When I was a kid, my mom was society editor for the San Francisco Examiner. That meant it was her job to go to parties — lots of them. I remember the lavish gowns she would don for these events, the silver and gold braid, the beading, the swish of raw silk. I remember her poring over her reflection in the mirror, setting her soft brunette hair in rollers, shaving her legs with the electric razor, and carefully pulling on nylons.
I remember my dad — who to his everlasting glee got to attend these elevated shindigs — applying a ton of Right Guard antiperspirant from an aerosol can, how the toxic droplets would hang in the air like a fog. We’d run screaming and coughing (and laughing our heads off) from the room.
I remember the intense concentration of my parents as they prepared for these parties. We weren’t permitted to disturb them or God forbid to touch them. If we got too near they’d “chastise” us (one of my mom’s favorite words). I’d watch fascinated as my mother curled her eyelashes in a bizarre metal device that entrapped and distorted her eye. She’d look at me through the little slot, and I’d shiver. They’d take turns at the sink. She’d dab the Joy perfume my father bought her every year at Christmas, or the Attar of Roses oil he brought from Cairo one year, carefully behind her ears.
The doorbell would ring, and our hearts would sink. It would be one of the old women from “The Agency”: Mrs. Cline, Mrs. Raise, or Mrs. Van Gundi — ancient women all. Mrs. Cline was the meanest, with ankles that collapsed in alarming rolls over the tops of her white nurse’s shoes. She’d commonly lock us in the sunroom. Mrs. Van Gundi was the nicest — the only one who would read to us from the safety of the green-painted rocking chair. The oldest and Mrs. Van Gundi’s sister, Mrs. Raise didn’t do much at all. Frail, skeletal, and very old, she remained stock-still wherever she happened to land.
Once in a while, a party would take place at our house. I don’t remember the preparations, but I do remember extreme numbers of people thronging the entire first floor of our home. I remember threading in and out of a sea of legs as I navigated from room to room. Occasionally, someone, usually a man, would grab the tops of our heads as we tried to slip past to use us as the butt of some joke to the group at large which would always be met with raucous laughter. Cigar smoke wreathed the crystal chandelier.
The same men also had bountiful fun with our Indonesian-Dutch maid Etme who would dress up in a “real French maid’s uniform” for these parties. Whenever my dad spoke of Etme in years following, it was with a kind of hushed reverence. She was a beauty, apparently, and I’m sure the tiny uniform didn’t hurt. I saw a picture of her once, and she was quite fetching, with smooth cafe-au-lait skin, arched brows, sleek dark hair, and a warm, serene smile. All the men had a thing for her, and one of the richest actually pursued her for real, or so the story goes.
My siblings and I would escape the tentacles of the beast below which moved and breathed like a giant, connected organism. We’d retreat to the landing on the stairs and watch with fascination as the house filled to bursting with all manner of laughing, shrieking, smoking people.
The best thing about these parties by far was the next morning. My brother and I were practiced at waking up early and slinking downstairs to discover incredible riches scattered over the dining room table: coffee cups half full of coffee, pitchers of cream and milk, and bowls of sugar. Numerous gold-leafed dessert plates with half-eaten slices of cake. Boxes of Sees candies. Tiny glasses of sweet liquors. Long-stemmed glasses of bitter wine that we’d sample for the fun of it. We’d flit from cup to cup, ignoring the ones with cigarette butts floating in them. We’d doctor the coffees with heaping teaspoons of sugar and cream, and down them delightedly, sticking our pinkies out like the best of them, then lick the chocolate-y plates clean.
That was the beginning of my coffee romance.
In high school, I was a barista at Old Uncle Gaylord’s on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, California. My bosses were two swingers named Steve and Jonathan. Steve, the cafe owner, was tall and primal, roped with muscles, tan of skin, with smoking blue eyes and short, sandy hair. Jonathan was a pianist as well as the cafe manager, and he looked like Magnum PI, with a mop of curly dark hair, a tender mustache, and baby-soft skin. Both flirted with me and with all the girls (and with all the boys too, I am sure), but they weren’t seriously coming on to us. They knew better, and in fact, Steve later saved me and my friend Sondra when we somehow ran into him at a party in San Francisco that we definitely should not have been at. He stayed by our side the entire time warding off waves of predatory men.
Jonathan taught me how to make cappuccinos and lattes. He stood behind me and helped me hold the stainless steel pitcher just so, so that the steam nozzle sucked the milk in just under the surface, not boiling the milk itself by going too deep nor spraying milk all over me and the counter by pulling it out too far. He taught me to listen for the muffled sound of the nozzle sucking the milk under. It didn’t take long before I could steam an entire pitcher of milk, turning the whole thing to frothy fluff.
