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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Project Whimsy Part II

This morning, I had a strange sensation. And I gave into the turn of the mind, turn of the weather, turn of the dream scape. It was cloudy out and had been for days, so I put on the coffee and sliced garden zucchini; I battered the slices in raw milk and rice flour and cooked them into little pancakes, which I heaped on a platter. I turned on the living room computer and found a copy of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s eponymous album on You Tube.

Then I sat back, closed my eyes and listened intently to the scratching record sound somebody had imported to mp3 technology. I took one bite of zucchini, and another, and I drank my coffee, the enchantment fooling my senses. With a few tricks of cooking and technology, I could time travel to the days when I spun vinyl on record players. I could consider the enchantment in the music as a yet more distant conceit, since Crosby, Stills, and Nash recorded the album before my birth. It was retro even in the now retro days of the nineties, when the songs’ atmosphere caught me up in dreams of wooden ships on water and tangled little circles of alliteration. Wordlessly watching, [I] wait by the window and wonder at the empty place inside.

I fill the empty place with life in the Northwest: I carry my AM/PM coffee mug with me to the 57 bus stop on the corner. Native Portlanders don’t use umbrellas, and I’m a native. Instead, the rain drizzles on my head, and the afternoon disappears into an early evening. After the bus swallows me in its brightly lit interior, I stare out the window and see only my own white face staring back at me, which bores me because, as a stoic, I can’t make myself smile. It’s part of my philosophy: sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Happiness isn’t something to grasp, though, and smiles don’t suit me. I have a book–a journal. It’s one of my senior year projects, and I fill it with little stories and essays until I fill up the last page. I’ve never written in a journal before (and have rarely done so since). Writing in little books isn’t my style. But it is today. Or it might be if I had any interest in writing words or any lines left to write them on. I flip through and read an excerpt about my sister, whom I’m off to visit at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

In the excerpt, I’m watching her work in the pottery shed. It’s an abominably cold metal building with rain leaking through the roof. My sister spends too much time here, and it’s no wonder that she’s always wrapped in scarves and fighting off respiratory infections. The rain leaks through the roof, and it runs in rivulets of muddy clay on the floor. The rain taps and taps and eventually beats its way in. Due to the damp and mud, my sister is barefoot, her feet in puddles, as she models clay into perfect formations with her fingers. Her fingers are able to accomplish what most artists can’t form with the help of a wheel or machinery. She has delicate fingers, too. They’re slender, small, tapered. Her wild red hair somehow stays out of the muck. Even with her pottery and mud, she’s more pristine than I’ll ever manage–nails like the moon, skin carefully freckled, as though she ordered the placement. Boys tend to bend over backward to catch her attention, and she’s blind to them, and I can’t understand this. If a boy were to give me a second look, I would be so astonished I would wonder whether I had entered an alternate universe. But that’s the way it is. I’m a watcher, and not a person watched.

The rain hits the top of the bus. It slides down the bus windows, and I’m reluctant to leave the muggy warmth and enter into the dark afternoon. Forest Grove is the end of the line, though, and the Pacific University campus waits with its cluster of important brick buildings and overbearing trees and shadows. I’m to meet my sister at her room, and I hurry there, to a charmless dorm building, where the smallness and darkness hover in strange corner rooms. I knock on her door and stand waiting in the dreary hall. My sister is the one with the vibrancy; I’m there for her and not the atmosphere. As it turns out, my sister has forgotten me. Her roommate peers out and looks as though she doesn’t quite know what to do with this forlorn little sister creature who has appeared from the shadows. The roommate’s name is Andrea, and she’s the type of girl who carries grace with her everywhere she goes–it’s embedded in the genes that have created her elegant bone structure. Of course, she’s a ballet dancer, and that’s the point.

