolate after reading your description of the Italian variety. (Mine's not as authentic as that, but I use real cocoa, sugar, vanilla, and milk).

Probably the suggestible personality is also to blame for the fact that I drink coffee, chocolate, AND tea at various times of the day.

Though tea might be the bane of waitresses everywhere, I'd be happy to serve a pot of boiled leaves to you and Peter and your wives if you ever come to Cape Cod--as long as I get to join you.

Patry Francis said...

Oh, and p.s. Thanks for the lovely mention.

steve said...

k-oh: Thank you. You're right about the cowboy image of coffee, (though there's the competing image from "Blazing Saddles"). "Seismic Sludge" is a wonderful description. Railroading is a pretty male-dominated business. But the women I work with are all committed coffee drinkers. Maybe they had to be.

And I'm impressed with your blog as well.

Peter: At least Victoria doesn't seem to be pressuring you. Kathleen is less of a coffee drinker than I am, so I have no problem from the home front. Thanks for the support.

Karen: Welcome. I found your blog through Patry, and was impressed.

Patry: Thank you for the invitation. Your post certainly inspired a lot of tea drinkers to respond. And provoked a lot of thought. Thanks.

robin andrea said...

Late to your tea-drinkers party, but just had to chime in. We gave up coffee fifteen years ago, and have never looked back. We make a pot of very strong English Breakfast tea every morning. I take mine with a tiny bit of sugar and milk. When we have had a taste of coffee over the years (sometimes it's the only hot beverage to drink in some places), it's incredibly bitter tasting and does produce jitteriness in a way that tea never does.

We are so out of the mainstream in so many ways!