I DIDN’T MEAN TO TURN MY BACK ON YOU, JOE

Due to a professional obligation, I’m spending a lot of time in Midtown these days. Most of the time I feel like I’ve been dropped into the middle of some sort of happy hour party sponsored by Cigar Aficionado Magazine and Blackberry, and hosted at a Cosi Sandwich shop. In other words: paradise. (SFX: gunshot, body slumping in Aeron chair)

The only pleasant part of my out-of-office experience is my daily visit with Joe. Not the person but the coffee shop which is unfortunately subtitled “The Art of Coffee.” (C’mon! The Art of Coffee? Your name is “Joe,” not “Terence.”) Joe is one of the few coffee shops in Manhattan where the employees look and act like their favorite thing in the world is brewing, pouring and serving coffee. It’s nice, and so rare, particularly in a city where Starbucks locations are as ubiquitous as bum pee, and where the baristas hate your dumb face and can’t be bothered to pretend otherwise. At Joe, there are no uniforms. At Joe, the baristas take a full three minutes to prepare a latte and when they’re finished they leave the lid off so you can see they made a pretty leaf out of foamed milk on the surface of your drink. And you fall in love, just a little bit because those small gestures of humanity are so uncommon in the service industry they are easy to misinterpret as acts of affection, and respond in kind. Like when a waitress calls you “Honey” and draws a smiley face on your check, or when an auto mechanic doesn’t force himself on you sexually. By contrast, when you order a drink at Starbucks it is delivered to you with its lid secured, as if the contents within are something to feel ashamed of. (They usually are. MORE LIKE FOURBUCKS! AND ALSO LIKE CHARBUCKS! STARSUCKS! STARCROOKS! FARTFUCKS! I agree, I’ve probably gone too far.)

I haven’t really been drinking much coffee these days, ever since I quit caffeine for a couple of months at the behest of Charles Atlas, but I still frequent Joe for green tea and fresh-faced good times. So, when a couple of co-workers invited me to join them for an afternoon coffee at “the best coffee place in this neighborhood–so much better than Fartfucks”–I jumped at the chance to pay an encore visit to my old friend Joe.

BUT WE WERE NOT GOING TO SEE JOE. In fact, when I inquired after Joe I learned Joe was a stranger to them. “Who’s Joe?” “JOE IS A DREAM FLOATING ON A HALF-AND-HALF CLOUD!” “Is he cute?” “THE CUTEST.” They remained unconvinced, and I was curious about this so-called best-coffee-ever so, as they say on Generation Kill, I was “Oscar Mike” vis-a-vis getting coffee. (Sorry, Joe.)

Turns out, according to them the best coffee ever can be found at a place on 44th Street called MACCHIATO. We entered to find the coffee shop buzzing (there’s some of levin’s rapier wit!) with Midtown semi-professionals dressed in Terminator Casual–shirts, ties, khakis, Bluetooth headsets firmly implanted in ears. They were drinking it up like it was coffee-flavored Kool Aid. The decor of Macchiato is stainless steel and overly-sleek white, possibly purchased from the properties department of Band of the Hand. It immediately struck me that nothing in the shop was handwritten–everything was communicated according to some kind of invisible style guide favoring an elite selection of icy sans-serif typefaces. All the employees wore fitted black “Macchiato” t-shirts, and hustled through orders with an economy of gesture that was so robotic and fascistic it made me want to put on a pair of Dolfins and swing a sledgehammer into the menu board. While his co-workers attended to customers, one employee occupied himself with a length of rebar, apparently attempting to rescue something that had fallen through an open counter seam near the register. He had the vaguely threatening look of a mini-boss thug in a Luc Bresson-produced action film–compact, muscular, shaved head, Teutonic facial features–and was not the kind of person you wanted greeting you as you stepped up to order your Espressochino Arctic Foam Blast. (As I typed that a siren sounded, indicating that I am officially the one-millionth person to invent a funny-sounding coffee beverage name for the purpose of pointing out the ridiculous nature of coffee beverage names.)

