Burned Coffee

It is a cloudy day at the urban coffee shop I sit at now. It is also 2023. Sufjan Stevens plays through my headphones, and I take a sip of this oat milk cortado with blobby latte art. The coffee sucks: I can taste (no, I can see!) the grounds on top of the oat milk froth, and I can only think of the time in the middle of the “third wave” of coffee, when only a few specialty shops upgraded their machines and trained their baristas. I had a habit of visiting random coffee shops in the mountains. Now, the burnt coffee flavor and the overcast weather activate my memory. 

This is not the activated memory, but in April I bought a Geo Tracker (which is a car, by the way!). My brother and I drove up to Oregon from Southern California, leaving just before 6PM on April 4th, sleeping at my younger brother’s apartment in San Jose, picking up McDonalds coffee and hash browns in Willits, and entering into Gold Beach, Oregon (“Welcome to Oregon!”) at exactly 11:51 AM the next day. The entire trip remains a blur, because we picked up the rusty car and immediately drove back down, waving goodbye to Klamath, then Willits, then stopping for a shoot I had in wine-country Calistoga. My brother drove back to Southern California the next morning (goodbye Tracker, see you soon!) as I worked all day. The next day, I drove to my brother’s apartment, then the next day arranged a coffee date before driving down to Fresno to shoot a lesbian “not-a-wedding.” At night I drove home to eat Easter Brunch with my family the next day.

If this burnt coffee flavor activates my memory, it is not of a road trip in general. The coffee did almost nothing for the memory of Gold Beach. Maybe the McDonalds worker with blue nail polish (I regret not complimenting him!) was a barista in the past. The coffee was fine. But one moment sticks: driving down from Calistoga surrounded by foggy farmland, with a nearly empty day ahead of me. Memory, here, is not about the taste, or that bitter black drink at all, but its web of associations. It is a synecdoche abstracted to metaphorical contiguity—a memory with no concrete link to coffee anymore, but to its surroundings. 

This memory is a strong feeling: it is a road trip from the past. You could choose any of them, driving through the golden foothills of the Sierras, or the San Bernadino mountains, finding little towns (with tiny woodsy coffee shops). These coffee shops named in Papyrus font, where you would order a small cappuccino, would burn your coffee. Or you could taste the grounds. Maybe it was such a bad drink that it stuck in my mind.

This same memory developed into a practice: free time deserves to be free. I’d plan for sunsets, or early mornings before class or work, driving towards the sun among the backlit grass and trees, just to feel the sense of being in a location. It is a memory of a purposeful wandering, embedded deeper than a bitter drink.

Now that I do not go on wandering road trips as often, I read more. I sit in this coffee shop with a poetry book next to me. They say you don’t have to go far to wander around. They say Thoreau lived near his family, not really far into the woods at all, while his mom brought him sandwiches! His wandering was more intellectual than physical; more idealistic than realistic. And I find that my own memory of purposeful wandering finds an intellectual analogy in the ideas I enjoy reading, articulated by Fernand Deligny or Thomas Tweed or Mark Taylor or Matsuo Basho or Mary Oliver or Byung Chul Han or Edward Abbey or the forest bathers or my priest or many of the contemplatives and meditators. Here, it feels to me like “purposeful wandering” is a literary genre also enacted in a form of life, so that the two (like Giorgio Agamben’s “Rule of Life”) are sometimes interchangeable. 

If a memory sticks, returning to the present through a small gesture of coffee, then I imagine that it has secretly continued to play out behind-the-scenes this whole time. If a sip of this burned coffee returns me both to immediacy, so that its feeling gets me to look up from the poetry next to me to the cloudy skies above, and returns me to distance, so it reminds me of a wandering time in the past, then the only thing I can imagine is that the present moment is a new and detached iteration of the same road-trip wandering in the shape of a small-scale literary form of life. Memory has formed the landscape of my mind, the shaping the foothills that I continually return to, under this gray, urban, and poetic sky.