Every morning I walk past an antiques store that sells all kinds of stuff, from ancient magazines to old-style crafts to lobster buoys. There’s always a table out front with items selling for a dollar. It’s a savvy bit of marketing by the proprietor. Passers by see the items, think that they’re only a dollar, wander over to take a look, pick the items up to examine them, and wonder whether they could find a use for, say, that tin camping percolator. Then they wander inside to see what additional treasures might be available.
The dollar table items must sell, because the items on the tabletop are ever changing. Eventually, every bit of household detritus seems to find a place on the table. It makes you realize how much stuff is found in an American house: sugar bowls, napkin holders, glassware, random plates, pots and pans, old bottles, ashtrays, and every other piece of bric a brac you can imagine.
But the undisputed lord of the dollar table is the coffee cup. The table always features at least a dozen, ranging in size from dainty to gargantuan. Single cups from what obviously once was a set, cups with branded logos, cups with lids to keep the coffee hot longer—they all testify to the U.S.A.’s love affair with java, and the dollar table allows them to be recycled to new users. It’s a small coffee-flavored undercurrent in the flow of the Stonington economy.
I think many of us feel a real urge to try to get the world back to normal as quickly as possible — which for us working stiffs means going to the office and rolling up our sleeves to do our jobs. At the same time, however, attempts to stop the spread of COVID-19 are only going to work if we take steps to make sure that “social distancing” has a chance to be implemented. That means we need to listen to our inner Moe Howard, of Three Stooges fame, and “spread out” a bit. I’m doing my part in that effort by working from home today.
For me, at least, a key part of the work at home process is to set up a proper work space. The best spot in my view is our kitchen island, which has a good, wide surface with plenty of room for my laptop and papers, good lighting, and a hard wooden chair to keep my posture in line.
So, what to do for my home office cup? I can’t pretend to pick a cup from the motley assortment in our kitchen cabinet that will have the same storied history and workplace kinship as my office mug, but it’s still important to select something that will send the same knuckle-down message. I’ve decided to eschew the beagle cup and the cups with the southwestern designs in favor of a plain white cup with a row of dots near the rim. It’s got a solid, no-nonsense feel to it, and also carries a significant volume, which is important when you regulate your coffee intake by trying to remember how many cups you’ve already had during the day. It’s also got a big surface area, to allow the hot java to cool promptly.
With my coffee cup carefully selected, and the coffee pot charged and brewing, I’m ready to face the work day. Of course, there will be one key difference between my home workspace and the office — I won’t be allowed to dispose of leftover candies and other goodies by leaving them near the coffee pot.
Few aspects of our household are as random as the coffee cup cabinet. It includes a painted beagle cup that was a present from a friend, “B” and “K” cups that we got at Target, two southwestern motif cups that we received on our recent trip to Arizona and New Mexico, a white cup that we’ve probably had for 20 years, a set of other white cups that we purchased when it looked like we were running low, and a blue striped cup that seemed to mysteriously appear in the cupboard one day.
We’d be hard pressed to serve coffee at a formal dinner party for eight — which is probably part of the reason we don’t host formal dinner parties. The motley assortment does give us some freedom of choice in selecting the coffee delivery device best suited to our mood and needs on any given day. Let’s see — do I feel like looking at a painted dog today, or perhaps I should go with the interesting black and white Native American mug with the wide base, or would the blue striped cup of doubtful provenance with the smallest volume capacity be best?
I’m guessing that we’re not alone in having a riotous collection of mismatched coffee cups in our household. You buy coffee cups as part of your dinnerware in a matched set, but they tend to chip and break over time. In the meantime, coffee cups are a common gift item from vendors and friends and get added to the collection. Before you know it, you’ve got a complete grab bag going.
The only thing that is more random than our coffee cup collection is the assortment of pens we’ve got in jars — and yes, in other solo coffee cups — here and there, many of which don’t work. At least the irregular collection of coffee cups all are capable of performing their intended function.
When the temperature dips down into the single digits, and stays there day after brutal day, you need a real jolt of hot coffee to brace you for the frigid onslaught.
And serious coffee demands a serious cup. None of this foo-foo demitasse crap, or a dainty china piece that you might find in the Queen’s cupboard, either. No, we’re talking about mugs — big, brawny, capacious turreens, with handles that require a man’s entire fist to hold and such enormous capacity that they could double as a birdbath. These are the coffee cups demanded by people who are serious about slugging back brimming mouthfuls of steaming black goodness and letting the liquid warmth reach every fiber of their beings before they venture into the shivering, wind-chilled early morning darkness.
So you can imagine my unrestrained glee when Kish told me today that two of our thoughtful friends had presented her with this awesome set of matched mugs. They hold about a coffee pot each, bear the Webner name, and are perfectly designed to fortify us during this unending, gelid winter. Thanks, Laura and Paul!
Much of my morning blindly follows a routine. Get up, get dressed, feed the dogs, take them for a walk — all of it happens with mindless mechanical regularity. The first real decision I must make is the choice of a mug for my morning coffee.
