the only good coffee is bad coffee
an incomplete list of some versions of love
Good morning, happy friday, glad you’re here. This is griefbacon’s weekly public post. Before we get started, just a little reminder that yearly subscriptions are on sale ($35 instead of $50) until the end of February. Come check it out if you’ve been curious, throw some support to this project if you’ve enjoyed it in the past, or buy a subscription for someone else as a gift. It’s about to be a long weekend, you deserve a little treat.
Anyway. This is a post about coffee, and specifically about bad coffee, which is the only kind of coffee I like. If there’s nice coffee, the kind with tasting notes and pour overs, the kind that people talk about in the same ways people talk about wine, I’ll drink it because it’s there. But given the option, I’d always rather have coffee that tastes abysmal, the only coffee in which I actually believe. Here’s a small taxonomy of the best (worst) types of coffee. I suppose this is loosely part of a series of posts reviewing categories of stuff, for some value of review (sunscreen, gatorade, air conditioning are some of the others).
Gas Station Coffee: You’re driving somewhere you’ve never been before. The country is so much larger than anything should be. No matter how many times you think how is there this much of it, how is there still so much of it, there is always more, a room further inside the house, opening into other rooms. Highways spool out like the surface of an unknown planet. It’s lonely but most things are lonely; that’s why it matters so much when anything doesn’t feel lonely, even for five minutes. It’s lonely, but a lot of us like being lonely a lot more than we think we do.
You’re going to meet someone’s parents. You’re going somewhere for Thanksgiving; you have homemade food in the back of the car in big dishes covered over with foil. You’re going to see the friend who moved out of the city. It’s not all that far away but it’s more fun to pretend that it is. You’re going to someone’s wedding; a dry cleaning bag is hanging off that uncertain hook in the backseat like a ghostly passenger. You’re holding a cup of gas station coffee. It’s maybe the worst coffee you’ve ever had. It’s maybe the worst coffee anyone’s ever had.
You stopped at a gas station because you needed gas or because you needed to pee. You got out of the car and the air smelled just slightly wild, in that way the air near a gas station always does. You went inside and bought a coffee and the coffee came in one of the those horrible hyper-insulated styrofoam cups with the treacherous little flip-top tab. You took it back to the car and took a sip and burned your tongue and then you drove away. Or, really, someone else drove away. Gas station coffee is the glory of the passenger seat, the dissociative blur of houses and highway, the crackle of untrustworthy radio stations, every conversation interrupted at its crisis point or punchline by the google maps lady’s polite warnings.
Out the window, you glimpse the back-ends of other people’s yards, open for a moment to the freeway as you pass them. Strangers’ lives rush by in snapshots, all the nowheres that are someone else’s destinations. In a car on a long drive, you’re only ever in the betweens. But every place is a between. We all live in a place that someone else is passing through to get somewhere else; to the passenger in a moving car, each of our lives—our homes, our doorsteps, our windows, whatever we break ourselves in half trying to keep hold of—is the unreal blur between one end of the map’s route and the other. My life, which seems so ruinously important to me, is just a thing that the google maps lady in someone else’s car talks them past on their way somewhere else, left turn in 400 feet.
The thing I miss more than anything else that’s closed or been demolished or disappeared in the time I’ve lived in New York City is not a restaurant or a bar or a coffeeshop or even a person who moved away. It’s the gas station that once occupied the corner of Lafayette and Houston. For decades, each time I came up out of the subway at that intersection, the sight of the gas station felt like a cold shower on a hot day. It was a reminder that New York City is just somebody else’s in-between. This city, like every other place, is just the place somebody passes through in their car. They stop at a gas station, they buy a cup of incredibly bad coffee, and then they get back in the car and drive on again, through the city and past it, toward wherever the in-betweens end.
Diner Coffee: Diners only exist at weird, nowhere times, the three pms and the four ams, and that’s what diner coffee tastes like. It’s true, of course, that you can go to a diner at a normal hour, for a normal reason. But when you order coffee, the specific way in which it tastes bad, as though it were somehow possible to forget one of the ingredients in black coffee, reminds you that it’s not ever actually a normal hour at a diner.
When people talk about diners, they often talk about feeling like they’re in a Hopper painting. Sometimes that’s accurate, but all it really means is that they’re having a very bad time. Edward Hopper’s paintings are very beautiful, but their whole point is that all of the people in them are having a very, very, very bad time. One way to deal with a bad time is to pretend that having a bad time is interesting, or meaningful, or somehow glamorous, but of course the whole thing of having a bad time is that it isn’t interesting, or meaningful, or glamorous. It’s just a bad time. If you’re at a diner, more often than not you’re there because you’re having a bad time.
