a first cup of coffee

Cal laid on a pile of blankets in the middle of his boxy studio apartment. He swiped the face of his phone and the glow from the screen pierced the darkness: 5:12 AM. He checked a weather app: Rain. Perfect, he loved rainy days.

Today was the start of a new chapter in his life. He’d received his bachelor’s degree in psychology a few weeks earlier, moved to Bridgeport yesterday afternoon, and would be starting a graduate program in Social Psychology at Wisconsin State University in August. His wide-open eyes stared into the blackness of his apartment as he fantasized of using a “Dr.” and a “Ph.D.” as bookends to his otherwise plain name. He was giddy that in a few years he would be Dr. Calvin Olson, Ph.D.

Cal flipped a switch and the apartment lit up. It was still dark outside, so the glass on his curtainless windows became mirrors that stared back at him. He slowly rotated his head from left to right as he surveyed his apartment: No furniture, no bed, no television; just six cardboard boxes packed with clothes, a laundry basket full of books, and the bivouac of blankets and pillows he’d slept on the night before. He didn’t even attempt to put his things away when he moved in yesterday, he just neatly lined up boxes along the wall, which was a proactive step to prolong how long he could live without unpacking. He was in Bridgeport to devote himself to science, at least that’s what he told himself, which was a vague enough excuse to avoid doing anything he didn’t want to, such as unpack. He also liked the stereotype of the monastic graduate student who sacrificed material comforts in a single-minded pursuit of his passion. So his stuff would remain in the moving boxes both as a rationalization for procrastinating and because he eagerly embraced the role of an overly-devoted graduate student.

Cal broke the silence of his empty apartment with a primal yawn that started as a groan and ended as a grunt. After years of living with roommates, it felt liberating, almost taboo, to make noise at this early hour. So he exercised his new freedom by talking to himself, which, ironically, meant he was talking merely because there was nobody to hear what he was saying.

“Let’s get cleaned up,” he cheerily said to the empty apartment. After showering, he slowly ran his hand across a 3-day beard. “To shave or not to shave,” he said to the man in the mirror. “Nope,” the man answered. A little scruff is more fitting with the “starving graduate student” look he was going for.

Cal picked up the half-read book that was written by his soon-to-be advisor, Violent Media by Dr. Jack Harris, and threw it into his backpack. Just looking at this book roused a fluttering sense of inspiration that tickled his belly. He also tossed a new moleskin notebook into his backpack, which was anachronistic way to track his thoughts amongst the techy university crowds that preferred digital note-taking, but Cal joked that he wanted to document his scientific career in a manner that would be preserved for eternity like the da Vinci codices. Finally, he tugged his phone charger out of the wall, shoved it into his backpack as he left his apartment.

“Today’s gonna be a great day.” He wasn’t sure if he actually said that aloud or if he merely thought it as he gently closed his apartment door.

The rain pounded the sidewalk as he rounded his shoulders and shortened his stride so he could hide himself under the canopy of his umbrella. The chimes from the campus clock tower reverberated throughout the valley: Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! 6 AM. The raindrops firmly pelted Cal’s umbrella as he sloshed his way through downtown Bridgeport: Dat! Dat! Dat!

Just around the corner from Cal’s apartment was a lighted storefront in an otherwise dusky downtown Bridgeport. He peered through the rain to steady his course towards a blinking black-and-red neon sign like a ship using a lighthouse to navigate stormy waters. “Just head towards the light,” he reminded himself as he tipped his umbrella into the wind. The sign in the window read The Grind.

The Grind was a small cafe that sat on the eastern edge of campus, which itself sat on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. The brick walls were filled with shelves of old books of no particular genre and in no particular order. WSU paraphernalia and black-and-white photos of campus peppered the walls as if to imply this place has existed as long as the university itself. The drinks were served in kitschy coffee cups that were collected at yard sales over the years. It was the type of place where strangers felt familiar and the customers shared their coffee with the ghosts of the alumni’s youth.

This coffee shop has the circadian rhythm of a spry old man; it is quiet when the sun is rising and setting and lively during the day. It was confident with its identity and was comfortable merely remaining the same within a quickly-changing world rather than chasing fads.

