Smithology: Dark roasted

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whole coffee beans wood table close up with phone map knoxville
Sam Smith

Been on a lot of road trips lately. Safe ones, not much human contact. They resemble the trips I took months ago, just with a lot less poking around in small towns and dropping in on friends.

That is what we do now, in the time of Rona: pick an act we used to enjoy, then decide if it can be effectively tackled without, say, licking someone’s face or inhaling their air. If those conditions can be met, well, hooray, that path is probably fine, go live that life, take a long drive or organize your sock collection or whatever. Or maybe just stay home at night, lacking a better option, as we do so many nights, and watch The Hunt for Red October for the 300th time solely because you love shouting submarine gibberish at the screen in an eye-watering mangling of Sean Connery’s accent. And because your spouse, quietly reading across the room, does not seem to object, so long as you do not under any circumstance disturb her patient sighs and/or general sense of light regret regarding binding legal commitments made in the heady days of youth.

Not that I would know anything about that sort of thing.

(Pandemic thinking: You lean into base instincts. Even if those instincts are groaning Catskills comedy.)

Still, parts of existence remain blissfully unaltered. Last week, while dragging a truly awful project car down the eastern seaboard, I walked into a truck stop for the first time in months. After paying for a few things at the register, I took a wincing sip of one of the worst cups of coffee in the lower 48. This coffee was possibly even worse than the coffee in nowhere upper Alaska, which is remarkable, because I once drove a doorless Jeep up the Dalton Highway and drank oil-rig java by the Arctic Ocean, and while that trip was delightful—bears gallumphing across permafrost, a midnight sunset—it also gave me the irreplaceable experience of sipping a steamy cup of dark roast on staggeringly beautiful summer tundra and almost immediately throwing up a little in my mouth.

The truck-stop coffee was worse. A hundred times so.

The joy almost made my year.

This country has a strange relationship with coffee. The basics exist as in much of the world: strained bean water, hot and potent, often with milk. Beyond that, everything hangs on location. Almost every American city holds a cafe that will sell you coffee as found in Europe, complex and delicious. Most diners in rural America will sling you a cup of brown liquid somewhere between lovely and inoffensive. Finally, there is this great land’s inventory of interstate truck stops and gas stations, nearly all of which maintain large percolators full of bitter dirt juice tasting not unlike an old sock dipped in burnt Dumpster.

Don’t write in. Yes, there are places on the highway with wonderful coffee. Every rule gets an exception. The key here is the average, because the average is foul on a stick.

whole coffee beans on wood table close up
Sam Smith

The dichotomy makes zero sense. When it comes to drink prep, most highway gas stations are up there with most diners, but the results are vastly different. To consider the reasons is to invite madness, so it’s best to focus on the experience. Put yourself in the moment: Driving. Tired. Cranky. You have for hours been staring at the rear bumper of a minivan planted in the left lane, or a semi truck, or the semi truck that attempted to pass that other semi truck, uphill, for 30 minutes.

A sign appears; you take the next exit. You roll into the nearest name-brand Fill ’n’ Shill. At the rear of the store, a refrigerator beckons. It holds wide variety but no workable solution. Soda has too much sugar; energy drinks have too much nuclear waste. Yerba maté gives you a headache; tea isn’t strong enough. And really, adults drink coffee.

A line of carafes sits next to the microwave, maybe across from the hot-dog bar. (There is often a hot-dog bar. Under no circumstances should you try the hot-dog bar.) Little signs hang from the top of each carafe, on a thin metal chain: Colombian, Extra Strong.

You pay, exit, return to the car. A mile later, or maybe five, the cup has cooled enough to take a sip. You raise to your face, eye the lid, tentatively inhale.

You are greeted with an olfactory profile not unlike 90-weight gear oil filtered through a pit toilet.

The cup is returned to the cupholder. Who is that desperate, you think? No one. Definitely not me. A mile passes, then another. Disgusted, you consider stopping simply to pour out the cup, then realize that you have been on the road long enough to physically require some sort of stimulant, else you might lose your mind and point the car at something initially satisfying but later unpleasant, like a ditch, or the drive-thru lane at White Castle.

Possibilities come slowly to a tired brain: Stop? Go? Cease existence entirely?

Nearing rock bottom, you consider finding another gas station and purchasing an energy drink: big sugar but the taste of loathing; the color of Pokémon urine; makes your aorta hurt if you finish the can.

You look back at the coffee.

You shrug.

You sip the coffee.

You almost drive off the road.

In few situations will a modern individual willingly put that kind of vile in their mouth. The most well-known car-person exception might be race tracks; trackside coffee is famously undrinkable, but it also doesn’t really count, because track life never feels as desperate as the interstate. There’s no sense of inevitable travel, no urge to maintain progress. Pausing your day more often than necessary doesn’t seem like welcomed failure.

So you drink. Something magical happens—after a few months or weeks or years of tolerating the experience, the suffering mutates into joy. You look forward to the misery and come to need it. Highways become long stretches of patience dotted with off-ramp happy. Passengers or travel companions watch you inhale a wretched liquid and marvel at your damage. Stockholm syndrome? Masochism? Perhaps.

Or perhaps, on one specific occasion, you drink the stuff because you have spent a lot of time in your house lately, and an atrocious but familiar brand of punishment is simply an artifact of a simpler life. Because two small children have been glued to your side, not in school, for weeks, and you need an escape from their constant presence. Or simply from that point in the middle of the day where spaz and lack of summer camp prompts them to literally paint the walls of your house with a fine solution of diluted toothpaste.

Not that I would know anything about that, either.

The reason is immaterial, really. A long drive last week gave me access to garbage road coffee. The taste mostly served as a reminder that some parts of life remain consistent regardless of whether we want them to. People are resilient and predictable animals. A pandemic may hamper civilization for a bit, but in the long run, we will, as Mr. Mister sang, carry our liaisons through the darkness of the night. As we always have.

Side note: I just googled that song lyric, worried I misremembered. Turns out it’s actually “Kyrie eleison,” not “carry liaisons.”

If you are not a liturgical scholar, then it may help to know that those words are Greek for “Lord, have mercy.”

Which—funny coincidence—is exactly what I shout at no one in particular, in the cabin of a vehicle, whenever I drink gas-station coffee.

Cue the rimshot! A joke as bad as the drink! Looks like they’re waving me off the stage, so good night, ladies and germs, and remember to tip your waitress! She has free refills on the decaf, but the percolator is on the dregs, so you’ll need all the cream and sugar we’ve got. Load up, don’t forget the bath—

(We’re done here —Ed.)

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