The coffee at a diner always tastes like a Hopper painting, dull and blank-eyed, staring out at nothing in particular, convinced that all the good things that are going to happen to you have already happened. The parade has passed by and the party’s ended and everyone has gone on with the noise and lights and the confetti without you. Diner coffee tastes like seven in the morning on a weekday when you didn’t sleep at all the previous night, or two in the afternoon on a Saturday when you woke up at noon. Diner coffee always tastes like four am. Like four am, it’s uniformly terrible but, also like four am, it makes you feel like you’re in a Hopper painting, as though having a bad time might be luminous as the late-night lonely glow of oil on canvas. Sometimes the only thing there is to do about having a bad time is to pretend it makes you interesting. It doesn’t, and neither does the coffee, but sometimes pretending is the only place there is to start from, the only way to get out of a bad time and over to something else.
Church Coffee: All these coffees are bad but this the worst one. I’ve been going to a church for over four years now and I’m still not sure if I believe in God, but I do believe in a bunch of people together in a room drinking bad coffee. The first day Thomas and I went to our church was just after Halloween; the year that preceded that Sunday had been so bad that I barely remember whole months of it. It got dramatically worse and from there got better, in the way things sometimes do. Somebody in a planning meeting for the church recently said something about how churches attract broken people or weirdos, people who haven’t been able to fit in in other places. They said it as though this were a problem and, sure, I knew what they meant, but I thought isn’t this the only defensible thing about this place, about these places, at the end of the day. Another way to say that no one deserves anything is that everyone deserves everything. It was cold in early November four years ago and the ends of my fingers were still chilly enough to thaw against the cardboard cup when Thomas brought me a coffee after the service. The coffee was bad, I mean just so bad, just terrible, but it was warm, which is the best most of us can offer most of the time. I realized then how few rooms I have stood in, ever, in my whole life, where I did not feel like I had to prove anything in order to belong there, where I did not feel like I had to crank up the charm, or do a little dance, or bust out a credible impression of a more competent, more trustworthy, more outgoing, less damaged person, in order to belong in that room. The thing about church coffee is that it’s free and that’s it, that’s the most meaningful thing any church does, bigger than scripture and more relevant than sermons, Martin Luther nailing his theses to the door and all of them just say over and over the coffee in the room is free.
Bodega Coffee: It isn’t really true that nothing in New York City is special, although people like to say that and I agree more than I disagree. Plenty of things in New York are particular to New York, which is to say special, but only in the same way that plenty of things are particular to any particular place. Every town and small city and big city and suburb and cul de sac and rest stop and countryside and exurb and neighborhood has its own weather, its own codes, its own strange rewards and unspoken taboos. Bodegas aren’t special; most places have some version of a convenience store, a place where you can buy a sandwich or a gatorade or a single loose cigarette at 2am if the guy working there likes you (although the list of places where you can buy anything at 2am is small and getting smaller, particularly in this city where almost nothing is open all night anymore).
People here try to say that bodegas are special not because they are, but because our backdrops punctuate our lives, and form their texts, offering one way to draw meaning out of habit, repetition, and chaos. If you get coffee in the same place each morning for two years, whatever those two years meant will eventually get tangled up with that coffee and the place where you bought it, even if the place was unremarkable and the coffee was very bad. It’s hard to explain the way that passing time becomes more than an undifferentiated handful of days, so we end up talking rapturously about the fact that the corner store sells Gatorades and sandwiches, as though that weren’t true of any corner store in any town basically anywhere.
Anyway, bodega coffee is always execrably bad. It’s burnt and watery and tastes like cigarette ash. It tastes like Sunday night. It tastes like a health hazard. But it also tastes like that time I came home in a party dress at seven in the morning after a third date with someone whom I had begun to sense would be important to me whether I liked it or not, and bought a coffee, standing in line in my high heels amongst all the joggers and office workers starting their day. It tastes like the rusty metal at the bottom of the pot but it also tastes like that time fifteen years ago when I thought I would actually die of having a hangover but then I bought the cheapest possible cup of coffee and I didn’t die of having a hangover and I stood out in the fresh air drinking bad coffee and thought how most things are survivable because very few things matter all that much. Bodega coffee tastes like tap water having a nightmare about a flu epidemic but it also tastes like that time I bought popsicles after staying out late with the person who would become my best friend, so buoyant from the conversation that along with the popsicles I remembered to buy myself a coffee to make the morning, which was so quickly arriving, easier when it arrived.
Night Coffee: Coffee after 8pm technically counts as drugs.
