Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Coffee is for Computing

When I moved out of my parents’ home at age eighteen, I went with a mini Mr. Coffee machine, a cloth coffee filter, and a few chipped mugs and plates. That was about it for kitchen gear, but they were my precious resources. As somebody who’s always felt starved for resources, I clung to these things. I wrapped them in sheets of newspaper and packed them carefully and carted them off with my PC, my clothes, my Bob Dylan records, and the stereo I purchased with my last paycheck at Thrift World.

But it seems I’ve placed emphasis on the wrong set of resources. The most important items in my tangential adult life were my PC and printer. In fact, very few people went to college with computers in those days, and so my PC became a way to create a less tangential life. I was instantly connected to the whole of humanity because I had something others wanted. Despite its importance as a connective tool, I don’t remember that much about it. It was a 286; I remember that much. It had Wordperfect. It had a cardboard strip of the F key codes at the top of the keyboard, which served as a reminder and a help to others who used my computer. However, I had the F codes memorized just as I had the Qwerty memorized. I was a pianist who played only in the key of F.

One day, the girl across the hall demonstrated all the amazing word processor functions on her Apple machine. I was a little awed by the layouts, but I couldn’t force myself to covet what she had. Later, my roommate bought herself an Apple of some kind, as well, which meant that the three of us were a triangulation of technology that most people didn’t yet have at their young adult fingertips, even if their parents owned computers. Maybe owing to my early generosity with my machine, mine was the most sought after. Or perhaps its popularity was simply an inverse to Apple’s unpopularity.

As a misanthrope, I tend to find myself living the paradox of wanting to connect with others and then hating it when I do. Over the course of that school year, the times heralded change. While class registration was still handwritten on slips of papers and turned in–by hand–to the registrar, and while research papers could still be printed neatly on lined paper, most people craved the ease that technology offered. Hence, I had a steady stream of computer friends. I would often enter what should have been the inner sanctum of my room, only to find somebody sitting at my desk, clacking away at my keyboard.

Frustrated, and filled with the angst of the passive-aggressive, I would return to the shared living area of the dorm suite and brew some coffee if I happened to have any left in the paper bag. I didn’t yet understand what good coffee was. No, I take that back. I understood how delightfully bitter-smooth an espresso tasted at Coffee People or Anne Hughes Coffee Room, but the stuff I brewed tasted terrible and was so strong it shimmered with a green layer of oil. But that was fine by me; that was my aesthetic at the time. I would sip my coffee to calm my nerves, maybe eat a packet of noodles, maybe cue the record player to Tangled Up in Blue to drive the Dylan-haters away. Why I couldn’t politely invite these people out of my room is still an unsolved mystery.

When they did exit, carrying their floppies or printed sheets away with them, I would sink in my chair and bask in the glow. I would clean the paper debris, all those side strips with their punched holes, wad them and throw them in the bin. Typing words calmed me. Typing gave me charge of a world where I was invisible and powerless. Pretending for one moment that I was T.S. Eliot waiting to happen, or that Dylan Thomas’ ghost had infiltrated my mind, gave me hope. The combination thereof wrought perfection. The multisyllabic Eliot obfuscations combined with the insanely buoyant Thomas images created a push and pull of turmoil in my steely soul.

Drink the coffee bought from the bin at Thriftway. Drink the whiskey the Physics majors left when they drifted in and out. Type. Type. Force yourself to believe in creativity, that it’s a force your ordered mind can encompass. Fall apart. Fail a test. End the year with a near-perfect GPA. Run away scared. Take your computer with you and pretend you’re a bohemian who basks in the glow of a machine. Jerk espresso. Pour drinks like an automaton. Burn your hand; burn your mind.

Rewind. Some nerd wrecked the 286. I don’t know exactly who did it, why or how, because I was away for the weekend, but from the time of its doom until I married, I wrote poems on slips of paper, not really settled in this truly bohemian method of spilling my thoughts. After I married, I again possessed a computer, an 8088 DOS machine. I remember a little more about the character of this computer because, if I had a day off from the espresso shop, I would stare at it until my eyes hurt, at peace with my Wordperfect and F keys. Yes, it had many annoyances, but I was at peace with them.

At this point, I don’t know what kind of person I’d be without my computers. Currently, I’m working on a tiny netbook with a Linux operating system. I hate to admit it, but I don’t much care as long as I have a machine to work on. I appreciate the neat simplicity of Linux. I appreciate it, and I can’t force myself to care as much about it as I should. My favorite kind of set-up, hands down, is one in which I have multiple screens to work from–no matter the operating system–because who needs tabs or alt-tabs or multiple workstations on one small screen when everything you’re reading and writing can be on its own individual screen? I dream of a wall of screens, or one enormous screen with multiple workstations. In fact, the thought is making my heart race with untamed desire. The need for portability has, sadly, rendered this dream unusable at this time in my life.

So much for poetry, for becoming something I’m not. Somehow, I don’t feel all that sorrowful that I didn’t become a bohemian. Yet, at the same time, I wonder what would have happened if I’d never had the 8088 to replace the 286, or the series of laptops and netbooks that came thereafter. Would my coffee be weaker? Would I still spin Dylan vinyl on a cheap record player? Would my chipped plates still suffice to serve the world I, at one point, wanted to connect with? I don’t know, but I’m sitting with a screen on my lap, and it’s late, and I can already foresee tomorrow morning, when I’ll drag myself from bed, turn on a computer, and make strong coffee. And I’ll hope my life isn’t as tangential as it was yesterday.

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4 comments

  1. I’m a pianist who only plays in the key of C.

    People came into your room without asking and used your computer??

    I too took a computer to college…Windows 3.2? Or something or other. When everything was still organized in folders. But, honestly, I never stopped to think about whether it was odd for me to have a computer…I’m trying to remember if my dorm mates had computers, and I am unable to remember, although I do remember word processors (which strike me as torture now that I think of them). However, I also stayed in my dorm room and didn’t talk to anyone, so who knows… :p

    1. It was year 1991. Maybe you were a few years later. Even one year later might have found more computers on campus. And yes they did come in my room w/o asking. I lived in a suite with a main room and two dorm rooms, so it was often difficult to monitor who came in and out.

      1. It was 1993 for me. The computer labs were VAX, green screen, and my freshman orientation was the first time I heard about email (and the concept blew my mind). Sometime around ’96, my husband (then boyfriend) had dial up which was too slow to be any good (he still thought it was cool…) and the library had Web access, but I thought the Web was a waste of time because all it seemed to offer was a bunch of tacky flashing ads. 1997 was the first time I officially got on the Web. I got on it during a job interview, back when I still had no clue what to do with my English major (ha, that much hasn’t changed) and now I make a living as a Web Developer. The irony. Holy cow, I feel old.

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