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It Rattled My Nerves

Every other week or so I hear one of Johnny Cash’s best and well-known songs, “Folsom Prison Blues,” on my boombox from one of the many compilations it’s included on. I’m not crazy for Cash—though his Sun recordings and later on his association with Bob Dylan more than make up for the embarrassing “A Boy Named Sue,” his dressed-in-black schtick (“Man in Black”) and his late-in-life mushy albums—but while the lyrics of “Folsom” aren’t completely coherent, there’s one verse that never fails to crack me up.

The narrator, stuck in the pokey, fantasizes: “I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy car/They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars/Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free/But those people keep a movin’/And that’s what tortures me.”

Just a guess, but there’s undoubtedly a segment of the American population that believes coffee—the magic beans from the Northwest, specifically Seattle and Portland—became popular in the late-1980s. And while that’s myopic, in honesty, I never thought one way or the other about coffee when I was growing up in the 1960s. It was always there, a staple “beverage,” and I did like the smell of the percolating brew in the kitchen before my dad went off to work and my brothers and I left for school. But what gives me a kick from Cash’s 1956 hit song is, at least to me, the incongruous elevation of coffee, as if it’s a luxury only “rich folks” are entitled to enjoy. You’d think the fat cats sitting down for dinner in a Pullman car would be “probably drinkin’ whiskey and smoking big cigars.”

Everyone drank coffee and didn’t think twice about it. Look at movies and sitcoms from the mid-20th century and it’s ubiquitous (especially in the pre-instant—which my mom immediately embraced—and Sanka days). What I don’t get now is how coffee was eagerly consumed after dinner, or as the liquid accompaniment to go along with the roast rather than beer, cocktails or wine. Didn’t people have trouble going to sleep after three or four cups? At every social occasion on shows like I Love Lucy, Mr. Ed, Dennis the Menace and Ozzie and Harriet, coffee’s downed by the gallon, at any time during the day. I don’t remember much booze in TV shows—films were far more realistic—although occasionally Fred Mertz could be seen drinking a glass of beer while Lucy and Ethel had a Manhattan or Tom Collins.

As I’ve noted previously, in my family when each of us five boys turned 13—a rite of passage, in our Christian household, that was the micro-equivalent of a bar mitzvah, without the pain in the neck of Hebrew school—our parents allowed us to try coffee for the first time (none of us immediately took to it) and were given the opportunity to stop going to church (unanimously, Sunday mornings got much, much more enjoyable).

As a teen I was a daily pot smoker (Mexican, filled with stems and seeds, which was all we knew) and drank beer on weekends, occasionally mixed with uppers or psychedelics, and skipped the coffee. I was an ace student: several hours of homework each night, which I dutifully completed by nine, sometimes interrupted by phone calls or a favorite TV show, and didn’t need any stimulants. That changed during college because the amount of work was prodigious—as a freshman the first week’s assignments included reading Little Dorrit and Middlemarch in five days, along with an essay on each for completion that Friday. After a riotous week of Orientation that September in 1973, the reality of homework again was exceptionally rude.

Anyway, at the end of the first term during sophomore year—I’d just joined the school newspaper, so schoolwork was given short shrift—I had to cram, hard, for a Spanish final, and it was essential I received at least a C if I were to pass the course. As it happened, when I attended class there was a nerdy-looking (thick black glasses before Elvis Costello made them fashionable), shy, very religious freshman from the bowels of Baltimore County, who was shunned by the others, but he made some wry comments during class and we hit it off. He was a commuter student from humble means, but we’d talk after class on one of the benches—he didn’t mind the pot smoke, because as he repeatedly said, “I don’t judge”—and it turned out that he was just discovering Bob Dylan.

I knew a lot about Dylan and so we struck a bargain: he’d tutor me in Spanish and I’d lend him Dylan records, along with my opinions. When the final exam came around, I drank several cups of coffee the night before and didn’t sleep a wink and felt all kinds of weird. I met David at a reading room two hours before the exam, and he did his best to get me ready, although he was sort of freaked out by my jittery demeanor (making a weak joke, “Are you in Kerouac/Burroughs mode?”). The result wasn’t good: I received a 69 on the test, and had to corner the instructor, a very amiable gay guy (a rare semi-out-of-the-closet man; no surprise that in 1974 academia was in lockstep with industry-wide homophobia) in his late-20s, in the library and grovel like never before for him to raise the score to a 70. Jesus Christ, this wasn’t a proud moment, but he finally relented and I passed the course.

After that experience I cut back on the caffeine, limiting it to one mug a day at the Little Tavern at Greenmount Ave. and 32nd St., on my way to school, sometimes with a glutinous slice of cherry or lemon meringue pie. As a junior I gravitated to the hippie Sleepy Time or Red Zinger tea, and didn’t resume coffee drinking until my Baltimore City Paper days. It could be that the introduction of the coffee machine that was in every office at the time gave coffee a bad reputation—it always sucked—and gave way to the spread of “artisanal” brews. One lasting image: on an early Saturday morning in 1984 or ’85, my friend Phyllis Orrick arrived and filled her mug with cold coffee from the night before. Taken aback, I said, “How the fuck can you drink that?” She looked at me as if strung-out, and said with bulging eyes, “IT’S COFFEE!”

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955

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