Thursday, February 9, 2012
The Poisoning of Jerry
Jerry had been given a grant to conduct some research on octopus vision at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy. Since it was a grant associated with the military, he also had privileges at the Post Exchange (PX) and other facilities at the US Naval base near the city.
I was in my early teens and would sometimes think of myself as a lab assistant, but I am sure that Jerry thought me more of a nuisance than anything else. He would try to get rid of me by sending me to Max Braverman's lab to count sea urchin eggs, or to Andrew Packard's lab to try to teach octopuses to recognize shapes. I learned how to use a microscope, to use a microtome, to set up and stain slides, to draw glass pipettes and make other useful lab equipment. I'd get sent to do research in the library. I'd sometimes guide English-speaking tourists around the aquarium.
One of the few things I did around the lab that he did seem to appreciate, was to make him coffee.
I don't know if you realize that there was a difference between the coffee that Jerry drank because it was available, and the coffee he drank because it was the way he liked it. He would drink any coffee that was offered, but what he preferred was:
2 heaping teaspoons of instant Maxwell House coffee dissolved in
1 mugful of boiling water
2 teaspoons of sugar and
a dollop of cream
This coffee was viscous. It had more of the consistency of maple syrup than of coffee.
But that's the way Jerry liked it and with the bipod of caffeine and nicotine supporting his thought processes all progressed normally.
One day he had gone to the PX probably to pick up a couple of cartons of Kents (the black market always had Winston and Marlboro but the Italians weren't as fond of the rather dull packaging of Kents). While there he had seen a good deal on instant coffee. It wasn't Maxwell House, but it was so much cheaper, that I guess he decided to put up with it. He bought a big olive drab can of it and brought it in to the lab.
Not knowing any better (how could I) I used this coffee in the same proportions as usual. At the end of the day, some six or eight cups later, I noticed that Jerry was a little pale and jittery. By the time we got home he was sweating and shakey.
The coffee he had purchased at the PX was apparently something called watchstanders' coffee and what he didn't know was that it had about 6 to 10 times the caffeine of commercial coffees.
He was in the throes of caffeine poisoning and I had (innocently, I swear) done it to him. It was the only time I ever saw him drink anything other than Passover wine. He downed an entire bottle of brandy trying to knock himself out ... and failed.
I may be wrong, but I think it took him three or four days before he could get to sleep.
I've had Navy coffee myself since, but I've never had any that was as strong as that. But then, I've never developed a taste for the coffee sludge that Jerry drank.