Ethan Linck

Black Coffee


ISSUE 47 | NOCTURNE | DEC 2014

In Sandy, Oregon, where on clear days the great piercing triangle of Mt. Hood’s shadow nearly breaches the town’s boundary, there’s a strip-mall coffee joint called Mountain Mocha. Mountain Mocha is a left-hand turn off Highway 26 eastbound, opposite venerable pastry cabin Joe’s Donuts. Historically, when my friend Nate and I would drive this way, we’d go to Joe’s. The donuts were good, and these trips had a comfortingly familiar arc from elation to satiation to regret, but because sometimes it’s better not to give yourself the chance to cave to temptations, we eventually decided to give Mountain Mocha a try instead.

It was a Saturday morning in March when we made the switch, high season for skier traffic, and the coffee shop was certainly full. But, unexpectedly, it didn’t seem to be full of skiers: the line at the cash register tended towards middle-aged men with beer guts and jean jackets. Pumping our coffee—the airports hissing and gurgling as they dispensed Mountain Mocha Blend, “bold and sweet”—we caught snippets of conversation between customers and staff.

“You girls sure know how to keep us men happy” (as a cinnamon bun was passed over the counter). “You girls better stay in school, or you’ll end up like us (chuckle).” “Earl sure likes how you make his coffee, don’t you, Earl? (chuckle).”

We walked over to pay ourselves, both discomfited by the dynamic at play and yet unable to avoid noticing two of the three very young, attractive female baristas were wearing fishnets. Not wearing fishnets in a blatant, pin-up girl, owner-has-a-special-permit sense, but fishnets nonetheless.

Back in the privacy of the car, Nate stated the obvious: “Was it just me,” he asked, “or was that shop only staffed by hot high schoolers?”

A few weeks later, we were again driving east on Highway 26, and as we approached Sandy by some unspoken consensus began searching for the sharp turn into Mountain Mocha’s parking lot. Somehow we missed it anyway, the main drag of town coming and going, and so we continued on a few miles into the woods before pulling over to a Shell station to inquire as to its whereabouts. On hearing the name, the gas station attendant paused. “Mountain Mocha—they’ve got the most beautiful women in all of Sandy,” he said, a flush rising in his face.

* * *

There was clearly something going on at Mountain Mocha. It seemed to traffic in two currencies: in coffee, and in sex appeal. This heady mix is not without precedent, as our culture is rife with examples of their interrelation. Film in particular links the explicit act of drinking coffee with the implicit possibility of sex.

David Lynch’s classic TV serial Twin Peaks provides a regionally appropriate example. Among the small and odd cohort of Pacific Northwestern sex symbols, Special Agent Dale Cooper comes second only to the archetypal lumberjack in the strength of his strange appeal. Cooper is many things. He is a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, a talented and unflappably optimistic FBI agent, and a lover of Douglas firs. He is also dashingly handsome, and a great lover of coffee. A not insignificant amount of Twin Peaks is devoted to Cooper’s coffee breaks, and his opinions on coffee: That’s a damn fine cup of coffee, he regularly exclaims at the diner, smiling winningly. There is no treat he prefers to two cups of good, hot, black coffee, not even Audrey, a local schoolgirl whose lascivious affections he rebuffs with a sensitive, but professional hand.

The theme repeats. In Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, there’s a scene where the main character Juliette is out getting coffee. Godard is narrating and for our purposes what he’s saying is irrelevant, but the camera is looking at Juliette, and then at a mug of coffee, which is black, metallic black, with a few small oily bubbles rotating on its surface. It cuts between this coffee, which swallows the frame into its depths, and men, sitting near her, walking, looking pensive. They have square jaws and stubble and steely blue eyes and are smoking, and perhaps drinking coffee — you don’t really know who is doing the drinking, only that the scene is both pointedly sexual and utterly banal. You would bed these men. Juliette, being a secret prostitute, might as well, but you also figure that drinking coffee and smoking as they do, they probably don’t need to pay for it.

There’s something emphatically filmic about the link between coffee and sex appeal, a reason for its ubiquity in cinema. It’s the way coffee is a tool to punctuate narrative flow—just as coffee breaks punctuate the narrative of our own days—and provide an entry point for the viewer to understand the story in a more intuitive, personally-felt way. The very banality of the coffee scene in 2 or 3 Things makes its sexual charge more accessible: it moves its content from the foreign, unattainable realm of glamorous French people in a French café to vaguely pornographic shots of what’s a daily indulgence for most of us. The fourth wall weakens, and as we start to desire coffee and those stubbled men, we empathize more with Juliette, too. In Twin Peaks, the mechanism is simpler, but similar: part of Dale’s charm and intense likeability in spite of being an FBI agent (of whom we are inherently suspicious) comes from his regular, unsuspicious coffee breaks. The story pauses and the audio track fills with the noise of Dale’s sipping, and then the noise of his pleasure, and for a moment, we become Dale.

Though both entertainments use coffee to increase their own effectiveness, the most pronounced impact of coffee in film on the broader coffee-consuming world is in elevating the cachet of particular tastes. Both Twin Peaks and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her lead by example in showing desirable, putatively sexually-successful men drinking coffee. What’s important is not so much the drinking of coffee itself, though, but how they’re taking it. And that’s black, or as Dale Cooper would say, “Blacker than midnight on a moonless night.”

