Thursday, December 22, 2005

Merry Whateva!

Remember that kid in elementary school... the one who always threw up? The one who was most likely to cry when the math problems weren't going well, and had that weird plastic doohickey on his pencil to improve his handwriting?

Well, shut up... that kid was my best friend.

There was one time, right around the holidays (or, "Christmas" as they call it in Colorado Springs, where I grew up, you Godless heathens!), we were sitting in class when he suddenly leaned over from his desk (which was of course at the front of the room, where the teacher could always keep an eye on him) and he hurled, all over the floor. This was a regular enough occurrence for him that they didn't even bother to send him home. He just went to the nurse's office for an hour and they sent out the janitor to powder the offending mess with those magic pink fairy crystals that solidify the offending matter into a more manageable mess for cleaning up.

Later, at recess, he confided in me, "It was the egg nog... I just couldn't stop drinking it..."

I've managed to mostly stay clear of the stuff, ever since then. I'm fond of eggs - omelets, poached, hard boiled. I like the yolks, the whites... but the act of sipping an egg's nog always makes me think unfavorably of Rocky Balboa. And that consistency... Oh, poor ol' Ralphin' Rick.

When I was a barista, egg nog lattes were the new holiday novelty, which gave the double decaf skinny mocha crowd a respite from their usual order. I, of course, scowled accordingly at any philistine who actually ordered one. It wasn't simply the fact that it was one mutation further away from actually being coffee; there was also the issue that when you steamed the 'nog, it made this unholy sound, like Santa's magic reindeer during mating season.

But here I am, all grown up now, with children of my own, looking to make our own traditions. So I figure, what the hell, let's see what all the fa la la is about. And if you're gonna get an egg nog latte, I figure there's just one place to go... that mother ship of all caffeinated bastardizations... STARBUCKS! At the drive up window, my wife actually came right out and asked the girls whether it was going to be disgusting. One gave the corporate approved answer of "it's not something that I enjoy...", but the other one seemed sincerely to like the stuff. I got a grande in one of their festive red holiday cups. I was hoping for a cup w/ the Armistead Maupin quote, but at least I didn't get the one with that "Purpose Driven" clap-trap they had to put on to appease the zealots.

You know, it was okay. Vaguely like a flavored latte (of the amaretto/vanilla variety, not the peach/lime variety) with the sensation of stuffing my head into a bucket of nutmeg at the end. I mean, I couldn't actually finish it, I dumped the last third of it onto the street, for-all-my-dead-homies-style, but it was ok. Lower case "o", lower case "k".

Maybe I'm just feeling generous. Could it be that driving through Capitol Hill, looking at Christmas lights with my family, my 5 year old son and I belting out Depeche Mode's "But Not Tonight" has put me in, dare I say it, the Christmas Spirit?

So that's it, folks. Fox News can go ahead and close up shop... their imaginary "War on Xmas" is over. I won. You know why? Because it's mine... and if I choose to celebrate it with 80's new wave music and Hanukkah candles and pagan rituals and Kwanza drums, you can't take it away from me.

I hope that everybody, regardless of what they're celebrating (or not celebrating) feels just a little bit of this, too.

And wherever you are, Rick... try and pace yourself on The Stuff.

Monday, December 19, 2005


My love of all things coffee begins with Paris on the Platte. I was 17 years old, wearing a turtle neck and a bared... but I swear, it wasn't intentional. The beret was an accoutrement I used to cover my premature bald spot when my new wave combover wasn't working out.

We waited for half an hour for the train to pass in order to reach our destination; back then, that was the only way to get to the spot, which was tucked back in an uber industrial pocket of the city. It was there that I had my first cappuccino, poured from a big black pitcher that was left at the table to share with friends. I remember expecting the thick dollop of foam on top, powdered with cinnamon, to be sweeter than it was... Instead, it was scalding hot and dark and bitter and exactly as it should be... I fell instantly in love. The cavernous red brick club house was beyond my Shirley Feeney scarf dance-infested dreams.

The joint was my second home through my early 20's. The monolithic cement viaducts towering above the cafe were being torn down by then. Surreal remnants of the bridges, palates for graffiti artists, loomed above the Platte river like landing pads for UFO's on an intergalactic road trip. They were being removed to make way for urban expansion, the much lauded coming boom that would arrive with the baseball stadium. I remember staring up at them from Paris' front patio, thinking that Denver was being made. This, I thought, was the place to be.

