Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Award for Best Use of a Coffee House in a Film Goes To...

Sunday night, my Dad and I went to Second Spin so he could pick up a copy of the John Candy / Dan Ackroyd classic "The Great Outdoors". It was a pretty specific mission, and we found the film right through the gate. However, we still managed to kill another hour perusing thru the boxes of assorted sci fi and cult classics, public domain jems bound together in box sets, some for under 10 bucks. We got to talking on the way home about the fact that so many of those films are more interesting to read about in books than they are to actually watch from beginning to end, but that every now and then you'll come across something that's actually entertaining beyond it's cheese or nostalgia factor.

Roger Corman's classic "A Bucket of Blood" is as watchable and timely for the cafe whore now as it was in 1959. It is, quite simply, the Citizen Kane of Killer Beatnick movies - a genre not as thin as one might imagine. The 50's and 60's were filled with morality play exploitation films about counter cultural threats to the white teenager's virginity. But Corman the man stood at the fringe of the fringe, and always displayed sympathy for the Hell's Angels, "Trip"sters and hippies who were the characters (and, as often as not, cast and crew) of his films.

The film begins with a tracking shot that would make Corman protege Marty Scorsese jealous, sweeping through the interior of the Yellow Door, an archetypal, cavernous cafe that I'd like to franchise and put in the carcass of Casa Bonita if that culinary institution ever shuts down. We hear a pome ("I will talk to you of art!") which, while not actually good, is certainly on par with the vast majority of "spoken word" that you'd hear at the Mercury on a Friday night. We meet waiter (yes, kids, coffee houses used to have waiters. Sort of like Paris on the Platte does. But men.) Walter Paisley (played by the actor who has made a career of playing characters by that name, Dick Miller). Walter is teased and kicked around by the hipsters at the shop, but still he grovels to their every whim, because he wants what anyone who ever worked at a coffee house wants, to be an artist. And to make time with the boho hottie hovering over her sketchpad.

Back at his studio apartment, in lieu of a blog, which wouldn't be available for another 40 years, Walter wrestles his creative pretensions onto an unwieldily mound of clay. True inspiration comes at last in the form of a mishap involving the landlady's pet, trapped in his wall. Just add clay and, voila! an early Paisley, from his impressionist period. Titled, appropriately enough, "Dead Cat".

Walter becomes a sensation the way everybody does in a local art scene; by making something and showing it to a public too chicken shit to point out that the emperor has no clothes. The demand for his work grows, and so too, does the body count.

Of course, this couldn't be a B-movie classic without the requisite amount of fromage, and here, too, the film delivers. The undercover cop looking to make a heroin bust really does look as ridiculous here as the parody/homage in "So I Married an Ax Murderer". And the chase scene at the end feels like a race to the finish before the camera runs out of film. (The ending is exactly the same as "Little Shop of Horrors", which was shot, like, 15 minutes after Bucket wrapped) The cast of Corman's movies were often supporting players in bigger films, where they were labeled "character actors". But, ultimately, this is an asset. One reason Corman's best films work is that life, like the best cafes, is filled with "characters". While the plot of the movie becomes more and more unlikely, the characters never fail to seem familiar.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


"You see, it should've been me, It could've been me. Everybody knows, Everybody says so"

Morrissey, "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful"

I have this awful habit. The acerbic wit and charm that I fancy myself as having in spades can occasionally turn bitter as a cup of Starbucks coffee. Morrissey captures it pretty well with his trademark unambiguous title above. But for me, it's not just about friends; everything from an internet story on the latest Indie Wunderkind in Hollywood to the story in the Westword last week about the 21 and 22 year old dropouts who are buying a high-profile night spot downtown can send me flailing into a vortex of self loathing, causing my bite and sarcasm to flare up like an allergic reaction.

It's a toxic habit, unbecoming and unproductive, and I should cease and desist right now. But I've brought it up, and let's face it... I wouldn't be doing my job as a writer if I didn't give an example of exactly what I'm talking about, right?

