Altered States

By Dinah LenneyApril 12, 2020

Altered States
LARB presents an excerpt from Dinah Lenney’s Coffee, an Object Lesson out this month from Bloomsbury.


IT HAPPENED AGAIN this morning —

Yet another person sent the Stein quote (the third to do so, maybe even the fourth), which, as it happens, I’d spent most of yesterday evening looking for; and it can’t be Gertrude Stein, it just can’t, or it must be a different Gertrude Stein, or else it’s simply made-up and everyone touting it as if she really said it somewhere — and this is a problem, right? All of us all the time quoting things out of context, and possibly getting them wrong? Ignoring (if not exactly on purpose) the original intention of the writers — not that Stein had any intention here: I’m saying, I’m certain, she never wrote this at all[1] But anyway here it is:

Coffee is a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup. ― Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings

See what I mean? Can we believe Gertrude Stein said any of this? Gertrude Stein said: not as in hip? She used the word “like” like a Beat? Or a millennial? We’re talking about the Gertrude Stein (b. 1874, d. 1946), the one who lived in Paris, the patron of artists, the author who wrote “A Piece of Coffee,” and here’s a line from that poem that maybe justifies my mistrust: “The time to show a message is when too late and later there is no hanging in a blight.”

Now that’s Gertrude Stein. Said author Deborah Levy in a recent interview: “A Stein-shaped sentence is a very bespoke thing — you need an espresso martini to recover.”

Exactly. One thing to read Tender Buttons for the novelty of Stein’s take on various objects — not only coffee (a piece of it) and buttons, but also, for instance, “Glazed Glitter,” “Mildred’s Umbrella,” “A Seltzer Bottle” (the list goes on and on): another, to order Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, because supposedly somewhere in that tome you might find she agrees that coffee “gives you time,” and “a chance to be, like be yourself.” That’s so apt! So jazzy and smart! So readable and relatable and entirely un-Gertrude Stein — and to wade through whole bespoke selected, 706 pages worth —

Well, I can’t. I tried, I did, but I can’t. There’s not enough coffee in the world …

However, to cast further doubt still — look here, from a piece about Stein in an October 1934 issue of The New Yorker: “Miss Stein gets up every morning about ten and drinks some coffee, against her will. She's always been nervous about becoming nervous and she thought coffee would make her nervous, but her doctor prescribed it.”

So it’s not like she even had a happy relationship with coffee. Which Deborah Levy does. In her recent memoir, The Cost of Living, she writes, “To sip strong aromatic coffee from midnight to the small hours always brings something interesting to the page.” Could that be true? My devotion to the morning, to getting up early, precludes my giving it a try. As for espresso martinis — there really is such a drink, involving vodka, Kahlua, and the real thing: espresso! But I wouldn’t be up for that either. Cultures in collision seems like — or does the coffee mitigate the effects of the alcohol? Or — can it be? Do those who drink espresso martinis do so just for the taste?

That I might understand, whereas the idea I’m protesting is that coffee is a mind-altering drug. But it is, of course it is. My disbelief is entirely my problem. It’s just how I am. As much as they scare me, I’ve never quite believed in drugs — or, as much as they scare me, I don’t want to believe, that must be it — which goes to explaining why I ate nine hash brownies in 1977. Not because I wanted to get high (I did not), but to prove, I suppose, that they wouldn’t work on me. I spent most of the evening on the corner of Grove and High in New Haven, unwilling to cross from one side to the other, convinced I’d seen my own death in the middle of the street.

More recently — like last year — I ate two chocolate-covered blueberries, edibles, a gift from a friend who wouldn’t take no for answer. “Try them, you’ll love them,” she said. For a year they sat in a plastic bag in a tray on my desk. One night, on my way to dinner with Eliza and Kim (my daughter and her wife) — they were cooking for us, I was meeting my husband there — I impulsively ate both of them. Had my friend mentioned that she’d given me enough to share? Like with three other people at least? Maybe she had. But, hey, I thought — they’re old, they’re stale, and anyway (as if I hadn’t erred in this way before), this stuff doesn’t work on me. Fred says I was unusually quiet that night, though it seemed to me I couldn’t stop talking. And on the way home I pulled over on Echo Park Ave., a block and half from the house where we’ve lived for 31 years. I was totally lost.

But this isn’t a regular practice, obviously not, I’m not one to get high. As for coffee — coffee the drug — if I drink too much, too late in the day, I might have a little trouble getting to sleep. Then, too, I might not. I’m not sure, if I couldn’t fall off, or was restless in the wee hours, I could fairly blame a late-night cappuccino. I’m more likely to have trouble with a glass or two of wine. But am I otherwise different for drinking coffee? We’ll never know — I’ll never stop —

If I had more faith, I might follow Levy’s lead one of these nights and make myself a pot of espresso instead of flossing and brushing — but I don’t quite believe; I do, but I don’t; that is, to stay up all night for less than inspired prose or no prose at all? I’m not taking the chance.

