I quit drinking coffee at some point in my life. I don’t really know why but I started up again a month or so ago. There are two Starbucks on my block. Yeah, two. Every morning, before I stopped drinking the stuff, I would go downstairs, three flights down and walk down to the one that is on my side of the street. It’s further than the other one but you have to cross the street to get to that one so I always used the one I’m talking about. They got used to me coming in there and they would even put Juliet’s name on her Venti Soy milk carmaletto latte even though she never actually set foot in the place. I guess I told them her name at some time and so they sharpied ‘Juliet’ on her drink.
Armed with her drink and mine I would go back to the apartment and wake her up in time to get to her job downtown. She liked to get up at 7:45 so she could shower and catch the 8:25 train. After she was gone I would get my shower and start taking calls. I’m a help desk guy – freelance sort of. I have to take two hundred calls a week to keep my gig and I usually get those under my belt by Wednesday morning. Everything else is gravy. Juliet was less than enthusiastic about my career but she stayed quiet most of the time about it. We were at a party a few months ago and she said I was a telephone sex worker. To be fair she’d had a couple of glasses of wine on an empty stomach so she probably didn’t even know what she’d said. I think that that party might be where she and Jason got started. I don’t know.
So like I said, I just got started drinking coffee again, but I don’t get it at either of the Starbucks on my block. I go to a bar named Slappys. Slappys is between my apartment and the Starbucks I used to go to. One morning I just woke up and decided I wanted a cup of coffee. I might have been dreaming of Juliet – yeah I think I was. She and I were looking at a Sharper Image catalog and considering whether to buy a Swedish coffee brewer. It was carved out of a block of Norwegian porcelain. Who knew that was a thing anyways? It cost $595. I was getting my credit card out when I woke up with a start and found myself craving coffee.
I was surprised to find it had turned cold and was snowing lightly as I started walking towards the Starbucks. I hadn’t put much on except my sweatpants and a pullover sweater. Slappys’ bar door banged open just before I reached it and a delivery man pushed a two wheeled cart out across my path. I pulled up short and for some reason turned into the bar. It was an odd feeling, a real throwback like the kind of bar my Dad and I went to looking for my Uncle Sal. Uncle Sal would go on a bender every couple of months and it was my Dad’s job to track him down and deliver him back to Aunt Sharmane. Ma always made me go with him. My job, I finally figured out, was to be with Dad so he and Uncle Sal wouldn’t get even drunker once they found each other.
There were three guys sitting at the bar. Two right next to each other, hunched over staring into short glasses of beer. Empty shot glasses stood in front of each man. They each had a bar towel draped around their necks. The third guy was reading a newspaper and was smoking a cigarette. This surprised me since a recent state law had been passed outlawing this. I guess maybe they didn’t know about the law here in Slappys. The guy with the cigarette stood up slowly and folded his newspaper under his arm as he walked behind the bar.
“What’ll it be?” His voice was thick and gravely. I was pretty sure he was Eastern European.
Bartender, I thought. “Do you have coffee?”
He turned to the back of the bar and pulled a Styrofoam cup off a big stack of cups next to an ancient Bunn double burner. He then took a decanter from the Bunn and poured steaming hot coffee into the cup. Finally he grabbed a flimsy plastic lid from somewhere back there and slapped it over the top of the cup.
“Fifty-five cents.” He growled.
I considered asking for cream and a Sweet and Low but though better of it when one of the two patrons opened his mouth and belched. Instead I took a dollar bill out of my sweatpants and told him to keep the change.
I and my coffee were nearly out the door when I heard one of the bar flies call him ‘Stavros.’ I considered throwing the coffee into the nearest trash can and continuing on to Starbucks but then thought better of it. What if upon seeing me they make Juliet’s drink? They don’t know .. they don’t know what? I ask myself. They don’t know what happened. Shit neither did I really. No, I had my coffee. Stavros made it and poured it out for me. So I was set. I returned to my apartment and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was pretty good. It had a good aroma and dusky taste. Black. I hadn’t drank a coffee black since I was in college.
The next morning I woke up and wanted coffee again. No dream of Juliet this time, just a desire for coffee. I looked out the window and noted the weather before heading out. I put a thicker coat on and grabbed my gloves.
Stavros was behind the bar when I walked in. He was leaning over his newspaper mumbling to himself. The two old guys were in their same spots, moldering.
“Coffee” I smiled.
Stavros grunted then turned to the bar and repeated the same actions as he had before. I noted the stack of Styrofoam cups hadn’t seemed to have dropped any since yesterday. I might very well be the only coffee customer he has. Which made me marvel at the enormous reserve of cups the man has next to his coffee machine. Had some smooth talking salesman come in here sometime in the last decade and convinced Stavros that he needed two thousand Styrofoam cups vouchsafed against the day he would be called upon to sell ten gallons of coffee?
“Ten cents.” He snarled.
“Ten cents?” I asked.
“It was fifty-five cents yesterday.” This man was playing with me.
