Explaining how to make instant coffee to 5-year-olds can be difficult. It wasn’t with me. My grandmother liked hers brown. “Put some water on the stove,” she’d say and I’d find the kettle used so often it never had the chance to be washed. Watched pots boil, they just take longer than neglected pots. I’d sit at the table in what I’d now, not then, call a really small kitchen, and wait for the steam, and I’d grab one of the big spoons I used for Lucky Charms and scoop the black bits from the jar and dump them in one of my grandmother’s 700 mugs, adding one spoonful of sugar and just enough milk to make it match my inner wrist in summer and face in winter. Stir, then pass it to my grandma for validation. A certified coffee maker, I was.
My grandmother died, and I don’t believe I’ve had coffee in many years, and there’s no one to make it for. I’m at the black coffee phase in my maturity, or at least I should be. Black coffee alone on a patio reading the newspaper, holding a cigarette, knowing I don’t smoke. I bought a book of Malcolm X Speeches and a journal the same weekend in 1998 I first heard the voice of Mumia Abu Jamal, and I sat there, at my grandmother’s kitchen table, almost an adult, listening and reading, drinking instant coffee, scrunching up my face with each sip, wishing I’d known she ran out of cream before I dumped in the 4 spoons of sugar. Determination and my grandmother saying “don’t you waste my good coffee” made me finish it.
There was no cream to weaken the coffee, to cool it down, to make it look like coffee never existed. It was just black and strong as hell. That weekend, I’d never been more awake. When Monday came around and I started telling my friends and classmates about the revolution and reform I fell into over the weekend, I realized they listened too closely when they were told “sleep is necessary for survival, and coffee stunts growth.”