Coffee Is A State Of Mind

The first time I tasted it I thought I was going to be sick. The bitter black liquid was worse than the occasional sips I'd had of my father's beer.

"It's a taste you don't want to acquire," consoled my mother, who wasn't too anxious to have her daughter become a caffeine addict at the tender age of 13. Now, at 19, I make no pretenses; coffee has become an essential part of my life.

What started as a cup or two during those long nights of studying in high school, became an acquired taste halfway into my freshman year.

It was 3 a.m., and I'd just broken up with my high school boyfriend over the phone--it's an old story. My first thoughts were to consume--shut out the pain with a cigarette, a bar of chocolate, or a hot mug of coffee. I wanted to be reminded of home, of friends, family, security.

My roommate was still up writing a paper. She took one look at me, saved the text, grabbed my hand, and marched me down to the Tasty--the only all-night diner in the Square.

The next three hours passed in a swirling of bright sights and sounds. The two of us sat, our feet curled around the chrome and vinyl stools, and witnessed a nocturnal ritual few but the crazy or insomniac get to see.

For the brief hours between 3 a.m. and sunrise, the Tasty became the center of my known universe, a linoleum temple of greasy smells, wild conversation and piping hot coffee. Nightpeople would slip in and out of the dark cold, drawing up to the warm grill. The Man Behind the Counter tended the altar; the rest of us were the pilgrims come to pay homage to black coffee and hot cheeseburgers.

Sometimes the pilgrims asked advice: about a lover who'd thrown them out, about a job they hated, or a job they could not find. Their language ranged from a barrage of blasphemies to curious inquiries. Most of them knew each other by name.

But for us all, the Man Behind the Counter was the guru we had come to see. As he served up grilled bagels and coffees, he managed to carry on a conversation with everyone in the place. Between baskets of fries, he told us his story.

He worked the all-night shift and went to music school by day; he wanted to be a rock star. It wasn't an easy job, he said; just last night he'd thrown out a drunk who pulled a knife and lunged for his throat. Thank goodness for the regulars. Not one of them thought twice about dropping their coffee lifeline and jumping to the guru's defense.

My roommate and I turned to look at the scruffy, unshaven man on our right. His flannel shirt looked like it pre-dated Kennedy, his mouth was jaded, his eyes looked a little mad. But when he smiled proudly at the guru's account of his heroism, his face lit up and he blew gently on the coffee the guru handed to him in a heavy mug.

Sitting there I realized how ridiculous it was to wallow in self-pity, thinking my life must be over because I'd broken up with my high school boyfriend.

Here was a man who didn't have a warm bed at night; who probably didn't have a high school education, let alone a Harvard degree; who dug through his pockets to find enough change for the Guru's freshly brewed coffee.

I looked at my roommate and smiled for the first time that night. Soon we were laughing at the Guru's jokes. Before I knew it, we had switched to hot chocolate, and a huge plate of fries. After polishing those off, we shared in a communion of free stale doughnuts with the regulars. And, of course, there was more coffee.

By that time, the sky was tinged with the soft blue of early dawn. The Flannel Shirt finished his coffee, shook our hands and shuffled out the door, muttering something about feeding his dog. Two cops walked in the door, and ordered their morning regular, doughnuts and coffee. The guru began to busy himself unloading boxes of supplies just delivered, and prepping the grill for bacon and eggs.

It was time to leave. We got up, said our goodbyes, and shook out our sleepy legs. We had been initiated into the temple of harsh, greasy reality. We knew the guru's name and what the regulars ordered for breakfast.

Stepping out into the light, we raced down to the river, caffeine and sugar pumping through our blood. When we reached the Weeks Bridge, we took deep breaths and congratulated ourselves on the orange sunrise. --By Heather R. McLeod

Dizzy after the pre-freshman ice-skating party, a group of us had trouble finding our way back to Harvard Square. We wandered into concrete buildings, confused by the narrow streets and ice. We laughed, and got more lost.

Someone said we should look for ice cream. But it was too cold even to snow and what we really wanted was an excuse to keep talking. We found it in a large building which sprawled onto the street. I remember a big red sign. And lots of chairs.

We drew the chairs into a circle, held the paper coffee cups in our hands, and talked about what we thought we had seen here. Other people recognized us as pre-freshmen and soon we had our own corner.

When I came back to Harvard a few days before freshman week, my mother came too. My father thought it would be a good idea. She would be less nervous.

