Tag Archives: espresso

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Fluidity of Dreams

Sallie: the Original Coffee Girl

This is the profile of two coffee girls, an original named Sallie–and me. Sallie, according to her own bio, has worked at “nearly every cafe in nearly every town [she’s] ever lived in.” By contrast, I spent a few years of my early adulthood working in espresso shops and have spent the last seventeen on the customer side of the counter. At heart, I was a drop-in, a drive-by, an observer of the culture and a confidante to those involved in it–a Nick Carraway, although, admittedly, coffee brewers haven’t yet gone underground. Those selling it aren’t yet gaining the world through riches and, consequently, falling into deep depravity. My friends from Oregon, however, still call me and feed my soul with shocking stories before asking me what’s happening with my life. The ensuing silence over the waves speaks for itself. Nothing is happening with my life because I block out drama by living a small, hermit-like existence in the desert.

When Sallie calls, the conversation differs from the preceding model because Sallie is different to the rest. She embodies the mirror aspect of my soul. She shakes with vibrancy, creativity, exuberance. She loves deeply and enthusiastically. She dances tango and appreciates fine foodstuffs arranged artfully on plates. By contrast, as an observer, I’m impatient by any part of life that jerks me from my sideline stance and throws me into an actual, living scene. Here’s an example of what I mean: One night, after I had worked the closing shift at the Medford Coffee Company, Sallie and I and a few others jetted to a midnight party at a house belonging to strangers. Sallie was house-sitting, and so we dropped into an atmosphere of hominess that didn’t belong to any of us. We were aliens in a foreign land of refrigerator magnets and all the sights and smells of young children and pets. For Sallie, this meant space to create a feast. For me, at that late hour, this meant intense irritation. I hated the hominess. I was hungry. It was late. I wanted to eat, watch a movie, go home and fall into bed. But to Sallie, food could never be simply food, especially when its creation brought her closer to her friends. We argued about whether we should bother chopping fresh garlic and onions for whatever pasta dish we were making. I didn’t want to bother with gourmet; she refused to compromise on quality. She won. She made the food from fresh, whole ingredients and it took longer to cook and, somehow, I survived by watching her from the sidelines. More important, I lived to tell of it and was, undoubtedly, nurtured by her food.

When Sallie calls, we discuss our late-in-life plunges into academia. Ten years ago, I took the plunge to finish my college degree. I finished what I’d started–an education in English/Creative Writing and Spanish. More recently, Sallie has done the same. She’s currently in a creative writing program at the University of Oregon and, from what I understand, she’s also taking business classes. Her status updates on Facebook also tell me she’s studying Italian. Sallie knows what she wants. She may have subverted it for a number of years while she gave birth to her children, but she’s allowed herself to resurface. Through it all, she works at one cafe or another–and some of these places are tired, soulless delivery centers for caffeine. And others are the real deal, the beating hearts of coffee-land–the kind of place Sallie will own for herself one day.

When Sallie calls, we both speak, heart-to-heart, about the soul aspect of the universe. Words take a cosmic turn when the conversation is between the two of us, no one else around to turn it into banality. Sallie possesses what I lack, and, I suspect, the vice versa is true as well. She emotes outwardly–I shrink inwardly. She captures a full spectrum of emotions, while I know only of the domino effect caused by my inability to cope with frustration–>irritation–>anger. Over the phone, both of us with our coffee, but hundreds of miles distant, we fill each other’s cups. In Sallie’s eyes, I’m the opposite of myself, the impossible ideal–an artist and poet. In my eyes, Sallie is not just an artist, but a business woman who is creative enough to bring all her ideas to fruition.

