Friday, April 26, 2013

Alive and Twitching

Eleven years ago I stopped eating meat.  It was easy.  People often ask: how did you do it?  Answer: I stopped putting cooked animal flesh in my mouth, that’s how.

Quitting meat was easy because I was tired of eating it.  It didn’t make me feel good anymore and while I admit that some of it was still appetizing, thirty years of steak burritos, sausage pizzas, beef sandwiches, and White Castle burgers was enough.  I was done.

If you quit something, you’ve got to be ready.  You cannot quit because you think you should or because someone tells you it is the right thing to do.  If a part of you is still enjoying the thing you quit, you won’t be a quitter for long.

When I quit smoking, I was still enjoying it.  Still, I quit despite the realization that I was in love with cigarettes.  But they certainly did not love me back.  More and more, I was feeling winded from each smoke.  A nasty cough and phlegm problem followed me through each day.  I could smell the stink on myself, in my clothes and hair.  I felt diseased.  But I loved smoking.  I loved the way it  complemented breakfast.  I loved how it made alcohol stronger.  A shot, a beer, a smoke.  That’s the natural order of things, and when the city decided to ban smoking in bars, I took it as a sign that the universe simply did not want me to smoke anymore.  That and the wheezing. 

Quitting smoking was hard, sure, definitely not the same as quitting meat.  Whereas not eating meat was simply a matter of just saying no, cigarettes had a tighter grip on me.  Stopping was a slow process that required cessation rather than the old cold turkey.  But I’m off the coffin nails.  I feel much better, thank you, and I am well aware that one single cigarette is enough to get me back on them full time.

Sum total, I smoked for a solid thirteen years.  I dabbled in high school, started for real in college, quit in the late nineties, picked it up again in the mid-aughts and kept it going until 2008, the year of the before mentioned smoking ban.  While some people maintain their habit longer, I scattered mine. But I made up for the gaps, trust me.  My brother likes to say that I packed a lifetime of smoking into a few years.  This is because I smoked so many goddamn cigarettes in a single day.  My average was a pack and a half, though I could easily venture into two packs a day if I had nothing else to do.  In the summer of 1995 when I was unemployed and people were dying from the heat, I had nothing else to do and, miraculously, enough money for two packs of cigarettes a day (that is, when I wasn’t bumming them from my friends).

My point: I tend to do things in abundance.  It’s an Italian thing.  When I cook, I cannot simply cook for one or two people.  My small meals become gargantuan.  Not so bad when you’re hungry but a problem when you’re smoking.  Two packs a day can also become three quite easily.

As difficult as quitting smoking was, and it was, I did it without too much trouble.  I cannot say the same for coffee.  Without a doubt, I am a caffeine addict.  I go mad without it.  I get headaches if I am not doused in caffeine by noon. (Once upon a time, I had to have some form of caffeine in my system by 9 AM.  I’m getting better.)  I first tasted coffee when my grandfather gave me a sip of his morning batch.  It seemed pleasing then, but there was enough sugar and cream in it to make it palatable to a child.  If you’ve read Bukowski’s Ham and Rye you may remember his description of his first taste of wine.  For him, it was rapturous.    I’ll always remember my grandfather’s coffee the way some people recall their first drink, not because, like Bukowski, I was hooked from that day on but because it seems like such an important rite of passage to being the kind of man I saw in my grandfather, the kind I wanted to emulate. 

A few years later, when I was old enough to decide that yes, I wanted to drink this stuff and, fuck it, I was old enough, I paid attention to the ways people took their coffee.  My dad took it black, which struck me as bold.  My mother skipped the sugar but added cream.  I tried to do the same but missed the sweetness, so I compromised—I drank it black with sugar (black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love).  And I watched my mother brew a pot.  The end result was a bit weak, so I played with her recipe of two scoops, upping it quite a bit.  The result was black sludge.  It didn’t drip into the pot so much as it thudded.  You could slice it with a knife.  Delicious.  I called it a pot of Joseph, it being too intense for the diminutive “Joe.” 

