By Antonio Graceffo
I grew up in an Italian household where we began drinking coffee in preschool. Children’s coffee was served at breakfast time, in a bowl with hot, steaming milk. The brew was sweat and creamy, but the actual coffee component was the same thick, black, industrial strength espresso that the Marigone (non-Italian families) paid twenty bucks to drink in fancy restaurants. The rich Marigone believed espresso was some kind of a delicacy, served in tiny cups. But in my house, espresso wasn’t a delicacy. We drank it every day, and simply called it “coffee”, or more accurately, “cawfee”. Once you grew up, say around age 12 or more, you drank it out of those eight-ounce coffee cups we learned about from the American families down the block.
Coffee was central to our existence. Coffee drinking was a sport. It was a social interaction. It was coffee that held the family together. I remember my Pop saying, “Look at those Merigone kids, you see them on the news, joining gangs, addicted to heroin. You never see Italian kids doing that.” Yeah, I thought. Italian kids don’t need drugs, because we got the cawfee. That coffee was so strong, not only did it keep you from sleeping, but I didn’t blink for the first time, till I was in my twenties. I think a lot of the stereotypical Italian hand gesturing was just the result of being all hopped up on coffee, until your hands thrashed about, independent of any conscious mental control.
Pop saw it differently. “It’s because of the family.” He said. “Kids who stay in the house, eating biscotti and drinking coffee with the family, they grow up good.”
Pop did have a point. We spent so much time drinking coffee that we couldn’t possibly get into trouble. The whole family would sit for hours and hours, drinking coffee and talking. Debate was our favorite form of exercise and I think those daily mental sparring matches is where I first learned to be a fighter. Why do you think so many lawyers come out of Italian families? It’s because we grow up wired to the gills on amphetamine coffee, arguing non-stop in a language, which works best if shouted energetically. That, and we always have some family members who …need lawyers from time to time.
When I was ten, my family moved from New York to Tennessee. During the holidays, we would always make the long, fourteen hour drive, back to New York. When I would returned to Tennessee, my friends were eager to hear about the insane mischief I must have got up to in New York City. “What did you do up there? Is it like the movies? Did you see any movie stars or bank robberies?” They would ask. Sorry to disappoint them, I would tell them the truth, “ From early morning, till late at night, every single day of my vacation, I sat at the formica table in my grandma’s kitchen, drinking really strong coffee and talking to my relatives.” I never thought it odd growing up that nearly everyone in my social circle had the same last name as either my mom or my pop.
“And that’s it?” They asked, in disbelief.
“We also ate biscotti.” I added, gilding the lily a bit. We didn’t always east biscotti, but I took some poetic license.
In the family, coffee was a sedative. If you had a bad fright, like a near death car accident, the relatives would instantly hand you a cup of coffee and say, “Here, drink this, it’ll help you calm down.” Coffee was medicine. You took it for headaches, stomach flu, sleeplessness…When there was a crisis, like a phone call in the middle of the night, saying a relative had died. Inevitably, someone would stand up defiantly, slap the table, and announce, “I’ll go put on a pot of coffee.”
Those eight ounce espressos that my siblings and I pounded about twenty times a day were a physical representation of the American Dream, the melting pot, where local, and foreign customs mixed together. Now that I live in China, studying for my PhD and wrestling at Shanghai University of Sport, I took my Italian/American coffee drinking behavior with me.
In my dorm, I make my coffee insanely, ridiculously strong. It’s not the percolated coffee of my youth, but I make up for the lack of quality by turbo charging the potency. I start with two heaping tablespoons of instant coffee, add the same quantity of sugar, one heaping tablespoon of creamer, and then I dump in one or two packets of three-in-one instant coffee. I like it strong, but also, it’s just part of my writing routine. I work on my dissertation for a while. Then, I walk over to the electric kettle and fill my coffee cup about half way with the above mentioned powders. I pour in half a cup of hot water and carefully stir the mud till it sinks down enough that I can add a little water. Then I sit back down, drink my coffee and write. Every twenty minutes or so, I add a bit of hot water and refill the cup. Every few hours, I add more coffee powder. At night, when I finish my second training session of the day, there is usually about a quarter of a cup of incredibly strong, cold coffee sitting on my desk that has been there all day. Because it’s night time, I then add hot coco and water and finish it off. I wash the cup, brush my teeth, watch Archer, and go to bed.
And this insane, Rainmanesque routine is how I produce all of those funny articles and Chinese language baogao reports.
Each time I’m standing at my coffee desk… I actually have a separate desk in my room entirely devoted to making coffee, the drawers of which are full of various kinds of instant coffee and creamer. When I fill the cup with water, it’s a little too full to walk with, so while I’m standing at the coffee desk, I bring the cup to my mouth and sip off the top layer of coffee. And every single time I do that, about 20 times a day, I feel exactly like Bill Lumbergh, the manager from hell, in the movie Office Space. I even have to fight an impulse to tell my fictional employee “I’m gonna need you to go ahead come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmk… oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay.”
At the sports university I am on the wrestling team. People ask me if I am embarrassed at age 47 that I am not as fast or as skilled as the younger guys on the team. I tell them, “No, but the thing I am embarrassed about is that my sweat smells exactly like coffee.” Apparently, coffee is one of those drugs that can be absorbed through the skin. So, the guys on the team often complain that after they wrestle with me, they have trouble sleeping.
Tom Waits once said that he liked to drink a lot of coffee right before bedtime because it made him dream in fast motion. For me, as a writer, sleeplessness is a good thing. I do my most creative work in the middle of the night, when I’m not sure if it’s the coffee or the lack of sleep that turns the whole world into some surreal picture of a writer on a cereal box, eating breakfast, staring at a cereal box, and on the cereal box is a picture of a writer, staring at a cereal box, and on the cereal box….
The coffee I make in my room in China isn’t as good, but it’s just as strong as the one I had as a kid. And coffee still plays a huge role in my life, even thousands of miles from home. But the thing that is missing in China is my siblings. And every cup of coffee takes me instantly back to those days of childhood, sitting at the Formica table, in my grandma’s house, drinking coffee with a lot of people who had the same name as me and who loved me unconditionally. As a kid, you don’t know that life will change, and that all things come to an end. People die. Families drift apart… People move to China. How could I have known that as a kid? And why would I have expected that anything could change? Coffee was our whole world, and with my sisters around to make more, we always drank from a bottomless cup.
Typical Italian American! I thought I was writing about coffee, but I was actually writing about family.
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling. He is martial arts and adventure author living in Asia, the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army. The book is available at http://www.blackbeltmag.com/warrior_odyssey
See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on http://www.blackbeltmag.com
Brooklyn Monk fan page
Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE
Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)