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How I found courage, friends in a coffee cup

The moves I have made in my lifetime have often been spontaneous. After teaching one year in Hardin, Mont., I took a cross-country trip east with my brother to New York City. It was 1954. I had saved $1,300. My plan was to return to Montana in three months. I stayed for one year.

The little butcher shop on 14th Street near Luchows Restaurant was on my way home from work. First the shuttle from Grand Central Station, then a final subway stop at Klein’s on the Square. I lived alone in a sublet at a very large apartment compound called Stuyvesant Town. I often picked up the main course of my dinner at this handy stop-off place. The shop owner had a heavy foreign accent and he and his wife greeted me with smiles and waves of recognition after a while.

One summer day they offered me a cup of Turkish coffee. Despite my former friendly façade at their openness, I froze inside and stared straight ahead, numbed by my mother’s long-ago words throbbing through my head: “Be careful of what strangers offer you.” I had grown up in a sheltered and not very functional family in Libby, Mont. The world outside was painted as hostile, more so if any of it was unlike me and my relatives. Daily life was idyllic as long as your religion, skin color and accent fit the majority of Libby’s 4,300 citizens. One Jewish family lived there. There was always controversy about the reason they were run out of town eventually. And one black man used to sit on the bench at the railroad station, watching the trains come in. I secretly believed he must have wondered what he was doing in such a small Montana town.

My world began to expand during my four years at the university. Then during the following year as a new teacher in Hardin, I had my first lessons in tolerance. Eighth grade students sat before me with names like Ten Bear, Garcia, Deer Nose, Yamikoto and Black Hair. The school was 14 miles from Custer’s Last Stand. I began to gain some real perspective.

But with all that, this swarthy man in the Manhattan butcher shop was definitely an alien. After all, this was foreign coffee. It gave me pause.

I showed no fear in a moment of hesitation, as I had been well trained to smile and be charming even though the fox of fear was chewing at my innards. He held up a small, porcelain cup. This made my suspicion mount. Phrases like “poison in a vial” flitted through my head. I watched him pour thick, black liquid into the empty cup, then fortify it with two sugar cubes. He twisted a lemon peel over the concoction, circled the rim of the cup with it and plunked it into the hot liquid. As I raised the cup to my lips I knew it was poison and I knew I was doomed. But, rather than look odd, I stood and drank down three swallows. I looked up at him, thrust the cup to the counter and gulped, “Thank you.” Several minutes later I was out on 14th Street, my first 10 steps were taken in a daze because I thought I was dying and would fall down any second. Then I tasted the residue of Turkish coffee in my mouth. “Hmm, I thought, “that was delicious!”

I walked on at a quicker pace. “I’ve made a new friend,” I thought and smiled.

Mary Lansing is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.




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