Joe would never hire someone who looks like he should be holding a clipboard and velvet rope instead of a carton of Soy milk. Joe’s employees embrace you with the warmth of a hand-me-down cardigan sweater. Joe names its coffee beverages normal things like “coffee” and “iced coffee,” and has the decency to include simple syrup at its milk-and-sugar station. (For my less effete readers, simple syrup is a combination of water and melted-down sugar, designed for beverages that are too cold to dissolve crystallized sugar. It is not an especially laborious or costly service, and it is the barometer by which I measure the quality of any coffee shop. To provide simple syrup to customers is more than a courtesy; it is an act of understanding and compassion. Its exclusion is like a softly whispered “fuck you,” and tells me a lot about a coffee shop’s priorities vis a vis customers vs. profits. Not surprisingly, Starbucks actually charges customers for simple syrup. They call it “Classic Syrup” which is kind of like calling tap water “Dasani.”)

Apparently, the midtown crowd doesn’t care much for the human touch, because the line at Joe is usually pretty manageable while the line for Macchiato was nut-rageous. (please look for “nut-rageous” in Juno, Too: Back to the Womb.) The thirsty customers queued up so deep that the rear of the line pressed against the storefront’s outer wall, and dozens more other Blackberry-sniffers hoisted Macchiato-branded espresso cups in the noisy, packed “café.”

I refused to drink their swill, but after we left Macchiato I told my co-workers I had to run a quick errand before returning to the office. Once they were out of sight, I rode my old-fashioned three-speed Schwinn back to Joe’s, tears in my eyes, and made the employees listen to a Shins song on my oversized headphones. The song changed their lives, just like it had changed mine. Then we lay down on a grassy hillside, our bodies radiating out from a central point where our temples touched, and we drew Sharpie tattoos on each other’s bodies and named every cloud we saw. We have plans to meet back at that meadow tomorrow and every other day, too. I’m gonna bring my Super-8 camera and we’re going to shoot a mumblecore film together.

[Update: I decided to check out Macchiato a few days later, on my own, because I am curious and weak and always feel as if I'm missing on out something. Also, I own an iPhone. It all makes sense together. My iced latte tasted like milk with a coffee-flavored "Nips" candy accidentally dropped into it. Sometimes, Joe, hurting you hurts me even more.]

THIS IS HOW THE REVOLUTION BEGINS

I’m really looking forward to visiting the Bronx Zoo this summer:

There’s a great moment in the MSNBC video where the reporter says, “thankfully, the chimp dropped the rifle.” I love that he suggests this story had the potential for a killing spree. Given what I know of chimp behavior (EVERYTHING), I would guess that if the chimp hadn’t dropped the rifle, the most likely scenario would have been a licking-and-chewing-on-rifle spree. Quit trying to scare us, MSNBC! Do your homework. You know apes only know how to do a few things:

  1. eat stuff (bananas, rifles)
  2. swing around on stuff
  3. grin and sometimes flap lips to let you know it’s time to laugh
  4. give old ladies the finger
  5. punch bad guys in the face
  6. play dead when you shoot them with a finger gun
  7. be dead when you shoot them with a metal and bullets gun
  8. run a fancy hotel
  9. disappoint film critics and box office expectations

That’s pretty much it, except maybe enslave the human race, too…uh oh! SOMEONE CALL MSNBC!!!

MY FAVORITE SHOW IS NOW MY FAVORITE DVD

I had a huge crush on Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse. Not to be confused with the animated stuff he does on SNL–which is also usually very funny or at least very envelope-shoving–the TV Funhouse television series was an insane satire of children’s shows like Bozo The Clown or Howdy Doody. It featured a human host (usually dressed like a cowboy) interacting with a bunch of very cheap-looking animal puppets called The Anipals on a bright and colorful set. In between their interactions, they’d show cartoons (similar to the SNL stuff), short films, and Mr. Rogers-style field trips to places like a cookie factory and a sperm bank.

All the studio stuff was really funny and crazy, but my favorite thing about the show was its inclusion of live animals in many of the sketches. That’s what made me love the show so much, and is probably why it didn’t last more than a season. (The logistics of attaching a tiny pink bow to an iguana’s head or getting a cow to eat a steak in their “Sames” restaurant sketch must have been pretty awful on the show’s budget and its producers.) I really admired how much Smigel seemed to appreciate the humor you can mine from an animal without doing anything but letting it be itself in a super-weird environment, like in that Sames sketch or the animal testing lab sketch. So. Good. I wanted it preserved forever, like a pretty lady in a glass jar. And, finally, as of yesterday it is because TV Funhouse was just released on DVD. Tell Netflix to give it to you!