In one sense, this is classic character development, with taste (coffee preference) signing for particular attributes in Dale or the men in the café the directors want to highlight. But it also reinforces that link in a circular way, showing characters with a particular set of attributes drinking their coffee black. The attributes linked to black coffee through these characters (straightforward competence, sex appeal, male prowess) are found linked elsewhere in our culture as well. Take cowboys, nostalgic American folk heroes whose mythic role in our history was forged on the silver screen. Rugged individualists and traditional symbols of the masculine, it’s not surprising that cowboys have their own mode of coffee preparation. Cowboy coffee is water boiled along with grounds, then let to sit so that the grounds settle and not too many of them end up in your dinged tin mug as it is poured, unfiltered. There is no milk, of course, as milk doesn’t keep, on the range. While most of us aren’t cowboys, most of us also have, at one point or other, admired them, and the message is clear: real men drink their coffee black.

* * *

How do men become men, as far as coffee is concerned? My own tastes were certainly learned from other men, both much older and peers. I became a regular coffee drinker at 19, volunteering with a taciturn and bearded biologist in his mid-sixties to catch and release birds for the good of science. In between hourly circuits of our thin and wispy nets, we would convene on the hood of his hatchback and share a thermos of coffee. It was cold, and I was drinking more out of curiosity than real desire. Above us, towering cottonwoods swayed in the spring breeze along a slough near the Columbia River, and when I’d look over at him he would smile in a way that was almost a wink and gesture with his mug.

The coffee was white, but since it had no sugar it seemed the mark of a more refined palate than the soda fountain caramel cappuccino maker at my college. I began to think of myself as drinking coffee in the great outdoors, taking only milk. No sugar, thanks, I don’t need it, I fancied myself saying in front of women. They would swoon a little. I was on my way.

The real turning point, though, came some months later. Where else but Mountain Mocha? I remember reaching for the creamer, telling Nate that I only took milk these days, expecting him to be impressed. “That’s just the gateway drug to taking it black,” he said, taking a sip from his own oily cup, wincing for effect. “There’s just nothing else like it. It’s like sex without a condom.” I felt bashful, and left the creamer alone.


Illustration by Daniel Gizo

* * *

It was several year later, my habits then firmly entrenched, that my girlfriend made the observation that among the cohort of young people in Portland, Oregon we were brushing shoulders with, it was de rigueur among males to order their coffee black. Women were welcome to drink their coffee black too, and many did, but you got the sense that there was more cultural space to order a latte and have that be OK. There was a bit of flexibility for men as far as being able to go for straight espresso or an unadulterated Americano, but there was an anecdotally significant absence of mocha orders. I began to see my own tastes and choices in a new, more deterministic light. What did this mean? Was it simply herd behavior, a parroting of taste in line with Ortleib panniers and the fauxhawk? Or did it say something more about the correlations of geography, of culture, of ourselves?

We are our stimulants. Cultures were once defined by a diversity of plant-based social drugs: Qat, betel nut, cocoa leaf, black tea, maté. We now depend more and more on coffee alone and its degenerate capitalist forms, our caffeine pills, Red Bull, and Folgers. But even in this bleak post-globalization landscape, ancient tribal instincts kick in. Within the broader, homogenized coffee culture of the United States, the drug continues to reflect regional traits and trends. You have light roasts (West Coast), iced coffee (Boston), the 90s espresso craze (Seattle), Steampunk brewing devices adjustable to altitudinal variations in barometric pressure (Colorado). You have proselytizers and disciples, snobs and unapologetic pleasure seekers.

It’s easy to dismiss the participants of these focal, regional trends as having a shallow relationship with their public, performed tastes. Everyone’s just pretending to not like sugar and cream, you think, sipping contentedly, (un)aware of your own unpretentious iconoclasm. People in Portland don’t have different taste buds than me. And of course, that can certainly be the case. But in doing so at first, cynical, impulse, I posit we blind ourselves to the lived histories behind their choices, and miss an opportunity for empathy.

Maybe, against this seemingly impersonal and commercial backdrop, there’s a glimpse of something more private. Maybe all these young men had their own Mountain Mocha, their own bearded biologist, and by looking at something as universal and mundane as how you take your coffee you gain an insight into their fundamental humanity. You see in the swirling grounds at the bottom of their mugs a reflection of their own insecurities, hopes, and desire for acceptance. You see in a new light the dull, small, meaningless preferences, moments, and experiences that ultimately make up our lives.

* * *

In Portland, the preparation of black coffee has become both scientific and ritualized, a communion among the kind of people with significant social capital involving demonstrations of skill, knowledge, palate. In some ways, this is merely is business as usual: black coffee as performative masculinity, whether for cowboys or hipsters. But what’s ironic is that while cowboy coffee signs for the masculine though bad black coffee’s distinct unfussiness—the way that drinking something bitter, hot, and efficient equates to toughness, purpose, and virility—artisanal coffee culture has redefined what masculine taste is rooted in. Instead, hipster machismo is built on taste, “coolness,” a refined palate. As a result, male coffee habits has swung to the far right end of the fussy / unfussy axis.

We have competitions among cafes to determine the best method of preparing our chemicals, pitting cafe against cafe, city against city. We take a product that is breathtakingly cosmopolitan—harvested in Central America, roasted in the Pacific Northwest, shipped to New York City—and wring from its tangled web of travel an absurd specificity of place. I sit in Stumptown Coffee, of Portland, Oregon, drinking a cup brewed via the Chemex method from beans harvested in Honduras, at Finca el Puente, elevation 1630 meters above sea level.

It’s fussy, sure. But it is still a damn fine cup of coffee. And to me, it tastes like sex.

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