On Coffee, Tobacco And Steve McQueen.

A lifetime chain-smoker, one day ANDREW JOHNSTONE just stopped. But that just fuelled his other passions.

 

Some people think decaf is coffee. I am not so sure. Tea has caffeine but is not coffee and neither is beer, though it might as well be. Sunshine or coffee? I’ll take the latter – Roma style (that’s ‘very dark roast’). Sun cannot outshine that.

On Saturday at boarding school we were herded into the gymnasium to watch a movie inadequately displayed on a white canvas screen, because home video was still a decade away. They asked me to be the guy who chose the films, a role that was supposed to last a year, but ended up lasting just one month.

I was picking stuff I’d been reading about in the newspaper, but I didn’t take into account the whole censorship thing, and after a few screenings the Brothers decided I was a liability and stripped me of my status as the film guy. I missed the weekly trip into the city to select the films from the warehouse and I missed the kudos that came with the job.

Later, I became the music guy. Otherwise persona non grata, I was well read and if anyone wanted to know anything about a song or artist I was the guy. Once a kid sidled up to me and said, “I know it’s uncool but I like Abba. I reckon they are pretty good. Is that alright do you think?” I said yes but we both knew better than to say it out loud.

Joe Cocker

I remember Joe Cocker raging his away across the ill lit canvas in a concert flick called Mad Dogs and Englishman. I was 13 years old and none of it made much sense. The supervising Brother spent a lot time with his hand over the projector lens during The Godfather. I had picked that film. I thought the horse head in the bed scene quite shocking and never quite got over it. He was more interested in protecting us from the sight of ‘sexy ladies’.

The best gym moment ever was Steve McQueen driving over the horizon in his big American beast car towing a horse trailer. He stops at a diner at the edge of a desert and refills on coffee and cigarettes while thinking about the next paying gig. I was a loner myself, and decided Steve McQueen’s Junior Bonner was a loner worth emulating.

Directed by Sam Peckinpah, Junior Bonner was not one of his usual things. Peckinpah was the shoot ‘em up king. No, more than that, he was an artist and his violence was beauteously studied. Junior Bonner was a character flick and quite a departure for the man. Of its failure to fire at the box office Peckinpah said, “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.”

Steve McQueen in Junior Bonner

In the documentary film I Am Steve McQueen (2014) Steve is painted as a restless soul, an intelligent self-involved Renaissance man with a destructive bent. McQueen did it his way or not at all. The establishment accepted that about him because he was box office gold. Lesser personalities would not have been able to get away with half as much.

I wanted to be just like him for longer than necessary. I rode my motorcycle hard and fast like he did and I drank black coffee and smoked cigarettes like Junior Bonner and dreamt of the wealth that came with great fame. I equated wealth with freedom. Many years later I realised that freedom was mostly a state of mind. A little cash helps but too much and that house of cards becomes a prison. My favourite ever Steve McQueen is Papillon (1973), a harrowing film that explores the harsh French prison system as it was for a time. McQueen is relentless in the lead role.

Back in the New Zealand of the 1960s and ‘70s it seemed that everyone smoked except my Dad. Our house was dominated by women and for ever so long I thought that smoking was a female thing until one day we were out in the car and passed by a farmer herding sheep, a smoke dangling from his lips. “Look Dad,” I said excitedly, “that man is smoking”. Noel then explained that men smoked too. I found that hard to accept.

Second hand smoke from Mum, Aunties and Grandmothers – I loved it. I would inhale it and exalt in the heady rush, but mostly I would stare at the blue plumes drifting up and about the car, the living room or wherever it was we were. The smoke shifting in the tidal air currents was a kind of artistry as was the way the cigarettes were held, waved about and stubbed. Everyone had a method and my mother’s mannerisms were especially stylish.

Of course I took it up as soon as I could and by age 20 I was a seasoned smoker. It was my bulwark against a cruel and confusing world for which I was little enabled and with that cigarette sitting between me and everyone else I felt safe. I promised to love tobacco forever. Forever lasted until six months ago when I just stopped and that was that. It was easy really, and I have only looked back twice when I cadged a couple of rollies off a mate just to see. Yes, they were delicious but I had lost the love. Where did it go? I have no idea.

Humphry Bogart

Smoking looks glamorous in the movies but in reality it stinks, clinging to clothes and breath in the most ungainly way, and the people who smoke heavily don’t look great. One of my favourite film stars, Humphrey Bogart died from a smoking related cancer, and painfully so it is told. Over the years you can see this chain-smoking matinee star loose his lustre as his skin dried up and puckered.

It happened to a whole slew of generations who smoked themselves to death. Long before the authorities got in on the act, people intuitively knew it wasn’t great. ‘Smoke, smoke that cigarette’, goes a hit song from 1947. ‘Puff, puff, puff and smoke yourself to death/Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate/That you hates to make him wait/You’ve gotta have another cigarette’.

But that’s what cigars are for, a taste from time to time. God help you though if you get a ‘real liking’ for those bastards. True, you can’t draw the strong smoke down into your lungs, which is why people think they’re the safe option, but puffing causes cancer too, sadly.

My grandmother’s cousin old Kamali died when he was 95. He grew his own tobacco in an allotment on the outskirts of Suva and after curing, rolled it into cigars that he chain-smoked from his perch under the eaves of his house. My grandmother died in her late 80s. A lifetime smoker of cigarettes, she was a ‘puffer’ like Kamali. So was I.

I had my lungs checked a while back and they were clean. I was both surprised and pleased, but this had nothing to do with my giving it away. They both might have lived longer had they not been smokers, someone once suggested to me. I thought that an odd statement given their overall longevity.

I like my coffee ‘very dark roast’. That’s a certain variety of bean burned and then finely ground (not all beans can stand up to a heavy roast). Get the espresso grind. The filter grind does about as good a job as ‘tits on a bull’, as a friend used to say. The finer the grind the more intense the end result.

I use a one-cup drip filter device, a two-dollar plastic thing that fits over the top of a mug. Place a filter paper into the device, add some coffee, pour in some boiling water and as soon as the top of the heat has drifted off, it’s ready for sipping (the brew needs to cool a little for the myriad flavours to become fully apparent). No milk, nor sugar – these things ruin it.

My brand of choice is Robert Harris (a big commercial roaster), their bold Italian and Roma styles being a perfect fit for my sensibilities. ‘Very dark roast’ coffee has none of the astringency of lighter roasts. I am not a fan of this ‘astringent’ quality but many are. I like it bold and gold, angst and man, burnt caramel and bitter carbon. Many don’t.

Food is our medicine it is said, and I medicate readily. Eating is a game as much about pleasure as it is about nutrition. Sometimes part of the pleasure of eating is knowing that you are looking after yourself. Sometimes you can’t help yourself and that is pleasurable also.

Tobacco, beer and coffee: Only one of these is bad for you. Spent coffee grounds should go to the compost. Plants, earthworms, beneficial fungi and bacteria love ‘em. Got no garden? Then feed the compost to a public tree or shrub somewhere. Caffeine is essential, so if you ever see me drinking decaf then you’ll know the decline has set in. Life without narcotics is a life half lived and flavour is only part of the equation.

 

 

 

 

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