Despite my forays in the academic world, and despite my too infrequent conversations with Sallie, I have a decided lack of knowing what I want. This is, ultimately, the biggest contrast between me and Sallie. After having children, the essence of who I was remained hidden, buried under fears. I was a fiction writer! That was who I was. I could shout it from the Cascades, hear my own voice delivering the dictate, and I couldn’t make it true. Anybody might have confused my intensity of focus on one object–fiction–as an instance of she doth declare herself with too much force. And anybody might have concluded that I spoke lies from the deepest, most sincere part of my being. But nobody did until recently. And, now, when I think about Sallie, as she struggles forward through the river–nay, ocean–of fiction writing, I envision her success. I consider the turning of my own dreams and how close I am to the age of forty, and I understand this to be part of the portrait of coffee girls. We grow up, we have children, and, yet, we never stop thriving. We have coffee to brace our backbones, to keep us young and fit and full of dreams.

Coffee is the fluid of dreams, just as dreams are as fluid as night. And do you want to know what I dream of these days? I dream of being a science writer, or of not being a writer at all, but a person who researches for a living, or a person who creates tangible things. I don’t know how any of these dreams will come to pass, and still I imagine them, and I imagine taking a break from life at Sallie’s future coffeehouse and reading her published novels that I’ve just bought at the imaginary bookshop next door.

I raise my mug to her: Here’s to life not imagined, but lived!

Share

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Counting Crows and Raindrops

image by A Leon Miler © 2012

I’ve never counted crows, at least not that I can remember, not even as a youth when everything counted. A while back, I wrote this memoir called Change, in which I admitted to obsessively counting things. I also claimed to have changed over the years, to have eradicated the counting habit from my mind. But the posting of that piece woke me to reality: I never stopped. All these years, I’ve unconsciously counted. And now that I’ve risen from my dream without numbers, I count things consciously again. Because of the background activity in the unconscious mind, I’m not certain if I’ve counted crows or not. However, the file in my mind marked crows is of the cryptic variety, and bears little importance to my life, unless, of course, I begin dreaming of crows. At that point, I might have to reckon with the numbers. Meanwhile, reaching back to my nineties world, Counting Crows simply refers to a melancholic Berkeley band.

Rain is gloomy. Perhaps rain is the cause of, or is at least correlated with, counting things. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows understands the gloomy nature of rain, and uses it to his advantage on the quintessential nineties album, August and Everything After. His songs literally drip with rain. I might assume, from my own experiences, that Duritz counts crows in the rain–hence the band name–but I don’t think this is true. According to a quick search on the ever useful Wikipedia, the members derived their name from a divination rhyme, in which the number of crows answers man’s uneasy questions about the future. I’m not sure I would want my future foretold by the number of crows roosting in winter trees–or wherever they happen to be–but that may be owing to my unacknowledged crow file.

On the other hand, I know what it’s like to count rain in days, nights, and hours. I know this because my childhood world dripped with rain. Even now in my desert world, I can’t separate myself from the form of it. Rain changes people at a core level, in the genetic landscape of their souls, and this information is then passed down from generation to generation. Growing up in Portland, I lived with a constant drizzle for nine months of the year. To be exact, the average yearly rain count in Portland is thirty-eight inches. How many barrels would thirty-eight inches fill? That depends on the size of the barrels. All barrels being equal, other cities in the U.S. would fill more. New York City, for example, has a higher average rainfall. Nonetheless, Portland’s rain overshadows the citizens because of the lingering crust of gray clouds, and its capacity to drip like a leaky faucet for months on end.

August and Everything After, Counting Crow’s rainiest album, released soon after my husband and I married in 1993, and just after we fled from Portland’s rain to Southern Oregon, where the rainfall average is cut in half (38 to 18–yes, I know, this isn’t exactly half, but even less!). Ironically, Adam Duritz hails from a place with a similar low level of precipitation (San Francisco); however, he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, which explains his wet head. His early life in a rainy place changed the genetic landscape of his poetry, such that rain and melancholy ooze from his lyrics in the way that damp oozes from the walls of old dwellings near the water.

