Tuesday, March 28, 2006

tHERe and HIM...

When I was in my early 20's, my friend Ryan dated a girl who had gotten a college scholarship for the fact that she was 1/16th Native American. Overnight, she went from being a middle class girl from Aurora to an insufferable (if somewhat misguided) activist who believed she understood "The Ethnic Experience" in its entirety. (Really, do I even need to mention what the other 15/16ths were?)

She could have used the opportunity to explore her cultural heritage, to consider the injustices experienced by her ancestors, or to perhaps become a mentor or role model in her newfound community. She attempted instead to exploit her newly discovered ethnicity to garner an imagined street cred that hadn't come solely from her ability to dance like a "Fly Girl" or her encyclopedic knowledge of Boyz II Men and Cool Moe Dee. Because, hey, what's the point of identifying with a minority that's not hip? I bring this all up not to ridicule her (we got plenty of that done back in 93), but because on some level, I'm just as bad as she was. I am happily married, the father of two beautiful children, and I am painfully, almost embarrassingly straight. Vanilla, even. But today I'm coming out of the closet. In the past I"ve been referred to as "Straight but not Narrow", a friend of "the family"; but that just doesn't do it justice. I am a gay groupie. A lesbian lackey. An http://www.armisteadmaupin.com/Armistead Maupin-reading, L-Word watching, house music dancing homo hanger-on.

From the time I was 15 years old I have identified with what I would call (probably to the chagrin of many) "gay culture". I say that realizing- yes, yes - gay men can join the army and lesbians can listen to Eminem... hell, it's the 21st century, you can even be a gay republican (realize, yes understand? Not so much) But lets not obscure the point in political correctness, we all know what I'm talking about here. I grew up on musicals and drama class. I wasn't punk, I was "new wave", while everyone else was shaving their heads into Mohawks and moshing, I was listening to The Pet Shop Boys and writing band names like "The Communards" on my notebooks. During my bourgeoisie, white boy neo-beatnik stage, there loomed in the background the homo shenanigans of Dean Cassidy and Allen Ginsburg.

Yet for all the time I spent being called "faggot" in high school, and regardless of the hours I spent manning the espresso machine at "Sisters" on 9th and Downing, I am well aware that I haven't earned the title of gay man. There's my damned sexuality, for one. Despite all those nights at clubs during last call, desperate men singing the swan song of "come on, we're all bi", no one ever managed to convince me.

Yes, really.

My wife, the ex-dancer, who grew up around artists and New York and people living with AIDS, was attracted to me, at least in part, because I was comfortable in her life, with her history, and around her friends. But as we became more serious and she had a chance to see me get all misty eyed over the Erasure song "Hideaway", she started in on the questions "you're sure you're not gay? Not even bi?" We joke between us that she is the butch; and I, the "bitch". Even now, confident in my sexuality as she is, she doesn't know quite what to make of me when I'm paging through the Out Front or going to happy hour at JR's rather than The Red Room. And sometimes I have to ask myself the same question; what is this fascination I have with "the family"?

I must confess it's not all just open mindedness and respect for diversity on my part. I've always had a certain fondness for the women in the entourage of so many gay men; those soft, archetypal Gal Pals (sorry, just can't bring myself to say "fag hag") with their great hair and ribald sense of humor. A couple of years ago at a party in Capitol Hill, I stood among a group of gay men as they took turns feeling the breasts of one particularly cute specimen (something about her wanting to know if they were firm enough). A friend who had little sympathy for the dilemma of being a monogamous straight male looked me in the eye and taunted me under his breath "you could totally go there right now, no one would know any better". Membership, even if it's by association only, definitely has its privileges.

Frankly, there are plenty of self serving, petty reasons to love the community. As a rule, the clubs play better music; and at 34, if I am the oldest guy on the dance floor, nobody much cares. At the gym, the guys can show you how to work muscles that you didn't even know you had. And, come on, I am still a straight male. Those all-girl volleyball matches at Cheeseman in the middle of summer are hot.

So, with all of this in mind, I found myself the other night at tHERe Coffee, a lesbian owned and supported joint. The space has had a couple of different incarnations over the years, but I've always been wary of the location, as it is situated on Colfax; that long, slow crawl up evolutionary ladder. The 'fax has seen something of a cultural renaissance in recent years, a benefactor of the gentrification that has been a sore spot for other neighborhoods. But my apprehension on that night had to do with something else entirely... would I be welcome? Am I intruding on sacred grounds? I mean, I dig women, too... can't we all be friends?

People can decry this as being some sort of reverse descrimination, but I should say here that I understand the sentiment. One day, working at Diedrich's across from "Queen" Soopers, I served a guy wearing a shirt embroidered with a "Focus on the Family" logo. How dare he come to this place, in our blue city, a safe haven from the rest of the red state? Especially when he could have gone to any number of other places... hell, any other Diedrich location (except 12th and Clayton. Yeah, that one was ours, too) On the other hand, we never saw the guy again. Probably had something to do with all the publications by the bathroom.

