The first cup of coffee hit my lips at the age of 12. It was at our sixth grade mountain camp. We went for three days to explore and understand the Rockies, those massive mountains that rose near where stood our elementary school. Lodge coffee, it wasn’t fit for a cowboy on the range, let alone a bunch of kids trying to act like adults. We turned our brown liquid into a candy bar as we poured sugar, creamer and powdered hot chocolate into the sea of banality. Our attempt to marginalize the awful coffee taste with a candied concoction was futile.
My second cup of coffee (and this one was important enough I preserved it by waiting another 16 years before cup three), was born of combined desperation and belonging. At the age of 24 I was living in Los Angeles. My mother, as mothers sometimes do out of unrequited necessity, had kind of followed me to California from Colorado. My stepfather, a church-starting reverend for Presbyterians, had been given the task of beginning one in Rocklin, a town east of Sacramento.
If you know anything about the geography of California, you’ll know that a) it’s a very large state and b) the distance between Sacramento and Los Angeles in optimum conditions is about 6 hours. As such, our face-to-face meetings while I lived in LA were infrequent. The distance was as if I had moved to Louisville and she had ‘followed’ me by moving to Detroit, and the distance in lifestyle nearly similar.
Optimal conditions. You can take a map and trace your route, judge the time and be fairly confident the estimate will prove to be accurate – if weather and traffic don’t conspire against you.
A trip south back to Los Angeles after a visit with my mother in the spring of 1986 proved that estimate to be an argument where you’re merely climbing a hill during a mudslide. Mud is operable for the interstate – I-5 through California’s Central Valley – had turned into a sluice that night. It was dark, it was pouring and water was everywhere. Hillsides would’ve been giving way, but as the Central Valley is a pancake, hillsides meant nothing.
Traffic was evident but still ripping through waves of water as we all pushed bumper-to-bumper at eighty miles per hour. On my own, eighty wouldn’t be such a big deal. Car was fine, a Nissan 280-Z with relatively decent tires and wiper blades functioning at grade B level. I wouldn’t be deterred of my own doing What set the late night into ‘my life may be in danger’ mode were truckers. Granted they supposedly know what they are doing and for that we can all be thankful, but semis loaded with what-all driving eighty miles an hour through pouring rain was not conducive for my own survival. I was in a sports car, a midnight blue baby where running me over would be akin to stepping on an ant, feeling the crunch and not bothering to see what you just crushed.
However, when you are 24 years old your thoughts run to “I can survive this” simultaneously with “If these big honking rigs can make it through this so can I.” Once the semis started pulling over to the side and putting on their hazard lights during deluge after deluge, I decided I had enough.
As you all may know, with long distance driving you will pass and be passed by the same people. I kept seeing a sedan, tan nondescript. The drive was unknown to me by name, face or sex. The rain made sure of it. However, as I pulled off at the Lost Hills exit and the Paso Robles Highway, the sedan followed me down the ramp.
As the rain was pouring over my coupe and I feared a truck would never see me, I pulled into a nameless diner’s parking lot instead of the truck stop (diner had a name but the neon sign failed in the storm). The sedan followed. Head down, San Francisco Giants ball cap vainly attempting to keep my face dry, I ran into the diner and took a small booth.
The driver of the sedan came in as well. I had taken my hat off just as they, make that she, slid in to my booth. She sat across from me, tossing her wet blonde hair about, wiping rain off her forehead.
“Man it is really coming down right?”
I am an introvert. Solitude is one of my closest friends. She didn’t even bother asking if she could sit down in the same booth. The place wasn’t exactly packed. It was late, a little after midnight. There were few people in the diner, but the rain and body heat combined enough to make the place steamy. So here I was, out of the rain taking a respite and this woman simply plops herself down into my booth.
Who was I to ask her to find her own booth? Good God she was beautiful. It was like I had accidently bumped into a countrified version of Grace Kelly. I don’t remember much of the conversation but the beginning. I, as the 24 year-old suave male, looked across to her, answered her comment with a sophisticated, “Yep.”
“You don’t mind if I stay here?”
“Not at all.”
“It’s just… you know… I’m driving alone and a woman… you know… alone. My instincts say you’re safe. My instincts rarely lie.”
The waitress came over. I asked if she’d like anything. She asked me if we could split a basket of fries. I said sure.
“Oh and I will take a coffee.”
Now who am I to not only stop her from getting a cup of hot steamy caffeinated liquid, something I swore after my awful initial cup I would never drink again, but to order one of my own.
“Make that two. Well, one for me; one for her.”
She laughed – a lot. It rained – a lot. She told me about her travels and how she lived in Sacramento but made the trek to LA every once in a while for work as she was in sales. She talked, a lot. But it mattered none. I added to the conversation with smatterings of “uh-huhs” and “yeps” and the occasional dash of wit to let her know my vocal cords did actually function.
I had a girlfriend at the time and I was not one to stray, not my style. As such, all we did was talk and laugh in that steamy diner for nearly 90 minutes. I never caught her name; she never caught mine. We never physically touched. We were merely two strangers passing time waiting out the rain.
– Rick Copper