Over the years, Kish and I have accumulated an eclectic collection of coffee mugs. We began with a set of unadorned white mugs, the kind you might see at a basic diner in any American city. We’ve added to that baseline through gifts, handouts at seminars or from hotels, hand-me-downs, and purchases at gift shops or college campus stores. We’ve got nice cups and saucers too, mind you, but those are for evening company, not the shot of morning java. Who wants to be fumbling with fancy saucers when you’re still bleary-eyed, moving from room to room as you get ready for work?
We’ve now got mugs of all colors, shapes and sizes. Each has its own feel and context, too . . . making the morning choice a particularly devilish one. I think about my work day ahead and wonder whether this is a day for a big black mug that holds an ocean of joe or for one of the basic, indestructible, well-used white mugs. If I’m feeling adventurous, I might choose the old-fashioned mug with the tiny round finger hole that looks like it might have once served as the mug where a barber mixed shaving cream before lathering up a customer. If it’s a weekend, I might go for one of our dog options — but I’m not going to select a puppy-theme mug if I’ve got a tough deposition on the schedule.
It’s very early on a work day morning. As part of my routine, I make some coffee. I pull down one of our coffee cups from the cupboard, and there it is — that telltale half moon of red lipstick, left there when Kish used the cup.
Don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not as if we don’t wash our coffee cups. It’s just that our dishwasher doesn’t remove lipstick from cups. I’m sure we’re not alone on this. In our household, the only way to get the lipstick off the cup is to take one of our scouring pads and apply some elbow grease to scrub the cup clean. As I was thinking when I was doing precisely that the other day: why do you think they call it lipstick?
Lipstick is just one of those everyday consumer products that has unexpected properties. Lipstick and a white coffee cup would come in handy if you wanted to leave an indelible message for future generations. Lipstick apparently has the same mysterious bonding properties with dishes that also is found with cereal and milk. Have you ever noticed that if you eat a bowl of cereal and leave it in the sink without immediate rinsing, the milk dries and the cereal becomes cemented to the bowl with epoxy-like strength? You basically have to use a spoon and chisel the shriveled, dessicated Honey Nut Cheerios off the side of the bowl. And nothing can leave a longer-lasting stain on shirts, human flesh, or gum tissue than the garish yellow dust of a few Cheetos. These products, which are routinely consumed by modern Americans, have an odd permanence about them.
It gives you an entirely new appreciation for the apparent capabilities of the human digestive tract, doesn’t it?
Our office has long tried to be “green.” We recycle paper products and aluminum cans. We don’t use styrofoam coffee cups. And, recently, we started using recycled paper napkins at our coffee stations. The napkins are brown and are proudly stamped with the green recycle stamp and the messages “Made with 100% recycled material” and “Save the environment, one napkin at a time.”
The napkins are in a dispenser right next to the sink and the coffee brewer. Their intended use is plain: they are supposed to help you as you rinse out your coffee cup in the morning and scrub out the remaining coffee film. At this simple chore, however, the recycled paper napkins are a complete, abject failure. A single napkin is so flimsy that it dissolves and falls to pieces at the slightest touch of liquid. So, you use three napkins together — thereby saving the environment, three napkins at a time — but as you clean out the cup you realize that you are leaving behind moist, rice-sized paper pellets adhered to the bottom and sides of the cup. The brown paper residue then needs to be swept from the cup, by hand.
We used to have sturdy, presumably non-recycled, napkins for this purpose. One napkin filled the bill admirably and left you with a spotless, shining cup, ready to accept the morning’s first touch of black magic. Now, what used to be a simple, mindless part of the morning routine has become a source of grim frustration, all because the environment-saving recycled napkins suck at their job. The first rule of napkin technology should be, “no residue left behind.” Our gossamer recycled paper napkins not only are incapable of removing existing residue, they compound the problem by leaving their own trail of brown crud.
I’m all in favor of recycling — really I am — but we shouldn’t be guilt-tripped into buying inferior recycled products that fail to perform their intended function. No amount of “green office” awards can make up for the horrors of trying to use recycled paper napkins.
Those of us who work in a white-collar office inevitably accumulate office paraphernalia. We are allocated a cubicle, an office, or some other bland, generic space, and we bring in photos, artwork, and other items to personalize the otherwise depersonalized spaces. And we end up forming attachments to some of those items — so much so that we cannot imagine what it would be like to be at work without them nearby.
The faithful Lauffer stoneware mug
So it is with my coffee mug. It is a piece of light grey stoneware, with bold blue and brown horizontal stripes. The stamp on the bottom says “Lauffer Handcrafted Stoneware Ovenproof Japan.”
I’ve had this same mug for 28 years. It has faithfully accompanied me as I have studied for law school classes, worked on the Georgetown Law Journal, been a summer associate at two different law firms, clerked for a federal judge, and now worked at the firm for 24 years. Jane Tucker, our former downstairs neighbor at 1019 East Capitol Street in Washington, D.C., got me the mug as a good-luck-in-law-school present in the summer of 1982. It is a perfect office coffee cup — sturdy enough to stand some jostling and big enough to eliminate the need for constant coffee runs, with an ample surface area that allows the coffee to cool as I drink another slug. The glazing makes it easy to clean off most, and I emphasize most, of the accumulated coffee crud each morning. I appreciate its exquisite weight, and it feels good in my hand as I take the morning slurps. I can’t imagine working without it.