Anytime I went to visit Uncle Ed, my feet would be on the floor at five o’clock in the morning, ’cause I knew that come hell or high water, Big Ed would be in the kitchen making coffee. I was a young man in those days, and I wanted to learn from an old pro. He made the best coffee I ever had, and he was the best storyteller I’ve ever known, before or since.
He’d already served four years in the Navy before WWII, and when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Ed went down to the recruiting office and joined up again―it was the patriotic thing to do. After basic training, he shipped out to the South Pacific and didn’t come home for the next four years. This ol’ boy had been around.
His gourmet coffee making equipment and ingredients included a basic percolator, a free-standing GE range, tap water from the kitchen sink, and Luzianne coffee.
It was not a tidy operation. He’d set the percolator on the countertop, take out the strainer, pack it full of coffee, and brush the excess off the top with his fingers. A lot of coffee got wasted. Then he’d fill the pot from the faucet, stick the strainer back in the pot, and set it on the red-hot front burner of that old GE stove.
Watching him stumble around the kitchen was about like watching a half-blind ox―probably, the case or so of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer we’d put away the night before had something to do with that. When he finally fell into his chair at the head of the long Formica kitchen table, he looked like he’d already done a day’s work.
Nobody’s said a word at this point―I’m still two-thirds asleep. Ed fumbles around in his shirt pocket, pulls out a pack of unfiltered Camels, and offers me a cigarette before taking one for himself. He knew I didn’t smoke, but he never failed to offer me one in all the years I knew him. He’d light the Camel with a kitchen match, and take a long drag like he was breathing life into his body.
After he blew out that first cloud of smoke, he’d start talking. I think it was really important to him that I was interested in his stories. He didn’t have any kids of his own, and I was a ready-made audience, hanging on his every word.
We’d have an intermission when the coffee pot boiled over, and he’d get up and turn it down to percolate for a while. My favorite memory of the man is when he finally sat down with his coffee―both forearms on the table―smoldering Camel in one hand―steaming cup of black coffee in the other. There was a tattoo of a chain with links about the size of quarter encircling both his wrists.
He might talk about life aboard a destroyer in the South Pacific during WWII, or baseball, or boxing. Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth were his heroes. His favorite story was the Jack Dempsey/Luis Firpo fight. Ed couldn’t have been more than ten years old when the fight went down, but he’d listened to it on the radio and he knew it by heart. I’d feel like I was right there in the Polo Grounds watching the fight when he told the story.
I’ve been trying for the rest of my life to re-create the taste of Ed’s coffee. I’ve used distilled water, fancy coffee makers, and expensive brands of coffee. It just doesn’t work. That coffee was a place in time, involving an impressionable young man who had relatively few tales to tell, and a grizzled old man who appreciated someone listening to his tales. Now I’m the grizzled old man, and I hope someone will listen to my stories.