Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Diner Coffee From Bygone Days

As an old friend wisely advised me in the early nineties, I would do better drinking coffee from a diner than drinking badly brewed gourmet stuff. Although the sentiment did smack of snobbery, I forgave her for it because she hailed from Seattle. If nothing else, Seattle-ites did know a good brew when they tasted it. And speaking of Seattle-ites, they orbited the Portland area back in those days, culture watchers that they were. San Franciscan’s wended their way up, Seattle-ites their way down, and one does wonder if, perhaps, Portland was the superior place, after all, despite its inferiority complex. For example, as an inherently inferior Portlander, I once ceded an argument over The Kingsmen’s residency. Were they a Portland band, or a Seattle band? Seattle!! my friend insisted. This little tiff was, no doubt, owing to the confusing history of the song Louie, Louie. In fact, we were arguing over two different bands, both of whom had covered Richard Berry’s strange proto-punk ditty. Portland’s The Kingsmen were the ones to make it a national hit, however. Sorry, Seattle.

When I was not yet twenty, espresso was still a mystery substance for many who didn’t live in the Portland area, and even for many who did. Hence, winning an argument over Louie, Louie wouldn’t have cut it, anyway. Still, the fad had hit, such that one could drive down the rural lanes of Sunset Highway and glimpse green flags, emblazoned with Espresso! Here!, flung from the windows of unpromising strip mall diners. Dotty’s Home Cooking and Jean’s Country kitchen squatted in parking lot seas with their red-checked curtains and Espresso! signs billowing. Hey, I hate to break the spell cast by the dying gasp of roast-beef culture, but there’s really nothing country about $5000 espresso machines. Still, countrified Dotty, who could only brew coffee the way her restauranteur magazines told her to, was the heart of my friend’s criticism. Now I sound like the snob around here. That’s fine. I’m guilty as charged. Honestly, how can I blame the Seattle-ites? We all became snobs after a while.

In those days, though, we pretended we were Jack Kerouac, hitting the road from truck stop to diner, and back again, after too many orders of two eggs-over-medium-hash-browns-and-toast by the side of perpetually full mugs, which were glazed brown to hide the lack of rich color in the Farmer Bros brew. We made pyramids out of the creamers at these establishments; we catapulted straw paper balls at the pyramids, and they crumpled if the cream cups were empty. That was, of course, if there were cream cups to be had. Often, we were stuck with those revolting packets known as powdered creamer which were crammed next to the colored packets of bitter “sugar”. Although nobody I knew reached for the sugar, real or fake, sometimes we added a few grains of salt to the coffee. This was in no way necessary, mind you, because Farmer Bros was so tasteless it lacked the bite of acid that required a PH balancing act. But if we could, for one moment, pretend we were chemists rather than philosophers, we would look smart. Really smart. And not at all snobbish.

During our stint in Southern Oregon, we used to hang out at the Talent Truck Stop. Yes, that’s right. By day [some of us] worked in espresso shops; by night, we supped at the greasy spoon. We sat at sticky tables and waited for Bobby to shuffle over on her slippered feet and drawl, “What would you like tonight, honey?” Her act was accessorized by the Texas rhinestone pin she wore on her apron and the grey beehive she wore on her head, except, of course it wasn’t an act. Bobby was the real deal. She was a sweet old lady who, apparently, liked rhinestones. And Texas. So sue me if you think I’m telling stories. I’m not. I documented it all in a work of fiction that I care not to think about these days because it was one of my earliest attempts at magical realism. But Bobby was real; I’d swear to it!

Here’s the kicker: as the Jack Kerouac version of me, I used to carry around an object that appeared from the outside to be a suitcase. It was actually, once I sprang open the buckles, a portable Royal typewriter dating from the 1940s. It was, in a sense, my first laptop.* I liked to drag it from a Medford diner–don’t remember which one, but they made to-die-for omelets stuffed with potatoes and sausages–to the Medford Coffee Company, where I worked. Generally, I achieved this long-haul trip in our ’79 Olds. Once, however, I decided I could walk the distance while swinging the typewriter in my carefree poetic hand. I have a recommendation for you. Don’t try this. Portable Royal typewriters aren’t meant to be swung by one’s side as Maria might have done with her suitcases in The Sound of Music. Those suckers weigh a ton. Eventually, I arrived at work, exhausted, so very weary that I couldn’t manage, before my shift started, to pound out the rest of the play I was writing on the life of Emily Dickinson. Instead, I gasped out double shot and then wet my parched mouth with a few lifesaving drops of espresso. Take it slowly, Jill, they advised me. Don’t drink too much at once.

I tried to heed their advice. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. And now I’m back where I started. I would rather drink diner coffee than bad gourmet stuff. Thank you, Seattle-lite friend, for suggesting such a crude ideal. Seeing as I’m no longer of a Jack Kerouac persuasion, writing poetry and dragging around 2000-pound typewriters to better bang out Emily faints. She whispers: A fly is buzzing; it must be time to die, I ultimately prefer to drink my coffee at home, ground fresh from the same coffee grinder I’ve been using for the last twenty years. Somethings are best left unchanged.

*The Royal belonged to my friend Sallie, a San Franciscan who jerked espresso with me. Go figure that she encouraged my Jack Kerouac ways. Although I was using it on [semi] permanent loan while still in Oregon, I returned it before long-hauling to New Mexico.


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