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Coffee Drinkers

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

When the visiting homeboy and his friend from the big city walked into the town’s only drug store for a cup of coffee that morning, none of the other coffee drinkers paid any attention.

No “hiddy’s,” just a few casual looks. Conversation proceeded intermittently, borne of long acquaintance coupled with a rural tendency not to waste words. And all according to long-established if unwritten rules.

Every day except Wednesdays, when the Merkel Drug Store is closed, local farmers and businessmen in this small Taylor County community gather for morning coffee.

On this chilly morning, the first topic of conversation is the weather. Preceded by a good rain, a cold front had blown in a couple of days earlier.

“Got down to 31 at my place,” says one gimme-capped farmer. “Had ice on my windshields this morning.”

“How much rain d’you get?” another asked.

“About three-quarters of an inch. Started in Friday evening and rained more Saturday.”

Austin advertising executive and cartoonist Roger Moore, who grew up at Merkel and returns to check his family’s old farm about once a month, says locals have been meeting for coffee every day for as long as he can remember.

“When I was little, the men collected at the feed store,” Moore recalls. “My daddy would say, ‘I’m gonna go pack a sack,’ which meant he was going to the feed store for coffee.”

The men enjoyed their cup of Joe sitting on stacks of feed sacks, packing down the sacks. Later, the daily coffee club moved to the drug soda fountain. Even so, some of the men, including Moore’s father, hated going from free to five-cent coffee.

The ritual is not unique to Merkel. Since practically forever, Texans all across the state have practiced this little-known daily routine of coffee and conversation. Though more common in small towns, no-dues, no officers coffee clubs occasionally develop in the bigger cities. Often, the metropolitan sippers grew up in small towns and carried their tradition with them.

“Daddy said coffee’s the fount of all knowledge,” Moore continues. “Sometimes rather than saying he was going to ‘pack a sack,’ he’d grab his hat and tell us he was ‘going to school.’”

Years later, sitting around drinking coffee is how Moore found out that the only way to keep rats out of the old pickup he keeps at his place is to leave the hood up when he’s not using it. “Rats like cover,” he learned.

The daily coffee drinking looks to be a casual event, but according to Moore, practitioners adhere to strict if un-codified rules.

“You don’t introduce anybody,” Moore begins. “Well, maybe if you sit right down next to somebody, the person you’re with will say, ‘This is ole so-and-so from wherever.’ But the locals all know each other.”

That brings up another rule: You don’t acknowledge when people arrive. Or when they leave, for that matter.

Interrupting someone is the most serious breach of coffee drinking etiquette, Moore says. Breaking in on another’s conversation is hardly necessary in the first place. The pace of talk is seldom hurried enough to even tempt cutting someone off.

At the Merkel Drug these days, coffee is self-serve. What Moore’s dad used to pay five cents for now costs 10 times that, still a bargain compared with the urban café latte salons that charge the better part of a $5 bill. These other tongue-in-cheek prices are posted on the wall:

Small 54 cents
Medium 81 cents
Large $1.62

Refills, of course, are free.

Periodically, there being no waitress, someone will pick up the coffee pot and make the rounds, topping off everyone’s cup.

“Saw your picture in the paper yesterday,” one of the farmers ventures, looking at a ruddy-faced buddy peering out from under a John Deer hat.

The man looked puzzled.

“I wasn’t in the paper,” he said.

“Yes you were…in the Farm Expo section,” his friend said. “Your wife and kids sure looked pretty.” (The joking inference being that he didn’t.)

“Well, I can’t afford to take the paper,” he said.

“The picture said you were working on your farm,” his friend continued. “Must have been fake.”

While it might seem like these men are just starting their day, most coffee clubs convene after the early rising members have already done some work.

Discussing what ended up as a pretty good year for cotton, one of the “members” noted for the record that not every year is good when your crop depends on how much it rains and when.

“I remember your daddy always used to say that if he had it to do over again, he’d build his house closer to town so he wouldn’t have to drive past his fields every day,” one of the farmers told Moore. “Too depressing in a bad year.”

Politics, of course, is another staple of conversation.

“He gives a good speech, but he don’t say anything,” one of the older men said of one candidate.

By 9 a.m., the soda fountain is as empty as a politician’s promise. Until it’s time for an afternoon cup.

© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"
February 28 , 2008 column
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