By Sean Murphy
When you’re not certain where your next meal is coming from and don’t know if you’ll be sleeping indoors, there’s one thing you learn to count on. Coffee.
Let me tell you about coffee.
I’ve had free coffee, and I’ve had coffee I paid for the way people buy used cars: slowly, agonizingly, counting the amount over and over, angling for a deal, hoping for an impasse, seeing a blank face staring back at me. I’ve paid a price for every cup of coffee that’s ever crossed my lips.
I’ve had cold coffee, and I’ve had coffee so hot it turned my tongue into a blistered sponge. I’ve had coffee that’s sat in a stained thermos so long it smelled like an animal. I’ve had coffee so fresh it’s turned me into an alien without words to describe it. I’ve had coffee when it’s been so long between cups it tasted like the glistening drops from Christ’s cross.
I’ve had coffee over conversation. I’ve had countless cups of coffee alone, composing symphonies of silence, epic poems of regret, confessions even I don’t believe. I’ve bought coffee, and I’ve brought coffee to someone who needed it even more than I did, feeling like an angel with dark stains under unclipped fingernails, glowing with a mercy I too hope to attain.
I’ve fought over coffee, holding a scalding prize with bruised hands. I’ve tossed a perfectly made cup of coffee in the street, some kind of statement to whomever is saying something I can’t hear inside their air-conditioned cab.
I’ve dreamt of coffee, and I’ve woken up wanting coffee, like a scared baby grasping in the dark. I’ve spent entire afternoons counting the seconds until a cup of coffee will warm my extremities, even if it’s an illusion. I’ve wondered if there’s more coffee than blood streaming through my veins, like I’m some legless pedestrian and it’s nothing but caffeine pushing me through these crosswalks.
I’ve crushed empty cups of coffee like the metal teeth of a trash compactor, ready for the next pile of whatever gets thrown on me. I’ve cursed coffee and wished to kill the people who give it away or sell it or use it as credit for a debt that can’t be repaid.
I’ve seen and studied the ways coffee can buy compliance, a bribe, or an excuse.
I’ve imagined a world without coffee and people who don’t care. I’ve caught myself creating a life where no one needs coffee because no one works, or looks for work, or has to pay for the things work provides.
I’ve had cups of coffee where I’ve counted how many cups it would cost to sleep one night in the cheapest motel. Or how many of those cups it would take to add up to a month’s rent in the smallest studio in the most broken down walk-up in the city. I’ve multiplied those cups to make a down payment on an apartment. I’ve sold it and escaped to some subdivision named after a tree they create in laboratories to grow faster and mingle well with other trees, lined up like fences around houses around people who don’t really know what hunger or heat is, or how time’s only kept on clocks if you’re leaving and arriving at a place you recognize.
And I promise myself it’s not too late, and it’s never too cold, and one day I’ll know what it’s like to forget what it felt like. When the only thing I wanted was some way of being certain I could reach out my hand and someone would meet me with a cup of what keeps me alive.