She said she wanted to see the buildings where I had been and where I would be so that she could see them from California. I showed her Au Bon Pain, recognizing the red sign, and then we tried to find my dorm room. She didn't know what she had expected, but it wasn't the bicycle, stray newspapers, and beer bottles on the floor. After that, I didn't know which school buildings we should see. I didn't know which would be important.

We found the Coffee Connection and she looked at me with more calm. It smelled warm. She pointed to the fruit salad on the menu and ordered it for me. I looked at the coffee menu with the dozens of choices and chose the Zimbabwe 53, with honey. She said she would think of me trying all the other coffees, with friends, and the fruit salad.

At the end of freshman week I went back, brought a friend, and sat near where my mother and I had. I ordered Zimbabwe 53 again, without looking at the menu.

I've never tried all the other coffees on the menu.

By reading period, I had found another place that felt familiar--Cafe La Ruche. I liked the quiet noise and music that kept me from worrying as I studied.

I looked forward to going there at a specific time each night--after one library had closed and before I went to another. I liked ordering French Roast and sprinkling cinnamon on top. I liked taking friends who hadn't been there. I liked meeting friends I had been there with before. And I liked thinking that people might know that they could find me there.   --Camille L. Landau

I have always preferred hot chocolate. Hot chocolate is warm and filling. It is a symbol, of winter days and sledding in the back yard with my older brother. Quite simply, hot chocolate is my youth, condensed and poured into one little styrofoam cup. Of course I prefer hot chocolate.

But then I arrived at Harvard and met people who liked the color black and who smoked imported cigarettes--none of this domestic cowboy Marlboro crap. They understood--really understood--James Joyce on a first reading. I met a girl named Anastasia who had a vaguely European-sounding accent and had spent the last four years studying in Paris, London, Madrid, Rome, Venice, Florence, Sydney and other assorted exotic cities. She wore a mauve beret and it actually looked good.

I knew hot chocolate wouldn't cut it.

In pre-Harvard days, I only drank coffee after Sunday brunch at my grandparents' house. My mother would pour me half a cup of coffee, half a cup of cream, and dump in five tablespoons of sugar.

But this was Harvard and no one put five tablespoons of sugar into anything. Ever.

I still feel no affiliation with the coffee generation. Clearly, I am not a natural member of this group. When the chips are down and the four papers are due in 10 hours, my inclination is to turn away from the Maxwell House toward the Diet Coke.

But right from the start of freshman year, my present roommate, well-versed in Cambridge, sophistication, and Joyce, taught me what I already intuitively knew. If I really wanted to be grownup, I would have to drink coffee. Often.

And I would have to like it. Or at least pretend to.

Thus began a series of outings. She liked to try different cafes around the square. I did too, but when it was my job to decide where we would go, I always chose Cafe Algiers because it was the only one whose name I could pronounce correctly.

We began to frequent Algiers. In my All-American mind, Algiers and coffee and smoke and foreign languages and the Middle East became all mixed up. Algiers was a world I had never known. I knew my mother would hate this smoke-filled cafe, with dim lighting. None of the people there looked like they had grown up in a fifties-style neighborhood, with a back yard and little leagues and barbeques. None of them had ever played badminton.

I learned just how worldly and sophisticated Algiers people were one winter day, when my friends were engaging in a very Radcliffe conversation about Harvard Men And What They Want. I asked my friends in desperation, "Do any men anywhere really want women to be equal?"

The intense woman alone at the table next to us sighed deeply, looked at me knowingly, and spoke: "No. There are no men anywhere who want women to be equal. I'm not eavesdropping on your conversation, but I can't help hearing what you're saying and it sounds so much like things I've said before, a long time ago."

I stared at her in wonder. Here was a woman who knew the world. Here was a woman fit to drink coffee.

I tried to become better at drinking coffee, more deserving of it. I began to eliminate sugar altogether.

The final step was on a date. At the end of the evening, we stopped at Algiers. He was cool. He was sophisticated. He was from The City. For the first time I drank my coffee black.

I winced with each sip. I vowed never to drink black coffee again, even if Squeeze did sing a song about it. And despite my effort, he didn't ask me out again.

Several weeks later, I saw him waiting in line at Tommy's. He was with some girl named Cindy. While I waited for my coffee, he ordered for the two of them. "I'll have a Coke," he said, "and Cindy will have a hot chocolate."   --Terri E. Gerstein

It is spring reading period. I haven't slept in at least two days. The pile of laundry in my room has become a health violation. I've left the computer only twice in the past 24 hours--to buy sandwiches and iced tea at Au Bon Pain. My final Expos paper is already overdue and I have another 20-page paper to write as soon as I finish this one.