About eight years ago, I was working at the Diedrich's on 9th and Downing, trying hard to convince myself that the cool clientele and neighborhood feel meant that I wasn't really working for "The Man", even though Martin Diedrich is a rampant egomaniac who speaks his family name in the same hushed tones one uses for "Christ" or "Hitler", and may very well be the guy for whom the term "The Man" was coined. The Man. Plus, the tips were off the charts. I figured, hey, I'm making at least as much as anybody who owns their own independent joint, and the benefits are just as good. (Which is to say: nonexistent)

Into my bubble of delusion walked a slim hipped, sunken shouldered man my same age who struck up a friendly (though I would come to discover - loaded) conversation about coffee. He then invited me to a cupping, a friendly "taste off" between the big players in town... Starbucks, Diedrichs, Peaberry... and his own elixer, which he was roasting in his own home. He even had his own invitations.

And there it was, in glorious black and white, on a quarter sheet of paper. A photo of him, in front of a brick wall, sans shirt, with a doe-eyed look which seemed to moan, longingly "Please come see my band... our influences are U2 and Mr. Mister and we have feelings." Over the next few days I learned that my friends - baristas, bean jockeys, Italian Soda Jerks all - had received the same invite.

(Not to be a dick, of course. The above is just, you know, an example.)

But really, an invitation to your own party, with a picture of you on the front? It is pretty bad, right? See, I just can't tell anymore if I'm justifiably calling out a faux pas or if I'm just being jealous, seeing as that guy is now one of the owners of Kaladi Brothers Coffee, home of what is, hands down, the best cup of coffee in Colorado.

The storefront is unassuming enough, and matches the energy level of the nearby DU Campus, which makes Front Range Community College look like one of Playboy's "Top 25 Party Schools". The boy-ristas are all coffee-cocky know it all swagger, but I've never had a bad experience with the females who work there. Case in point is Heather, who was working when I went Sunday morning. She looks like Edward Scissorhands' cheerleader sister and gives the place the sort of street cred that usually only goes with a joint that's open past eight o'clock at night.

But where the shop REALLY shines is it's coffee, drip and espresso alike. I have never had a less

than perfect shot pulled from the kind of machine that Starbucks is afraid to use nowadays. And
speaking of machines, the shop has been known to feature a fetishitic display of espresso
makers, including the particularly pornographic display of mid 20th century art deco design currently alongside the menu.

So I admit it... I want his shop. I want his notoriety for serving such great coffee. I want his location so I can keep it open later. I want my disembodied brain to be placed in formaldehyde in the glass cylinder of that old espresso machine so I can rule my army of steam powered robots! I am small and petty and jealous.

But still, dude... keep your shirt on.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


One of my other obsessions, along with coffee, is Asian pop culture and fads. Though to clarify, I haven't watched any anime since "Tranzor Z" back in the 80's.

(I mean...

who didn't, right? Aphrodite A used those as missiles)

Rather, I think of myself as an amateur student of "existential sociology" a la Shinyu Yamazaki in William Gibson's San Francisco trilogy. Probing the collective unconscious of an entire culture. Asking, for instance "why does a package of, say, frozen fish cakes need to have a picture of a of a giant-eyed cartoon turtle on it? What does that tell us about Japanese consumers?"

Keeping all this in mind, I was thrilled when I first heard that Lollicup was coming to Denver, as I understood that "bubble tea" with floating mystery pellets was the next big thing "over there". I had to drag my skeptical wife kicking and screaming through the door. First time out, with all of the options available on the menu, she went with "Red Bean Slush". Needless to say, she wasn't exactly clamoring for another.

And it's not as though there isn't plenty else to choose from. Indeed, the adventurous, and people suffering from irreparable damage to their taste buds, could go to Lollicup every day for weeks before they went through every option... Green bean, sesame, avocado, and taro, a member of the potato family that I've never seen in any dish, much less in a Slurpee. Then there's the gummy "Bobas". I've never really seen anything that's adequately explained exactly what these are; I keep hearing that they're made from tapioca, but I've always understood tapioca as an emergent phenomenon which sometimes occurs in pudding, as opposed to a foodstuff in it's own right. I have heard that the name is taken from Korean slang for "nipple" so... there's that.

