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.
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