Since then, between Paris and Union Station, the lazy train station which serves arrivals and departures to Chicago, Glenwood Springs, a couple of Ski Towns and pretty much nowhere else, there has sprouted "Riverfront Park", an entire prefab urban neighborhood where there was once just train tracks in disrepair. Housing starting from the one-millions, taylor made for a whole subset of urban dweller that the Mile High City didn't cater to until about 12 years ago, Denver not being a hip enough city for advertising executive types. My inner sci-fi geek can't help but love the squeaky clean, hyper-geometric, Logan's Run-esque design, even as I fear the microscopic nanotech robots that built it overnight. In the bottom floor is the obligatory coffee shop, a smaller-than-a-Starbucks but bigger than an indie joint who's design follows the motif... all flowing, dark red metal and cool cement. Comfortable in a take-off-your-jetpack-and-log-onto-your-laptop kind of way. If Riverfront was a ground-up ultra mod prefab out in one of the suburbs, Ink would be the kind of place that would serve only the tenants, who's homes are like storefronts in a high end shopping mall. As it is, the Riverfront complex is heavy traffic area, directly across from the Platte River trail and the state's largest free skate park.

And Paris on the Platte.

So there it is. That dichotomy, between the old and the new, between the past and the future, the comforting and reassuring vs. the human fascination with shiny objects.

My wife talked me down from my idea to do a month long "Supersize Me" style binge, taking all my calories from local coffeehouses. Instead, I've decided to review the food at these two well established but disparate joints.

I went with the family this weekend to Ink. The wife ordered the Tuscan Salad, and I got a large coffee with a shot of espresso, and swiped a couple of bites off her plate, much to her usual chagrin. The coffee at Ink is one of the best, most consistent cups you can get in town; that's true whether you're getting the drip or an espresso drink. The baristas are highly competent, and know how to pull an impeccable shot. The guys behind the counter are refreshingly humble, devoid of the cockiness that you find at some of the other shops in town. The girls are friendly without being flirty, with subtle peircings that let you know that, even though this is place is big business, it's not too big for it's britches, and realizes that even high end customers like getting served by the mildly freaky. The food here is a surprising anomaly, especially for an express espresso bar without a waitstaff. The Tuscan Salad is fantastic; freshly grilled chicken, artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers, with a dense piece of bread that makes the plate into a sort of deconstructed sandwich.

The atmosphere at Ink is also surpisingly diverse, giving the joint a more indie feel than you'd expect than if you just walked by outside. There's always a business meeting going on inside, bikers and rollerbladers who roll in from off the path, and tourists from all over the world checking out the towering bridge outside. On a visit over the summer, there was even a huge tribe of scooterists stopping for coffee before their ride, while an independent film was being shot out on the street, giving the place, and the surrounding area, an honest to G-d big city vibe. In the end, there's only one thing I would change, and that's the music. No, I don't expect to hear the Pixies or Portishead, necessarily, but something other than Billy Ocean et. al, would be nice. Note to Herbie... you can't go wrong w/ Jazz...

On Monday, I rode my bike over to Paris for lunch. Ah, Paris in the wintertime. I'd like to say that it never changes, but something just feels inherently wrong with going to POTP on a weekday afternoon. Where are the gutter punk kids setting the stir-sticks on fire, watching the plastic liquefy and drip into the ashtray? Where's the smell of cloves wafting though the with the smoke?

On the bright side, the music is exactly as it should be, which is to say, entirely random. Social Distortion mixes into Bob Dylan segues to OutKast. The coffee arrived quickly and was filled repeatedly, as soon as the cup was down to half full. So far, so good.

I went to the bathroom while waiting for my food; alas, some things never change... the ads for this place should read "Paris on the Platte... No Door On The Crapper Since 1986." I believe it to be some sort of systematic humiliation - the whippet thin employees don't produce solid waste, subsisting as they do on coffee and cigarettes, why should you be able to do so without any feelings of remorse?

