Monday, February 21, 2011

Things I Like #4: Coffee With Friends

In the small rural town in which I grew up, there was no coffee shop, no cafe or bistro where friends gathered to talk among themselves. For that simple pleasure, there was the kitchen, mostly the gathering place of women to talk about recipes, husbands, the weather and, I'm sure, many other subjects--both sanctioned and taboo--to which I, as an innocent child, was not privy.

The men congregated in the shed. Some chewed baccy or smoked Rothmans cigarettes, blowing smoke rings into the air as if exhaling a ghost. They'd talk of the "queer" ones in the community--meaning anyone who was a bit different--or about fishing and hunting, about what a nag the wife was or whatever topic happened to present itself for the day. Likewise, the woods, the fishing stage, a chance meeting on the side of the road, or two cars parked side by side on the road itself and blocking traffic--the need for talk, the desire for connection, of sharing the news somehow found expression.

It was a rough life, with a rough-hewn communication. The worlds of men and women rarely intertwined. At house parties--either at Christmastime or in summer when the American relatives would come visit--the men would end up in the living room and the women in the kitchen, chattering and drinking whiskey and beer. The children might cling to the feet of a parent or find himself (as I often did) sitting in the stairwell, ears pricked for the good parts--the juicy jokes, the curious gossip, or the unexpected song (which mostly came in the form of an Irish folk song or a country song from the radio).

My friends and I would build treehouses or forts--even in winter, it was humongous snow fortresses that would have housed Napoleon's army from the cold--and it was there we would talk about whatever was on our minds. Superman. Batman. Wolverine. Girls we liked or didn't like. How many stars were in the sky. Whether there was life in outer space. How far it was to California, how much it might cost to get there and whether you would ever go? When I didn't feel like talking to people, I would slink into the front seat of my parents' car with a good library book (my parents' budget didn't justify buying books, even if we'd had a bookstore) and stay there for hours, reading. Daydreaming. Or I'd spend my time on the landwash, calling out snails from their shells while the North Atlantic rushed and crashed onto rocks all around.

When I moved away to the city in my late teens, I discovered that, while I enjoyed being alone sometimes, my favorite passion was conversation. I'm sure it exasperated many of my friends, but there was nothing I enjoyed more than to sit and talk--didn't matter about what. It could be about plans for the future, about the merits of having a TV or not having one, about how the world might look in twenty years (boy, were we wrong), about whether Communism was a legitimate style of government, whether the Russians might really bomb us, or whether we would ever find true happiness, married with children, unmarried without children, or single and gallivanting about the world, largely dependent on the kindness of strangers as we backpacked across Europe, sleeping in the barn with the farmer's daughter, carrying a guitar on our backs, and doing odd jobs to keep ourselves alive.

It was the kind of talk that occurred in our bachelor apartment, shared by as many as five of us at a time and sometimes as few as two. It would take place in coffee shops--back then, Tim Horton's was the venue of choice, as St. John's didn't have nearly as many cafes as it does now. I can remember sitting under the overpass on Kenmount Road late at night, talking to a friend of mine about the state of the world while another friend "needed the apartment" with her boyfriend for two or three hours. I sometimes wonder how life has treated that friend--because we had a connection. There was a truth, an honesty and an urgency to our talk. The friend who needed the apartment eventually married that boyfriend. But I doubt they just talked, not that night.

I remember sitting on a picnic bench with a friend who owned a guitar. We sang Simon and Garfunkel songs over and over, dreaming of being them one sunny day, and we even played music together in years to come, on stage and off. But it was the talking, the daydreaming in between that was the glue that ensured we would remain together as friends for years, even decades, to come.

These days, my tolerance for long conversations that last into the night has faded and gone. I'd always had an appetite for hours and hours of discussion--in grassy fields, open-windowed cars, sitting around bars, barbecues or kitchen tables--until everyone else was ready to get some shut-eye except me. Always the last man standing. Always wanting to call for pizza at 3 a.m. or go out for a Tim's run at 4:30 or race to Signal Hill to watch the sun come up over the blazing red ocean. Sleepy-headed and chilled to the bone sometimes, but it was as good as life gets, especially when you're young.

I've discovered in recent years that I still enjoy it. Sure, besides my writing, I make a living by talking. I discovered a couple of years ago when I'd had minor throat surgery that I still love talking and will always love it. I'll never take it for granted again.

Most of my friends are female. And most of them are talkers. I admit I'm less of a talker than a listener. I'll ask questions, like a reporter or David Letterman, anything to keep you from being silent. I think there's something I've always felt, a sadness or a fear, a sense of mortality--the realization, even when I was young and listening through the stair railings--that the discussion doesn't go on forever, and, as Leonard Cohen says, "It's hell to pay when the fiddler stops."

I don't like going to bed early. I don't like ending conversations until every last syllable and emotion is wrung from it like water from a dishcloth or red wine from a glass. I don't like when friends have to get on planes or when students have to leave for the end of semester. Final exams are a morbid thing. Feeding the meter is an abomination--a pause in a perfectly good spoken-aloud thought. The ringing of the cellphone. The vibration of an incoming text message. The dry white bottom of a finite cup of coffee. These have always been, to me, the near equivalent of the closing of a lid on a coffin.

There'll be time enough for silence between friends when the fiddler stops for good.

I'm thinking about all this now because I just came back from a long--though not nearly long enough--coffee and conversation with a very dear, old friend (sixteen years now). It was snowy and all the cozier for it, with a view of the harbour, the ships coming in and going out, surrounded by people having coffee and breakfast with their own friends, acquaintances, and possibly family.

Afterwards, stepping out into the cold, I felt (as I always do at such times) as if I've been awakened from a powerful and perfect dream--the kind where friends always have time for coffee and conversation, for sharing intimate secrets and opinions about politics, religion, TV and music. I'm even interested in what she has to say about my iPod Touch, simply because she is my friend and when we first met, email was still new and the idea of an iPod hadn't even entered the mass consciousness. Computers were an elite item that would never, ever infiltrate the home.

I treasure conversation threads on Facebook or email. I thrill at the sound of the bell that says, "You've got mail!" But nothing, but nothing replaces good old coffee talk, which is far more addictive than email or Facebook could ever be. I'm already missing that friend and already planning the next coffee with another friend whom I haven't seen in a while. And on it goes; around it whirls.

However, it's not the talking I crave. It's the sound of that voice on that day--the voice that some day will not be there anymore, but for now has the ability to hold me rapt.


  1. As always, you express the ineffable perfectly.

  2. Thank you, JoAnne. I think we write in order to understand ourselves.