That First Cup of Coffee

That First Cup of Coffee

by Charlie Riger

A long winter’s nap is rudely interrupted by the loathsome clang of a cheap brass alarm clock. It’s 4:00 am, and I grope hastily in the darkness to find this menace and silence it for the next 24 hours. It will be a long time before I develop the ability to wake myself up at will, at any time, as needed. But I’m only eleven years old, and 110 editions of the Philadelphia Morning Enquirer are waiting for me. My mission is to count them, fold them, bind them, and then deliver them in the darkness before sunrise to 110 anonymous patrons randomly dispersed throughout the East End of Riverside, New Jersey.

I am a paperboy, and it’s Christmas Day, 1964. I grudgingly free myself from the embrace of the warm blankets, and subconsciously slip into yesterday’s clothes, left there in a pile on the floor. For a few seconds, I think about brushing my teeth but then realize – what’s the point. Within three minutes I’m out the door and chugging along alone on my bike in the darkness and the crisp morning air.

I ride the centerline of the road; there’s no one else out there at this hour, and on this day. It takes me about 15 minutes to pedal to work, time that I normally spend in reflection. The weather usually dictates how I’m going to feel for the first two hours of my day: wind is bad, rain is worse and snow is hell. It’s pretty cold, but clear. So I got that going for me.

Before I know it, I pull up to the News Agency, where the papers are waiting for me, along with the 3 other boys who share in this miserable endeavor. We’re not really poor boys, just hungrier than most, and grateful to have these jobs. Although misery loves company, the mood this day is festive for several reasons.

First, because it’s Christmas. Get the papers done, and then go home to the warmth and comfort that the rest of the world will be just waking up to. Second, because it’s Christmas, that means that the newspapers will contain just news, no ads. It was with shock and awe that I first encountered the Thanksgiving Edition of the Philadelphia Morning Enquirer. Normally, I could fit 110 newspapers in the large wire basket on the front of my bicycle. But on Thanksgiving Day and every Sunday afterward until Christmas, the newspapers were so engorged with holiday ads, that it would take me at least two trips, even with the addition of two canvas bags hanging from my shoulders. It became demoralizing, and it was during this time that all four of us became proficient in the use of four-letter words.

But not today. The Christmas Edition is so thin and light, that we have to practice throwing them in order to find that unique combination of speed and spin that will enable this paper to fly like a frisbee. It’s going to be a good day.

After a few minutes of horseplay, we settle into the task of folding and binding our papers. No sooner had we started when a station wagon pulls into the driveway. It’s Joey’s dad, Tony, and he offers to run up to the Delrando Diner for coffee. When he asks me how I take it, I don’t know what to say. No one’s ever asked me that before. After the proverbial long awkward pause, he answers his own question saying, “double cream, double sugar.”

We resume our task of morphing newspapers into projectiles while discussing the possibility of getting high on coffee. Joey assures us that it’s safe. He drinks it all the time. Which might explain his tendency toward hyperactive behavior and why the nuns enjoy hitting him so much. We finish folding our papers and grow impatient for the coffee. All we really want to do is deliver the papers and go home. Just about then, Tony returns.

I’ll never forget my first cup of coffee. It was served in a cardboard cup, with a cardboard lid, nestled in a cardboard tray. You don’t see these cups anymore; they’ve long been displaced by styrofoam. My fingers delighted in its warm caress, and I hesitated to remove the lid, not wanting to let any of the heat escape into the cold space surrounding me. But the exotic aroma of coffee was enticing, and when I carefully pried the lid from the cup, I saw the blond liquid brew that was about to captivate me for the rest of my life.

This coffee was strong but had just enough cream and sugar in it to seduce the uninitiated. Nothing to this day has ever tasted as good. Every sip was deliberate, and it became sweeter as I drank it. And waiting for me at the bottom of the cup, was one last sip, only slightly warm by then, but full of undissolved sugar crystals. I was no longer cold or anxious about getting home. I felt at home in the universe and became lost in this great eternal moment.

It had never dawned on me why Joey’s dad had shown up that Christmas morning. I thanked him for the coffee and prepared myself to venture out into the cold, winter darkness. No sooner had I swung my leg over the bike when Tony asked me where I was going. Confused, and wondering if maybe I was getting high on the coffee, I started to stutter the obvious. “I, I gotta get these pa…” Tony cut me off in mid-sentence saying, “Shut up and put your papers in the car… all of you. Dumbfounded by this turn of events, we silently scrambled to pack 450 or so Enquirers into the back of his station wagon. Two boys sat up front navigating, while two sat on the tailgate chucking papers while singing Christmas carols. We changed positions of course, as each paperboy knew only his own route. It took us a little longer to finish all four routes, but that was OK. Tony even offered to take me home, so I put my bike in the back and sat up front between him and Joey. I thanked him for his kindness, to which he replied, “No big deal.”