Back at the table, I started in on my food. The grub at Paris is best described as "utilitarian". The sandwich was dry (a real trick, considering it was hummus, about the most damp sandwich ingredient there is) and was served with the kind of corn chips that you buy bulk from Sam's Club. It made me think of this 1960's educational film I saw on AVGEEKS.COM the other day, called "Coffeehouse Rendevous" where all the hip and cool kids got together and made coffee shops in their basements to keep them off the streets and out of trouble, where the food was whatever your mom wouldn't miss from the kitchen cubbard.

gee, beav, that funny cigarette you gave me makes me feel all goofy...

In the end, I'm not really saying anything that would surprise the "Parisians of the Platte"... they know their food's an afterthought. They know you're there for the music and the free refills. Just like I'm sure the folks behind the counter at Ink don't go home and listen to "Now That's What I Call Music '84", and would scoff at the idea of the bottomless cup.

But in the end, I'm happy they're both able to survive. I don't know if I could, without just a little of each.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Doing a little early morning surf here at work I came across this new product, a coffee/cola concoction to be introduced in 2006, courtesy of The Coca Cola corporation. I'm not sure whether or not Mad magazine is still around, but if it is, I imagine they'll get a lot of mileage out of "Coca Cola Bleeach!"

I don't imagine I'll be drinking much of it, after that initial bottle to satisfy my curiosity. It just doesn't seem like the kind of thing one sips while perusing the Westword, or gulps first thing in the morning to get the ol' bowels rumbling. I'm not really much of a soft drink person, either. As far as the Cola Wars are concerned, I'm Sweden. I had to declare neutrality in '85 when they brought Max Headrom and Michael J. Fox to go head to head for Coke and Pepsi, respectively. A fourteen year old kid just couldn't be expected to decide between those two media giants. And as much as I love my caffeine, I'm not a masochist. The caffeine content in cola is actually pretty low; your average soft drink is actually supplemented with caffeine that runs off coffee beans when they are being processed. When I used to work for Boyer's Coffee, the owner's prized possession was a meteorite-sized white crystal of pure, uncut caffeine, resembling nothing so much as some last remaining remnant of Krypton.

Apparently, this new product is similar to "Georgia", a canned coffee drink that Coca Cola distributes in Japan. Nifty design and all, but my guess is that Sweet Georgia isn't fit to starch "Hello, Boss's" shirt.

Sure, a new Coke product is just the sort of manipulative, calculated marketing ploy that an local coffee house lovin', indie entertainment appreciating guy like me is supposed to rant against, but I just can't help but get wrapped up in the hype. Maybe it's the fact that my father, sister and I all work in varying capacities in the advertising field; I've cultivated a life long fascination with brand loyalty and logo fetishism. Regardless of your feelings toward capitalism, an individual is defined as much by what brand breakfast cereal they eat as their religion. Resistance, as the Borg say, is Futile. Even if you tear all the labels from your clothes, that just says that much more about you.

So the question is, just who is it this product is being marketed to? That picture is kind of small, but I do believe that's an accent mark above the lower case "a"... surely the correct pronunciation isn't "Blake"? Is there some emerging Neo-Romantic poet subculture that they're trying to exploit? Does this mean we can look forward to "Lord Byron's Dew"?

This isn't the first time such a combination has been attempted. I remember tasting "Pepsi Kona", Kona being one of those holy grail varietals, along with Jamaica Blue Mountain, that a coffee lover gets from their relatives when they return from their vacation. It's supposed to be exquisite, but it actually taste like pee.

No doubt the drink is a response to Red Bull and Go Fast! energy drinks. But I have a theory that it'll be marketed more old-school, for the emo kids who are too cool for gym class and all that extreme sport stuff, caffeine being more accessible than exotic, herbal sounding ingredients like "taurine".

The last time the Coca Cola company made such a concerted effort to tap into the zeigeist was with OK soda. This was during the "clear" ara of such products as Zima and Crystal Pepsi, which tried to cut in, I guess, on the bottled water industry by offering a product that looked like water, without all those uncool health benefits.

