I didn’t drink coffee until my first child was born. For 27 years of my life, I got by on ante-meridiem pep alone. But when the kid came along, as you can imagine, a steaming cup of artificial energy became an invaluable tool in the fight against sleep deprivation. And though in the last 10 years I’ve again become a true morning person (one of those bizarre 5 a.m. risers who vaults out of bed, rubs their energy in your face and then falls asleep at 8:15 each night), I still look forward to the ritual. I love the sitting, the drinking, the snuggling of dog and cat before the sun rises. And the beverage is an essential part of the equation.
Childhood memories center around my parents in the morning. The coffee was black. Nothing fancy. In the 1980s, we didn’t put caramel in our java. We didn’t froth it up. And we certainly didn’t wander seven blocks down the street or fight traffic to go buy a $6 cup of something we could brew at home. Coffee was strong and coffee came in serial cups, and that was how we did it in my family.
But times do change. Though coffee shops are far older than America itself, the coffee shop industry started growing in the 1990s. Now, 20 years later, we’ve got some fine coffee shops in Wheeling: Wheeling Coffee Shoppe, Wheeling Coffee & Spice, Centre Cup, Joe Muggs, Starbucks, Tim Hortons. We’ve got myriad options. As a writer who works from home, I find myself conducting business and meetings in these locations each week. I love coffee.
There’s just one problem: I can’t handle my caffeine.
Perhaps if I’d begun drinking coffee in high school or college, I’d have a tolerance for it by now. Then again, I have little tolerance for any sort of influencing chemical. After a local wine tasting, I fell into a pothole. Steroids turn me into a rattlesnake. And once, an ER nurse administered morphine, and I heard myself tell my husband to take good care of our baby watermelons. When it comes to substances, my spirit flower is a pansy.
There’s a simple solution, though, right? A friend suggested, “Drink decaf.”
Madam, have you tasted decaf? I have. There’s a bag in my cabinet, and the label clearly says, “rich sawdust overtones with the subtle musk of lake mud.” I’m not drinking that sludge. When they wash the caffeine out, they wash away all that is good and decent in the brave little seeds. They’re left empty and hollow, devoid of beany goodness.
I can’t simply stop drinking, either. Just because I’ve reached my caffeine limit doesn’t mean I don’t want another cup. Beyond the aroma and the taste, coffee has an overwhelming presence that fills up the morning hours when my creativity skyrockets. (Sorry, tea. It’s the truth.) So, if I want that mug on my desk, my choice comes down to caffeine or decaf. Jitters or hot dirt-water.
The whole thing bothers me because a) I’m an adult — I should be able to do this, and b) I’m a writer. What kind of writer can’t drink coffee? That’s what we do, according to every movie ever made about a writer. We sit at our desks in a spartan attic and drink coffee and peck away at an old-timey typewriter. And then at 3 p.m. we switch to wine and lie on the mattress and bemoan our choices. The cinematic writing life consists of three key elements: caffeine, alcohol and bitter regret.
The real writing life actually isn’t all that different. We’re definitely awash in bitter regret. Hopefully, we drink a little less alcohol, but we certainly feel the pull of the almighty coffee bean. We also spend more time in coffee shops than Hollywood portrays, mainly because we have to get out of our houses and out of our heads. Too much time alone in that attic or office, and we start grinding our teeth and talking to caterpillars.
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I’m a member of the Ohio Valley Writers, and we often have occasion to get together outside of our regular meetings (third Wednesday of each month; yes, that was a plug). The problem is, everywhere we meet and socialize, there’s caffeine. A good patron always orders something, and while it would be so much simpler to just ask for water and a scone, I forget my intolerance every time. There, around me, sit other writers, sipping and chatting. Nobody is hyper. Nobody is bouncy. And then there’s me, shaking so badly I can’t get any of my seven glazed donuts to my mouth.
The shakes are the worst. I poked myself in the eyeball this morning with the pencil tip of my eyeliner. I’ve been wearing eyeliner for several decades now, and you’d think I’d have gotten the hang of it already. Normally, I manage to get myself ready in the morning without incident, but today, my husband made my coffee. He brewed a normal 8 ounces of caffeine for a normal adult. But I’m not normal. I’m a pothole-tumbling, watermelon-rearing pansy, and my hand shook so violently that I drove the tip of my makeup pen right into my cornea.
With a hat pulled low over my bloody eyeball, I skulked over to Barnes & Noble at West Virginia Northern’s bookstore for a meeting. My acquaintance sat waiting for me, coffee in rock-steady hand, pupils normal, breathing calmly. I waved and went to the counter. There the employees stood, smiling, ready for my order. I hemmed and hawed, but I knew what I had to do. Still, I pretended to consider a caramel macchiato or a café mocha. A line formed behind me, everyone impatient for their lunchtime jolt.
That’s when I muttered, “Chai, please.” And then I lowered my voice and whispered, “Decaffeinated.”
“Decaf!” someone behind me scoffed. “I can have a double shot of espresso and still be in bed by 9.”
I felt like a loser, and it was hard to admit that I couldn’t handle their most basic drink, that even a nice, hippy-dippy cup of green tea would have me up at midnight, wide-eyed, folding laundry and listening for poltergeist in the walls.
My wimpiness makes me sad, but I guess we all have our oddities. Years ago, my college boyfriend had a weird roommate, a fellow writer who bragged about his ability to metabolize just about anything. The guy kept snakes and spiders and pierced unmentionable parts of his body. One evening, he got the brilliant idea to brew a strong pot of coffee to help him study. Then, as 20-year-old males often do, he decided to tweak his plan to make it “better,” and ran that brewed coffee back through the beans. Then, just for the hell of it, he did it a third time. He disappeared for a few hours, but eventually we found him hiding in a Bougainvillea with dilated pupils and a cricket in his shoe. He couldn’t speak; he just held up the sneaker like it contained the bones of a saint. The kid didn’t sleep for three days.
Perhaps there are worse things than a caffeine intolerance.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.