Andrea invites me in and, after I let go of my backpack, where does the enchantment go? Where does it direct itself, but to the outdoor world of a night campus, where rows of trees catapult us into a fantasy realm? Stoicism forgotten, sudden and unplanned whimsy captures me when I run outside with Andrea. I can’t explain what comes over us. We invent stories and run through the grass and twisted trees. We crawl through the shadows, and, for my part, forget disappointment. We’re as children in a pretend world, except the world is startlingly real. We really do spin through the grass and land in a fairytale.Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Add to that: happy and yet happy. I’m neither a watcher, nor the watched. Rather, we’re both in the moment and (obviously) out of it at the same time.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Project Whimsy Part I

I’m a project-oriented person. Life isn’t about philosophy, religion, politics, economy–unless those subjects are related to the current project. In fact, you’ll be enlightened to know that this blog post is simply one of my smaller, nested projects in a day of projects. At a certain point, though, life isn’t about small, nested projects. It’s about a larger, overarching project that tastes like rain on my tongue. I can’t exactly describe it to you because I don’t know what it is. Until I know, I replace it with large projects such as earning degrees or writing books that satisfy my need for projects, albeit not entirely.

As that one ultimate project eludes me, my farce at filling in the gaps fails me at times, and I become scattered, not certain where to focus my attention. Nothing matters, you see. Everything is meaningless except that elusive distant project I can’t put my finger on. This is when it’s necessary to take on what I like to call Project Whimsy. Life is absurd. Humans are absurd. Nobody makes sense. Human vision is covered by a web of irrationalities that most of us pretend to be able to penetrate. Not surprisingly, those who suppress their emotions are the least aware of how irrational they are. They don’t understand that suppressing emotions or being, as pop/pseudo science would call it, left-brained doesn’t always correlate to being rational. Men are famous for putting on this pretense, but women will also wear it and pretend their post-enlightenment dresses aren’t shaped in that draping way that Mr. Darcy finds attractive (Mr. Darcy being a prime example of an unemotional male who pretends to be rational).

Project Whimsy isn’t a project with a plan, so much as it is The Plan to Ditch All Plans. In my childhood years, my elder sister Jenny often left me out of her plans (as one would expect), but when we were young adults, we swung full force into Project Whimsy–at my insistence. Most of the time, I had to drag her into my attempts at spontaneity, which were carefully planned out. That may sound paradoxical to you, and, well, I don’t have an excuse. I had notions of what it meant to be whimsical, and I needed to fulfill them. Coffee, as a notion, was a prime whimsical beverage. In my head, I knew what a whimsical coffeehouse looked like: it was down a country back road, had windows adorned by checked curtains in red or blue, and if I peered through the gaps in the curtains, I would spy pies that were so sloppily homey their heaping pie tins would be barely covered by slipping crusts.

I had seen a cafe such as this along Highway 26 from McMinnville to Seaside, and I had determined that Jenny and I would go there together when she deigned to visit me at Linfield College. We would be whimsical. We would have to rely on whimsy because neither of us owned vehicles, and the buses didn’t run in that direction. And so, in the settled heat of a summer evening–the kind of resonant heat that resembles deep dish pie–we set about to walk several miles in hopes we would find pie and coffee and maybe other delicacies, such as sandwiches filled with thick slices of meat. I had no idea what was on the actual menu, aside from the sloppy pies I’d glimpsed one time through the window. But that was part of the fun–the finding out how terrible or lovely a cafe with checked window curtains is.

As we passed the rolling hills of Oregon’s wine country, we sang our favorite songs. We could feign a carefree spirit even if neither of us actually possessed it. My sister does to some extent–as in, she chooses to remain positive–but she also has a strong sense of responsibility that prevents her from being too adventurous. Together, I suspect we’re a sorry crew, but we did manage to entertain ourselves by skipping and dancing up the highway for mile upon mile, until we were utterly exhausted–at which point, we stumbled across the cafe with its empty parking lot. When I say empty, I mean dismally empty. I mean that a state of emptiness hung over the dark ramshackle building that, in my imagination, was bustling with a clatter of coffee cups and the fragrance of blueberries baked in crust. It wasn’t simply closed. The cafe had been closed for quite some time. The windows were dark, and a newspaper article about their closing, dated two months back, was taped so that it was visible in the gap of the checked curtains.

We mulled over our options. It was now almost completely dark. We couldn’t go forward; walking farther away from McMinnville along the highway would be devastating once we had to trudge back. There was only one answer, and that was to turn around with our stomachs empty and hope our strength held out until we arrived back at the Linfield campus, where I might have had a can of tuna in my room. Thankfully, after we navigated a third of the miles, a couple in an Oldsmobile offered us a ride. They dropped us at the Shari’s Diner in McMinnville, where we drank acrid coffee by the side of bland sandwiches and onion rings, all of which tasted like heaven when pitted against the gnawing hunger ever-present in skinny girls who have walked for miles in the shade of summer trees.