Part of my job was closing the cafe, alone. I’d be counting money at midnight from the cash register in the brightly lit corner cafe which hung like a shiny glass bauble in the night. An ambulance driver in his 30s used to come by for a coffee just before closing. I’d lock the door and let him stay. That was Patrick, a lean and taciturn Chilean with a penetrating gaze and a flamboyant rancher’s mustache. We’d chat. He’d peruse the paper. I’d re-stock, wash dishes, clean equipment, mop floors, take inventory, and the like. I only realized years later he was protecting me from theft, a fact he confirmed around the same time he revealed he was in love with me, the day after my 18th birthday. But, that’s another story.
A man named Eric Clausen came in daily to order an Earl Grey tea and a chocolate chip cookie after his swim. Dark tendrils of his hair dripped fetchingly onto the collar of his polo shirt. He was in his 40s, average height, and beautifully built, with strong, sensitive hands. He was an artist, an iron worker, who observed me quietly for at least a year before asking me out. When he did, I was thrilled, but got scared at the last minute and canceled. He never asked me again.
Coffee, coffee. In Venezuela, the best coffee was gas station coffee for 35 cents. Also in Venezeula, in fact, in Cafetal, the former coffee-growing district of Caracas, my sister-in-law made me coffee through a cloth filter suspended from a wire that looked to be bent from a dry cleaner hanger.
In Israel, a bedouin made me coffee with “hel” or cardamom. He gazed at me soulfully as we traipsed through the moonlit Ngev Desert before I tripped over a barbed wire fence. Then, he doctored me skillfully and served me coffee with hel. I gave him the portrait a Russian immigrant in Tel Aviv had sketched of me. He hung it up reverentially over his bed.
Turkish coffee in the Pierre Loti cafe in the serpentine hills of Istanbul with a view of the Golden Horn with my Turkish lover 31 years my senior. He took beautiful care of me, sailing me up and down the Turkish coast (and the Mexican coast years later) and serving me tiny toasts of feta cheese and red ripe tomato and fragrant white bread drizzled with Turkish honey.
He took me to a village accessible only by four-wheel drive over a dry riverbed where a man surrounded by giggling women and girls served us a lavish meal on bronze platters in a tent. Later, the women herded me to a seamstress where a pair of shalvars — Turkish trousers — was made for me on the spot. They encircled me and held their breath as I removed my jeans, then oohed and aahed at my underwear and made me turn so everyone could see all sides.
Good, strong coffee from Daniel’s trustworthy Krups machine, served alongside soft-scrambled eggs — that was the coffee I didn’t appreciate nearly enough, from the one who got away… a man who knew eggs, coming as he did from the Iranian culture crazy about kookoos, or Persian frittatas.
Silty coffee that cools too fast from my trusty and attractive glass and stainless steel French press. Fun, special occasion coffees from a parade of monstrously heavy espresso machine give-aways that always, eventually, break. The Italian Bialletti that my friend Cybele used to make me strong, smooth espressos as I edited the letters she wrote to her lover before her husband got home.
Vietnamese cà phê (cafe), thick with treacly condensed milk. Served suspended over a glass of ice in its own little aluminum filter, it took forever to expunge its unctious liquid treasure. I enjoyed those in the streets of Hanoi with a slice of “gato” (from gateau, “cake” in French, of course) purchased from one of the boys trundling a glass case full of gato slices balanced atop a wooden cart and wheeled beneath paper lanterns.
The pound-bags of Peets dark roast my dear friend Erica and I used to bring back from the US to our dark little kitchen in Budapest whenever we went home. We had no hot water, but we had a romantic lace curtain hung over the window.
Countless cups of instant Nescafe with Serena in Tel Aviv’s hot nights. The ice cream flavor my dad preferred. Swirled hearts made in espresso foam by thin young hipsters with long hair.
Early morning coffees in my kitchen. Slipping out of bed before the kids wake up. Filling the pot as quietly as possible as early morning light washes everything in a cool, calming glow. Covering the coffee grinder with a dishtowel to muffle the sound. Breathing in the heady aroma and then enjoying that first, bracing sip. Feeling clean and light and that all is right in the world.
Coffee? An invitation to stay awhile. To sit with one’s back straight and while away some time. To check in with friends and neighbors, to put the kids and the house, the dishes and the dinner, on hold.
Unless, of course, you mean a coffee invitation in Buenos Aires, where the innocent-sounding request is invariably not about consumption of an international beverage, but an invitation to bed. If you accepted, you were accepting a romp in a new lover’s flat. It’s true. Try it.