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From The Grounds Up
by Jayni Juedes
I was nineteen years old the first time I drank coffee. There had perhaps been a time when I was younger and had a sip or two from someone else’s mug at someone else’s house or maybe even at a post-service church coffee social. The kind that small churches have every Sunday to provide their members with fellowship, because if you cannot have a large congregation, you have that much more time to get to know the poor sad souls who do come. My childhood is earmarked with a good half-dozen of these churches, places you go to multiple times a week and pretend to be a good little girl for the credit of your family. If you are not, the sweet wrinkled ladies who have outlived their husbands and friends and have had their children move away to states far away will admonish you with a pasty white, crooked finger and then report the sin to your mother, who will be horrified that your behavior has bothered these good old souls.
Drinking coffee at home was a non-existent option. My parents did not drink coffee. A strict health diet in the early years of their marriage that had slowly degenerated still had effects that lingered; caffeine was, in a word, evil. My mother kept a small amount of both regular and decaffeinated coffee in the freezer in case dinner guests ever asked for coffee with their dessert. It was seldom pulled out. In fact, the few times I did see that bag were when the pastor visited. Mom would fill the silver tea kettle on the stove with filtered water and once it boiled pull a ceramic mug down from the faded blue cupboard and slowly stir in a packet of instant coffee. I would watch, my level of gaze just above the high island counter in the middle of the kitchen. I could sense my mother’s hidden disapproval and how put out she felt at having to make coffee in her own kitchen, it was akin to sin but alas, it was also for the pastor.
My family was filled with tea drinkers. Juice had too much dye and sugar, coffee had the obvious caffeine and soda was a mixture of all that was unholy in both. Aside from water, tea was the only remaining beverage option. My family drank tea. I did not. For years as a child my inability to enjoy a cup of cooked dead flower blossoms was a source of embarrassment and apology. I tried red, white, green and black teas, caffeinated teas, non-caffeinated teas, and fresh mint tea from the garden. I tried my tea with honey. I tried my tea with sugar. I tried drinking it plain. No matter the combination I could never choke back more than a few swallows. By the time I reached my late teen years I had relegated myself to the fact that I was a failure at drinking.
I was nineteen when I moved to Seattle. The plan was to find a simple job for the three short summer months, anything would do. For two solid weeks I holed away in my sister’s tiny upstairs office on the air mattress I called home and lived on craigslist, perusing every advertised job from working on a lobster boat to being a personal assistant. Inevitably, I ran across a posting for open interviews for Tully’s Coffee. I was immediately intoxicated by the mental images of confidently serving customers in a cute little apron with a smile and my short hair scraped back into a ponytail. I had worked in customer service before, but this was different. This was … cool. A few days later I walked into my first Seattle coffee shop to fill out an interview and a week later I got a call offering me a job.
Tully’s Coffee has a remarkably helpful website that presents each of their basic drinks with an accompanying picture and short description. I studied it religiously; it would be embarrassing to show up to work and not know the difference between a latte and a mocha. Even still, on my first day I made drinks without knowing what they were, merely blindly following directions. The revelations were endless: I didn’t know there were different kinds of espresso shots, or that the drink ingredients needed to be dumped into the cup in a certain order. Even simple brewed coffee needed to be weighed and ground to a specific standard, and the technicalities and proper usage of a steam wand alone could fill an entire instruction manual! I spilled things. I dropped stuff. It was miserable, and on the bus ride home my head spun with all the foreign details. I questioned the wisdom of my job choice, but when I arrived home and walked in the door to be greeted with an approving nose (“You smell delicious!”) I knew it was worth it. Especially when I considered my first-ever summer job, working in a meat shop, and what I returned home smelling like then.
As the weeks passed things vastly improved. I still spilled things, but that’s just because I’m a klutz. After two months I was even transferred to a different shop and promoted to a lead. Now, in between training other wide-eyed and terrified victims I was able to start enjoying the literal perk of the job: free coffee. Whenever the trickle of customers slowed I made myself a drink. The whirl of the grinder was comforting, the rich color of the espresso as it trickled from the portafilter spout into the shot glass easily demolished my tendency towards distraction, and the shisk-shisk noise of the steam wand and the consistency of the foam it made depending on its placement in the milk pitcher was like magic. It was art. I was in love. Sometimes I drank six shots of espresso in a day; there was so much to try and so many new combinations to invent. Though, let the record show that a white mocha with peppermint, banana and mango syrup is not a winner. It was a love affair that could not die. Sometimes I even made myself French press coffee in the morning before heading to work to drink more coffee. I’d sit at the kitchen table and swirl the mug to judge the depth of oil floating at the top of the brew and admire the contrast between the rich dark cocoa color of the liquid and the golden oak table I’d set it on.
In mid-July I called my mother to announce I had decided to not return to college in the fall. This was not a direct result of my love for coffee but the prospect of continuing to live in Seattle and work for Tully’s certainly did not cause me to shed any tears. Instead it was the cause of much excitement: instead of moving back across the country I suddenly had another entire semester to cultivate my addiction! My parents obviously knew I had sold my soul to the devil, but I doubt they realized the full extent of the danger, or how far I’d slipped down the slope. I lived, breathed and dreamed coffee. My leather purse even lost its leather smell and instead acquired a coffee smell. I’d call family or friends and cheerfully talk about work. That’s nice, they’d respond, but what are you doing for fun? I didn’t understand their ignorance on the matter: work WAS my fun, what else did I need?
For eight glorious months this continued; the end of the semester arrived far too quickly. I flew back to Wisconsin a few days before Christmas to spend the holidays with my family before moving to Pennsylvania to take another stab at college. The first morning home I woke up in the late afternoon and sleepily stumbled downstairs to find some coffee. Instead, I quickly remembered where I was and stared in horrified fascination: there at the kitchen table sat my little sisters, dressed in cute old-fashioned dresses for a tea party. They motioned towards the flower-bedecked white teapot. “Jayni, would you like some?” Then my mother appeared and appraised the situation. Wrinkling her nose at me, she asked politely, “Would you like me to dig the coffee out of the freezer for you?” I can honestly say at that moment the only thing holding my sanity intact was the determination to shoot Santa if a French press didn’t materialize under the tree in a few short days and the secret knowledge that upstairs in my suitcase I had safely stowed away an entire pound of coffee.