Poetry & Prose

A Plain Black Coffee

Art by Mariana Porras

A stone-faced old man strode confidently into the busy little coffee shop, his entrance barely noticed amid the tired chatter of all the white-collar clientele preparing for the work week. He asked for a black coffee. His lanky frame cast a sort of shadow over the barista, the type that’s invisible to the untrained eye. “I would like a plain black coffee,” he enunciated. “None of those fruity fake-Italian frappa-dappa-crappucinos. Just a plain black coffee.” And before the barista could react, he pressed on in his crackly mid-Atlantic accent.

“The problem with you people is you don’t know how to appreciate a plain black coffee. You know, when you learned about the French Enlightenment in university—and you must have gone to university, because I don’t know any coffee shop around here that will hire people who don’t have a degree—your professor probably told you all about the coffeehouses in France. They would have black coffee there. Voltaire, Rosseau, Diderot: All the great thinkers. Do you think anything the people in this café have done has measured up to what those men did? No, of course not. You cannot think when your brain is being poisoned by three hundred grams of sugar. And let me tell you this,” he spat. “There are a million different ways to brew a black coffee. If I had gone to a different establishment I might have asked for a specific source of beans. But I didn’t, and you know why? Because you don’t even know your own craft. I can guarantee you—I can tell by the look on your face—that you can’t distinguish between any two cups of black coffee. And don’t tell me you know the difference between, oh, I don’t know, a unicorn frappé and an ice cream sundae. I don’t give a rat’s ass.”

“Sir,” the barista spluttered, “Everyone likes different things for different reasons. I’d be more than happy to make you a black coffee, if you’d please just—”

“No!” he interrupted. “This is a matter of taste. Now here’s some advice from an old man, free of charge.

“When I was a kid, even younger than you, I got my coffee from a place a few blocks away, by the river. My usual order was a ‘flat white’—espresso with milk—which should be right up your alley. But one day I decided to order black coffee, for some reason, and I hated it. It tasted like dirt. I didn’t finish it just then, because something else got my attention—an old bridge down the street—big mass of rusty metal beams, this thing—it had these giant supports sunken into the riverbank, and somewhere in that metal forest I heard someone singing. I stared up through those beams and couldn’t see where they ended, so I went with the coffee in my hand and climbed and climbed and climbed, and when the music was at its loudest I sat down and tried to find who was singing it.”

“And?” asked the tired barista, feigning interest. There was no use in arguing with this kind of customer—it would just cause even more of a scene.

“It was a hot day, so it felt good being up there in the shade. By then it was clear that I was all alone; nobody was singing, but I swear there really was music. Now, I was a stupid kid and probably didn’t get enough sleep back then, and if I did any drugs it’s not like I would tell you. So I sat there drinking my horrible black coffee, thinking about what this music thing was all about. There was nothing else for me to do, so I drank my coffee and tried to pick out just what kind of flavors were in that garbage. I found oranges, chocolate, sugar… It wasn’t garbage after all. I’d just been too stupid to understand it until that moment. I climbed back down once it started getting dark, and only afterwards did I realize what was making the music: It was the wind. No radio, no musicians, nothing fake.” He pounded on the counter with his fist. “It was nature’s music, and only after this revelation could I really appreciate it for what it was. I loved it. So I’m glad I don’t order flat whites anymore because that’s what a naïve idiot like you would do. So take this as a lesson. Don’t drink a crappucino next time, drink black coffee. You’ll end up thanking yourself for it later.” 

The old man was tired of speaking at this point and sat on a leather couch close to the counter. The next customers placed their orders—pink crappucinos, for all we know—unaware of the man’s aquiline gaze. They sat down in various parts of the shop and listened to their own music to block out the idle chatter and rushing ambiance of the city outside. Some more people entered, and others left to go on with their Mondays, and the bitter man was given his black coffee. Then he left, probably headed to some place we wouldn’t be familiar with even if we knew its name.