THE COFFEE INCIDENT

by

10/01/2006

Smith St. & DeGraw St., Brooklyn, NY 11231

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Carroll Gardens

The story starts with two things about me. First thing: I love coffee. I drink coffee every morning. When I gave up caffeine for several months last year, I brewed myself a mug of decaf every morning and called it my “coffee.” Second thing: I habitually run late. Not catastrophically late, just late enough to feel a little pressured. These two factors together mean that I am often forced to enjoy my coffee on the go.

I have been a to-go coffee drinker since before it was fashionable. In high school, I used to take my morning cup to school in a tall plastic Caribou Coffee travel mug with a lid. Then one sunny spring day, as I lounged in a car parked in the back lot behind the school, a surprise corner-eye glimpse of a prowling police officer made me drop my burning cigarette into the empty mug in a panic. The mug was ruined, and maybe that’s when it started, the drinking coffee out of anything handy.

In college, I used to save the nice Atlas mason jars that “Classico” brand pasta sauce came in. I’d rinse them out, carefully sponge off the label, and pour my AM coffee into them. I liked sitting around the table at morning classes with a big jar of brown water in front of me. It made me feel tough, and serious.

These days I share a Brooklyn apartment where my roommate and I brew coffee one cup at a time using a cone filter and plastic mug-top contraption that we pour boiling water through. My current favorite mug is white café-wear, larger at the top than the bottom, like an oversized teacup.

The coffee we make is, if I do say so myself, sublime. I’m not much better at leaving the house with time to spare than I have ever been. I have a five-minute walk up Smith Street to the subway, and how could I leave a sublime cup of coffee behind? More days than not, I carry it with. I hold the cup out from my body as I walk down the sidewalk, marveling at the ordinary human powers of balance that allow me to adjust my wrist so not to spill any. I perch the cup in the crook of my arm as I fumble for the MetroCard in my wallet, and continue drinking, on the train, as I ride. Sometimes my fellow passengers shoot me a glance, and sometimes they give me a wider berth, which I don’t mind. Still, I hadn’t considered my coffee-drinking patterns eccentric until the morning I passed two men resting outside the Met supermarket on Smith.

The Met is our local grocery store. My roommate won’t shop there because she claims it smells like corpses inside. I agree that it smells like corpses, but I am stingier and lazier than she is. Every morning, workers open the metal hatch on the sidewalk outside the Met, a truck full of food pulls up, and a team of laborers tosses the cardboard boxes down from the truck-bed; the boxes shoot down a metal ramp, through the hatch and into the corpse-smelling bowels of the store. I often look at the ramp, and the foam of dairy or maybe vegetable matter on it, and tell myself not to shop at the Met anymore. But by evening they are gone.

Anyway, I like the daily drama of the men, the metal chute, the rancid food-foam. It is the part of the morning tableau of the walk to the subway, a walk that also includes, regularly, a leather-faced old man who in my mind I call “Keith Richards,” and a frail blond woman always accompanied by her equally frail golden retriever, who in my mind I call “Dead Dog Lady,” as well as innumerable other wonderful if less dependable people and things. For me, one of the most appealing things about living in New York City is the massive variety of human life that it allows me to see each day. I know I’m not alone in this. Other people like me, who tend to get stuck in their own heads a little, find the stimulation afforded by New York street life to be a gift. Watching keeps our clanging minds safely busy. Like a bird collecting choice tidbits to weave into its nest, I burn some nervous energy gathering interesting or bizarre sights to take home to my friends in anecdote form.

Although I know that many if not most New Yorkers appreciate the city’s human spectacle, it’s still easy for me to feel as though I’m the only person on the street at a given time who’s having an aesthetic experience. I often feel invisible, as though I am walking around the city behind a one-way mirror. I’m checking out the people, looking for weirdness. I am not being checked out, and I am certainly immune from making anyone else’s mental list of “weird New York people I saw.”

I was. I was immune, until somebody on Smith Street smashed the mirror and sucked me into Weird New York. I was walking by the Met at the usual time, leaning forward from the neck to sip from my mug of sublime coffee. Without slowing down, I caught the eyes of two men who were resting from unloading boxes of food off the truck, having a cigarette in the shade of the store awning.

I sensed the first one smile, and I braced myself for a little street harassment, but he just looked at me and said, bemusedly:

“A cup of COFFEE?”

I smiled, relieved and taken aback, and I said the first words that came to me. “Why not?” I raised the mug to them, slightly, as I said it.

The two men paused. Then the one who hadn’t spoken raised a beefy hand as if in blessing, and exclaimed: “Enjoy!”

I walked away grinning into my mug, wanting to be there later to hear one of them turn to a friend and idly say, “I saw this girl today . . .”

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