I’m just back from visiting my brother in upstate New York. It’s a lot of driving from Fort Collins, but who wants to fly these days. And normally I enjoy a good road trip, but that was in the before times. Now, just securing a cup of coffee is an ordeal. I need my caffeine, though, so it meant masking up and taking on the big, bad world. A foray into an Iowa truck stop sums things up.
It takes me a moment to locate the “Coffee Corner,” tucked away as it is behind racks of Cheetos and magazines adorned with pouty-lipped vixens in leather bathing suits who appear to be intimately involved with any number of large, shiny motorcycles. Distracted as I am by all that chrome and cleavage, I erroneously grab a cup designated only for use with the slurpee machine.
An honest mistake, considering the multitude of drink containers to choose from, all jutting bottom-first from columns of cubbyholes, none of which are labeled. I can’t return it to the dispenser, either. There must be some sort of safeguard mechanism that won’t let me push it back from where it came because, you know, I might breathe on it and then leave it for the next guy. Guess I’ll just hide it behind this case of sweet rolls that’s been here since the Reagan administration.
Ah, there are the coffee cups. Let’s see…small, medium and Lake Powell. Jesus, my kidneys would stage a work stoppage if I drank all that. A medium will be fine. Wait…how can it cost only 15 cents more for what amounts to a bathtub’s worth of joe? This is why America is the greatest country in the world. Large it is – my kidneys will just have to man-up.
Now, which of these giant dispensers actually doles out coffee? The first one looks encouraging, with several large buttons, one that advertises Dark Roast. But as I lean in a little closer I see, in ridiculously tiny letters, the word “cappuccino” just as I give it a push. Dammit! The machine starts to growl and spew foam, even as I’m jerking my hand back like I’ve touched a live wire. Thankfully, it stops after only a few spurts. I toss my soiled cup in the trash and grab another one while mumbling a string of expletives. An unmasked woman within earshot (apparently disregarding reports that the president himself contracted the hoax virus just days earlier) looks at me like I’m the crazy one.
The next machine is another dead end, offering only flavorings – French Vanilla, Hazelnut and some sort of Caramel concoction, all dripping from hoses as big around as my thumb. More like seeping, really, as either chemistry or a long-past expiration date has rendered them thicker than pancake syrup. Then again, I think I read somewhere that these ‘creams,’ while never having come within 50 yards of an actual cow, are only one molecule removed from the composition of plastic, so perhaps expiration dates don’t apply.
Finally, I come across the coffee pots, hiding down past the cream dispenser. A sea of them. One hundred percent Columbian, Breakfast Blend, Kona Supreme, Hazelnut, Donut Shop, Decaf. Two pots of each steaming away. But there’s no telling how long any of these have been simmering. I pull down my mask, pick up the Columbian and give it a dubious sniff as the clerk behind the plexiglass-shielded counter eyes me with roughly the same regard.
Either the coffee is scorched or someone used this pot for a urinal. I set it back on the burner and reach for the Hazelnut, as if it makes a difference what I pick at this point. It’s a safe bet that everything tastes like the Columbian smells. All I can do is doctor it up with my choice of bio-engineered ‘dairy’ product from the prior dispenser.
I decide to play it safe and stick with the hazelnut theme. The first dose oozes into the blackness without any discernible effect.
“Well, as Hans Gruber said in Die Hard, hit it again,” I announce with a chortle, so pleased am I with my trivial movie reference. I look around to see if anyone else is equally amused, but I am alone. The virus-tempting woman has scurried off to the register where she is speaking with the clerk in animated fashion, no doubt advising him to check the safety on the firearm stashed under the counter.
Meanwhile, back here at the cream station, the hue of the liquid in the five-gallon bucket that is my large coffee starts to change, if ever so slightly. A stir stick would come in handy right about now, but they are nowhere to be found – perhaps under lock and key to protect me from the possibility of a tragic self-impaling. Rather than use my finger, I appropriate a plastic knife from the nearby food line, stir ferociously and then take a sip – molten motor oil with a hint of…tree bark, maybe? So once more with the cream. But, of course, I put too much coffee in to begin with, and now I have to take a couple of gulps in order to make room. The clerk, meanwhile, hasn’t taken his eyes off me.
A few more shots and the contents have turned a muddy brown, and smell like the Nutella factory. That should suffice. After spending several minutes trying in vain to force a slurpee lid onto the cup, I realize my error, snap the proper lid in place and head for the register. I interrupt the clerk, who appears to be posting pictures of me on his facebook page under “Douchebag Customer of the Day,” and a buck seventy later, I’m out the door.
By the time I reach the car, though, the cream has made that molecular leap – the coffee tastes like boiled window cleaner, albeit with a slightly nutty aftertaste. Or maybe it’s the smell of my hand sanitizer every time I bring the cup to my lips. Either way, I’m not risking another trip inside, so I hit the road, sipping sparingly at my pail of toxic swill for the next hundred miles before pouring it out in a rest area parking lot. I didn’t stick around to see if it ate through the pavement.