Do you remember your first hit of espresso? For me, this moment occurred in 1991, the year I graduated from high school. My memories of this time in my life are somewhat scattered and kaleidoscopic, and this is mainly due to the intensity of my ruminations throughout my senior year. I thought so deeply about the world I’m surprised my head didn’t explode. But that would have been terrible because, although I made light of myself as a disembodied mind in The News of the Day, I was the essence of disembodied mind at seventeen. I tended to imagine my head rolling along, dragging my body behind it.
In addition to my pretentious habit of reading the dictionary and smattering my stories and personal ditties with multisyllabic words, I also pretended to believe–to the point that I actually believed–I could hold conversations with animals, and most especially birds. At bus stops, I would lower myself to the sidewalk until I was eye to eye with the pigeons, and I would advise them to praise God with their voices because God would listen to them, no matter their smallness and somewhat lowly status in the city of Portland. Unfortunately, the pigeons never obeyed me, and so much for my career as an animal hypnotist. As for the multisyllabic words, they were the effort of a lazy gardener who dropped them in handfuls of seeds, such that they grew in alliterative clusters–meaning, if I was reading through the Cs, all the big words began with C.
My daily travel, that allowed for advising pigeons and reading the dictionary, as well as singing to myself and reading Great Literature, involved the 57 bus from Hillsboro to downtown Portland, where I switched to the Max train. I proceeded to ride the train all the way to 122nd Street, where I switched to the 71 bus, which carried me to Portland Christian High School. After school, I repeated the same tedious process, although my thirst for adventure often led me to take another bus [the other bus stop was all the way across the street!] to a different Max train station. Also, in my quest for independence, I often exited the train in downtown and failed to catch the first bus back, instead, opting to slip to Powell’s Books on Burnside. Other downtown stops included Pioneer Square–for people watching–and the library, which is an old, building with stairs that lead up and up and up!
But, this time, Powell’s Books is the crux of my awakening, and not because I discovered scandalous, spiritual, or enlightening literature deliciously awaiting me on the packed and dusty shelves. I didn’t devour books. Because of that, delicious doesn’t count as an adjective. I did read multiple books without buying them, though. I would crack their covers and read a new chapter or a new essay. I read through most of Annie Dillard’s books that way, but if you happen on Annie, tell her not to worry because I bought most of her books later, when I had money to spend.
As anti-climactic as this may sound, my awakening occurred in Anne Hughes Coffee Room. Did I ever tell you I had a brother? That’s odd, because I don’t. I have a red-haired sister. She’s beautiful and kind and wears a lot of freckles, but she’s no brother. Rather, she has that thing that redheaded girls possess, that near fatal allure to the opposite sex, and the lovelorn boy of the moment rented a room in my parents’ house. And he–no great surprise–treated me as his little sister.
Yes, he was my brother of the year. His name was Rue, and he was a young biologist who played the guitar, drew exacting symmetrical patterns, and counted spotted owls. He was a San Franciscan and brought his San Franciscan ways to Portland, including his propensity to drink expensive micro-brewed beers. Most important to my life, however, was his taste for gourmet coffee and espresso.
On a lark, one day, he attended my high school as a guest. He took the bus-train-bus with me, bringing his guitar in its battered case for good measure. In photography class, I took portraits of him in his pill box, Guatemalan fabric hat while he sat in a chair strumming his guitar. After school, from what I remember of my memory grab-bag, we hiked over to Powell’s on Burnside. The Powell’s trip may have landed on a different day, but for the sake of my reckoning, allow it to rest on this late spring afternoon.
We carried our respective magazines and newspapers and books we had no intention of buying into the cluttered backroom once known as Anne Hughes Coffee Room*. The coffee room contained a throwback, earthy atmosphere that in no way resembles a modern Starbucks. It was earthy in its essence of old wood counters and deep coffee smell, dust and newspaper fragrance, leather and wool-wearing customer odor. Rue offered to buy me a drink, so I casually said I would like an espresso, in the same way a novice drinker might sidle up to a whiskey bar and ask for a shot of Jack while attempting to maintain the aura of hardened-by-life expertise.
And so began my life of espresso drinking. I don’t know how to explain my instant love for the concentrated, bitter-rich coffee with golden crema on top. It simply happened. I drank a double shot, and suddenly my mind buzzed with an unknown silence. Even Rue was taken aback by my non-jittery state of being, so unusual for me. In that space of Powell’s, filled with the leather-shoed and wool-jacketed people crouched over their mugs and papers, my mind connected with my body, and the rapid movement of my thoughts stilled.
I sat upright, and I don’t know what ideas I conjured while I watched the windows turn black against the night. I knew that I knew nothing. I knew that my ideas were as blank as the windows. And I still know nothing, even as the New Mexico dusk fills the air, and the lights of the distant city stretch across the horizon. I’m far away from Portland. That’s what I know.
*I’ve bought many books at Powell’s over the years–just in case the bookstore police come after me. Also, I have no idea what Anne Hughes Coffee Room looks like these days, or if it still exists.