Once in the door, though, my fears were put to rest. This place is inviting in a way that most living rooms aspire to. And the woman working behind the counter, alternately pouring coffee for the people who wandered in and scribbling in her sketchbook, was completely charming and amiable.

The coffee was a little on the cool side; I'm sure she was letting it dwindle, as it was just an hour to closing time. Okay, it's not something I'm usually very forgiving of... but I can't help it. I LOVE this place. It's the warm colors on the walls, the intimate, low ceilinged loft (something not featured at nearly enough coffeeshops, nowadays) perfect for the mild, lazy flirting exhibited by the 2 girls sitting up there with me, or for spying on the rest of the crowd down below. I didn't even mind the big screen TV (for group viewings of the L Word on Sundays, of course) though I was more intrigued by the promise of the collection of 12 inch vinyl that was against the wall.

My only real complaint was with the hours. A place like this should be open late into the night, so the clientele can talk and read and laugh and admire the barista's sketches. Not (strangely enough) 10 pm on weekdays and 8 pm on weekends. If their liquor license goes through I'm sure that'll be remedied.

So my fascination with the GLBT community? I've come to recognize that gay influence in literature, music and the arts is so pervasive that to speak of "gay culture" is redundant. There's a reason universities call them "the humanities"... this is part of our collective human identity. When I spend time in the community, whether its at a club, out for coffee, or at Cheeseman Park, where my kids often wind up befriending children of gay parents, there's a vitality and sense of unity that I've never experienced in any religion; particularly (and ironically) any religion that co-opts the word "family" and uses it as a password to a secret society which I'm welcomed into simply for my sexual preference. My adoration stems from the fact that, in the face of fear and hatred, the gay community, at it's best, thrives with an openness and honesty that is lacking in the "straight" world; a vocal, heartfelt unity.

All the qualities I look for in a coffeehouse.

Coffee Under the Bridge...

I was sitting at work last week, paging eagerly through Westword's much coveted, annual "Best of Denver" issue. I was performing the "hip-check", sort of a low tech variation on Googling one's own name; looking to see how many DJ's I recognized, how many places I've been to, and how many local inside jokes would produce a knowing chuckle (congratulations, "Bitter Biker")

As you can imagine, one of the first things I check every year is which joint will receive the honor of being named "Best Coffeehouse". For 2006, the love went to the respectable choice of St. Mark's. The entry, like anything to do with St. Mark's, (or it's sister-business, the adjacent bar "The Thin Man") always stirs mixed emotions in me. It occurred to me then, that anyone who reads this blog, who has spent any time exploring Denver's cafes, must be a little perplexed by my omission of this institution, this fine specimen of coffee-culture.

When I was a kid in Denver, the emerging hipster class had two choices as far as hangouts were concerned; Paris on the Platte or Muddy's. As a VERY rough guideline, Paris was for students, club goers and neo-beatniks; Muddy's was for Burn-outs, Hippies and Dungeons and Dragons fanatics. If there wasn't nearly so much going on in the city back then, we didn't care. There was a sense of ownership among the places that were "ours"... you never had to worry about a pissing match between two frat boys at a warehouse party, and Rock Island didn't throw bikini-foam-parties to prove that Denver was great as LA/South Beach/New York/Your-Coastal-City-Here.

I didn't (and don't) completely disparage the cultural / economic shift that occurred. Along with a bunch of bars and clubs I would never set foot in, it brought with it a slew of new independent coffeehouses; Cafe Euphrates on 17th avenue, Black Pearl, Gasoline Alley, and of course, the Original St. Marks at 15th St. and Market.

St. Marks was one of the last bastions of cool in downtown Denver. That said, it wasn't about to be defined by the joints that preceded it. A ping pong table provided a sense of humor that was the anathema to the Muddy's kids who never did anything more athletic than thumb through their "Sandman" comics. You waited at the counter for your food and drink, like in Seattle, as opposed to having it brought by a waitress. And Eric, the owner, had a strict "no performance" policy that was unusual at the time. The formula was a success, evolving it's own indigenous clientele; smokers in the back, pre-club goers, first daters, bohos who prefered to read a book without hearing some neo-Arlo Guthrie wailing in the background, and the occasional yuppie who was adventurous enough to walk the extra block past The Market in Larimer Square.

This rag-tag group coalesced into a "scene". Relationships began here. Friendships. Alliances. When Eric opened his second location, and when that became his ONLY location, we followed. When he opened the Thin Man, and turned that block into a mini nightlife destination, a few of us friends who had met there felt responsible. We occupied that place in a way that went beyond just having our butts planted in the barstools. This was ours.