The phone rings.

"Coffee at midnight? Pamplona?"

Well, I really shouldn't...

"But we'll work so much better later on if we just take a break."

Of course I'll come.

The phone rings again. We discuss the past 10 minutes. We discuss how much work we have to do. We discuss our papers. We decide that going for coffee will make us think more clearly, how it will save us time in the long run.

I save my paper, and decide what to wear to Pamplona. My favorite green sweater. This is an event. I've been staring at the computer screen for too long. Going for coffee will save me time in the long run.

Finally, midnight arrives. We meet on Mass. Ave. and walk to Pamplona, both carrying draft copies of our papers. We'll be intellectual even while we take a break, away from the ominous blinking of the Macintosh, reminding me that every word I type is making the paper more overdue.

Down the stairs into the dark, smoky, vaguely Spanish atmosphere of Cafe Pamplona. It is crowded. The small, round tables are filled with eclectic groupings--several European-looking men sit alone, smoking and staring reflectively. Their coffee cups are perched on stacks of papers. I imagine the manuscript of their latest play, or the translation of a Marguerite Duras novel.

Couples are scattered around the room, waiters dressed in impeccable GQ style saunter over to take their orders. Other students, reserve reading from Lamont placed carelessly on the table, are absorbed in conversation. The food is expensive. Everyone, it seems, is drinking coffee.

We order. I usually get tea--Earl Grey with milk and honey. But tonight demands coffee, strong and dark. With only a little cream. It's psychological, not the caffeine. The cups at Pamplona are heavy, my energy is absorbed in the act of drinking. Our conversation is frantic, fueled by nervous energy and lack of sleep.

The two partly-finished papers rest on the table. Our eyes dart back and forth, unwilling to assume the academic guise so soon after leaving the computer. This is our time, we say, our break. We shouldn't have to think about work.

But, after the coffee arrives, we trade drafts. My friend is writing a profile of Robert Coles; I have chosen "The China Lobby in American Life" as my topic. I grab a pen and scrawl nervously in the margins of her paper.

We aren't griping about homework anymore.

Now we discuss anything, everything. Somehow everything fits together--we move from our papers to writing in general to Harvard relationships to our families. Everything makes sense, at least for 10 minutes. Everything fits together. It is timeless, though our coffee is getting cold.

The waiter brings our check. We have no money, so we count pennies, literally. Dredging our pockets and the recesses of our bookbags for spare change. We're going to have to leave a very small tip.

But we linger long past the hour we had set aside for our coffee break. It is late now, and Pamplona is slowly emptying. First the couples leave, then the students. The European types remain. It seems as though they are always there.

A quotation from her paper sticks in my head. Things aren't so bad for you and me as they might have been, George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, because of those who faithfully lived hidden lives and rest in unvisited tombs. Things aren't so bad for you and me, things aren't so bad.

The waiters start closing up for the night, putting chairs on top of empty tables. We are the only people left.

Outside the street is deserted. I'm not upset anymore, the computer doesn't frighten me.

I finish my paper at four o'clock that morning.   --Susan B. Glasser

As little girls we had tea parties.

Now we go for coffee.

It used to be Earl Grey and china dolls in mid-afternoon. Now it's capuccino and conversation, midnight at Cafe Algiers.

It started with our first 10-page papers. Soon coffee became a regular ritual. We didn't need the coffee to stay awake, we needed the conversation. And after a while, we didn't even need the excuse.

We all met separately; we went out for coffee in twos and threes. Finally the four of us ended up around the same table. Again and again.

By now we know the price of espresso at Cafe Pamplona, poppy seed cake at the Coffee Connection. We know to go to Tommy's Lunch after a party, and to Cafe Algiers in times of crisis. And we know when to order hot chocolate or tea with honey instead.

Last year it was novel. None of us had made a habit of going out for coffee before we arrived in Cambridge.

But we had thought about it. When the admissions committee asked what we wanted to do at Harvard, one of us said, "study history, learn Japanese, and go for coffee."

We had visions of smoke-filled rooms, deep voices, deep conversation and black coffee. It seemed so Harvard.

But that's not why we do it anymore.

There are many other Harvard things to do--reading Kant, retrieving our papers from the snickering computer, comping the Crimson. But going for coffee brings us together. We still use it as paper procrastination. We still use it as an escape from hectic schedules.

Most of all, going for coffee is an opportunity to talk, to re-assess, to analyse.

We may not have time in our schedules to do lunch, but we always have time to go for coffee.