The mornings are filled with early-risers enjoying a cup of coffee. A handful of professors and graduate students getting in a few peaceful hours of work before the rest of the world awakens. Eventually, as the sun rises completely above the eastern bluffs that overlook Bridgeport, the trickle of customers slowly becomes a non-stop parade. The sounds of individuals ordering a morning cup of coffee gradually intensifies into a crescendo of the indistinct din of a small crowd. The caffeine and the bustle creates a hubbub of energy that lasts throughout the day. The air is filled with the clickety-clack of fingers striking keyboards and the yackety-yack of conversation between friends. There is a non-stop ballet of customers and baristas exchanging money and coffee. Then, as the sun gets low and the shadows of the WSU clocktower get long, the pace inside The Grind slows again. The evening customers typically consist of friends who prefer the quiet cafe atmosphere to the loudness of the local bars and an easily-overlooked student who is in the early stages of an all-nighter. Eventually the lights of the cafe goes dark until the next morning when it starts all over again.

Like many businesses surrounding universities, the busyness of The Grind also ebbs and flows with the university’s calendar. Each autumn, the leaves on the trees that fill the bluffs of southwest Wisconsin become brilliantly red and orange, the college football season begins, and thousands of students return to campus full of optimism and hormones. For nine months out of the year, the buzz of students swarming around downtown Bridgeport fills the air. The Grind serves as both a workspace and social gathering place for the WSU community. However, the coming and going of students is like geese migrating north and south with the changing seasons. Students leave a few weeks after the snow melts in the spring and, for a few months, the town is quiet. During the summer The Grind is merely filled with the smell of coffee and old books; a quiet place where it’s possible for a thinker to think a thought and a writer to write a word. Customers stay and sit, they conversate, they commune, they do not have someplace else to be. And then, when a new academic year begins, the students return to Bridgeport and the whole cycle begins anew.

And so it continues. The atmosphere of The Grind predictably changes both with the clock and the calendar. Students ride this carousel–the daily up-and down and yearly round-and-round–for a few laps until a new group of students get their turn.

Cal sat at a tall table near the window at the front of the cafe. His coffee was served in a Charlie Brown Christmas mug, which amused him considering that it was early June. “OK. Time to get to work,” he said to himself as he opened Violent Media to the page marked with a neon pink post-it note. A passage struck him. He pulled out his moleskin notebook and wrote “Exposure to violent media causes increases in aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, Jack Harris, Violent Media, page 124.” He nodded in satisfaction at this literary gem he’d discovered and silently mouthed the words as he reread the quote he’d just written down.

As much as he wanted to focus, the excitement of being in such a place kept pulling his attention from his book. Occasionally, Cal would study the old photos hanging on the wall and reflect on how he will soon be part of the long WSU tradition. Perhaps in 50 years there would be students looking at a photo of him. Perhaps his would be a generic face of WSU’s history. Perhaps the photo of Cal would someday look as outdated as the black-and-white photos look to him now. Perhaps someday he would produce a thought worth quoting and future students would point at the picture of the famous Calvin Olson. Perhaps. Someday.

He explored the shelves when he needed to stretch his legs. He’d lean to the side to better read the vertical spines of the books. He pulled out a ragged paperback about ice fishing and read a few lines. Then he closed his eyes and imagined how a blind person would experience the book. The old pages felt fragile like dried leaves and, if he concentrated really hard, he could detect the fishy smell of bluegill from the hands of the original owner. But just holding the book gave him a warm glow of inspiration that he wanted to capture and preserve. Each book was precious. The creation of the hard work of the author thinking each thought and crafting each sentence. He was holding a piece of art. The bookshelves of old books was a museum full of masterpieces. Cal wanted to hide from the world and hold each book–reading was quiet, mindful, and slow; the world was loud, distracting, and fast–even though he knew he wouldn’t have the time to read them once the semester started.