“Today – ten cents.” He leveled his eyes at me, daring me to argue with him again.
“Ok.” I said digging a dime from my pocket. “See you tomorrow.”
One of the old men sang “Tomorrow, tomorrow – I love you …” his voice trailed off. He’d either forgot the words or lost interest.
The next day Stavros and I exchanged coffee for money.
“Fifty-five cents.” He said.
I smiled and pulled three quarters from my pocket. His eyes were drawn to the coins as I dropped them on the bar. “Keep the change.”
I was stepping through the door when I heard him say. “Bah”
The next few days were dark. I didn’t go out for coffee. Juliet had texted me. She thought we should talk. I ignored the texts and stayed in bed.
Sunday, I went for a walk and stood outside Slappys for ten minutes before walking back home. I had been by there the night before and there was music playing and I could smell hamburgers frying. The bar did OK for itself I guess. I wanted to go in but I didn’t.
Monday morning I woke up and made myself get out of bed. I had to sign in today and take some calls. Last week’s funk had hurt my numbers and I needed the income. So I went down to Slappys and got some coffee.
Stavros slid the cup in front of me and said. “Thirty five cents.”
“Thirty five, huh? Your prices sure fluctuate a lot.”
“What is this fluctuate?” he said slyly. I didn’t take the bait. For all I knew the man was a college professor.
“How much was this coffee yesterday?”
“You weren’t here yesterday.” He shrugged.
I pulled two quarters from my pocket and asked. “How much will this coffee cost tomorrow?
Stavros eyed the quarters and said. “I am not sure. Better you should come in tomorrow and we will find out together.”
I stopped the shenanigans with the money and decided to see what I could do to bring Stavros into present times. I was feeling bad about the Styrofoam cups accumulating in my apartment. I found a plastic travel mug that Juliet had given me in the back of a kitchen cabinet. It had a frog on the front of it and it said “Pucker up – I might be your Prince!”
I took that with me the next day and sat it on the bar. Stavros looked at it briefly and then turned to the bar, took down a Styrofoam cup and filled it with coffee.
“No.” I said. I wanted you to put my coffee in this cup. I spun it so he could see the frog.
Stavros picked it up and then showed it to the guys at the bar. They squinted at it and then chuckled. Stavros put it back on the bar and then handed me my coffee.
Now I had two stupid cups – I took the top off the frog cup and then took the top off my Styrofoam cup. I poured my coffee into the frog cup and then pushed the Styrofoam cup back across the bar. “Now you can recycle that cup.”
Stavros grunted, took the cup and its top and tossed it into a trash bin under the bar.
Each day I walked into Slappys with my plastic frog cup and walked out with coffee in that cup and an empty Styrofoam cup.
Stavros doesn’t recycle.
Once a week I take my Styrofoam cups into the Starbucks. They have a very nice recycle setup in the lobby. The irony of this does not escape me.
Juliet was sitting on my stoop one morning when I came out.
“Why haven’t you answered my texts?”
“I don’t know.” She is beautiful. Her hair moves in the icy breeze. It’s blonder then I recall. “Have you changed your hair?”
She shakes her head. She’s not going to answer that question. I realize that she never answers any question that she doesn’t want to. She get answers to questions.
How is it I never saw that before?
“I forgot about that cup.” She points to my frog cup.
I feel my face blush. How will I explain this silly game I play daily with a man who doesn’t know my name?
“Yeah, I don’t …” I turn back towards my door but then I stop and turn back. “What do you want Juliet?”
“Let’s walk.” She says and loops her arm through mine. “I need a latte.”
For a few steps she is quiet and then she starts. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. Jason is such a child. He doesn’t know how to be .. “ She smiles into my face. “He’s not you, is what I’m saying.” Juliet squeezes my arm. “I’m hoping we can put all this behind us.”
I feel myself nodding my head. I can’t really think as she chatters away. We pull up next to Slappys and her face slips into puzzlement. “What’s here?”
“I get my coffee here now.”
“Why..” she looks askance at the bar door. “Let’s go to Starbucks. I’ll buy.”
“No.” I plant my feet.
“Honey.” Her face hardens. “Don’t be stubborn.”
I leave her on the sidewalk and go into the bar. Stavros slaps his newspaper on the bar and looks past me at Juliet as she peeks into the bar.
I don’t say anything as I hear the door slam shut. I know that she has not come into the bar. She’s still out there. Outside.
“I’d like to buy the bar a drink” I say impulsively.
The half dead men at the bar suddenly come awake.
Stavros looks at me for a second, giving me a chance to change my mind. His eyes flit back to the closed door where my former girlfriend is tapping her foot on the pavement.
“OK.” He nods his head as if agreeing to some unspoken question and pours out the drinks for the men. He then takes my plastic frog cup and fills it with coffee.
“Three dollars and fifty-five cents.” He says.
I pull a five dollar bill from my pocket, drop it on the counter and say:
“Keep the change.”