That particular Project Whimsy didn’t work out as I had planned, and that’s exactly why I hate spontaneity. Of course, my husband, who is truly spontaneous, accepts that spontaneity will never meet planned expectations. That’s kind of the point. I suspect, even after all these years, I have a lot to learn about projects, projections, and whimsy. In any case, I’m half crazy today because this nested blog post project doesn’t at all resemble the ultimate project, the one that still waits for description like the taste of rain.

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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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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Grinder

It was my husband’s birthday yesterday. Ever since August, I’ve claimed he and I have been married twenty years. But the truth is, we’re in our twentieth year, and his birthday marks a spot on our life calendar because it’s a simple matter to add and subtract by twenties (20+20=?). I have no idea what I bought him for his birthday twenty years ago, but I often consider what we have left of our early days together.

We don’t have a lot. We have much, much more, and a lot less, too. I had fully expected to work at writing until I had accomplished something great; I constantly compared myself to the great writers of history (T.S. Eliot wrote his masterpiece by age 23; therefore, I must write my masterpiece by 23). Guess what? After twenty years, I still haven’t written a masterpiece. In fact, I gave up writing poetry and, instead, have written a few mediocre books.

In the early days, my husband was a physical artist. He traded that work for other skills, and I don’t like to second guess his reasons for doing so, or whether he’ll take up drawing/painting again. As far as physical things–which I don’t care that much about–most of our original books have been destroyed by mildew, and the vast majority of our wedding gifts have broken or have worn themselves out. We still have our original bed frame, however, constructed and carved by my dad. And, astonishingly, we still possess our first coffee grinder, and it still grinds our fresh coffee beans every morning.

Imagine that–an appliance with a 150 Watt motor, grinding coffee every day for twenty years! How could that be? I don’t know, but all kinds of campy words come to mind, such as the daily grind is an image of our lives. It certainly is. We grind together in work, in play, in love. I suspect I just used a euphemism, but I’ll let it stand. That Braun grinder has almost become a symbol, a hanger-on of our former, younger selves. We were poor! We were Pacific Northwest coffee people! We bought an eight dollar grinder from the espresso shop where I worked, and with my employee discount. As poor as we were and continued to be, we always gave in to the need for freshly ground coffee.

Lately, we’ve been too lazy to regularly clean the grinder with its coffee scoop/brush that it came with. Not cleaning it has caused granules of coffee to block the contact, so that pushing the button has led to utter silence. Whenever this occurs, I panic. Our grinder can’t break. It can’t. It’s a symbol. And then I take a deep breath and calmly examine it, clean it, and then it magically grinds again. The other week, however, the motor sounded as if it was wearing down–the same sort of sound that a car with a dying battery makes–or that of a whimpering puppy. The dying sound hasn’t immobilized me with irrational fear, not yet, because the brave-little-grinder is still doing its job. But I have to ask myself what I’m so afraid of.

As I’ve said, we’ve lost a little and gained a lot over the years. We have four children, two who are nearly adults. We have a beautiful house, a dog, a cat–the grandparents live next door. We’re wealthy because we’ve invested in the future*. And yet, I’m still afraid of losing some intangible or abstract part of my life. If I construct a list of intangibles, I can’t find one in the mix that matches my fear. I’m not afraid of losing love. My husband and I are in it for the long haul.

Since I can’t put a name to it, I’ll just shrug and claim this anxiety is over losing me, even though that doesn’t quite match the fear, either. After twenty years, I’m the same prickly, difficult person. I’m the same person who almost decided I was better off as a hermit, but whose mother advised her to marry her then fiance because nobody else would be patient with her. I haven’t lost myself, just certain parts of my autonomy that I can’t let go of. Some fears are better left alone, I think. I’m about to face a new era of life, and I hope our Braun grinds away through it, but in case it doesn’t, it’s just a machine. And machines that run off 150 Watts are notoriously bad at intangible algorithms.

*not monetarily, at least by American standards, but because we’ve invested in our children and in a home

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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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