Bum Coffee

The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Reflections: A Reading of Memoir Vignettes. Please enjoy.

It was two in the morning and I was sitting at the bar of a truck stop restaurant sipping bitter coffee. There were three other people in the bar, and only one other person in the rest of the restaurant, a guy with a hoodie pulled up over his head, hunched over a plate of eggs in a back corner. The others at the bar included two truckers and a transient and we were passing along our latest.

“So, where you rollin in from?” one of them asked me when it was my turn to talk.

“You have no fucking idea,” I said, and took a sip of the coffee.

The waitress, a tired-looking woman with a few missing teeth, only laughed. She was used to it, I imagined, this close to the highway.

“Jesus Christ. Earlier today I was in Woodstock, Vermont,” I said. “I mean this place is the, it’s just a fucking picture of small-town Vermont, everything you expect it to be, you know? Antique shoppes, book shoppes, and that’s shoppes, you know, not shops, s-h, with the, with two ps. You get it, right? So I’m in fucking Vermont and…all right. All right, I hadn’t slept indoors in awhile, and I hadn’t,”

I gestured grimy hands up and down my bedraggled body.

“I hadn’t really bathed, but I washed up in the rest stops and wore—I wear lots of, you know, deodorant, and…I stay clean. I smell good.”

General nods from the other members of the late night highway crew.

I shook my greasy, shaved head. “I just wanted a cup of coffee. I’ve been on the road since Montana, been driving for a month and I wanted a cup of coffee so I stop off at this little café. I go inside,” and my voice got low, and I leaned in, “and it’s that kind of place. Everyone’s in sweaters and blazers and they’ve got antique furniture. There’s this old couple at the register ordering lattes and they’re wearing pastels. The baristas got tattoos cuz that’s the thing to do now is get tattoos but her hair is,” I gesticulated wildly, “and she’s…I mean it’s an upscale place.

“But I wanted coffee so I wait in line, and the couple gets their lattes, and I’ve noticed a couple people giving me looks. My jeans are all,” I gesture to the jeans I’m still wearing, torn up, and not in the designer was. I show them my shoes, ductaped on.

I shrugged.

“But man, I’m all that stuff now and you guys are nice to me and I get up to the counter and this woman, this human, doesn’t fucking speak to me. No, hi, what do you want, she’s not even rude, she’s just silent. So I’m all, hi, can I just get a coffee, and she rings it up and pours the coffee and doesn’t even tell me how much. So I give her three dollars and then I tip her two dollars, and she goes to give me change and I point to her tip jar, you know, kill em with kindness, this bitch better know that I can afford the car I live in and I can afford a coffee.”

For a moment, my voice broke, and I looked down into my plate of biscuits and gravy. I could see in my peripheral the sympathetic nods of my nameless companions.

“She still didn’t say anything so I just, what, I just go to the milk and sugar and I can see, like, more than half this little place is just openly scowling at me, they want me gone, but I’m gonna drink my coffee. Fuck them. So I’m so fucking distracted and I’m reaching for shit, I mean, I drink my coffee black, but I don’t know what I’m doing. I reach for some shit, man, Jesus Christ.”

I tapped out the syllables on the marble counter.

“I put salt in my coffee. Like a lot of it. And every one those judgmental pieces of shit watched me do it.”

I got a gust of laughter, some robust, some tinkling, and the trucker to my left slaped the counter. The waitress shook her head. “What did you do?”

“What—what did I—seriously? I drank the fucking coffee. Burned my tongue, traumatized my taste buds but I’m not going to admit I fucked up. Let them think I’m a salt-drinking lunatic if they have to.”

I finished my biscuits and gravy amongst stories from the other members of the highway crew, then got directions to the local Walmart parking lot, hotel of pavement people, on my way out.

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