I love the smell of fresh coffee in the morning. Or I think I do. I have vivid memories of my parents talking at length about their love and dependence on their morning coffee. I think all that talk crept into my psyche somehow. Love of coffee became a given, something I think I inherited even if that’s not possible. Maybe it’s nostalgia.
I remember sitting at our long dining table on a Saturday morning, dressed in my pajamas, eager to watch cartoons but forced to eat a sit-down breakfast first. I was maybe seven or eight years old. The service staff made what I think was the usual brew. I watched my mother carefully pour herself a cup while I ate my fruit plate and oatmeal. She smiled at me as she did it. But her face changed into this kind of dejected scowl immediately after she tasted it. It was the look I knew to avoid. It meant someone was about to get an earful or much much worse. My father caught it as well. He immediately took a sip of his own coffee and looked disappointed, resigned in agreement that something was off and needed to be done.
My mother rang the little bell she kept by her place setting, summoning our head server Bertha; a large jovial woman who was always great to me in a co-conspiratorial sort of way. She was the help, of course, and she knew her place well, but whenever I was the object of my parent’s bouts of depression fueled anger she would step into protect me; jumping on the grenade if you will, much like she did that day. But this had nothing to do with me. No, this was about something sacred. At least in my parent’s world that’s how it seemed. They had so little to care about. Maybe whiling away endless days in a giant, mostly empty house, magnified things, skewed what was important or rational is probably a better way of putting it. When Bertha came into the dining room my mother yelled a bunch of profanities and went on and on about the quality of the coffee and how hard it was to enjoy something so simple. She poured out the entire coffeepot onto the table in front of her, then threw it at Bertha’s head. Bertha dodged it like a ballerina. I was struck by how quickly she could move her girth. Maybe it was practiced or the throw was expected or there was an athletic past hidden under that sad uniform. My father, as was his custom in tense situations, just stared at his lap, not making eye contact with anyone. I could tell he wasn’t embarrassed by it or anything. He agreed with my mother’s actions. He was content to be the one who could channel his boiling rage into someone else; my mother being the perfect foil in their practiced good cop, bad cop routine. In a weird way he thought of physical violence and even outward anger as beneath him. He thought anger meant worries and worries evoked a sense of unworthiness of whatever he imagined himself to be.
After that incident Bertha made at least four other batches of coffee, using a variety of methods, and each was spit out the second my mother tasted it, until she finally stood up from the table, cursed everything and everyone for ruining her life and stormed out of the room. I went to the den and watched my cartoons. Bertha fixed me a special snack and apologized for my mother’s behavior. My parents didn’t ever talk about the incident again and by lunch time it was like it never happened. But it always stuck with me. A lot of meals devolved in similar ways. That one just stuck.
I’ve copied that ritual in my own house, seven days a week, though the truth is I don’t have a discerning palate. The coffee always tastes the same to me. I insist on stocking the freshest and best beans of course, and using the latest brewing methods, but I wouldn’t know the difference from generic greasy spoon stuff and the gourmet stuff I drink. That doesn’t stop me from pretending. One should never let the staff think you don’t know something, anything. It only breeds anger.
I think of it as a little homage to my parents when I sit down to drink a cup now. I even had Bertha on staff for a few years after my parents passed. And it was hard to fire her when she lost that famous agility. I would randomly test it by dropping or throwing things, as a way to harken back to more innocent times. After she failed to react well two or three times in a row I knew it was time to let her go. I felt for her when I broke the news and the tears welled up in her eyes. Instead of the one month severance I upped it to two on the spot and sent her on her way.
It’s days like today when I can celebrate my achievements that I feel myself reminiscing about my childhood. Every couple of generations a family needs to refill the coffers and expand the old nest egg. My parents were content to live out their days here in this sprawl, doing the bare minimum, having the same conversations at the same cocktail parties, carefully evaluating the nuanced differences in wealth among their friends in coded conversation and innuendo until the monotony of it all became unbearable. They believed in the order and their duty within that order, happy to be comfortably ensconced in the middle of the very top. I, on the other hand, was motivated by the need for something more. I was committed from an early age to ensuring not only my family’s wealth, but maintaining a certain social order I saw slipping away in the swirl of a confusing and fragmented media ecosystem. I saw a lot of discontent out there and was afraid it would tip over into something real if left to rot. I also saw neutral technology being exploited in exciting ways. I heard opportunity knocking and jumped at the chance to expand the pie as it were.
The News Lab was a moonshot investment when I bought from one of those sad families that neglected to keep up with the times. The kind that allowed themselves and their children to fall into relative poverty, unable or unwilling to balance basic accounts, grasping at the highest rung of the ladder while the whole thing falls back toward the mean. The family had made their fortune in the newspaper business and was hoping to turn the Lab into a more profitable and socially advantageous asset. And they were close to realizing that goal when they were forced to sell to keep up appearances. Their loss was my gain. I sold off the news division for parts and turned a nice profit there. I then turned my attention to the technology’s true potential. The real reason I wanted the company at all.
I was starting to lose hope that we would ever progress to the more advanced behavior conditioning we were after that I was actively listening to offers. I was close to agreeing to a quiet sale when when I was alerted out of the blue that we had a breakthrough. My people were always very eager to keep me well informed of any issue or breakthrough, and of course the state of the art surveillance I installed everywhere guaranteed it. I’m lucky I didn’t sell. Fortune favors the bold. That’s always been my motto when I hunkered down and committed myself to a life of work in the service of an order worth preserving. If only my parents could see me now. I’ve cracked a major code, something many thought was impossible, and now I get to see it flow out into the world with my proverbial fingers on the buttons, pushing, dialing, massaging everything I see in the palm of my little hand.
Tomorrow I’ll close up shop at the News Lab and move all operations to a new, more secure location, with an all new team of people. I think I’ll do Lomax and his team a solid and give them a little extra severance just like Bertha. They deserve it. Sometimes those little things can mean a lot to people I think.
[To be continued…]