A few years ago, I had a falling out with one of those friends in particular - having to do with nothing so much as needing to grow up - and needing to stand up for the things in my life that are most important. There was no argument with Eric, who I've never known well, but has always seemed like a straight up guy. Not with any of the workers, some of whom I had gotten to know, some not. Just another patron, like me. But with cafes and bars, the clientele is as important as the staff. And as he, admittedly, invested more time (smoking on the patio) and money (on coffee and beer) - in the divorce, I begrudgingly let him keep St. Mark's.

But when they got the Westword nod, I knew I had to go back for my few devoted readers who may not have had a chance to visit this gem. Smoke still floats to the front counter from the back, past newspaper clippings decrying the inevitable smoking ban. The hot, punky BWA (Barista With Attitude, the only kind St. Mark's has ever employed) made me a spot on cappuccino and called me "hon". They still offer the same delicious peanut butter / chocolate chip cookies, the size and consistency of fossilized dinosaur droppings. The acupuncture student (possibly a professional, now) still sits at his exact same table, though the "subvert the dominant paradigm" bumper sticker appears to have fallen off his laptop. And the back room still looks like it's holding auditions for an East High School stage production of "Ghost World".

You know, I thought I'd still feel my old friend's presence haunt this place, even though he wasn't there. I was wrong... things change. Even the "no performances" rule has given way to the Ubisububi Room, an intimate setting for shows in the basement ("this is David Lynch month" reads a chalk board at the top of the steps).

I was going to call this entry "Good Coffee, Bad Blood"; I think what I went with is better.

They say you can't go back. I concur. But that doesn't mean I can't stop in for cuppa and peanut butter chocolate chip cookie every now and again.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Man Cannot Live on Coffee Alone!... or... Bahn Mi Oh My!

There are a couple of rituals I follow pretty faithfully when I'm on my lunch hour. Generally, I go to the gym in an attempt to counteract the effects of sitting dormant in a cubicle all day. Either that, or I'll hop on my cruiser and tool through the Auraria Campus, formulating fantasies about being a handsome pop-cultural anthropology professor taking advantage of undergrad students desperate to boost their GPA (it could happen!). Alas, even the most unusual preoccupations can become a bore when repeated often enough. When that happens, I'll usually get into my trusty automobile (that's right ladies, it's a Hyundai. Accent.) and head up Federal in search of Dollar Mercados or Asian owned video stores. I'll roam through byzantine strip malls, usually with no intention at all of actually buying anything, as in the case of "Cowbobas" (which is the unlikely marriage of a smoothie joint and a steak house, as opposed to the all beef equivelent of a McNugget).

But today I was hungry, so food was the order of business. Seeing as I had all of $7 in my pocket, and that has to get me my Friday morning coffee as well, my mission was clear -- I needed Bahn Mi.

I headed up to "Ba Le", a small sandwich chain (!) from Hawaii. Now, one doesn't usually associate Veitnamese cuisine with sandwiches, but this little torpedo of a meal - pickled carrots, daikon, onions, cilantro and meat (or not) on a baguette -born of natural selection from the French occupation of Vietnam, serves as possible proof that one itsy bitsy good thing has come out of Western style imperialism.

You may not have a lot of choice in the matter as far as what you're gonna get - traditionally, the bahn mi is served w/ pork - but there are options. I went for the ga (GA!) which is a grilled chicken variation. Sure, sandwich shops like "Heidi's" have enormous menus, but by the time you've ordered, you're too exhausted to protest the fact that you've just spent 9 and a half dollars for a couple slices of bread and some meat. On the other hand, you can go to any Vietnamese bakery in the entire country and order this tasty, filling, and unpretentious little sandwich and not pay more than 2.50 (this includes New York, people!)

Today, for under 5 bucks, I got my sandwich and a 16 oz. Cafe Sua Da (Vietnamese coffee) which tastes a little like melted Frappucino (TM) over ice. Seeing as it's made from condensed milk, it's probably as fattening as 5 Frappucinos (TM), which is frightening. But yummy.

Join me next time, as I continue to sate my wanderlust with the bean juice by visiting a Middle Eastern cafe and sipping Turkish coffee...

Only 2 more weeks 'til Santiago... Coffee with Legs!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Coffee Science Theater 3000!

Man, if you've got a high speed conection, Youtube.com is the promise of the internet fullfilled. WAY better than the jet packs and robot servants we thought we'd get, living in the 21st century... Kaiju action, 60's comercials, Japanese Spiderman, the opening credits of "Joanie Loves Chachi" ... between this site and the new, "Doctor Who" series (which is the first science fiction show to capture my attention and imagination in quite some time) I can't believe I 86'd my "Popflotsam" blog last week.

In honor of my wife, who is letting me use her computer (since I've been too busy to blog at work) I'm posting a couple of clips featuring 2 of her favorite men. And no, neither of them is me.