The Coffee in the Room at a Holiday Inn Express in the Middle of Nowhere: It’s bad and there isn’t enough of it. It’s usually pods and they usually only give you one pod or, at grudging best, two. Even the pods manage to be worse than most pod coffee, as though some hotel chain employee really made an effort about it, sorting through some enormous catalogue to find the most punishingly tasteless option.
But who cares. The point is that you made it to the room, or you made it back to the room. You got here and you shut the door behind you. If you’re staying at a Holiday Inn Express—near a freeway, looking out on a parking lot, two floors above a breakfast buffet and TVs endlessly playing the kind of network news you were sure died at the turn of the millennium—you’re probably here to do something mildly to moderately stressful. Maybe it’s a work trip or an industry conference. Maybe it’s a family reunion or a funeral and there’s not enough room at the relative’s house on which the event centers. Maybe it’s a friend’s wedding in the middle of a charming and wildly inconvenient nowhere, where the actual venue is still another fifteen miles from here but the invitation said to book this hotel and downstairs in the lobby are a bunch of people you only ever see at social events with this one same friend over however many years, huddled together doing complex math about rental cars and drinking and timetables.
The point of the Holiday Inn Express coffee isn’t taste or flavor or luxury; the point of the coffee is that for half an hour you’re free of whatever it is you’re here to do, before you have to go back into it again. There isn’t any choice about the coffee—if you went downstairs to the lobby and got a coffee there it would be this exact same coffee—and that’s exactly what’s good about it. The coffee is very bad. It tastes like nothing; it tastes like hot water that once, long ago, heard a story about coffee. But sometimes it’s nice to love something just because it’s there. At the end of the day, that might be why we love most of what we end up loving: Because it’s there. Because it’s the only coffee in the room.
Yesterday’s Leftover Cold Coffee in the Fridge in Your Own Home in the Morning: Maybe the advice I disagree with most, out of a long list of popular advice with which I strongly disagree, is the idea that you have to love yourself first before you can love or be loved by anyone else. It would be great if this were true; it would be great if love were some finish line at which we arrived and where we stayed, fixed in place, once we got there. Instead, we meet one another, and ourselves, in glimpses. For three minutes I fully love and respect myself, and for the next three minutes I hate everyone I have ever met including myself. Those six minutes aren’t even part of a particularly bad day, just a normal one. The slow, halting, worn-out balancing work of it goes on. We build our lives on bad bets and passing whims. Vegetables grow out of concrete pavement and rotten soil. The lights come on and shut off again. Some days there’s unlimited hot water and good water pressure and some days I turn the faucet and it sputters and spits and gives up and there’s nothing. We do our best and sometimes our best is really pretty good and sometimes our best is a joke. It’s the same word— love — for unconditional care as for the tornado that ruins our lives.
I’ve never felt like I’ve succeeded in loving myself, at least not with any consistency, but some mornings I wake up very early and I’ve left a big mug of yesterday’s coffee in the fridge overnight because I knew I would want it in the morning. Maybe it tastes good or maybe it tastes bad but most importantly it tastes cold, and it helps me wake up, and I get to be grateful for it. Imagine being able to give yourself exactly the thing that you need. It doesn’t matter how small the aperture is, or whether this gesture leads to some larger consistency. It usually doesn’t; after all, it’s just coffee. But for maybe ten minutes or maybe a whole hour, love is a fixed point of arrival. Someone left coffee for me to find in the morning; someone loves me.
After-Dinner Coffee at Someone Else’s Parents’ House: You did it! You made it! You got to the end of the meal! You beat the game! The coffee is so bad but who cares!
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Somehow I think I've also written the exact sentence "I do believe in a bunch of people together in a room drinking bad coffee." The other day I joked to one of my divinity school classmates that everyone who goes to church is annoying, that's why we're there. Despite church being full of the most annoying people on earth and the weakest coffee I have ever drank I still go every week because unfortunately I think God is here for the annoying people, of which I am the worst.
Night coffee is the best coffee, even if it's bad coffee. It's so illicit. It's a treat. And it often accompanies a dessert, which is its own kind of pleasurable sin. It's saying "I don't care how I feel in two hours when I'm inexplicably in bed, staring at the ceiling and I can't think of anything except lists of tasks I could probably get up and do right now if it weren't so late, and emails I could be writing, but it's after midnight and those emails would be total gibberish. But I'm not tired, and I'm just lying here, and today was utterly meaningless and I shouldn't ever eat dessert after 8pm and I have accomplished nothing with my life."
Okay, so yeah, it's like drugs. But I still find it so romantic to drink coffee at night.