OK was a full frontal assault on us disenfranchised ol' Generation X'ers. The taste was like a devil may care "Suicide" from our youth, but without all the fun of mixing and matching at the soda fountain of the Royal Fork Buffet. The backlash was palpable among the "alternative" kids. Why this was straw that broke the camel's back, when The Gap was selling de-sleeved flannel shirts, and a discount shoe store's advertising campaign for their knock off Doc Martens was "Doesn't it feel funky, doesn't it feel grungy, to Payless?", is beyond me. OK at least had built in street cred, with the cool design by "Ghost World" creator Daniel Clowes. If I had an old can, I'd put it up as cubicle flair right now.

The marketing for "Blak" doesn't appear to be quite as brazen, but I doubt it'll be around any longer than OK was. If anybody is taking bets, I'll put odds that Coke's new coffee drink will be off the Hell-Mart shelves by 07.

But maybe that's just my Generation X cynicism talking.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Take this, all of you, and drink it...

In the early half of the nineties, I went through an open mike, philosophy groupie neo-beatnik stage. I was in my 20's; a high-school dropout living in "the city". Grunge was in, and coffee houses didn't have a cover charge, so, hey, what else could I do? When you're a suburban expatriate white boy, it's like a mandatory transitional phase. Maybe even biological, like puberty or "the change". But for me, the whole boho thing never really took. For one, I'm not really a huge fan of "the Beats" as writers. I'm more of a William Gibson, Nick Hornby and X-Men comic book kind of guy.

Among the cats who made the scene for reasons other than cutting a striking profile wearing a turtleneck, the poetry could be pretty dismal. But there were always some colorful characters providing the entertainment, sort of like a support group meeting at the "Star Wars" cantina. I once saw this guy, Cameron Lightbulb, get completely naked on the "stage" at Cafe Euphrates, a table of girls not 2 feet away from him. Another time, Cameron attacked this guy on stage with a full size Safeway shopping cart he had rolled across town, screaming "Death to the Denver Poets!" The host, Henry Alarmclock (who's real name was Zack - there was a lot of name changing going around back then) had to physically throw him out of the establishment. Henry and Cameron were arch-nemesises, sort of like Mexican wrestlers.

I'm the gimp!

No, I'm the gimp!

Even though Henry's work was occasionally derivative of Jack Kerouac, et. al, he knew his influences well and was good at what he did. He was the real writer, and held respect among us posers; Cameron was just Bizzaro to his Superman.

FAST FORWARD a few years... Goatees are as common as Nikes and turtlenecks give me a double chin. I was married and a father, working in a cubicle and going through my pre-30's existential crisis. Real "why am I here" kind of stuff. The Big Questions (TM).

Now, I am a-religious by nature - as philosopher (Groucho) Marx said, "I would never join a club that would have me as a member." But somehow, I found my way to The First Church of Divine Science. Which, for the record, has nothing to do with Scientology, or Christian Science. I know, like they said in Angels in America... "Any religion that isn't at least 2,000 years old is a cult". But it was just a cool place to be around like-minded progressive types. Reverend Karl Kopp was a good natured guy, a playwrite who gave sermons about Jung and the mystical tradition and mythology and psychedelic drug use. At the end of the first Mass I ever went to, the organist played "Summer Lovin'" from Grease, then we all went to a common room for breakfast. Catholics tend to eat pancakes at such functions. Divine Scientists have tacos and spaghetti. And they served coffee, which was generally fresh and tasted good.

The other day I received a mailer from the church. They were having a memorial service for Karl Kopp. I found an obituary on the internet. Cancer. I read some info on his family... he has a son named "Zack".

The detective work I did on Google wasn't necessary. Seeing the two of them in my mind, 6 + feet, Coke bottle glasses... I already knew they were father and son.

Huh. Small world.

I stopped going to the church after only, like, 4 services. I've discovered there's no existential crisis that can't be fixed with the yoga of a good cruiser ride through downtown or a night out dancing. But the stuff that we talked about there, while it didn't form my worldview, certainly reinforced it. Just like those nights at the coffee shop did. And anybody who can get my agnostic ass into a church pew, well, that's certainly saying something.

So, this is my tribute to the Kopp boys. Cheers... I'll think of you whenever I drink my coffee or eat a taco.

