Why I Love Coffee, a recent post by Cafe Book Bean author and coffee fan, Abbie Lu, reminded me of a tongue-in-cheek piece I wrote awhile back about coffee. So, for your enjoyment (or otherwise) here is “Driving While Caffeinated.”
I can trace my decision not to drink regular coffee to a day spent Christmas shopping with my mother when I was ten, the small coffee shop she took me to, and the odd man who worked there.
It was early in December and an overnight snow had left a snowy blanket over my hometown of Owego, New York. The streets were freshly plowed and the cars hadn’t yet churned the roadway into a frozen, muddy, slurry. Through my ten-year old eyes, everything seemed pristine. Magical. All the store fronts along River Street were dressed in their holiday best. Garland and lights hung in the windows, framing each store’s merchandise, making everything look new and fascinating to me. I wanted to rush into each store to discover what treats and wonders awaited me but my mother’s gentle guiding hand kept me at her side. Thinking back on it now, it may have been the last time I was innocent enough to walk through the streets unashamedly holding my mother’s hand.
The last shop on the block was a coffee shop where my mother often took me. I never tired of the sensation of being enveloped by the pungent, earthy aroma that flowed around you as you stepped through the door. Today was no exception.
We sat at a table near a wide window and the man came from behind the counter wearing a green apron. He greeted my mother and took a seat directly opposite me and oddly close to my mother. His eyes turned to the ceiling for a moment as he slid a cigarette and a pack of paper matches from the pack in his shirt pocket. His fingers were nimble and his movements almost rehearsed as he placed the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. It seemed to me like a magician performing a trick, or a priest performing a rite in a compelling yet incomprehensible litany. His eyes returned to us as he drew a long, slow breath and brought the cigarette to life, then exhaled a deep smoky breath that enveloped the three of us at the table. My mother said that the man had something important to tell me and that I should listen closely. Without any further introduction, he began his story.
“Well, I don’t tell everyone this story. It’s really kind of embarrassing. You see, a few months back, I was at a party with some friends, and everyone was drinking coffee. I knew I should have had decaf. I mean, who hasn’t seen those public service commercials on TV, but I figured I could handle a cup or two of regular.”
The man inhaled another breath of smoke and continued. “Anyway, I had a cup. A cup turned into two. Two turned into three, and before I knew it, it was 1:00 a.m. and everybody was doing shots of espresso. There was a guy in the kitchen making lattes and cappuccinos. Everybody was talking a lot. And really fast. Completely out of control! I had to leave because I had to get up early for work the next day but I figured I was okay to drive.”
The man stared at me and took another long drag on his cigarette. “I mean, I can handle my caffeine. Okay? I ain’t no wimp.” So, there I was at 1:30 in the morning, driving home. You know how it goes. Singing along to the radio way to loud and way too fast.” The man winked at my mother. “That’s when I came up on a Caffeination Checkpoint.”
“I told myself to just be cool, but I couldn’t stop my heart from leaping into my throat. The cop came up to my car and motioned me to roll down the window. then he stuck his head inside the car, right next to my face and asked I’d been drinking coffee, almost like he already knew. I tried to speak slowly and carefully but I blurted out, “Yes sir, I’ve had a cup or two a few hours ago but nothing for a while really.”
“My hands were shaking and he could tell by how fast I as talking that I was lying. He asked me for my license and registration then had me step out of the car and stand facing the flashing blue lights on his patrol car with my hands straight out in front of me.”
The man thrust his hands out over the table to demonstrate and I could see they were shaking. Ash from his cigarette dropped onto the table. He ground his cigarette out in an ash tray and continued. “The cop made me recite the alphabet. Slowly. I tried, I really did, but I flew through L-M-N-O-P like it was one damn letter. He made me do it twice just to satisfy himself and I knew I was sunk. He asked me to turn around and I felt the cold steel of his handcuff on my wrists, I knew it was over. Arrested for driving while caffinated.”
The man quickly lit another cigarette in the same smooth motion as before. “It was my first offense, so I didn’t get any jail time, but the judge ordered me to attend a county Caffeine Awareness Training class where once a week I spent the day with 30 other Caffeine Offenders and learned all about the evil of caffeine. The judge also sentenced me to serve fifteen hours a week community service working at a coffee shop. I guess he figured being around caffeine and having to exercise good judgement about it every day would help me develop the skills necessary to avoid that kind of trouble in the future. Truth, is I still sneak a cup every once in a while.”
He winked quickly at me and then slid his chair a little closer to my mother’s. “They issued me this apron and I’ve been here ever since.” He paused, as if to let his story sink in, then he slowly pushed his chair away from the table and stood up.
“I’ve got to tell you, though. I really did learn my lesson! Now, whenever I go to a party, I’m the Designated Decaf.”
He butted his cigarette on the ash tray, thrust his hands into his front pockets, and gave us a little shrug. “Sure, some of my friends mock me. They say things like, “Come on, it’s just a latte,” or “Hey! One shot of espresso never hurt anybody!” but there’s no way I going to take the chance of getting busted again. No way.”
“Well, I better get back to work,” he said and he gave my mother a hug. She leaned in as if to whisper in his ear and I saw she kissed his cheek instead.
The man started to turn away then stopped and gave me a look that made my breath catch in my throat. “Son, I hope you listened to my story. Now, your mom may not appreciate me saying this part but I think you’re old enough to hear it and I think you need to know; if you ever get sent away to Coffee Prison, there are guys in there, big ugly guys, who would just love to get their hands on a sweet young boy like you and grind your beans.” Then he walked away and disappeared into the back room of the coffee shop.
It would be years before I was old enough to really understand exactly what he meant by his last remark. Even now I’m not sure I get the allusion. But the one thing that has stuck with me was his foreboding tone, and it’s the reason why you’ll never, ever catch me drinking coffee, even on a dare.