This 1984 campaign was designed to target the emerging yuppy class and offer them a viable alternative to cocaine. Look at the star power they got - Vonnegut! Bowie! Cicely Tyson! Cicely Tyson?! Just listen to her voice; she needed the caffeine in order to amp up and bitch slap that dude!

Here we have Ewan McGreggor, one of the greatest film actors of our generation. Notice how he levitates that beverage - yeah, sorry, boy-o; "the force" is going to stick to your career like "stale" to a cup of Diedrich's coffee.

I had a can of "Roots" once. I'd maybe consider drinking another if they gave me all that schwag on display at the end of the commercial.

(for the record, the "favorite guy" in the first commercial is David Bowie, not Kenny Anderson. In case you were wondering.)

Friday, March 10, 2006

Season's Greetings

Had he made it another 37 years, Sunday the 12th would have been writer, drunk, and occasional Denver resident Jack Kerouac 84th birthday. Now, I don't pretend to be a scholar of his works, or even the most avid fan. Hell, I only ever finished "On the Road", a few assorted "pomes", and parts of "The Subterraneans" (an attempt at "Desolation Angels" nearly put me into a coma). But a blog devoted to all things coffee, especially to those things intangible and, dare I say -transcendent- would be remiss to not mention the "King of the Beatniks", even though the man himself shunned the title. (I use "beatnik" over the preferred and pretentious "beat" precisely because it makes his silly Naropa progeny get all huffy and spout off all manner of angry and monumentally dull poetry... and that makes me laugh)

Beyond his association with a counter culture that he rejected later in life, I think it's only fitting that I pay tribute to him here. His "Stream of Consciousness" writing style -of which Truman Capote said "That's not writing, it's typing"- qualifies him, I believe, as the Original Blogger.

Happy Birthday, JK/Sal Paradise/et al, if there's an afterlife, I hope you're getting some "kicks" there.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Next Saturday is my birthday. My wife gives me a hard time over just how much I obsess over my age (which is to say, only slightly less than I do my weight) But I'm actually not sweating it that much this time out. I mean, relative to the ambivalent feelings I've had towards it in the past. I'm not as worried at, say, 33 and 345 days about turning 34 as I was on my 28th birthday about turning 30. I have a good job, a great family, and I have a couple of trips planned for the year... one out of the country (travel being one of those holy grails for the aging crypster, one barely sipped from in my 20's)

That said, however, I am now "In my 30's". Not "almost 30", where it's charming to pine like a "Must See TV" character about "what to do with my life?". Not "just turned 30", where all your friends get cutesy-poo and tease you about getting older. No, I am "In My 30's"... a grown man; and as such, I'm starting to behave like the person I want to be. It occurred to me, upon waking a week or so ago, how great it would be if I awoke on my birthday in the best health of my life. What if I lost those last lingering 5 lbs? What if I looked in the mirror and could see just a little bit more definition around my stomach, not Marky Mark "YO, boyeeeee, feel the vibration!" style, but just enough that my pants fit just a little bit looser?

What that means is, no more sneaking smokes from co-workers (as I've been known to do. Occasionally). It means riding my bike to work when I can (no problem there, my cruiser is my zen). It means knocking off the sweets (check). It means jumping rope and lifting weights a little more diligently (let's go!).

And then there's coffee. The Stuff. Though a diuretic, with some healthy benefits all it's own (in addition to all the other lovely things I can about it)- coffee, in excess, absolutely ravages the metabolism and adrenal system. In a fit of righteousness last week I promised myself that I'd detox for a couple of weeks, until my birthday, giving my body an opportunity to calibrate. Oh, I knew I'd start up again, but not until I'd given my nervous system a chance to... well... not be so nervous.

I made it four days.

Coffee is my last remaining vice, the one thing that I do for myself, whether the news says it's good for me this week or not. And let's face it... there's a lot worse vices out there.

I tried drinking green tea, but I just can't get behind that. I know that the stuff is supposed to help us achieve enlightenment (TM), and is thusly crammed into a strange array of products, and packaged w/ pictures of wizened men on mountain tops prepared to answer our most profound questions.

But try as I might to visualize myself as the 21st Century post-post modern sensitive Tai Chi master, it just didn't take. Yeah, yeah, green tea has caffeine. And "the patch" has nicotine. It just ain't the same, people.

But in the end, it's not just the caffeine. The ritual of going to a different shop every morning; the music, the mish mash of people from different walks of life, the awkward attempts at innocent flirtation w/ the girls behind the counter (just, you know, to keep in practice) all stimulate my brain nearly as much as the caffeine does. If this is "addiction", so is when my grandmother takes communion.

Hmmm. Maybe that means I've got some of the old spiritual awakening coming my way after all.

But I'd rather just have my coffee.