Sorta related: I can’t figure out if this is included on the DVD set, but a while back I got a chance to see the pilot for this show, which was very different than the format that aired on Comedy Central. (By the way, I’m hoping the pilot is included; not me watching the pilot, although I’d be cool with that, too, if they had that footage.) Apparently, Smigel had originally envisioned the show to be even more like Bozo the Clown. In fact, he wrote the pilot with himself cast as a mean, boozy Clown host and shot it (amazingly) in front of a live studio audience filled with actual children and their moms.

I don’t remember everything about the pilot but there was one moment that still makes me laugh when I think about it now. At one point in the show, Smigel-as-Clown announces that he’s going to bestow some kind of honor on a lucky person in the audience–I can’t remember what but it was the equivalent of “king for a day” or something. Then they cut to the audience and do one of those tricks where the camera is just whizzing around from person to person, never making it clear where it will land. After about five or six seconds of this, it finally settles on a young boy. When the boy notices that he’s on camera he has just enough time to react with excitement…before the camera starts moving again. A few seconds later, it lands on a little girl and the music plays, graphics pop up and she’s bathed in glory. It is at once one of the meanest and funniest thing I’ve ever seen, especially since the camera lingers on that original boy long enough to see his expression change from glee to confusion once it moves away from him. If I’m ever feeling sad, sometimes I remove that memory from my brain and press it against my heart. (Note: this memory alternates with my memory of the before-and-after pictures of the iguana make-over, also from TV Funhouse.)

MISSED OPPORTUNITY

Traveling home on a late Saturday night subway bound for East New York, our train was besieged by The World’s Greatest Entertainer and his incredible posse of hype-men. (Translation: a young, skinny black guy of indeterminate sexual orientation boarded the train with a few pals, and proceeded to annoy all of the passengers.)

The posse was dressed similarly, in matching yellow t-shirts with the word “SECURITY” across the back, but the WGE wasn’t having that at all. He was dressed one-of-a-kind stylishly, in off-the-ass skinny jeans with a jeweled (and essentially useless) belt, crisp Nike Dunks, and a suit vest buttoned over one of those bedazzled Don Ed Hardy shirts that have become this year’s “embarrassing-on-white-people but weirdly-cool-on-black-people” must-have fashion.

The first thing the WGE did was approach three young black girls who were sitting together. He began telling them which famous people they looked like–”Girl look like Jennifer Hudson!”–and each time he did this, his posse would burst out in uproarious laughter. Sometimes, when laughter wasn’t enough, the WGE would demand a kind of call-and-response, where he would say, “heyyyyy!” and his posse would respond with something like “Whoop de whoop what what huh!!” It was pretty impressive, if maybe a little noisome.

He called a sort of feminine-looking black man in oversized Cazals “Spike Lee,” even though he looked a little more like a member of The Specials. It didn’t matter if he was 100% accurate though, because he was the only one doing it and everyone was entertained until he told them they looked like Lionel Richie or “The O.C.” He also took tremendous liberties with passengers, after gaining their bewildered trust. At one point, I saw him standing over Jennifer Hudson, reaching for a pendant that hung between her breasts. Maybe she wasn’t especially threatened by his androgynous sexuality, or maybe she was just too shocked by his forthrightness to hit him with her Sidekick.

While the WGE made his rounds, stalking passengers to grant each individual a few minutes of loud and embarrassing undivided attention, I started to obsess over what he’d say to me. Lisa was with me and could see I was preoccupied (she has become an expert at reading my expressions) so I told her, “I’ll bet he’s going to say I look like Osama Bin Laden.” I’ve heard this before, from an aggressive and drunk UNC student on the street in Chapel Hill. I look nothing like Osama Bin Laden, but it’s still an easy go-to because I have a beard. I am weirdly sensitive to it. I would rather be called “Lionel Richie without a beard” because when someone calls me Osama Bin Laden there’s a part of me that thinks, “oh great, now everyone’s going to hate me.” As if just the suggestion is enough to convince others I’m probably up to some seriously anti-American hijinks.

