CAREFUL READERS OF THIS column (and how could there be any other kind?) will know that until I started collecting excuses, I lacked a hobby. I have since been informed, however, that collecting excuses does not qualify as a hobby since 1) excuses do not come in a kit, 2) collecting them does not entail the use of airplane glue, 3) hooking worms is not involved, and 4) there is no precedent for it in any presidential library. For a brief but dark moment, I thought I was doomed to remain forever hobbyless.
It turns out, though, that I may have a hobby after all. It's drinking coffee, which used to be one of life's simpler pleasures but which I have now learned has all the complexity and nonsense associated with hobbies. To be perfectly frank, I kind of knew this all along, and it was this very complexity and nonsense that attracted me to coffee in the first place. I thought I had a fetish. It turns out I have a hobby.
I know this from reading just two parts of what may be an endless series in the Atlantic magazine. In this series, coffee has taken on all the silly characteristics of wine. One must know the country of origin of the bean, the method of its roasting and how it was transported and, in effect, decanted. In coffee as in wine, vintage matters. This was not news to me since I'm one of those people who grind their beans and know enough to use only fresh, cold water. The Atlantic informs me, though, that I have been using the wrong grinder. I can get the right one for only $225.
I recognize in coffee the same characteristics that, years ago, attracted me to smoking a pipe. I took that up soon after the surgeon general issued the first report saying cigarettes are a killer. Having read that and having been a smoker, I ambled into a store one day and bought a pipe. Just like that.
And just like that I smoked it while at work. I was employed at the time in the market research dodge while waiting to go into the Army. One of my colleagues was a woman about my age. I took out my pipe, stuffed some tobacco into it and, in a swell imitation of Walter Pidgeon, lit up. I looked at the woman for signs of admiration. She frowned.
I had to get a good pipe, she said. I had to try various pipes and various bowls, different woods and different shapes. I had to find the tobacco that suited me. I could not buy it in the can or in the pouch. I had to go to a tobacconist and develop my own blend. I had to light the pipe and then let the light go out. I needed a pipe tool, a lighter and a leather pouch.
My heart leaped at this information. This was not a habit, like smoking, but a hobby. I repaired to a tobacconist, Dunhill's, as it turned out, and bought a pipe. And then another. I got a book about pipe smoking and learned the terms. I experimented with tobaccos and, in due course, came up with my own blend -- a little of this and a little of that. At Dunhill's I was given a number (it began, I think, with the letter "A") that identified my formula. I was, at last, a pipe smoker.
And then I went into the Army. Not only did the PX not stock my Dunhill's mixture, but when the sergeant said, "Light 'em up," I had to fish for my pipe, my tobacco, my lighter and my pipe tool. I had to light the pipe and then allow it to go out. Then I had to light it and light it again, by which time the sergeant had said, "Put 'em out." And so I did, often without taking a puff. It has been years since I've smoked a pipe.
Next came wine. Wine is the liquid version of a pipe. You cannot just drink wine. You have to know reds from whites and one year from the next. You have to know France from Italy, even though the fashions are the same. You have to know the region and the estate, and it helps, I think, if you know the first name of the fellow who made the barrels.
When I was in my wine phase, I once drank a white something that comes from the Austrian Alps -- the foothills, that is. The grapes can only be picked right after the first freeze and then, as I recall, only by women in dirndls and men in lederhosen. Anything else will not do. My host, who introduced the wine by declaiming at great length on its pedigree, took one sip and promptly fell asleep at the table. This was the sergeant all over again. I gave up on wine.
Now, though, there is coffee. That humble brew, the stuff I used to make by the gallon when I was in the luncheonette biz, turns out to be incredibly complex. It is exactly as I hoped. The entire Atlantic magazine series vindicates the fetish I have made of coffee ever since I entered my first coffee emporium. It was there that I learned about the importance of using cold water and how, as you probably know, it is best to wet the grounds a bit before pouring the rest of the water into the filter.
Over the years, my friends have laughed at me. I rejected the automatic coffee maker that can be set the night before. The water would not be fresh, I intoned to general laughter. I experimented with various coffees and have paid, I am chagrined to admit, as much as $14 a pound for blends picked in Hawaii, I think, by Amerasian virgins who then fling themselves on a funeral pyre so that they will never pick again. You can see why this coffee is so expensive.
But now I have been vindicated by the Atlantic series. My coffee fetish-cum-habit is now a hobby -- as silly and expensive as any other I have taken up, but having nothing to do with worms or airplane glue. In case you're interested, I take my hobby black.