Rain is like a drug to those who have soaked it up in their youth. It’s bad for us–we sense this deeply, but we can’t stop wanting it. When my world snapped from the dryness of the scrubby Southern Oregon hills, with the deep skies of summer and the white air of winter, I heard ghost rain in rattling pot lids and steam vents. I watched for the white air to pour forth, and my brain cracked from the melancholy that no longer had a cushion of rain to fall back on. From the Medford Coffee Company, where I served up life-giving trays of coffee, I stared out into a blank parking lot, swept by scattered leaves and traffic. At night, I studied the dry, black window glass that barricaded me against the traffic. Those in the espresso shop were on an island. In a mall parking lot, we provided a refuge amid the paved, dry seas.

But rain cut in half is still rain. The hollow where the city of Medford rests isn’t a desert. Eighteen inches of rain, on average, must fill its barrels for the sake of maintenance because averages are guiding strictures in a world where true understanding is unknowable. So when the rain began to fall, I counted it. I counted drop after drop until I lost count altogether and lost myself in the sound of it, in the resting place of my childhood pensiveness. Somehow, deep thoughts require at least a modicum of rain to work themselves out. This kind of brilliancy, requiring a lack of light along with barrels of rainwater, is one of the grand contradictions of a mysterious universe.

Since moving to New Mexico, my rain has halved itself yet again, leaving me with that much less of a cushion for my thoughts. The span of the desert breaks me. The span of time without rain doesn’t empty out my thought channels, but rather, it dries them as it dries the arroyos in my backyard that snake from West to East and fill with dead mesquite branches and decaying cholla arms. In the same way, my thoughts back up and cover themselves over with dust.

And the only way out is, oddly, the same out I had for the inevitable depression caused by growing up in a rain-soggy world: coffee and espresso made strong and black, short or tall. In addition, to make a pun of it, I count things. I count my coffee, my ounces, and the raindrops that fall during the monsoon season. I count how many days pass without rain. Back in Oregon, caffeine was a corrective drug to counteract the rain drug. Here, in the desert, it’s a replacement. And I never count crows because when crows flock together in the desert, they are too many to take into the hidden parts of my mind.

20,18,38,64,9 (a list of cryptic numbers indicating the rounded rainfall averages, in inches, of various places I’ve lived, except the 20, which represents San Francisco).

The image is actually of a blackbird, not specifically crow. See A Leon Miler’s website. A Leon Miler is my dad, and he also spent far too many years in a rainy climate.

Share

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: My Nature and Theirs

Being a nineties young adult necessarily meant being an eighties child and a seventies baby. As a seventies baby, my young mind absorbed the earthy seventies lifestyle, which involved shopping at health food stores. Some of my earliest memories contain snapshots of the original Nature’s grocery in Portland, of the enormous bulk bins filled with nuts and raw honey. The remembered smell of my dad’s fresh-baked granola, made with Nature’s honey, oats, and roasted nuts, brings tears to my eyes. These early visits impressed an ideal of grocery shopping, as well as eating, on my soul, such that Wal Mart is anathema to me in its mode of low quality food, staleness, and warehouse chic. For contrast, I could wax poetic about Wal Mart’s complete opposite, outdoor marketplaces–of which, Nature’s was not. But at least Nature’s was an attempt at progression toward a regressive notion of fresh food and community.

At some point in the nineties, Nature’s sold out to the GNC, which then sold out to Wild Oats, which then sold out to Whole Foods. Whole Foods, although adequate for purchasing organic produce, is a greener version of Wal Mart with (occasionally) healthier food options on the store shelves. Whole Foods is a corporation without a soul that doesn’t often stock local produce. I don’t trust them. When they claim to avoid GMOs, I sniff in disgust. If they wanted to rid their shelves of Franken-foods, they would test products and refuse to stock brands with GM ingredients. Any product containing canola, soy, or corn would be suspect.