The day was dawning, and I noticed house interiors beginning to warm with the incandescent glow of living rooms and children who could sleep no more. And I imagined what it was like in those homes, and to be a child in another family. It was easy to do. Because, it wasn’t that long ago that I was a child – before that first cup of coffee.



  1. Thank you, Cathee. It’s such a joy to revisit this writing. I hope it prompts Charlie to write more. Bless you. And thank God for men like Tony.

  2. Wow! Great story. I was there with you.
    Merry Christmas Charlie.

  3. This lovely story captures every last detail of that memorable day. Love thinking of times past. Thanks to the Dad who gave of himself to help the boys on such a special day and introduced this coffee right of passage. Sweet story indeed.

  4. Lynne Jones Lawler

    This was a wonderful read, Cathee! As I read Charlie’s words, I could feel the icy cold, smell the warm fragrance of hot coffee and it took me back to a very wonderful time, long gone now but still fragrant with memories. Tell Charlie I am going to drink my cup of coffee this morning in honor of him and this wonderful story.
    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  5. What fun to read this well-crafted Christmas story. While coffee isn’t my thing, it lifted my spirit and helped me believe that God will surprise me with a blessed healing of the Lyme Disease that is ravishing my body. I always enjoy your blogs, Cather,

  6. Charlie, you sucked me right in! I fell headfirst into your experience and was delighted to have you share it. A real Christmas story. Thank you.

  7. Charlie, what a delightful story and so easy to feel like I was right there with you. Such a beautiful gift of writing that you have been given and such a blessing for the reader. Thanks Charlie for sharing, please do it again. I’m hooked!

  8. What a great story. My brother was a paper boy (in Miami, ha) but he still had that early morning route. I remember my Mom drove him one day and someone hit her. Not bad but only one door opened in our car and we went to church 8 of us climbing over the seats. This brought back so many wonderful memories. Our gifts growing up were each other and of course Jesus. Thank you and bless your wonderful family. Love you

  9. I could smell that delicious milky, sweet coffee when you opened the cup! Great memories of boyhood. My son delivered papers early in the morning and I remember hearing that terrible alarm clock go off across the hall. Wonderful Christmas story!

  10. Isn’t it interesting how the profound effect of a simple act of kindness, or a word of encouragement can impact a child for the rest of his life? Not only did this introduce you to a love affair with coffee but I’ll bet your never forget Tony will you?

    Philadelphia Inquirer? Grew up with it in our home in Center City. Great memories!

  11. My goodness that was an awesome story. Thank you Kathee for posting this story. I am continually amazed at the multiple talents of my cousin Charlie! I was born in March of 1965 so, our childhoods did quite match up. But now, I get to enjoy getting to know the man that I used to love sitting next to at the kitchen table. Or sitting in the living room and listening to my cousins singing and playing instruments with Dood, the whole Riger family, extremely talented. Truly visiting my cousins were some of my fondest childhood memories. Cuzin Char, thanks for sharing, I want to hear more please. Maybe a book? ????????????

  12. Charlie Riger we have been friends forever and have just never met. Thoroughly enjoyed your Christmas message, drawing me in as if I was right there with you prepping the papers for delivery.

    Oh what memories we all good share over a good cup of hot coffee.

    Thank you ever so much…

  13. Very nice story. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Good job, Charlie!!!Loved every minute!!Merry Christmas to all of you!!!?????

  15. Good job, Charlie!!!Loved every minute!!Merry Christmas to all of you!!!

  16. Thanks for Sharing! What a Beautiful Christmas Story, Charlie! It reminded me of the Warm Coffee Milk Treat that Mama would give us when we were children! I think it is the reason I now enjoy drinking a sweet latte occasionally…Merry Christmas Dear Friends!

  17. The newspaper world was my life from birth. Father was a journeyman printer from the age of 6 when he hand-lettered a newspaper for his family. He worked in every capacity of the newspaper business, going on to owning and operating his own. My life patterned his and there is no world like the newspaper world. Now, at 91, my day starts with the newspaper and the traditional hot beverage. Thanks, Charlie. Your narrative is wonderfully crafted.

  18. My response is belated as I am just now able to take moments to read delicious posts sent to me over the past few weeks. A delight-filled read that brought back fond memories of my sharing coffee with a dear friend each New Year’s day . . . which is today. Great writing! Thanks for the gift of words from your dear friend, as an eleven year old “young man”.

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