I talked my wife into going back a few months later to get my dose of big fat Japanese fashion magazine and irony, when a strange thing happened -- she discovered "Mo Cha" (green tea) slush. An occasional habit became a pregnancy craving, which in turn developed into a full blown addiction. Seriously, I was suprised the new baby didn't slither out on a wave of the gelatinous bobas, like when Han Solo sliced open that tauntaun in "Empire".

Now the fact of the matter is that ANY successful marriage is co-dependent by it's definition, regardless of what Dr. Phil tells you. Therefore, as an enabler, I occasionally forgo a visit to the coffeeshop in order for her to get her fix. Luckily, for me, Lollicup offers 2 slushy options for the caffeine addicted, the appropriately named "Coffee" and "Cappuccino". I like to mix it up between the 2. Because, well, frankly, I can't tell the difference. Any cold, Asian novelty coffee beverage has vaguely the same taste - robusta coffee, heavy cream and sugar. (Pick up a can of "Hey, Boss" at any Asian market for another example) Like Cappio. (Remember Cappio?) Which isn't to say it isn't good. It's kind of like how, after a night at the club, a cup of diner coffee at Pete's Kitchen easily trumps a venti anything from Starbucks.

How I see it, Lolicup has it right. Any slushy coffee beverage should be as unpretentious and unselfconscious as their drinks are. Yeah, I drink 'em sometimes, too, but it's a shake, people. I've decided if I ever own my own coffee shop, my frappe'd drink du jour will be a pretty close approximation to Lollicup's. I'll call it "FROZENATED COFFEE BEVERAGE!! (NOW, WITH BOBA!)", and I'll make whoever orders it say the full name. The "NOW, WITH BOBA!" Will appear on all the menus from the day my shop opens, until the end of the world, when anyone sitting in my joint can have whatever they want on me, to celebrate the "Left Behind" crowd finally leaving us alone.

Transmission from Caffeinator_X

I initially started this blog as a way to review local coffee shops, imagining myself as a caffeinated version of Jason Sheehan from Westword or Ricardo Baca, bar writer for the Denver Post. What I come to realize more and more as I schlep in and out of the various java joints throughout the city, and as I read other bloggers who have attempted the same mission, is that coffee shops can't be judged on the same technical "thumbs up / thumbs down" sort of criteria as a restaurant or watering hole. No matter how much credence one puts on quality of coffee, experience of barista, even aesthetic value of the art on the walls... what keeps a person coming back for their next fix is more subjective and intangible than that. Kind of like how even though you know "Citizen Kane" belongs at the top of any best movie list, you've seen, say, "Barry Gordy's The Last Dragon" starting Taimak about a hundred more times. ("Sho' Nuff!")

In short, what I've come to realize is that even though I love coffee shops, I don't even like most coffee shops. And that makes it kind of tough to be objective when you're reviewing a place who's owners decided on a whim "Hey, I've got an original, novel idea... Let's open one of those expresso shops all the kids like!".

So I dropped the ball, left the blog behind. Because, hey, nobody wants to read their favorite haunt getting bashed; it's like having someone pee on the altar at your church.

Then, last weekend, I went and got a cup of coffee at Kahladi's w/ fellow blogger and bean geek Troy (http://www.scooterdad.blogspot.com/) who called bullshit on my protestations of why I haven't been writing. So what if I'm so broke right now that I can't even afford to spend the $2 to go to coffee shops to get something to write about? (for the record, this is true; he was buying) What about my love of coffee, and the culture that surrounds it?

Sure, there'll still be some reviews for the places that really knock me out. And I'll still give hell to the half assed, "why bother?" joints that raise my ire. But what this blog will really be about is that "subjective and intangible" that I mention above. Meditations on my ideal hangout... Sonnets and salutations to the beauties sitting on the patio... Pornographic descriptions of the line of a vintage espresso machine. Just observations from a coffee whore, a guy who's been on both sides of the counter, who's now sitting in the ratty old couch, watching the world out the window.