Even now, it’s before sunrise. I sit in front of my computer, a mug of black tea on a coaster to my right, and enjoy the deep quiet, the pleasant solitude of the morning. In less than an hour, the sun will rise and the city will gradually reanimate—cars on the roads; runners, dogs, and electric scooter jerks on the sidewalks; family talking; friends texting; coworkers emailing—and I will no longer have this time all to myself.
I’ll have to share it with the greedy, needy others who require attention.
It strikes me as odd, how much I love this morning time alone, when these quarantine days feel so lonely and desolate and hopeless and drab. But somehow, the morning solitude feels hopeful and… (sip for a beat)… special. Somehow, it feels like my time. I own it. I can do whatever I want with it. Unimpeded, uninhibited, unfettered. Just mine. Sip.
But now I’m just being selfish.
Silly rabbit, you can’t keep time to yourself.
I’ve been a morning person for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, I’d wake up an hour earlier than necessary for school, just so I could go downstairs and watch television all by myself. I felt so free and autonomous, tucking myself beneath a plaid tartan blanket, my toes sticking out the bottom, my brain in a Nickelodeon-induced stupor while Mr. Wizard and his nerdy kid assistants did science experiments with extremely low production value.
Dunking themselves in water barrels to demonstrate how water displacement can calculate volume. Trying to fold paper in half more than 5 times and failing. Putting Scotch tape on a section of a balloon, then poking it with a pin, and the balloon not popping.
Bill Nye, eat your heart out. Mr. Wizard’s World was some really compelling shit, which I still remember three decades later.
When Mr. Wizard finished blowing my fucking mind, I watched Rude Awakening—back when MTV bothered to play music videos—and learned all the words to all the songs of the 90s, which I still remember three decades later.
Formative years, or formative hours? Same thing, really.
Back then, I didn’t need or want caffeine to wake up. But tea was still very much a part of my morning ritual, very much a part of my waking up and greeting the world.
When I heard the floor creaks and the faucet run in my parents’ bedroom, I knew my mom was getting up so she could start her day, which really meant starting our day—making hot breakfast for my sister and me. (We had no idea how good we had it.) She’d walk downstairs quietly, turn on the light in the kitchen, and wave to me as I laid on the couch.
My mom and I did not exchange hellos or good mornings because she was—in words she reserved for people who pressed the issue before she had her tea—“not awake yet.” She’d immediately put water in the kettle and boil it until it screamed, making her intensely dark brew of tea. Six bags of Tetley steeping for what must have been hours—maybe overnight? who can even remember?—until it was so bitter and opaque that it could have passed for bayou swamp muck in both eye tests and taste tests.
But then she’d take the tea, pour it into a mug, microwave it for precisely one minute, 12 seconds, and add whole milk to soften the blow.
I don’t remember her reading the paper. And we didn’t have a TV in the kitchen because it was sacrosanct. But I do remember her sitting at her seat—closest to the kitchen because she called the shots—having a cigarette (I held my nose and hated every second), and quietly enjoying her morning time before my sister sprinted down the stairs, inhaled breakfast, gathered her 14 bags, and almost missed her bus.
Remember that last day of school before summer vacation? The way it felt like you were holding in a primal scream for 6 hours. The way your teachers held in that same scream, biding time until the bell rang. You accomplished nothing all day but learned something important: how to delay gratification. To roll with the simmer as it grew to a full-on boil.
Summertime has always felt like freedom. As a kid, summer was when I searched for turtles in the woods and built obstacle courses in my backyard with boys in the neighborhood. It’s when I spent hours jumping on Erica Melchior’s trampoline or learning artless, totally splashy dives into my cousins’ swimming pools. No one cared what anything looked like unless it was dangerous, and even then, eh, it’ll heal.
I must have spent my entire youth dehydrated. I don’t remember carrying a water bottle, and I barely remember going inside anyone’s house. From sunrise to sunset, I don’t remember stopping for a break, except occasionally, when there would be a plastic pitcher filled with iced tea.
Hey, parents of today’s overprotected youth. Get a grip. Or more accurately, LET GO. Because none of us wanted that bitter, unsweetened nonsense. Get out of here with your prestigious sun tea, steeped on your south-facing window. That crap is for adults who have to ride a Peloton to feel alive and included anymore.
What I wanted—let’s be real, what all kids wanted—was four full scoops from a 4C canister. If the brown powdered stuff in that canister ever was tea, I’m unsure how. I can’t imagine it having been actual leaves that grew from nature. But that was beside the point. The point was that 4C tea had epic amounts of sugar, which was delicious and necessary because we were burning 14,000 calories a day on a non-stop decathlon across the Ruzga & Vigorito & Go & Melchior & Vaccaro & Conochan backyards. Double knot your laces and get ready for this lineup:
In this chaotic adventure, hypersweetened lemon iced tea was a lifeline. Who knows if we would have survived the summers without it.
I don’t recall when I first started drinking tea habitually. Was it trying—and finally liking—unsweetened iced tea at a muggy outdoor brunch that led me to the gates? Was it the Bigelow Raspberry Royale black tea provided in my office’s break room? Was it guilt over saying “I’m good with water” to a disappointed server when all my friends ordered drinks?
I truly don’t recall, but here we are. Multiple cups a day.
Entire shelves in my cupboard are dedicated to tea and its infinite breadth of flavors. Ginger peach. Mango ceylon. Oolong. Spicy chai. Loose leaf, sachet, or bag. You name it, I’ve got it, or tried it, or someone bought it for me and I hated it so I still have it because maybe someone will come over and like rooibos?
Holding a mug of hot tea to warm my hands. Sipping a glass of iced tea to cool my entire engine. Mostly unsweetened, but sometimes—after a long run or just because I’m feeling wiped—sweet iced tea. Mostly hot black, but occasionally with cream.
Tea while I read every morning, feet up on the couch after running through those quiet hours I still enjoy all to myself. Tea to start the work day. Tea to perk me up before, during, or after a particularly draining meeting.
Tea has become such a part of my day, so habitual, so ever-present, that it is almost involuntary at this point. Tea brings back memories but also none at all. It is everywhere and everytime and everything to me.
Tea for two? I couldn’t possibly say. But if you’re asking whether I’ll have a cuppa, the answer is almost certainly yes.