Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hopes, fears lurk within a can of coffee

     The Sun-Times newsroom has packed its bags and moved to the 10th floor of what I still consider the Apparel Center but is actually     now called ... checking ... River North Point.
     Well, mostly they’ve packed up. A handful of us office-dwellers linger on 9, transformed into a depopulated junkscape of massed office chairs, bundled wires, stacked gray dividers and various discarded books, tape dispensers, and, I noticed with keen interest, one unopened can of Stewarts coffee.
     Now Stewarts isn’t the best coffee — a bit pricier than Folgers, back in the day, but not Peet’s, not Green Mountain, nor any of the high-end coffees lined up at Whole Foods. I couldn’t recall ever tasting it. But it’s coffee, and I drink a lot of coffee. And while coffee is free at work, coffee at home costs money. So I figured, how bad could it be? If somebody didn’t want this can of coffee at the office — we get Starbucks on the 10th floor, so why would they? — I could find a use for it.
     I tucked the can of Stewarts into my briefcase and brought it home in triumph.
     “What’s with the coffee?” my 17-year-old said, seeing an alien can on our kitchen counter. I explained how I had found it in the ruins. He did not share my enthusiasm.
     “Couldn’t someone poison it with arsenic and then seal up the can?” he wondered.
     Kids. They have such a bleak view of life. Where is the dewy optimism of youth?
     I told him the odds of that happening are slight — the sad truth is, nobody cares enough about journalists to want to kill them, at least not in this country.
     Though, now that I had brought the can home, I had my own concerns. The orange and green tartan on the metal can, it seemed light, almost faded. But I figured it was the printing process used by Stewarts. The can couldn’t have sat neglected in our office for years, could it? I gazed at the bottom, looking for numbers, a telltale “1983” maybe. Four digits: “2064.” Either a lot number or brand new and good for another 50 years.
     Finishing up the primo costly Cafe Du Monde coffee I typically drink, I grabbed a can opener and twisted my way around the can. Taking the blue, lucky, makes-two-perfect-cups-every-time measuring scoop that I’ve used for years from the old can, I dug into the light brown Stewarts grounds with a satisfying granular “chhhh” sound.
     The spoon hit something. Something hard, buried within the ground coffee.
     My first thought — my very first thought, unfiltered, no pun intended and embarrassing to relate — was: “Treasure!” It had to be a platinum bracelet or a gold ingot or some valuable item illegally shipped into the country, sealed within coffee cans. That sort of thing happens all the time in the movies.
     That hope rose and fell in a one moment.
     My second thought was: ewww-how-old-IS-this? Can coffee grounds congeal?” It obviously wasn’t contraband — silly me — but a clump some hardened mass of petrified coffee, solid due to the extreme age of this can that I, in my bottomless thrift, had taken home from work to kill myself with.
     I dug with the blue scoop and pried to the surface the mysterious hard thing. Not a diamond bracelet, not an ossified clump, but a red plastic spoon. Oh. Stewart’s comes with its own coffee spoon, for customers who are scoopless. Something ordinary.
     Now I want to draw your attention to the thought process at work here, because I don’t think it is unique to me. In fact, it is sadly common. I detect a single fact, one data point — something hard in the coffee. Before exploring further, I entertain possible explanations based on A) my fondest hopes and B) my darkest fears. The wildly inaccurate, insanely overblown possibilities get analyzed first. Only then does actual experience bring up the mundane reality.
     A familiar pattern, huh? We see “A” with those who glimpse a flash in the sky and conclude, “space aliens!” Party politics works that way too. We see a guy on our team, find something we like about him, then run with it. It’s as if I felt the hard thing in the coffee but never brought it to the surface to see what it was. “See this can of Stewarts? It has a broach inside. I felt it …”
     And we see “B” everywhere. Not only do people form conclusions based on a sprinkle of reality blended with their own personal anxieties — ‘‘Barack Obama had to be born in Kenya, since, geez, he’s black, just like people in Kenya are, and he has an African name” — but having done so, they stop investigating, lest they prove themselves wrong. How do we get people to look inside the can?
     The Stewarts, by the way, tasted like hot water with a brown crayon dipped in it. I tucked the can away, for emergencies.


  1. I knew that's what you would find in that can when you wrote about finding something hard in the coffee.
    Every can of coffee used to come with a scoop.
    Used to, being the important words.

  2. DIdn't know that. They're certainly low profile.

    1. Possibly at the moment, but not in the recent past. They used to advertise heavily on the Score (I think they even sponsored the 15 minute updates) and had ads on other radop stations.

      I saw an article online recently where a coffee snob barista tested a bunch of grocery store coffees and found two that were palitable: Chock-full-of-nuts and Community. And I've noticed cheaper coffees taste noticeably better if you brew them in a ChemEx.

  3. And the brown brick/green glass bldg. on the river there at Wells, east of the Mart, formerly home of Helene Curtis Co.? Completed in 1914 as a coffee warehouse for Chase & Sanborn. Maybe that's where this fugitive can originated (all those years ago).

  4. “Couldn’t someone poison it with arsenic and then seal up the can?”

    I like the way he thinks.

    -- MrJM

  5. As a child, we kept crayons in a Stewart's can - be well


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