Back in the old days, twenty (can it be?) twenty years ago, when I inhabited the shabby rental with illogical additions, copious ashtrays, and a rogues gallery of the then-still-stymied and misdirected we affectionately referred to as the Estes Home for Wayward Girls, there was a coffeepot—a cheapo percolater of dime store provenance- on a white painted stool in the kitchen. In that house, the floor was warped, and every time someone moved or jumped of slid a chair across the floor or opened a door or closed a drawer the stool would twitch and coffee (because we were always making coffee) would erupt, grounds and all, like some kind of caffeinated Old Faithful, leaving spots on the wall, on the stool, on the floor below. If I told you we didn’t have a better place to put the coffee pot, you probably wouldn’t believe me, though it is mostly true (we had limited counter space, and less money to supplement with additional furniture). The coffeepot was a problem. It was also a necessary component of our lifestyle. And its constant state of disaster has become the abiding symbol of all that was so deliriously (and often hilariously) wrong with our lives at that time. Disgusting. Like, super gross.
I wasn’t as bothered by the mess as I could have been. For one thing, I’d lived in grosser places, and definitely stayed in grosser places, when I was still close enough to teenager for it to feel like a normal phase I’d come out of in a few years and not, as Estes did, like an symptom of an incipient pathology. There were five of us who paid rent there over the course of two years and another handful that maybe should have. One person had only so much control over the calamity that one too-clever-by-half party guest once described as “an indie rock explosion” whatever that meant.
More to the point, the coffeepot was not even close to the grossest thing in the house. There were situations with infestations, insect, rodent, and oblivious houseguest. There were ashtrays with monolithic contents. There were bodily fluids (both human and animal) in places they ought not have been. And there was a futon mattress so infamously well-used by such a variety of people that it should have merited its own exclusion zone. And that’s ignoring the animal hair, the streaks of paint, the finger prints of hair dye, the closets so overfilled with various crap, merely opening a door might activate an avalanche. One of my roommate’s boyfriends used to give himself monthly buzzcuts beside the stove with his head literally upside down inside a half-full trash can, which, at the time, we considered, if not a model for tidiness, at least an improvement on leaving a whole head of hair in a bathroom sink.
But it’s the coffeepot people remember. That’s the metric. My friends and ex-roommates never fail to bring it up, even twenty years later. And it’s the coffeepot people most associate with me. Maybe because I usually made the coffee. Probably because I always bought the coffeepots. My mother, the least likely person to believe in astrology but does, discusses my uncanny ability to foil machines as “bad tech karma” or “Mercury in retrograde.” I, a seemingly more likely astrology believer who thinks it’s all bullshit, tend to chalk it up to some latent developmental issue, like remember how I could read chapter books in kindergarten but couldn’t figure out how to operate a pair of scissors until I was almost nine? Yeah, That one.
We all have our strengths, I guess.
The coffee thing is weird though because prior to the Home for Wayward Girls, I could seemingly operate a Mr Coffee without the world falling into chaos around me. Like most members of my generation, I have not only been a barista, but listed it on my professional resume until, like, five years ago. Additionally, I am the granddaughter of Nana, a woman who started me on my coffee journey at approximately age three (I’m pretty tall, so I assume any growth-stunting was minimal)and had me brewing up pots by the time I entered primary school. I spent much of my high school and college years subsisting on little more than black coffee and Camel Lights (give or take the occasional beer and/or cheese-forward “vegetarian” option). It is possible I had, by the Wayward Girls era, permanently altered my chemical make-up due to the amount of coffee ingested. Like, if you went into my cells, and hollered up at the ol’ double Helix, it would probably sass back about the chintzy refill policy on black coffee. So maybe that’s the culprit. Or maybe it’s just something about whatever negative energy vortex operates in and around Orange County, North Carolina. Technically I don’t believe in any of that shit either, but people I love have been trying to convince me for years that Duke University (approximately 12 miles from the Estes House) is, in fact, a hell mouth. Which, I suppose, is as good an excuse as any
Whatever the case, no coffeepot since Estes Drive has 100% worked for me. They break too soon. They burn out. They leak. They implode. They explode. They create brackish messes that stain my counter tops and scar the linoleum with topographical ridges. There are always coffee grounds. There is are always muddy streaks spontaneously generating, even when I am careful not to spill. I have thrown time and money at this problem. I can’t possibly tell you how many coffee-setups I’ve tried in the last twenty years or so. Cheap. Expensive. Pourover. French Press. Moka Pot. Even briefly, though I am ashamed to admit it, I tried a Keurig.. Back in the early part of the 2010s, I ended up signing up for an appliance store credit card in order to purchase the $60 coffee pot my mother had (which seemed to work for her), because at the time, I was still technically a freelancer/record store clerk and therefore semi-regularly buying dinner and/or beers with sofa cushion silver change. That pot worked okay, but periodically erupted, Vesuvius-style, for reasons inexplicable, and leaving another disaster in its wake. And I would change my plan. I would try again. I would fail. I would fail again, if not (apologies to Beckett) better. Rinse Repeat and a decade passes and some more. I’m scrounging less. I no longer have an appliance store credit card. I think, maybe, maybe, a fancy espresso machine, real deal, will solve the problem. And I look into it, realizing immediately that I am, if slightly more financially secure, not financially secure enough to buy a niche kitchen appliance that cost more than my rent, especially given that it’s a kitchen appliance I’m likely too cursed to use properly
I’m told that I overthink things. This is probably valid. But what does it say about me, as a nominally responsible, adult human being that I cannot keep a simple coffee pot operational for more than a few days. That my life is forever coffee stained and gritted with grounds. That whenever I think back about that time, many years ago, when I made my best pass at a life on my own terms, somehow its inescapable takeaway is that I will be forever doomed to be the girl with coffee on her kitchen wall.
As a now-middle-aged lady burdened with all the sleeplessness and anxiety and weird digestive issues common to my age, I have been sometimes advised to cut back on coffee. That seems reasonable, if cruel. It goes . . . okay . . . so long as I’m able to replace it with rather imperial quantities of black tea (and I’m not here for a lecture about it, Dr Buzzkill). I always revert back to coffee, even if I can’t have it after 2pm anymore.
Recently, I broke down and bought myself a new coffeepot. It cost less than a Beyonce ticket but more than I have ever spent on a coffeepot before. It doesn’t even have any bells and whistles. Like all of the fancy things I buy for myself, it caused a brief crisis of conscience, wherein I tried to determine whether a) I deserved a nice coffeepot b) purchase of said coffeepot would be the last straw that would one day tilt me into Dickensian penury and/or c) paying full-price for a bourgie coffeepot made me a sell-out of some petty, but still pernicious variety.
I do not have an answer to any of these questions. I do, however, have a clean countertop. And it has been 4 weeks since my last coffee explosion.
Success is elusive and satisfaction fleeting, my friends.
You have to take what you can get.