It’s midday on a Monday, four days before Christmas.  In typical schizophrenic fashion, the weather has decided that today should be sixty-four degrees of perfect sunshine and brilliant blue.  We mock winter here in the South, so much so that I almost feel like I owe an apology to my friends in the North.  It seems unfair that you should be digging out of a record snowstorm while I wear a t-shirt and crank up my motorcycle.  Of course, I immediately think of the three digit temperatures and sweltering humidity of July and August in Texas and feel instantly less guilty.

It’s a coffee day for me.  I’m on my second pot.  For whatever vices I have or have had, this is the one I am least likely to let go of.  I’ve kicked cigarettes and virtually eliminated fast food from my diet (except for Chik-Fil-A when I’m on the road or the occasional 3:00 am Whataburger run).  There are arguments both for and against the health benefits of coffee and I ignore them all.  I drink it because I love it.

Black and full of sugar.  I’ll leave you to write your own joke there.

It’s almost a ritual for me.  It’s my legal crutch.  It makes me comfortable.  Smoking was always something I had to find a place to do, but not so with coffee.  It’s universal.  Stuck in an airport or wandering the streets of some foreign city or in the green room before a show, it’s always there.  It clears my head and centers me.  Certainly pumping caffeine into my veins every single day can’t be the best of ideas, but it’s definitely not the worst.

I mean I could always be doing crystal meth.

I hardly drank coffee at all a decade ago.  The habit kicked in when I picked up a morning radio gig.  5:00 am every morning, having to be upbeat and alert and aware… you don’t do that without help.  We would load a full brick of dark roast into our coffee pot, courtesy of one of our sponsors, and drink the most delicious caffeinated sludge you’ve ever poured into a cheap Styrofoam cup.  Four hours every morning.  The habit stuck long after the station fired me.

The problem now is that there are a million options when it comes to what you can have.  Starbucks has seen to that.  Coffee is not meant to be run by the massive corporations.  Coffee should remain unique.  Chains have pushed out the small coffee shops I had become so fond of.  Back in my hometown I used to frequent a locally owned place thirty seconds from my house.  Unlimited refills and a faux-Tuscan patio kept me huddled behind my keyboard comfortably enough to churn out pages of writing.  I miss it.  Today I am a half hour away from the closest non-Starbucks.  That’s the big city for you.

Every once in a while I meet a friend of mine for Vietnamese food and we order cà phê sữa đá.  If you’ve never had it, try it.  Clear your calendar for the next few hours though, as it jacks your system up in a way some chain store’s house blend could only dream of.  It has enough sugar and caffeine to get Chev Chelios through a busy day.

That’s a random occurrence however.  For the most part I have to get my fix when I travel, because globally, they haven’t lost what we have.  Coffee still means something in other countries.  There are a few spots I’ve become a fan of in Amsterdam, where I’ve sat sheltered from the cold, wet, winter streets, drinking cafe au lait out of a perfect white porcelain cup.  The Dutch don’t mess around.  That’s the French’s strong point as well.  It’s almost been eight years since I sat in some café whose name escapes me, somewhere between Metz and Paris.  It’s possible that it was the beauty of the French countryside and the perfect weather, but my memory has filed that experience away as an unbelievable shot of espresso that I have yet to be able to recreate here in the States.

It’s more than just coffee.  It’s the experience.

If that is true, then no one understands it better than Ethiopia.  I was in Addis Ababa with my friend Sam a little under two years ago.  It was the first trip for both of us into the Horn of Africa, the area made up of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia.  It is third world to be sure, but they are the greatest caretakers of the tradition of coffee drinking.   After dinner I asked my friend Abrahim if he would order coffee for us and he obliged.  I’m used to having coffee brought to me, not the other way around.

We were led out of the restaurant and into a hut around back, lit by torchlight.  Confused, we sat around a little wooden table waiting for Abrahim to explain what we were doing.  Soon a young woman appeared with a bowl of green coffee beans which she presented us for our approval.  After getting the okay, she started a wood fire and roasted the beans as we talked.  They were shown to us again before she hand-ground them with mortar and pestle.  Three times we were poured tiny cups of jet black divinity.

Over the course of an hour, Abrahim told us stories of his family and his culture and his people’s history.  It’s what the coffee was supposed to do.   Rather than just wire you up and get you through your day, it was intended to bring people together, to get them to communicate, to enjoy each other’s company.   There’s beauty in any group of people that take their coffee as seriously as I do.  As they say in Ethiopia, “Buna dabo naw” – “coffee is bread”.

I couldn’t agree more.

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SLADE HAM is a stand up comedian. He has performed in 52 countries on six continents, a journey that can be followed in his book, Until All the Dragons Are Dead. One day he hopes to host a travel show and continue to trick the world into paying him to do the things he loves to do. Slade is also an Editor for The Nervous Breakdown's Arts and Culture section. He keeps a very expensive storage unit in Houston, TX.

25 responses to “The Best Part of Waking Up”

  1. Kimberly says:

    Coffee is bread.

    Bread is life.

    Ergo: Life is coffee and/or Coffee is life.

