Unlike most of the college students of my generation who made pilgrimages to the fish houses in summer, as a respite from the university life, I was a drop-out, one of those lost lost souls who doesn’t have the first clue what to do with their lives.
So I butchered fish all winter long, working the docks on the gray, rain-and snow-swept days when they were nearly empty.
I also put in long hours on the freezer crews, which meant that much of my time was spent inside massive blast freezers. Imagine a bank vault crusted with half-foot thick rime of ice.
One of my harshest memories is of unloading a cargo of herring from a boat on Easter morning.
I swam in the hold in a slurry fish and blood and ice, struggling to fill a cargo net so that the crane operator could hoist it up onto the dock.
During the long night it began to snow. I can still see the blood and gore dripping down through graceful snowflakes, all of it lit by raw industrial floodlamps.
In those hard years, the break room became an oasis, an island of noise and conversation and music (and occasionally of romance). It was warm in a world where everything else was damp, cold, bleak.
The coffee, kept brewing in one of those old-fashioned percolator pots, was vile stuff. We drank it heavily doctored with sugar and little packets of dairy substitute.
The result was drinkable only because it was scalding hot, literally burning the tongue as it went down.
I came to associate the drug of coffee — that’s what it is, really, our society’s most civilized drug — with the joy I have always taken in work. I know that’s a weird linkage. We Americans like to keep our virtues separate from our vices, in neat tidy compartments.
But for me, as I muddled forward in my fledgling, on-again off-again career as a journalist, I learned that one of the great pleasures of any day was drinking that first cup of coffee when I knew that I would be engaged in interesting and productive work.
The subtle vibration of the caffeine merges with the stimulant of anticipation. It tweaks the brain just the right amount.
It happens that my love affair with coffee has coincided with America’s discovery of the drink as a gourmet item, one which we complicate fetishistically, with all manner of gadgets and complicated brewing styles and specially roasted beans.
Fortunately, this is one mania that has actually improved our society. When I was a kid, finding a really great cup of coffee was a rarity, like finding a really well baked loaf of bread, or a thriving farmer’s market.
Now there are great roasters and brewers everywhere. You find people sitting in civilized fashion, talking, reading, working on their computers.
In my neighborhood in a tiny village in the Adirondack Mountains, I can smell beans roasting almost every morning from the little coffee shop down on the lake front.
But unlike most foodies, I still have a soft spot for all kinds of coffee. When I visit certain members of my family in the Midwest, I drink Folger’s (remember those crystals locking in the freshness?) cheerfully.
I rather like the weird, ersatz-coffee taste of instant brews and still keep instant powder in my cupboard.
Traveling in foreign countries back in the day before the near universality of good coffee, I was always fascinated to find what weird chicory-tasting blend the locals hoped to pass off as actual coffee.
In some parts of the world, waiters still don’t ask if you want coffee. They ask if you want “Nescafe.” Good enough. I drink them all cheerfully.
As a reporter, one who keeps peculiar and often long hours, coffee has been a mainstay, a tool of trade. Many times, the sixth or seventh cup of the day isn’t such a pleasure. It is, no pun intended, a grinding necessity, a way of making the brain do one more difficult thing.
But unlike most pleasures that are abused, I find that the very first cup keeps its romance.
From the civilized act of making it, to the rich complex smell of it, to the warmth and the vibration of energy imparted, coffee endures as one of the necessary ingredients that make life not just manageable but pleasurable.