If you’re wondering whether this drift in thought has anything to do with coffee and my childhood, then the answer is yes. Corporations have overtaken the homegrown health food stores of my youth, as well as local coffee shops, and re-branded them with shiny green paint and ink meant to trigger fluffy feelings of health and nature in the minds of customers, rather than the lack of feelings triggered by sterility and soullessness. I’d be willing to bet money that the Whole Foods manipulation extends to their website: Go look and see how many shades of green they use. [I checked this for myself. Yes, green, green everywhere. The blog is virtually unreadable because of the green background set with white lettering. Squinting at their gloating posts makes me feel as if I’m loping through a meadow! Um, no it doesn’t.]

Turning the clocks back to the early nineties, however, Portland still had its own brands. I worked at Coffee People in its glory days, when Jim and Patty owned the chain of stores. In fact, I first worked at the Beaverton store, which was in a strip mall right in front of the Beaverton Nature’s store. Although Nature’s hadn’t yet sold out to the GNC, they’d built stores at several locations and revamped their image with an early version of the eco-friendly-lodge-warehouse that Whole Foods loosely follows to this day. Imagine green banners hanging from the Warehouse rafters, and you’ll suddenly detect the fragrance of savory herbs and lavender. Occasionally, when on shift at Coffee People, I grabbed lunch at Nature’s deli. I preferred chicken salad with a mess of gloppy guacamole. If sun existed–a long shot in the Portland area before June–I sat at an outdoor table and soaked up the sense of security created by pseudo health food and Willa Cather novels. Pseudo–yes, the deli was rife with falsehoods. They served SunChips with their sandwiches, for heaven’s sake! Have you ever read the original ingredients on a bag of SunChips? [Only recently, Frito-Lay has removed the hydrogenated oils and also claim the chips contain no msg, which is unlikely. And don’t forget that the Frito Lay brand doesn’t avoid GM ingredients.] But, perhaps, the word sun is simply another manipulative sales tactic, especially for Oregonians in the Northwestern part of the state.

Back at the coffee shop, I washed away the chicken and avocado, but couldn’t wash away the finely ground espresso from the cracks and pores of my hands. After retying my apron, I stood at the espresso machine, jerking shots for fancy drinks, which I decorated with whipped cream wreaths. I also ran the register and sold bags of gourmet treats. The Coffee People bakery made exquisite loaves of banana bread, trays of rich brownies, and cookies that melted in the mouth due to the high butter content. When the phone rang, I answered it with the ever-chirpy, “Coffee People, best coffee in Portland.” This was also a popular catchphrase: “Coffee People, good coffee, no backtalk.” And how could I not remain chirpy, as jacked up on caffeine as I was?

Coffee People sold out on the corporate level, just as Nature’s did. Now, if you search for them on the internet, you’ll find something called Donut Coffee–yes, donuts, instead of delectable baked treats. All this selling out gives me a deep sense of loss. Where are Jim and Patty? I’m sure they’re enjoying their retirement. But I really want to know, where is the essence of the hippy couple whose faces benevolently smiled from the Coffee People cups and t-shirts?* Where has my youth gone? Corporations sucked it up and churned it out and left me with a life painted green–no cluttered Nature’s shelves and rooms filled with bulk barrels and bins–no charming Portland chain of coffee shops to create a hedge against the encroaching Starbuckian universe.

These days, I turn to my books to express the loss of these places in my life. I write about them. In the original version of my book Franklin’s Ladder, the female protagonist runs a fictional version of the Coos Head health food store pictured above. That co-op grocery still exists, as far as I know, in its original beauty. The fruit mural says it all in images: We are not Whole Foods.

Thank God for a continuity of fruits and vegetables. Thank God for books, where authors pack away losses and preserve them for the future.

*Jim and Patty live! I discovered, while searching for an image of one of their old stores, that they opened up a shop on Fremont (in Portland) called Jim & Patty’s Coffee. Thank God for Jim and Patty.

Share

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The First Awakening

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.

Share