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A Special Cup of Coffee

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook)

A Special Cup of Coffee

Four Coffee Cups and the Stories Behind Them


For me, moving days are always stressful and pensive. Today is no exception as, here on a Saturday morning early in the summer of 2004, I find myself preparing to move once again. I am packing up to leave a one-bedroom apartment in Woodland Hills, located in the valley above Los Angeles. My yearlong job stint is at an end and I am making the move back to northern California where I hope to find a situation closer to Shirley and the house in Modesto.

I turn on the television for the local news and weather and start to brew a pot of good strong coffee. The morning sun comes in through the blinds and the coffee drips and gurgles in the maker on the counter. The piles of empty boxes are stacked on the floor waiting for the packing to begin. Once again, I am at the end of a chapter, preparing the things in this apartment for shipment to the next job site or for storage, just as I have all those times before. However, I am older now and the time when all of this will end is getting closer.

The coffee maker sputters to completion on the counter and I open the cupboard to reach for a cup. Four cups sit waiting on the shelf. Four is a good number of cups for one person to have, I think. Shirley needs a cup, and one or more may be dirty. What strikes me today, though, are the four cups sitting before me, and the stories behind them. Each has its own history. As I stand here, preparing to pack them up one more time, I recall how and when they came to be mine.

The Four Cups

The newest cup is one Shirley brought down from Modesto. This cup is a friendly dark blue on the outside and employs a country-style kitchen wallpaper design. On the pattern are small teapots and oranges. The inside is white. The cup is a right-handed one because a design becomes visible to the drinker on the inside rear as the cup is tilted and brought to the mouth with the right hand. A small framed picture is on the front of the cup, a country theme of teapots and fruits, tomatoes and a basket of eggs on a brown wooden table with leaves and a tablecloth. In the upper left hand corner of this picture are the following words.

“The beauty of the house is order, the
blessing of the house is contentment,
the glory of the house is hospitality.”

This cup is a little piece of Shirley’s sensibility and warmth shared with me long distance on those mornings when I use it, or when she is here to use it herself. This is Shirley’s way to keep a piece of her in front of me while we are apart.

The second cup is a large white coffee mug from a Legal Seafood restaurant north of Boston in Massachusetts. One side has “Known the World Over” written above the oval restaurant logo in blue letters. On the other side are two lines of large red letters that spell “Chowda Mug”. I was in the Boston area on a business trip from Georgia sometime in the mid ‘90s and while visiting, I met some old friends from New Hampshire one evening for dinner at Legal Seafood. On this cold winter day, we sat at a table by a log fire in the restaurant. Here in the presence of old friends I felt my spirits rise and heart grow warm as I enjoyed a martini and a steaming bowl of clam chowder. I always thought the best and most unique taste indigenous to the New England coast was that of whole-belly fried clams. I enjoyed a large platter of the deep-fried morsels with tartar sauce and fries, and was not disappointed. The hours went by and eventually, after much talk and comradeship, dinner ended. As I left, I noticed the restaurant had various items for sale at the counter. I bought two coffee mugs and left instructions to ship them to my home in Georgia. One survived the trip while the other arrived broken. The survivor has traveled through several other moves, and sits here today in Woodland Hills to beguile me with memories of old friends in faraway places.

I acquired the third cup in Georgia in 1996. I began my SAP career in Atlanta. SAP is a large integrated computer software system designed in Germany and used by many large corporations around the world that employ enterprise-wide integrated systems. I felt lucky to learn some new “hot” skills whose relevance could enhance and extend a career. The coffee cup was a small token given to students following a technical SAP training session I had attended. The cup is white and has the blue SAP logo on one side. The software is expensive to own, arduous to install, requires a complete retraining of technical and functional resources, and requires a commitment from the business to re-engineer their processes if they want to facilitate the software installation and make the product work for the enterprise. However, the benefits are many and large for those who make their implementations a success, but introducing this kind of change into an organization always causes various degrees of pain and resistance.

After completing a two-year implementation effort in Georgia, I came to California at the end of 1997 as a technical project manager for the SAP implementation at a large poultry company in the great central valley of California. It was a challenge to bring a state-of-the-art system to an organization mired in older technologies and processes. Many did not even have the most rudimentary computer skills, such as using a mouse for navigation. Never the less the project progressed but not, evidently, without its casualties and wounds.

One facet of my job demanded I act as an agent and proponent of change. I was constantly challenging people to leave the old behind and to embrace and learn the new skills required of them to succeed in the future. I had total success with some, none with others, and various degrees of success with the majority. At the end of one long day I cleaned up in the men’s room before leaving and absentmindedly left my SAP coffee cup on the sink after washing it. Early the next morning I arrived at my desk and remembering where the cup was, went to the washroom to retrieve it. I found the cup, full of urine, sitting by the sink. I laughed aloud, struck by what I saw on the counter. I could not imagine a more visible display of contempt for both the project and me. I dumped the urine out and washed the cup with soap and hot water. Then I ran the cup through the dishwasher in the break room. Afterwards, I used that cup prominently every day for the rest of the project. I called it the “pee” cup. I was not going to let some small-minded valley wag push me around or allow them the satisfaction of seeing me without my usual and favorite coffee accessory. But I did not leave my cup overnight in the bathroom anymore, either.

