By Billy Smith
Coffee and I have been chums for a long time, even before I took my first nip and despite the threats from older kin who warned of its growth-stunting qualities.
Today, we are constant companions. I’m not the meek sort when it comes to coffee; I start my day with a pot or two: Rich, black and untainted by creamer or sweetener, which most assuredly snatches the genuine goodness away from the swirling mystic properties of this most ancient fruit drink. (That’s right, Google away. A coffee bean is a fruit and, therefore, coffee is a healthy fruit drink.) “That’s the way that goes,” to borrow from the matter-of-fact pronouncement of Gabriel in August Wilson’s play “Fences” when he finally parts the skies to make room for his heavenly namesake. Morning coffee, for me, is like a heavenly parting of the clouds.
I’ve never had difficulty understanding the stimulating qualities of this ambrosial fruit drink. For me, coffee has always closely aligned itself with stimulating conversations. It’s a steamy brew that breaks ice. It’s universal, spanning ages, socio-economic strata, gender, ethnicity, race and all of the other distinctions that seem to sometimes confound us. But my favorite dispensary is from a blue-speckled enamel pot, outdoors with the smell of horses and hay nearby. That combination of attars is like a perfectly woven tapestry—beautiful and technically flawless.
My first recollections of the blue-speckled enamel pot brewing fresh coffee was under the occasional morning tutelage of Mr. Tom, a field worker with whom I launched a childhood friendship. He taught me the virtues of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Robert Johnson and enlightened me about why a woman would carry a nation sack and nine silver coins. He confided in me his “secret” rabbit stew recipe in exchange for my own unpublished hunting wisdom, but always over coffee—more specifically, over Arbuckles’ Ariosa coffee. As a youth, I only got a whiff.
“You cain’t have none. It’ll stunt your growth,” Tom threatened.
But that didn’t stop me from slurping a forbidden sip when the adults turned their backs. I was a physical late bloomer and always wondered if those sips of coffee had anything to do with my piddley growth. Even if it did, stealing away with a half-cup of coffee from my grandmother’s kitchen was worth it. I tried the same stealthy experiment with Winston cigarettes, El Producto cigars and Red Man Chewing tobacco—the results were far less euphoric. My flirtations with these other vices left me retching over a 55-gallon oil drum on more than one occasion.
The early mornings of my childhood spent around the backsides of New Mexico racetracks forever combined the swirling scents of fresh coffee, horse manure and stinging liniment into a sensory memory that I suspect will last an eternity.
Even now that coffee coats my veins thicker than paraffin in a churning oil well, my favorite workday pleasure is serving the fresh stuff to guests at APHA’s world championship shows. Young and old, some youthful, some frail, they gather around the John Deere that I drive through the barns long before the sun touches the horses and workout pens. Many have military experience, and we like to trade stories; some are approaching retirement, and others are just trying to stay one paycheck away from homelessness. It rings as clear in my ears today as it did the first time I remember hearing my father say it: “Don’t worry about who’s up there (pointing to the top of a multi-story building) until you know who’s down here (pointing to the bottom floor).” The top owners, exhibitors and breeders in APHA shows all the way to those who sweep the floors gather around as equals for morning coffee and conversation.
Without coffee, I wouldn’t have learned from one maintenance worker how he’d debilitated his hand by accidentally discharging a 9mm round through his palm, the hand holding a now rapidly cooling cup of java.
Without coffee, I wouldn’t have heard the grandmother’s heartbreaking story of losing a grandchild. While we sipped a cup, we sat on the tailgate and tears trickled down her face. This was as personal a cup of coffee as I’ve ever had, soothing and bitter all at the same time.
Without coffee, I most assuredly wouldn’t have heard the lamentations of a horse trainer whose diabetic nerve pain in his feet was so grueling that mustering the strength to lead his horses into the arena was an act of heroism, but muster he did. He was also a decorated war hero. Those tales are priceless.
Without coffee, most of the great influencers of my life wouldn’t have had an excuse to shed their wisdom and sweep it my way. Like I said, coffee and I have been chums a long time.