“If you cannot stand a spoon upright in the cup, then the coffee is too weak.” – Lawrence Block
So a cup of coffee is pretty much a thing that if, done right, is pretty perfect. It’s hot, and on its own, bitter and sharp, but also warm and soothing, a way of both bringing you into reality but also fortifying you for what’s to come.
It’s also a social tool, as nonfiction and fiction both show us how a cup of coffee brings people together to sit and consume it, how that consumption has and can grow into a ritual, a clear indicator of either “we are setting ourselves up to discuss business” thanks to its bitter bracing reminder, or “we’re putting off business until this last cup of warmth and soothing stimulation is done”. Coffee starts the day, it caps off the evening meal, it drives us, it grounds us, it’s everywhere and in a variety of forms that make it an intrinsic part of everyday life, interwoven into the fiber of people’s lives.
In a way, the idea of the cup of coffee can be almost synonymous with noir. Noir as the idea of fiction that represents the blurring of legal and illegal, of crime and the workmanship craft of hustling to get by, is intrinsically tied to the idea of a cup of coffee. The two exist in both practical and symbolic senses, after all, with both literal as well as metaphorical levels that have larger social impacts, ripple effects. A cup of coffee is part of a morning breakfast ritual, but it’s also associated with machismo and post-war masculinity, a thing your dad did that you couldn’t help but wait until you were old enough to also consume too, to be old enough to be a part of that ritual and world of coffee drinkers.
But it’s also a balance, because caffeine is a stimulant, and you’re making your empty stomach sick pumping it full of coffee to stay awake on a night when you’re working nonstop so you can pay bills and cannot afford to go to sleep…or you’re part of a subculture where the nighttime is when the work gets done no matter what, where you want the cover of darkness and need to be awake.
From there, coffee is the diner, the post-war modern meeting space on the highways that sprang up across America, that became the new space in metropolitan areas and on the roads where social classes crossed, where the lights were on 24-7 creating a space and an environment new to America and Americans at the time. Now we take it for granted, that post-punk rock show meal at 3 am before going home, your ears ringing, the space where the suspect can be left alone with something warm and filling for a moment at 2 pm, at a shiny counter where the heat of the cup through the ceramic feels not so much like comfort as a reminder of both the possibilities and the realities of the world before you take that last sip, right before it gets too cold, and you go on with your life.
Fortified, because the weight of it all can be too much, but the bitterness of the hot liquid tells you that it’s day at a time, hour at a time, minute at a time.
Even throughout its various permutations and ritualizations, from thick black Greek coffee and it social interactivity or the solo in-motion implications of your morning Starbucks order in all its iced dairy-pumped and reinforced glory as you work hard to keep your head above water or just recognize the importance of how much it helps you get through the day through its simple sweetness, coffee is a solidly-intrinsic aspect of the concept of noir, of the uncertainty of mystery because it’s the exact opposite. I can always count on the idea of my protagonists looking at a cup of coffee to ground themselves. It’s a reminder of where you are, of what you’re doing, of what you’re working against or for, of the forward momentum that noir tends to be about to me, regardless of the final destination.
Or maybe it’s just a cup of coffee.
A part of me, even now, feels like that a little bit sitting down in a quiet moment with a cup of black coffee. I feel like a PI in a corner, alone with his thoughts, thinking about the case. Thinking about the night. Thinking about how when I was a teenager and I had that first cup, I felt a little bit like the adults at the table.