Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Potty Parity

The terrors of tea time.

By John Bridges

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  The other night, standing in my kitchen, wearing nothing but my underwear and a pair of bedroom shoes, standing there feeling sorry for myself and listening to Maria Callas on the stereo, I made myself a cup of tea. It was not herbal tea, mind you--it was English Breakfast, stout and strong--but still it was a cup of tea. I even put sugar in it and held it under my nose so that I could breathe the steam. I held the cup in both hands, so that the heat could seep through my palms and creep its way upward through every nerve in my body. I sipped the tea and let it slide, warm and painless, down my throat.

Then I caught myself. I scratched myself through my underwear and said, "My God, man, what are you doing? You're standing here in your kitchen, wearing nothing but a pair of grippers, an old Clinton-Gore T-shirt, and a pair of bunny-lined slip-ons. It's 10:45 on a Thursday night, and you're drinking tea, for chrissakes. Is this what your life has become?"

I am not supposed to be a tea-drinking person. I am supposed to be a coffee person--and an unflavored-coffee person to boot. I am supposed to be the sort of person who orders double espressos at 11 o'clock, long after dinner has been finished and the Armagnac has been brought round. I am not supposed to be a person who requires any quiet, much less any contentment, in his life. I am not supposed to be a man who accepts his lot in life and then slips happily under the covers. I am not supposed to be drinking tea. I am supposed to be spoiling for a fight.

I have never even attempted to abide the presence of tea-drinking people. I have seen them at the office with their mugs hand-painted with kitty-cats. I have seen them with their personal stashes of Poppy Wallop and Zippy Calm-Down. I have seen them, stirring and stirring and trying to squeeze some sort of juice out of a bag full of moss chips. Standing in front of the coffee maker, patting my foot and drumming my fingers on the office-kitchen countertop, I have seen them look up at me and make self-satisfied, murmuring, tea-drinker sounds. I have looked back at them and asked myself, "Just how many years would a guy get for bouncing a black porcelain mug off a tea-drinking person's head?"

I always figured any relatively sane judge would let you off easy. Once you mentioned the kitty-cat mug, the judge would say, "That's it. Justifiable homicide. Meet me in the snack bar.

"What a guy like you needs, right about now, is a good hot cup, 'o' joe, served up in styrofoam, maybe with a spoonful of that non-dairy creamer stuff thrown in to make it stick to your teeth."

In the snack bar, the judge would tell you about all the tea-drinking people he had met in his life: He would start with the maiden aunt who refused to lend his parents the money to pay for his orthopedic surgery. Then he would move on to the high school librarian, who wore sweater clips and refused to let eighth-grade boys check out From Here to Eternity. Then he would remember a girl in college who was majoring in anthropology and would not put out. But most of all, he would remember a law- school professor, a man who wore off-kilter tweed jackets and sweater vests and returned everybody's papers stained with pale brown circles and smelling of what was either day-old Earl Grey or slightly rancid cat pee.

"Too goddamn self-contented, every one of 'em," the judge would say. Then he would toss back a refill from the Bunn-o-Matic, order himself up a pack of cigs, and waddle away on his still slightly bandy legs. "William Kunstler," you would hear the judge say as he stumbled into the men's room, "betcha he wasn't any goddamn tea drinker." Inside the men's room there would be the sound of flushing. Through the sound of the flushing, you would hear the judge saying, "Goddamned Sandra O'Connor. Goddamned Marcia Clark."

Tea-drinking people, of course, have no idea that they have this effect on coffee-drinking people. That is because, for at least one hour every afternoon of their well-ordered lives, they are calm. They reflect on their accomplishments and plan for their futures. They pause and make out their once-a-week grocery store lists. At home at night--man or woman--they knit afghans, make sure the kitty has enough water, and watch PBS specials about otters in heat. For Christmas, they give other people tiny loaves of home-baked orange-zest-scented bread, to which they attach little hand-colored notes that say, "Orange bread. Homemade. Yummy with your tea." Worse yet, they actually give people mismatched tea cups, tea strainers shaped like little round-tummied mice, and tea cozies quilted in the shape of Rosie O'Donnell.

Worst of all, they give these things to coffee-drinking people, who stare at their tea cozies in mute, scarcely controlled anger, thinking, "This could have been a pair of tube socks. It could have been tickets to a Braves game. It could have been a bottle of gin." Meanwhile, the tea-drinking people stand there, contented and uncomprehending, thinking what a nice thing they have done, imagining the coffee-drinking people on cold winter nights, curled up on a sofa, peeking ever-so-often under Rosie to check on the teapot, then going back to reading a Princess Diana biography.

They will envision the coffee-drinking people being just like themselves, the tea drinkers. They will imagine the coffee drinkers being calm. But, late at night--or, especially, early in the morning--the coffee-drinking people will take their handmade tea cozies and attempt to stuff them down the commode. They will look at their little mouse-shaped tea strainers and think they have gone mad.

They will know that, in their lives, they do not have the time to wait for a teapot to do its business. If they want a second cup of something, they do not want to have to wait for the water to get itself boiling again. If they are going to be drinking anything, it is going to be something that will make time fly. Calmness, they know, is a last resort. It is also something they can get from a doctor who prescribes Xanax.

And yet, the other night, I stood by myself in my kitchen and drank a cup of tea. I drank the whole thing, slowly, sip by sip, while Callas finished being sad on the stereo. Then I rinsed the cup out and put it in the dishwasher, so that the cleaning guy would never know what it had been used for. Then I went and sat on my sofa, still wearing my underwear and my bunny shoes, and tried to imagine what it would be like to do this sort of thing every night. I tried to think what it would even be like, sometime, to let the water boil for a second teacup, maybe one with a cookie on the side. I tried to think what it would be like if I were calm, for just an hour every night, or maybe for 20 minutes in the middle of every afternoon. I tried to think what it would be like to have a cat sitting on my lap at that very moment. I scratched myself again and tried to think what it would be like if I had to grow old.

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