After a few minutes sweating my inevitable roasting, I remembered that I am also a brilliant entertainer and wouldn’t it be great if he did dance around me and call me Osama Bin Laden while his posse “whoop de what what”-ed around the train and then I turned it on him and shut him right down with an even hotter burn? No…the HOTTEST BURN OF ALL TIME. I started fantasizing about this moment, where I pulled the rug out from beneath his gleeful reign of Friars’ Club terror, and then I actually began wishing he’d say something to me. I was trying to think of ways to make myself look more Bin Laden-y. Should I frown extra hard? Is there some way I could hold the subway pole the way Bin Laden holds a microphone, fingers extended and wrist limp?

Of course, the WGE never did make his way to me. Despite his velocity of delivery, his act quickly became repetitious, and the weaker moments began to stack up higher than the flashes of brilliance. Even his posse grew kind of tired of hyping him, and broke off into a couple of smaller posses, enjoying private conversations. So, to my disappointment (which, minutes earlier would have been my great relief), we never had our conversation. He never got a chance to tell me I look like Osama Bin Laden and I never got a chance to tell him he looked like “Usher’s broke cousin, Cashier“–The Burn Of The Century. (Sometimes, when I’m alone, I think of this line and high-five my memory.)

THE VERY PICTURE OF HEALTH

Close readers of this site might have noticed a recent obsession with things like sugar, carbohydrates, drinking and bodily functions. (Now that I’ve written that I realize this obsession is not necessarily recent but recurring and, if I am going to be totally honest with myself, everlasting.) That particular preoccupation can easily be explained by this article I’ve been working on for the last six weeks, and available for viewing today at Salon. It’s about some time I spent following the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension Course. You can find out more about Atlas at his posthumous website, but I think a more unbiased source of information exists at The Online Physical Culture Museum.

And if you aren’t a big fan of reading, you can pretty much learn everything you need to know about Charles Atlas by staring at this photograph for several minutes:

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VH-1′s NEW REALITY SHOW, ‘I LOVE MONEY’

In the first episode, the host gathers the entire (drunk. shirtless.) cast together and says, “Just to show you how real this all is, I’m prepared to write out a check to each of you for $250,000 right now.” He then produces a large novelty-sized check made out to “Mr. Boston.” And, as is traditionally required by all financial institutions as a security measure to certify all checks drafted for amounts exceeding $20,000, VH-1′s bank wisely included a photographic likeness of the recipient directly on the check:

THE INTERNET IS SUCH A DRAMA QUEEN

I was just reading a story linked by the esteemed website, Gothamist.com, about the new IKEA in Brooklyn. IKEA has been offering a free shuttle bus between the store (which is located in the somewhat hard-to-reach neighborhood of Red Hook) and a few more convenient Brooklyn subway stops. Apparently, after just a few days of service the shuttle is already being taken advantage of by many of the city’s commuters who have been using this free, comparatively posh transportation to bypass a $2 public bus ride. That is pretty awesome.

Even more awesome is the fact that, according to Gothamist, many of those freeloaders are homeless folks looking to catch a free ride to the methadone clinic. This begs the question: If you are so good at finding a hustle, why are you so bad at having a home and/or teeth? I’m sure the homeless consider this bitter irony each time they hop aboard the IKEA express and heroin-nap all the way to their clinic. (There was one comment on the post that really made me laugh, where a person compared the class disparity on these IKEA shuttles to a Weegee photograph of two aristocratic women being ogled by a crazy-eyed homeless lady. Because, you know, IKEA has always been considered the premier self-assembly furniture destination for the discriminatingly wealthy.)

I’ve often thought there are a lot of public services not being addressed in this city. For example, after visiting the Hamptons and seeing the relatively carefree attitude most of the summer residents have with regards to their home security and personal safety, one could make a fortune offering a low-priced shuttle bus for thieves without cars. Each Friday morning, the B&E Jitney would transport individuals from high-crime neighborhoods directly to Amagansett, where it would leave them to frolic among the many unlocked summer rental homes and convertible cars parked curbside. Tickets would be one-way, based on the assumption that most of the passengers would be able to procure return transportation from one of the many beach parking lots or unattended driveways and garages.