In the meantime. My husband has just finished How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan’s best seller about psychedelics as a way to excellent emotional health. He’d be game, Freddy would, to give it a try. I’m thinking about it, too, but I don’t feel convinced — it’s not that I don’t want to change my mind, it’s not that I couldn’t use guidance in the act, but I don’t believe. And also I do. (Here we go again): What if something terrible happened? What if such a trip brought me lower instead of lifting me up? What if, instead of discovering or remembering what I know, love, and value, I forgot instead?

Some weeks ago I met a friend to do a few laps around Echo Park Lake. Afterward we got coffee, a cortado each, and sat down on a bench. I told about Fred, how interested he might be in tripping again after all these years; how I couldn’t decide if I was up to a first time. Along the lines of why fix it, if it isn’t broke. But how can it not be broke? Aren’t we all broke some way, somehow? Shouldn’t we be? How to call ourselves human if life isn’t breaking us, heads and hearts, over and over? I thought I remembered that my friend had used hallucinogens, and liked them, and used them again. On this afternoon at the lake, I asked her, how was it, how did it feel?

She thought for a minute. “There was this one time,” she paused, and looked out at the water. “This one time there was a moment when I felt connected to everything — I understood what it’s all about, I did. I got it,” she said.

“What?” I asked. “What was it? What did you get?”

“It’s this,” she said, gesturing out with one hand.

This. Not really a lake, but what? A pond? Not even. A body of water, not quite a mile around, the freeway at the bottom, Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple at the top, and just behind us, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Lots of traffic going by in all directions. And down here with us, just yards from the street, people walking around and around, so many people, so many kinds of people; people with cameras, strollers, fishing rods, drums, guitars, on bikes and scooters; people in sneakers, people in heels, people half-dressed, people in mumus and parkas and wrapped up in blankets — and people in tents, too, mostly on the grass at the far-north end, unsightly, those makeshift abodes, but nobody’s bothering anyone, no mingling between us with our fancy coffees and them laying low. And, I noticed today, with no small relief: the woman who used to sit at one of those tables closest to the entrance of the 101 (at the southeast corner), the one with the scary blue eyes, who’d disappeared a while ago, was finally back. Without a sign — she used to always have a sign; either some version of Get out of my face/Just Move On By/Mind Your Own Business or Need 75 cents for bus fare. Today, though, she was all bundled up and wearing sunglasses studded with rhinestones (so I couldn’t see those eyes, but I knew it was she), writing in a notebook as if the prompt were to keep the pencil moving no matter what. I’d have mentioned her to my friend, but such a long story. Easier to point at the dogs as we passed, who don’t need explaining, so many dogs, leashed, of course, pit bulls, poodles, shepherds, all kinds of hounds and mutts; and birds — ducks, coots, pigeons, geese (a few of which were honking like bicycle horns) — somewhere an egret and a great blue heron, earlier we’d seen them together but not, fishing on opposite ends of the same long patch of lilies, the pads only, but the flowers would be back in a couple of months; the lotus, too, would bloom voluptuous, practically indecent. And the willows — soon they would be green and full. I can never get enough of the trees down there: the leaning palms, the molting eucalyptus, the floss-silks so pink! So exuberant! And the oaks, the sycamore, the acacia, the mimosas — the giant pines where, toward the end of the day, the cormorants hold court.

On that afternoon — early April, must have been — only the magnolias were flowering by the old iron bridge, which is gated and chained, off limits to humans, but earlier, a cloud of blackbirds had lined up on the railing just so. It was late in the day — chilly, gray, getting grayer — and the coffee was especially good. I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman with her notebook staked out by the freeway. I was so glad to see her. I knew better than to greet her, to tell her I’d missed her, I’d worried (easy for me) — but I’d wanted to —

“It’s this,” my friend said again.

This. Yes. Of course that’s what it is.


Dinah Lenney serves as an editor-at-large for LARB. Her latest book is Coffee (Bloomsbury, 2020).


[1] Find this quote in her Selected Writings? I’ll buy you a cup of coffee — better yet, I’ll make you one, that’s what I’ll do.

LARB Contributor

Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade (2014) and Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir (2007), and co-editor of Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (co-editor, 2015). She serves as core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars, and as an editor-at-large for LARB. Her latest book is Coffee (Bloomsbury, 2020).


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