The bell attached to the back of the door would jingle and the sound of rain battering the sidewalk got louder whenever somebody entered. Cal peered over the top of his book to examine each new customer. If somebody looked his way, he lowered his glance to avoid eye contact and pretended to read. For amusement, he used these customers as characters in stories that he would play in his mind’s eye. For example, a middle-aged woman, perhaps 50, casually walked in and ordered a Chamomile tea. She looked bookish and Bohemian. She carried what appeared to be a homemade purse from which a sturdy book peered out the top. She must be an academic, which would make sense being this close to campus. Cal’s mind went to work filling in the blanks. Perhaps she was a world-renowned expert on the Oregon Trail. No wait, perhaps she was an expert in the prohibition-era Mafia or Jane Austen novels. Perhaps she was a chemist. A great chemist! And she was an inspiration to other female chemists because female scientists are rare, especially in the hard sciences. She probably would have interesting stories about being a female in a male-dominated profession. Cal knew she was probably none of these things, but it excited him to imagine that she might be one of those things. He could be ten feet away from a world-famous chemist!

In a moment of indulgence, Cal closed his eyes and soaked in the inspiration that seemed to radiate into his soul from every direction. Coffee! Books! Reading for work! Tickling his mind with idle thoughts of impressive-sounding titles and imagining being in the presence of world-renowned scientists! He was in heaven. Cal daydreamed this was how he would feel every day for the next five years, even though he knew it was just that, a silly daydream. He knew there was hard work and long days ahead. But indulging in these fantasies, if only for a moment, gave him an energy and yearning for the long-days and drudgery of graduate school. And that’s how he spent his morning.

Although the rain lightened, Cal still needed an umbrella as he marched back to his apartment. He hung his wet umbrella and his damp shoes in the shower. He sat on his pile of blankets in the middle of the mostly-empty apartment and ate a box of crackers as he continued reading Violent Media. It was important he knew this book inside-and-out, front-to-back, cover-to-cover, upside-down and downside-up, because Dr. Jack Harris was going to be his advisor over the next few years and he had a meeting with him tomorrow. Cal desperately wanted to make a good first impression. He watched all the videos of Dr. Harris he could find online, followed his social media accounts, and, now, was reading his newly-released book.

The summer rain created a peaceful backdrop of white noise and Cal didn’t know a soul in Bridgeport who could possibly interrupt his reading. He had a new book, hours of uninterrupted silence, and he was giddy with the limitless daydreams of graduate school that were unencumbered by reality. He was free to think and dream.  

When his mind would wander from fatigue, Cal snapped it back to the task at hand. “Focus!” Cal would tell himself. Sometimes he would jokingly yell it in a funny voice to break the silence of his apartment. “Focus!” And he’d laugh at how he chose to use his freedom. Then he would remind himself that he was now in graduate school and that he should not indulge in such immature thoughts.

There was a chapter about how listening to songs with violent lyrics made people angry, a chapter about how reading about how getting rejected on social media increased aggressive thoughts, and a chapter about how violent movies made people behave aggressively. The chapters were imbued with real-life instances of violence, like murders and school shootings, and then described the science of how violent media was implicated in each of these tragedies. The one-two combination of anecdotes pulling on your emotions and science pushing on your logic made for a persuasive narrative. The book ended on a beautifully optimistic note of how reducing media violence could contribute to a better and more peaceful world. Just like society should strive to not expose future generations to hazardous toxins in our environments, we should not pollute their minds with violence through media that is so pervasive in our 21st century social environments. If the awesome power of media was harnessed and focused in a positive direction, it could be used to produce so much good in this world. This optimism warmed Calvin’s heart like the first sip of a hot cup of coffee in a cold winter’s day. The way that Dr. Harris had ended a book about violence on such an upbeat note was masterful weaving together of pessimism and optimism like a maestro who had full command of the range of orchestra’s sounds that could be woven together into a beautiful concerto.  

Although it was still cloudy and grey outside–like he watched his day unfold in a black-and-white movie–his daydreams were in technicolor. This was the best day of Cal’s life so far. Cal felt the weight of the book in his hands as he read the final pages and nodded in satisfaction. He looked at Dr. Harris’ picture in the book jacket one last time before slowly closing it and laying his head down. He couldn’t believe that he would actually get to meet Dr. Harris tomorrow.

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