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Read an excerpt from Tom Lang’s COFFEE:
If you’re ever in Jinotega, Nicaragua, stop by Felipe’s and tell him I sent you. No sign, hole in the wall, middle of nowhere. Some of the best Jose in the world. Served in a rusty tin cup. Has that elusive cognac flavor.
Oh, yeah, I’ve drunk coffee all over the world. I’ve knocked back many a floral cup of Ugandan Bugisu in the bullet-riddled coffee shop at the Entebbe airport. I spent a month one night in a tent 250 miles southwest of Aden drinking bitter, winey (with a hint of cherries) Yemeni coffee out of a 50-gallon oil drum. My llama and I survived on the gentle acidity of Chanchamayos, the brew that made the Incas great, while we wandered for weeks, lost but alert, through the Peruvian Andes.
I know about coffee. You bet. I’ve drunk it all my life. I know about rain. I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon, all my life. But I don’t know much about love, even though I’ve been in and out of love all my life.
It all started one morning at the Coffee Can in northeast Portland. My hangout. It had been raining steadily, biblically, for months. I’d jumpstarted my day with four or five cups of this nice Malawi blend. Not as refined as Kenyan, but with a hell of a lot more body. I followed that with a couple of lattes while I polished off a two-pound bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans. I tried to read the morning Oregonian, but, hell, please explain to me how anybody reads that rag. It makes me nervous and sweaty.
I was halfway through my third triple espresso when she walked in the door. She had that caffeinated coffeehouse look. Dressed in black, of course, her skin had the pallor of someone raised in a closet. Her eyes, red-streaked roadmaps, were sunk deep inside dark, raccoonish circles.
A tiny little bongo player banged triplets on my heart.
Nervous and jittery, she stood in the line, the muscles in her face twitching as if this were her first bank robbery. She snapped at an old man with a cane who was slowly placing his order. She picked up her coffee, poured a torrent of sugar, gave the vapors a quick blow, then sucked on the lip of her cup. Her eyes fluttered to a close. Her knees wobbled. She stood in the middle of the café, hunched over, clutching her coffee with both hands, a hypothermic wildcatter rescued from the sea.
I stood up. “Over here,” I said, spewing sweat out of every pore. “I’m just about to leave.”
She stared at me, frowning. I motioned to the empty chair. She nodded. She moved slowly to the table, holding her coffee close to her body, firmly but delicately, an organ to be transplanted. She sat, blew on her cup, swigged like a Viking. Eyes fluttered. Body shook. A post-coital sigh.
She still hadn’t spoken. Was she deaf? Mute? I didn’t see a problem there. I’d learn to sign. Why not? I was an insomniac anyway. I’d study in the middle of the night when I was usually pacing the floor and pulling out strands of my hair.
I spoke slowly so she could read my lips.
“Those Malawians sure in hell know how to grow a coffee bean, don’t they?”
“Yes, the coffees of Kenya and Zimbabwe are too refined and winey for me. Malawi grows as good a bean as anything out of the Kivu or Ituri districts of Zaire.”
What a voice, as sweet as a cup of java from the Sigri estate on Papua New Guinea. What guts and intellect to challenge the conventional wisdom on African coffee. Why did I say I had to leave? I had to figure out a way to stay and talk with her. There must be something I could say.
“Do you really have to leave?” she asked.
The mixture of caffeine and love was asphyxiating me. I shook my head. A wheeze of emphysema escaped from a collapsed section of my lungs.
“Good,” she said. She pulled a ten-pound tin out of her shoulder bag and placed it on the table.
“Chocolate-covered espresso bean?” she said.
Somewhere a bird sang, a baby cried and the rain stopped.