    Yep. Sounds about right.

  2. Java Man vibration. I like it it. I am a member of your tribe. My hair vibrates, what’s left of it. I raise my demi-tasse.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    I’m in your tribe too. Is there anything better than coffee and a cigarette? Ooops sorry, you’ve given up. Is there anything better than just a coffee?? It’s pretty hard to beat. I think I had too much today. My hands are shaking…

  4. There was this whole thing a while back where Starbuck’s had to close about 50% of their Melbourne operation, because the people here are (snobby) perfectionists when it comes to coffee. We go nuts for it – the very first espresso machine shipped into the country is still on display in the store that brought it over from Italy back in the 50s (there’s some debate as to which store brought it over).

    Viva la bean, amigo. Viva la bean.

    • Slade says:

      I’ve been intending to find a way down to Australia for a while now and that just motivates me even more. An absence of Starbucks makes me want to go to Expedia now and look for a deal. Maybe 2010. Espresso is on me.

  5. Sung J. Woo says:

    No doubt I’m dating myself with this, but when I read your title, this jingle played in my head:

    “The best part of waking up…is Folgers in your cup!”

    Folgers was some nasty coffee. I wonder if it’s gotten any better.

    • Slade says:

      Then we’re both dated. That coffee was horrible, yet decades later the jingle remains sticky. Folgers “crystals” they called them if I’m not mistaken. Yuck.

  6. Amanda says:

    First off–Chik-Fil-A. Jeeeziz. That’s a name that speaks volumes about quality, isn’t it?

    Like you, I was a late-comer to coffee. Then, at age 30, my then-boyfriend turned me on to lattés prepared in his kitchen using a variety of challenging equipment. We drank sou-bowls of the stuff (no joke).

    Eventually, this served as a gateway to coffee shop lattés, which like so many habits and vices, bear a staggering pricetag.

    Six years along the path of no return, I wish I could send him a bill for my $4/daily habit. Those so-called helpful online calculators where you plug in the junk you supposedly don’t need and are presented with a figure representing how much you’d save per year if only you gave up, like, *everything*?

    Yeah.

    Bastard.

    That man owes me a well-situated loft built from espresso and full-fat milk!

    • Slade says:

      I feel the same way about the guy that gave me my first cigarette. As for Chik-Fil-A, it is only the most absolutely tasty chicken sandwich you will ever eat in your life. They’re unbelievable. Honestly.

  7. Angela Tung says:

    i agree with amanda – Chik-Fil-A. hilarious! (and strangely tasty sounding.)

    i’m in the midst of writing a piece on coffee as well. there really is nothing like that caffeine buzz that makes you feel like you can do anything. and just the other day i had a hot vietnamese coffee that kept me up till four in the morning.

    i love that scene in ethiopia. what an amazing experience.

    • Slade says:

      Oh wow. I almost feel obligated to send out Chik-Fil-A gift certificates to you guys now. It is so, so very delicious. Everyone should try one once. I’m afraid I know what I’m snagging for lunch now….

  8. Thomas Wood says:

    I feel like my attending green tea and cigarette really went against the spirit of how one ought to comfort themselves while reading this piece.

    • Slade says:

      I disagree. I think the combination of caffeine and nicotine is one the most beautiful pairings in the world, regardless of how it contradicts my personal choices. Green tea and a box of Marlboro Lights have played a role in more than a few of my mornings as well.

      You guys reeeeally make me want to smoke again.

  9. Greg Olear says:

    I am on my second cup of the morning as I write this, appropriately.

    I kicked my caffeine habit after visiting Prague in ’98. This was a country that had such lousy coffee that I was forced to — I’m not making this up — eat instant coffee grounds from the contained to kill my caffeine headache. So when I got back home, I switched to decaf and liberated myself from addiction.

    That all went down the gutter with the kids, though. I don’t understand how parents can function without several cups in the morning, and a refill in the PM.

    Also: Greeks have the best coffee. Diners here in the NY/NJ are all, for the most part, run by Greeks, and they invariably have the best coffee (just as, although it pains me to admit it, Italian that I am, Albanians make the best pizza).

    Anyway, great piece, Slade. And now I’m off to refill my cup…

    • Jim Simpson says:

      That’s really funny (about Greek diners) because the last time Sue and I were in NYC (Upper East Side, back in ’93) we stopped in this tiny place to get coffee for me, cappuccino for her. Sue asks the big Greek guy behind the counter for a medium cap, he barks, “Medium? Whaddya think this is, a hamburger? We got one size!” And the cups were blue and white with images of ancient Greece.

    • Slade says:

      You’ve made me incredibly curious about the Greek’s coffee now. Perhaps the next time I end up somewhere close to NY/NJ…

      On another note, seriously? Instant coffee grounds? Yuck. I shot a Starbuck’s Via packet a few weeks ago out of desperation and cannot imagine ever doing that again.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Jim – I love those cups!

      Slade – Greek coffee can stand with anything. But it’s all a matter of taste. I like the coffee the street vendors in NYC sell much more than Starbucks, and a lot of the pricy stuff doesn’t do it for me.

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