I knew at a young age that I wanted to drink coffee. I remember watching cartoons and feeling dazzled by the perpetually full coffee cup and the turkey leg that stayed the same size bite after bite. It was a wonderful way to look at the world, a satisfying beverage, more exotic than water, consumed in perpetuity by a smiling oaf. Growing up my family drank coffee on ceremonious occasions, during the presentation of a birthday cake or to welcome the arrival of an unexpected guest. But it was almost never around in the mornings. It was a social ritual to be shared.
I started drinking coffee in high school. My senior year I took a couple music classes at City College so I got to leave campus for three hours every day. My city college classes were only twice a week so on the other days I’d go to the newly erected Barnes and Noble. I’d read and drink refillable black coffee back in the naïve days before Starbucks realized they could charge people for a second cup. I never noticed any of the effects of the caffeine. I didn’t get the wave of mania nor the acid-stomach crash. I drank it like a cartoon character, expecting the cup would always be two-thirds full and do no more than a cup of water, albeit exotic, black, and oily.
When I was twenty-three I moved to Prague for a couple of months and had to give up drip-brewed American coffee for the bitter Nescafe equivalent. I remember arriving that first night at one in the morning, all the buses from the airport had stopped running. I was traveling with a twenty-five pound typewriter in my bag and was secretly terrified.
I had no reason to be in Prague. I didn’t know anyone there and had never thought about it until my friend P sent me an email mentioning that it was cheap and pretty. And so I moved (a pattern, perhaps, a willingness to jump). I booked a monthly rental in a hostel in Holsevice, a grumpy suburb north of the Vltava. It was the end of October and the night was cold and black. I stood in the taxi line, staring at the dingy old Skoda sedans, expecting to be mugged or kidnapped.
The cabbie was pale and hairy, dark stubble stood out against his oily jawline in the shadows. I felt ashamed when I had to speak to him in English. He nodded and pulled off without saying anything. We drove through the shadowy suburbs. The windows were dark and the sidewalks were empty. It didn’t look anything like the Gothic postcard I had imagined in my head. It was a musty European suburb.
When we pulled up in front of the hostel my heart sank a little. Holsevice is a good distance from Prague center. I felt like I’d arrived in the Toledo of Central Europe. I handed the cabbie a few carefully separated bills whose weight I still didn’t understand.
The building was a four-story cement chunk with dirty linoleum floors. My room was on the top floor. There were three twin beds with heavy comforters, a metal radiator, a sink with a mirror, and a small table with a plastic chair. There was a slanted window over the middle bed that looked out onto the neighboring building, a real estate office with the company name spelled out in big red letters.
I put my typewriter on the table and took the bed closest to the radiator. The first two weeks were horrible. It was cold and grey and the Czechs I encountered were brusque. I thought I saw a slight sneer beginning whenever I caught someone’s gaze. I was also far away from the city proper. I lived around families and tottering old people making daily pilgrimages to the park or grocery store. The trees had lost their leaves already and the buildings were drab rectangles with yellowing curtains in the windows.
After two weeks of wandering, hiding in internet cafes, drinking in local bars with throaty construction workers in blue coveralls half-undone and tied around their wastes, I decided I needed a better regimen. I had read a story about a stripper in Las Vegas who murdered Ted Binion with a secret dose of heroin so she and her truck driver boyfriend could make away with his millions. I thought this should be a movie, a glitterball of self-delusion. I decided that I wouldn’t leave my room every day until I had written 5 pages.
There was no television or radio, and I hadn’t brought anything that could play music. I would sit there with a ream of paper I had stolen from my last job, my dad’s old typewriter from his college years, and a ripped out scrap of newspaper with the yellowing picture of a stripper on it.
I struggle and suffer when I write. A friend once said my Nerve posts read like a breezy conversation. I found this wonderfully flattering because the process of creating them feels something like being transformed into a paraplegic mule and being asked to assemble an Ikea dresser with only a Korean set of instructions to go by. Which is to say, it’s ugly when I write.
One of the first things I had to acknowledge as a writer was shame. It felt like an act of great arrogance to record my own mealy thoughts and hold them out as if they might have value for anyone other than my doting grandparents. This feeling was amplified in screenwriting, where ideas had to come indirectly, in ornamented plotlines and symbology. In doing it, I was asking for two hours of someone’s time and money, and expecting a lot of money to be spent on a physical production, employing dozens if not hundreds of talented people in the erection of my little play-mobile drama. I felt like I would have been a fraud to take up a lane on that track without having something real and serious to say.
I’d reread every line, almost immediately, to test its mettle. Is this really worth saying? I squirmed and paced, getting up from the table as if I had been holding my breath under water. There was a big Nescafe machine in the lobby and every morning before I started I’d walk down the four flights of heavy cement stairs, slide a thick 10 Koruna into the machine. It would start to whir and a small plastic cup would drop down onto the metal platform and after a few seconds a glurp of pre-fabricated espresso would fall into the cup.
I’d walk back up the stairs again, the burning sensation of the coffee in my hand distracting from the empty white room at the top of the stairs and what I would have to do with it.