The fourth and oldest cup of the group is one I acquired during my time in New Hampshire during the 1980s. It is a white cup with four lines of red lettering on each side that rise up from left to right on an angle to confront the drinker and those across from him with:

“If You’re Trying
 To Act Like
 An Asshole,
You’re Doing A Great Job”.

This cup originally belonged to my friend Don. I first met Don in New Hampshire when he accepted a position at the company where I worked. We toiled together in the information technology unit of a large New York insurance company that, for tax reasons, had offices in New Hampshire. Don was funny and gregarious and we became friends. He liked to read and write comedy, was an avid Republican, and loved the writings of P.J. O’Rourke and Hunter Thompson. He was well read and witty, full of contradictions, and when he was “good”, I enjoyed being with him. I have a picture of him wearing a hat and sunglasses and smiling, seated behind a table that held a drink, a mortar and pestle, and a couple of pill bottles sitting in a pile of pills. He was waving a .45 automatic around in the air, just as he imagined Dr. Thompson would do in a fit of fear and loathing.

His manner was infectious and when I remember him, a smile comes to my face. One weekend a group of us went to his family’s small cabin in northwest Connecticut for a weekend of hiking and partying. The fall weekend was crisp and the days seemed cut from a diamond. We spent the afternoons walking on the Appalachian Trail, in the evenings, we barbequed and prepared dinner, and the nights were given over to talking and partying. The fire in the fireplace was kept going long into the night as people chatted and told stories over a glass of wine or brandy. If you were tired, you pulled out your sleeping bag and found a place on the floor. We had a wonderful time; I have a picture of me taken in the early morning hours looking up from a sleeping bag on the floor with a glazed look on my face, surrounded by other comatose bodies in sleeping bags, wearing a German army helmet.

But Don had another side, something lurking underneath the surface waiting to show itself, even to his friends. The warm smile could go in an instant and he might storm away from a conversation, or you might have the cards thrown in your face at a bridge game during lunch at work. I heard references made to “medication” but I never really understood what this reference meant. After a couple of years in the area, he moved on to a new job and we kept in touch only sporadically.

Don’s coffee cup came into my possession in 1988 when one of his ex-girlfriends gave the cup to me. She was cleaning everything related to Don out of her apartment and out of her life. I was having a coffee in the “great job” cup while listening to her talk as she cleaned. When the time came to express their feelings about the kind of relationships they had enjoyed with Don, his ex-girlfriends always seemed to do so with tales of woe mixed with extreme umbrage. She told me to take the cup if I desired, or else the thing was going in the trash. I finished my coffee and took the cup for my own.

The last time I saw Don was in December of 1990, he was a nervous new father and husband making a living as a technical consultant in North Carolina. He had a beautiful new wife and son. I had stopped by to spend the night on the floor of their apartment in North Carolina. I had just come through a period of major back surgery and unemployment; I was forty years old with no job and a mountain of debt. I was driving from New Hampshire to San Diego to start a new life out on the west coast, and the thought of a free place to stay and a home cooked meal with friends was particularly appealing. The three of us enjoyed a fine dinner and a bottle of wine while the baby slept. The apartment was sparse but friendly; the mood warm, hopeful and nostalgic. She especially was looking to the future and so wanted things to go well for all of them, for all of us.

But the future can be a hard place and I guess he took the message on the side of the coffee cup to heart. Some years later, under the influence of alcohol and drugs, he committed an act of robbery and assault. He was caught, convicted, and sent to prison. I despaired for his wife and young son. Some people truly must destroy those they love, or rather those that love them. He really did a great job at that.

So these are some of the stories surrounding the histories of the four coffee cups. I am from Connecticut and have had my fill of country kitsch, and I do not much care for coffee cups with teapots and cozies or the ubiquitous kitchen verse inscribed on them. But I use Shirley’s cup and I am grateful she has come into my life. This cup is the only one acquired in the West, an area I have grown to love. And I notice when I do use her cup, my mind always wanders somewhere unexpected, somewhere pleasant.

The “Chowda Mug” always brings back the emotions and warmth I feel for all of us who shared those special times in New England: the country houses, winters, mountains, bountiful sharing, and best years of our youth and lives. Those wonderful decades of my life all went by so terribly fast.

Shirley has never cared much for the “pee” cup, or Don’s cup for that matter, but I am very fond of both and use them regularly. Sometimes in the morning I bring a cup of coffee in the “pee” cup to Shirley as she showers or gets ready for work, and I hear in response an aside on how this must be a special day. And indeed, it is, every morning is a special occasion, and every morning with a good cup of coffee is, indeed, all the more special.

That old cup of Don’s has started many conversations over the years of its use and many a friend of mine has enjoyed a good coffee while using it, some chortling over its strange history and direct prophetic message. And some of those friends who shared a coffee with me while using his cup have passed on as well. Don and I have started to exchange letters while he is in prison; he is trying to overcome his demons and is hoping to make some kind of life for himself when he returns to the world outside of prison. I wish him well.

So today, here in Woodland Hills, I prepare myself for the stress of packing and moving by having a good cup of coffee. The histories of these four cups before me span a long period of my adult life. I will pack them with care; they are full of stories and emotion, and moments in time.

Coffee is not the only thing I have poured into them.



August 2004