Ghosts of coffee hours past, part I

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 8:13pm

It began with Tercentenary Punch. It will end there.

Roll Call at the Harbor Baptist Church is widely known as a harvest dinner. It has been a touchstone of the calendar for over a century. Today, still, there is the calling of the roll of members, not as it was in the beginning as a part of a day of service and song and food, but safely tucked into the Sunday service nearest the date of the first formal organization of the body.

For years people would remark after the service that my name had not been called; there was a presumption I was a member of the church, I had grown up there, my attendance was regular, how could I not be? Well, I was not. There were reasons, but the one people didn’t take seriously was the deciding factor. Coffee.

I knew membership would lead to being on a committee and I did not want to be responsible — not for the big, old building or the spiritual life of the congregation or the fair and auction (July 23 - save the date) — no, I didn't want to be responsible for the coffee. We are not a people of ritual, perhaps that is our failing, there are no incantations to be recited, no soothing words to be chanted. We make no effort to appease the Coffee Gods and we may be the poorer for it.

Contrary to what some people might say, I am not really coffee challenged, it is only that I do not agree a fresh pot need be made every 40 minutes, or see anything wrong with supplementing half a pot of old brew with new. There are dares that should be met and there are ones that common sense tells us are predestined to failure. What had been a vague feeling based on casual observation was sealed 20 odd years ago when I walked into the Fellowship Hall after Sunday worship and saw the folks in charge of coffee hour that day looking with dismay at the dry grounds in the basket of the large urn that had been turned on an hour earlier. They are the sort of people it’s good to have in charge, yet they were undone by this seemingly simple task.

At first I thought it was the outlet. There were several that were perfectly functional, they responded properly to testing, but had “do not use for coffee” labels affixed to them. For reasons never quite explained — beyond gremlins — they just did not work. For coffee. It wasn’t even “real,” it was decaffeinated, so it could not have been the punishment of long dead elders stricken at the introduction of a stimulating beverage in their old New England church.

Then I looked at the urn and realized with some surprise it was not one of the four new shiny ones that had been recently purchased, four identical urns to make us forever rid of the ongoing problem of slightly different ones with slightly different components, a situation which could lead to the wrong stem in the wrong pot and unbaptized grounds.

“But why are you using an old pot?” I foolishly asked? What of the new ones that had been introduced with joy and thanksgiving, and even a quietly spoken halleluiah, at the just passed Roll Call dinner — the ones that were to end all the chaos? It may not sound like much, but we are neither a large nor a wealthy congregation and four new large coffee urns represented a significant expenditure. They were wonderful, they had to them the gleam of success, bright and shiny with heavy glass domes in the center of their lids, and they were exactly the same, the parts were interchangeable. As long as pieces were not thrown out with the damp grounds, the ghosts of coffee hours past would be put to rest.

They were only for special occasions, I was told. The old were good enough for us, never mind that they didn’t quite work.

It is not that I am unsympathetic or disrespectful of process: my own version of "wear it out," "make it do," etcetera, is prefaced with "keep it new in a box until absolutely needed." Socks — plain, white, everyday socks — have several defined stages of life, from being kept on reserve, new in the bag, to going to the dump, gray with dust or silver tarnish.

That said, those new coffee pots represented one of the times I welcomed the immediate discarding of all that was not shiny and bright and new, and all the orphan pieces that had been kept in case they might be needed sometime. Soon enough, the old ones did disappear, a welcome change in policy.

They tell me that the outlet situation as well has been remedied, but I do not quite, completely believe them. Anyone who has ever been involved, even peripherally, in the bizarre realm of church coffee understands. One visitor cited the “empty carafe” look, the disbelief on the face of the person who first picked up an obviously empty container, then, against all reason, tried to pour out contents that did not exist. It is not a look to be confused with the “how does this carafe work?” puzzlement which often ends with “maybe tea would be a nice change.”

When two new urns appeared a year or two ago it did not quite register that there was again a need. I pay little attention to such things and knew they were new only because they had a different lever, one of the “just push the cup back against it” things that works until someone pulls out the very flexible Styrofoam containers that bend when pressed against even an easily moveable object.

Still, I did not process that there was a problem simmering, even brewing, that the urns I still considered new were no longer that, nor were they still all functional. The reality and dire nature of the situation came to me later: the purity of the coffeepots had been challenged. It was just a matter of time before the pieces would be confused and the grounds would be dry despite an hour of gurgling water.

To be continued.