My mother began to notice that the coffee grounds were disappearing at an alarming rate.  She saw the used filter in the basket of the Mr. Coffee, grounds spilling over the brim and falling into the pot.  Coincidentally, I had begun to smoke unfiltered cigarettes, the tobacco often getting into my mouth.  Both of vices required that I spit out some of their excess.  Oh, my poor dentist.

I stopped drinking coffee at one point.  Actually, a few times.  Often I take it too far, like the smoking, and often it hurts.  So I decided that my stomach being so sensitive, I ought to stick to green tea, much easier on the constitution.  So I quit.  Why not?  I’d quit things before.

There is no comparison between quitting meat or smoking and quitting coffee.  Quitting coffee is a million times harder.  Day one of no coffee was horrible.  Day two was rotten.  Day three was miserable.  I could go on.  I have a thesaurus and could easily find enough synonyms, but I think you get the point.  It sucked.  Fucking sucked.  I had withdrawal symptoms: headaches, anxiety, irritability, and irrational thinking.  I saw reminders everywhere: people with their goddamn Starbucks cups; ads on the sides of buses for Starbucks; Starbucks, Starbucks, ubiquitous Starbucks.  That shit was everywhere, the reminder that I need only walk a block or two in any direction and there would a place to get me a goddamn cuppa java. 

The pounding headaches continued for weeks.  Really, it took a solid month of not drinking coffee before I felt stable.  Green tea, a delicious drink I still enjoy, provided some caffeine but it wasn’t even as sufficient as methadone is to a heroin addict.  Life without coffee made no sense whatsoever. 

But I quit.  It took a lot out of me, but I was off the stuff. 

A year passed.  Cassandra and I met some friends for lunch.  After, we walked down Milwaukee in the Wicker Park area, looking at the bodegas and shitty furniture stores that have closed down to make way for hipster shops.  We went into a Mexican bakery to get some pan dulce.  Almost immediately I smelled the coffee, a simple pot of Folgers with some cinnamon added.  That smell… my god, it was amazing.  Cassandra got a cup to go.  I decided to do the same.  Just one cup, I said.  What harm would that do?

It was a short trip from one cup at a bakery to an after dinner espresso to full relapse.  Soon my morning was not complete until I pushed the plunger on a French press.

After a year or so of mild to intense consumption, I quit again.  This time, I said, it would stick.  Green tea.  And a lot of Red Bull.  But then it occurred to me that drinking seven cups of green tea and a Red Bull every day was probably just as bad as three cups of strong coffee. 

Coffee, used here as a blanket term, presents itself in so many forms.  Say I’m tired of the standard drip cup.  Well, there’s espresso and milk and all the combinations.  And there’s a pour over coffee, which I had never heard of, which was enough to get me out of the house.  I had to try it.  And then there are the massive drinks that defy logic, like the Zombie at the Pick Me Up Café, a stunning combination of two cups of coffee and three shots of espresso topped with steamed milk and whipped cream served in an oversized mug.  The name implies a drink strong enough to wake the dead, and indeed it is a helluva dose of thunder.  And there’s the gourmet shops with their espresso shots yielding rich crema that houses all that caffeine, the greasy spoon diners where you might as well drink it black it’s so damn weak, Dunkin Donuts, purveyor of a consistently good cup of Joe and stale pastry, the oft mentioned Starbucks, the McDonald’s of highbrow coffee, and, well, McDonald's who recently decided to enter the classy coffee competition but really ought to stick to their run-of-the-mill cup which was always pretty good.  There’s Intelligentsia, rapidly becoming a chain in this city, servers of damn fine coffee but, sadly, staffed and patronized by hipster douche bags.  The bookshops have closed, the record stores have scaled back, but the cafés are alive and twitching. 

And with so much variety, after giving up so many other things, why not indulge in coffee?  Why not, indeed. Sip... Ah...

To end this, because I honestly have no idea how else to end this, I’d like to share a little ditty that my Grandfather introduced me to, just as he introduced me to coffee.  Enjoy.