I realize that is only one example, but that’s because I really only had one example. Sorry about that.

WHAT THE BOYS ARE DRINKING THESE DAYS

[haven't updated in a while for a very weird reason: i forgot my movable type login. really, i did. i need to start writing these things down.]

Before I forget and before it moves on, I wanted to mentioned how I’ve noticed a drinking trend among young men–specifically, the young and nerdy men I often encounter at comedy shows in some of the city’s downtown rooms. These little guys–most of them are barely of legal age–have started drinking whiskey, straight, and the sight of it is pretty damn adorable. On any given night, I’ll see several of them shuffling around with poor posture, holding whiskey glasses with the kind of self-conscious care usually reserved for holding one’s own urine specimen. If I study them long enough, I’ll usually catch a few of them taking lady-sips, and then turning their heads away so no one can see them wince from the burn. It just seems like an odd age to develop a taste for whiskey; it’s like they’re precocious alcoholics.

My early drinking habits were formed primarily by advertising and economics. When I was a sophomore in high school I discovered that drinking alcohol at parties with girls and upperclassmen could be an exciting alternative to hanging out in my friend Simon’s living room on a Friday night, watching Yor, the Hunter from the Future on Cinemax After Dark, and peer pressuring each other to split a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts between us. Not knowing anything about drinking, I chose Budweiser. First and most obviously, it was the King of Beers. That’s a given. Also, Budweiser had more commercials on television and in magazines than any other beer in America. It was as recognizable as Pepsi Free. (historical reference!) I’m certain there was a shrewdness on the part of the Budweiser marketing department to ensure their brand was imprinted on the minds of all underage drinkers. Kudos to them, because it worked. Everyone who drank in high school started with Budweiser, just as everyone who smoked started with Marlboro Reds or, if they hung out with cooler kids, Camel Lights.

If I wasn’t drinking Budweiser at parties, it was either because someone had scored a bottle of something that we would then mix with anything–Jim Beam and grape soda? Makes perfect sensen–or because I’d been burned by an older kid coming back from a beer run. (There were exactly two stores in my town that had a well-known reputation for selling beer to minors; at one of them, the store’s owner would even help you load the cases into the trunk of your car. There was also one liquor store called Sabatino’s Liquors was located in the heart of SUNY college campus housing. Their “no I.D. required or even desired” policy was reliable enough that they were frequently cited by local police, which meant you never knew what kind of reception you’d receive when you plunked down a couple bottles of peppermint Schnapp’s and one of those jugs of well vodka that had its own handle for convenient portage. A Sabatino’s run could make or break a Saturday night.) Often at parties, an upperclassman with a car would collect money and take orders for beer. In my fealty to his status as an older kid, it was customary to hand over ten dollars and say, “just get me something good.” Inevitably, “something good” would turn out to be a six-pack Piel’s or Utica Club–or if he was a total dick, Meister Brau. These beers retailed around $2.49, and I expect the remainder of my money would be spent on cigarettes, gas, Doritos, or pocket combs. Ask for change from a beer run was extremely taboo and, really, it didn’t matter anyway because I was fifteen years old and a horrible beer like Utica Club was going to get me exactly as drunk as a slightly less horrible beer like Coors or Budweiser.

Eventually, I picked up on what the older kids were drinking at parties and expanded my repertoire. Soon, I began to request Molson (very popular upstate), Beck’s (my friend, Andy, turned me on to this beer and drinking it made me feel sophisticated) or, if I were trying to impress someone, Grolsch. As a party beer, Grolsch had a lot of novelty appeal. First, it was allegedly higher in alcohol content, which meant one Grolsch was technically equivalent to slightly more than one regular beer–a fact that never went unstated by the person enjoying a Grolsch. Plus, the bottles were oversized and sealed with a ceramic stopper that could later be utilized as a makeshift roach for smoking weed. Yes, Grolsch kept on giving.