Rest in Peace, Reverend.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Last week, like nearly everyone else in the city of Denver, I was laid out with the flu. If you're smart, you know that means coffee's off your diet for the foreseeable future. And if you DO live in Denver, you know there is only one hot liquid you should be ingesting... miso ginger soup from Taki's on Colfax. "Flu killer" boasts the awning outside, "best alternative to mom's noodle soup" reads the menu. So every day at lunch I drove and stood among the Capitol Hillbillies eating their more glamorous, exotic meals as I waited for the cloudy and fragrant healing elixir.

As much as I like the stuff, it was getting a little old by Friday, so I decided to see if I could find a worthwhile variation at the Asian market on Federal. I've killed whole days roaming the isles among the otherworldly fruits and vegetables and giant eyed cartoon characters decorating instant ramen bowls. Where else can you get a French-Vietnamese sandwich AND pick up a bundle of "Hell Dollars" so your dead ancestors can buy their way out of the more unsavory levels of the afterlife... all for under 5 bucks? Out by the street, from a card table, there was even a man selling vacuum cleaners w/ vaguely familiar sounding names. Who says Denver isn't a world class city?

Alas, I didn't find any soup. At least, none that weren't of the Vietnamese "Beef Chunks in Beef Stock" variety, which wasn't gonna cut it for my delicate tummy. I did, however, find a cornucopia of canned coffee confections, sealed in metals better suited for arming soldiers in Iraq. Beverages which appealed to both my love of bean juice and aforementioned adoration of Asian aesthetics.

So, with the help of Scooter Dad, and in spite of my ravaged digestive system, we sat down and drank six of the offerings because that's what I do - travel the city in search of new and exciting options for the caffeine addicted. And because I'm not very bright.


This drink is, at 6 oz., the smallest of the bunch, which is positively the best thing you can say about it. Some may try to convince you that it's due to the fact that the Taiwanese aren't the obese pigs that we 'Mericans are, but I think it's because the manufacturers know that, once you taste this swill, you're not gonna want another, so why waste product? Among the ingredients are "roasted and grinded" coffee, but "burnt" and possibly "humiliated" would be more appropriate adjectives.


Scooter Dad and I both agree that this isn't half bad, though the fact that it was basically cleansing our palates of the last drink may disqualify our responses. I've never been a mocha person, but this is okay. Until, that is, I read the can and see that no chocolate flavoring is listed, just the utilitarian "coffee, milk powder, sugar" listed on nearly all the rest of the beverages. It's too early, in my estimation, for caffeine paranoia to set in, but I begin to wonder what else is being snuck into these cans, if an ingredient as innocuous as cocoa isn't mentioned?


Okay, this lists "mocca powder" in it's ingredients, above "coffee powder", which is an understatement. In fact, one wouldn't think it possible that they could fit anything else in the unassuming little juice box after they melted in the 12 clearance sale Easter bunnies from Walgreens... but baby, they did! The nutrition information reads like PowerJuicer (TM) Jack Lelaane's grocery list, with all it's vitamins and minerals. And, as Scooter Dad pointed out, it has "stabilizers", presumably to stabilize your blood sugar, thus preventing unwanted comas.


Ever had those times you just can't decide between coffee and tea? Yeah, me neither, but this, kids, is what's called a rhetorical question, which is defined as a question not meant to have an answer. The makers of this beverage must not have known that, because they haphazardly put both of these often synonymous but never-to-be-used-in-the-same-receipe ingredients in one can. And boy, it tastes just like a lick from Satan's own sweet armpit. Seriously, if you just have to try this, you might want to stock up on some "hell dollars".


I did some extensive research on the internets to try and solve the age old philosophical riddle -which of these two beverages came first. But at the end, it really doesn't matter; what matters is that both characters, along with "The Dukes of Hazzard" Boss Hog, are rip offs of "The Candy-Man" from that Happy Days 2 parter where they staged Fonzie's death. But I digress. The taste: yup, there's definitely some coffee in there... and as such, these 2 are the clear winners, with The Boss nudging out Herr Brown due to size, giving you the most taste for your .69 cents (!)

We ended the experiment by mixing all of the above into one can, and I drank it (SD chickened out) The end result was not nearly as bad as one might have thought. In fact, it mostly just tasted like chocolate.

Huh. Stabalizers.


The following morning, I woke up looking like this...

and I now lactate Ultramilk.