Throughout college, I went through several drinking phases. In chronological order: a White Russian phase; a cheap Jug Wine phase; a Jaegermeister phase; a Crazy Horse and St. Ides Malt Liquor phase (“S-T-CROOKED ‘I’-D-E-S / GUARANTEED TO GET THE BIG BOOTIES UNDRESSED”); a Manhattans phase; and a White Russian Renaissance phase. By graduation, my relationship with alcohol was pretty well resolved. I still favored certain drinks in brief phases, usually based on whatever concoction my latest ex-girlfriend ordered while we were dating–7 & 7, Wild Turkey & Coke, vodka gimlets.

I didn’t drink white wine until I was in my thirties, because I had some kind of irrational prejudice against it. I thought red wine was for bohemians, gourmands and sophisticates, and white wine was for ladies who hang out in nail salons and enjoy an ice cube in their wine glass and lipstick stains along the rim. I still don’t know why I thought that, and I was to learn many of my friends also had the same unfair bias against Sauvignon Blanc.

Lately, when I’m not drinking wine (brag) I’m usually drinking mid-shelf vodka and soda. It’s a nice, clean drink as long as the vodka is just decent enough to not taste like you’re swallowing a length of rough cotton. Before settling into vodka and soda, I typically defaulted to Maker’s Mark on ice. (Or straight, when I felt like nursing one glass all night.) I can’t explain how much I loved that drink. As I said earlier, at this point in my life my relationship with alcohol is fairly casual and detached–I’ve stopped drinking for extended periods, while trying to lose weight. But there was something about seeing the caramel-colored swirl of bourbon in my glass that was so pleasing. It was almost like watching dessert being prepared. I liked bourbon so much I figured it was the only alcohol that had the power to be my undoing–what’s not to love about that?

I stopped drinking Maker’s Mark a few months ago, when I began a new diet that’s pretty restrictive about the amount of sugar and carbs I consume. (Again, I’m using my own personal science to determine that bourbon contains an excessive amount of both, and I look forward to having this theory debunked by ANYONE.) As a result, maybe I am more acutely aware of this drink’s presence in my vicinity but I would still argue there’s something to my theory about young, male comedy nerds and whiskey. Maybe it’s because many of the older comics seem to favor scotch and bourbon, and this behavior is being aped or emulated by younger comedy enthusiasts, as if somehow drinking brown spirits is implicitly part of a comedy training regimen. (And maybe it is, because bourbon is an extremely effective depressant, and that can be great for comedy.)

The point of my fascinating thesis on the importance of alcohol in my personal development is that I wanted to relate a very cute incident I overheard a couple weeks ago, as I was waiting to tell jokes at a show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Maybe you’ve read about Williamsburg in Newsweek!) I was scribbling hilarious notes at the bar when a very skinny guy who looked to be about 23 years old approached the bar and had the following exchange with the bartender:

YOUNG GUY WITH SMATTERING OF A BEARD GROWN TO DIRECT FOCUS AWAY FROM THE FACT THAT HE ENJOYS THE MUSIC OF RILO KILEY AND CRIED DURING THE SHAVING SCENE IN ‘THE ROYAL TANNENBAUMS’:
“Hi, may I have a whiskey on the rocks, please?”

BARTENDER, WHO WAS EITHER BEING HELPFUL OR, MORE LIKELY, CALLING
A BLUFF:

“OK…what kind of whiskey would you like?”

YOUNG GUY WHO HAS BEEN THINKING OF GETTING AN OLD-FASHIONED SAILOR TATTOO ON HIS FOREARM BUT, AS RECENTLY AS ONE YEAR AGO, HAD CONSIDERED HAVING THE WORD ‘QWERTY’ TATTOOED ON THE INSIDE OF HIS WRIST INSTEAD:
“(stammering and gesticulating nervously) Um…I guess…whatever you think is…um…appropriate…uh, given the, um, circumstances…”

[BARTENDER POURS A CAN OF PIEL'S INTO A WHISKEY GLASS]

Exeunt.

When he ordered his drink, I half-hoped the bartender wouldn’t ask him for further clarification because I remembered being in his place not long enough ago. I knew he didn’t know anything about whiskey, or the difference between bourbon and scotch and rye, and probably didn’t care. He just didn’t want to walk up to the bar and say, “I would like some brown alcohol, served in a ‘big boy’ glass, please.”

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