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.]

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.”

COME ON, GUYS – VOLUME 314

Although I’m on a somewhat restrictive diet these days (no more dulce de leche I.V. drip), my paper-thin willpower is no match for the new Häagen-Dazs flavor, “fleur de sel caramel.” There’s been a lot of fleur de sel hoopla these days, and I approve of all of it. Sweet and salty is a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned. My friend, Allison, first disgusted me and then converted me when I saw her dump a package of M&Ms into a bucket of movie popcorn. When she did that I covered my head, afraid of angering my god. I became one of the Skull Island natives in King Kong when they first experienced the beautiful madness of White Man’s new-fangled transistor radio. Since eating that first buttered “M”, though, I was all in.

The Fleur De Sel Caramel ice cream does not disappoint, either. What does disappoint, however, is the Häagen-Dazs website promoting their new line of “reserve” flavors, designed for the more discriminating ice cream eaters shopping at their neighborhood Value-Mart. Besides describing the various flavors–Amazon Valley Chocolate, Hawaiian Lehua Honey & Sweet Cream–as if they’d been discovered on an archeological dig, the site embarrassingly lists “food and wine pairings” for each flavor. Here’s an example, from Toasted Coconut Sesame Brittle:

“Serve a scoop atop a banana leaf for the perfect ending to a Thai dinner.”

And for wine? You probably guessed it already, but:

“A sweet German dessert wine such as Trocken Beren Auslese.”

Come on, guys. That’s just showing off, isn’t it? How many people are filling their shopping carts with pre-packed pints of mass-produced ice cream (manufactured by the Dreyers corporation, by the way–a company whose slogan is “Give ‘em the good stuff!”), and then wheeling over to the supermarket’s stockboy to find out where they keep their sweet dessert wines and banana leaves. It’s such a stretch, particularly when the HD suggests one pair their Pomegranate & Dark Chocolate ice cream bar with a “fresh mint garnish.” I guess I could just take a bite out of this ice cream bar on a stick, hold the bite of ice cream in my mouth as I delicately place a fresh mint leaf on the exposed pomegranate ice cream, and then spit my mouthful back on to the bar, making it whole again, but that strikes me as inconvenient. Also inconvenient: asking a 7-11 clerk if he has any fresh mint behind the register, next to the trucker speed, Skoal Bandits, and naked lady cigarette lighters.

As you read through the flavor descriptions, the food pairings get more and more ludicrous, mentioning gorgonzola cheese, or a raspberry balsamic vinaigrette reduction. It even suggests eating Fleur De Sel Caramel ice cream out of the just-spent oyster shell. COME ON, GUYS.

I think I know what happened here. The company’s advertising agency received the creative brief for these new reserve flavors which HD would like to position as being slightly more exclusive than their core brand flavors. There was probably some kind of mention in the brief that the brand’s “aspirational” qualities have been diluted by “clutter” in the category of artisanal-style ice cream, and by the fact that HG has become so ubiquitous that people no longer associate it with driving a Delorean or wearing polo boots and eating mustard with real, fancy mustard grains in it.

Enter: Häagen-Dazs Reserve. The suggested pairings are bullshit. We know it, and HD knows it. No one honestly expects people to eat store-bought ice cream out of a cashed Bluepoint oyster shell. It’s just meant to create a tantalizing fog of rich person fantasy that tastefully obscures the fact that this is a 2000-calorie tub of ice cream loaded with industrial salt and factory-cut caramel fudge nuggets, and that the average consumer (me) is probably going to pair it with some frostbitten chicken taquitos from Trader Joe’s, a Diet Coke, a DVR’d episode of Top Chef, and three tablespoons of existential misery. Either way, that’s good eatin’.

HOW TO WRITE YOUR MORNING PAGES

This morning, I greeted the woman who rings up my coffee in the mall and she greeted me in return. Since she was neither behind the counter nor in uniform – I even told her, very squarely, “you’re in civilian clothing today” because I have a rapier’s wit – I consider this exchange a friendly, non-transactional one. I am quickly learning that the path to attaining “regular” status isn’t about putting in the hours; it’s just a matter of consistency. I’ve purchased coffee from her exactly 11 times now, all in the space of three weeks. That has bought me more inter-personal credit than the months (years?) of on-again, off-again consumption at any number of locations in my Brooklyn neighborhood.

In fact, the (often distractingly beautiful) women at the coffee shop nearest my apartment rarely acknowledge me, and I treat them in kind. My attitude toward them, and theirs toward me, is a chicken-and-egg dilemma. I’m not sure if I’m indifferent to them because of their aloofness, or if they’ve grown cold to me as a result of my unconscious desire to deny them the additional privilege of flattery heaped on to the already colossal mountain of male attention they receive all day long. (My optometrist and I have nicknamed this coffee shop “Scores, with caffeine” because of the management’s insistence on recruiting slithering, preening underage coffee vixens for the busy evening shifts. There are so many problems with this coffee shop – amazingly, all unrelated to each other – that I don’t entirely understand its tremendous impact on my neighborhood. Actually, reading back the previous sentence, and the one before that, I guess I do understand its tremendous impact – part of it, anyway. The part known as “titties.”) Either way, I could probably show up at this coffee shop for another ten years and never know the name of a single person behind that counter, mostly due to the irregularity of my visits. Also, many of the employees have Israeli names and those are difficult to pronounce, and just as difficult to remember. They should just insist their employees take on stage names like Raven, Silk, Krystal and Juggsworth Jigglebottoms III.

When I made my memorable quip re: civilian clothing to the woman who rings up my coffee in the mall, her response (with arms stretched above her head) was, “it’s my FREE day!” This struck me as odd, since we were having this conversation in the mall, 24 inches from the coffee counter. She then joined her manager, who was leaning against the sugar bar with a clipboard, interviewing a young man with shaggy hair and a soul patch. The manager asked, “tell me a little more about yourself – your interests, your schedule, and your experience at Starbucks as a barista.” She stretched out the word “barista,” bridging it across two continents. The prospective employee, standing in the middle of the mall, huddled in his buttoned pea coat, considered her question and answered each part of it beginning with carefully coded key words. Like this: “More about me…My schedule is…As far as my experience as a barista…”

I spent a few more minutes listening to the interview, as I made myself late for work. I often catch myself complaining about my job, but I really have no perspective. I was sort of amazed that this guy was close to my age and had to conduct a job interview in the middle of mall traffic, standing up, in his winter coat, while total strangers (like me) eavesdropped over their frozen lattes. Moments later, I arrived at my desk, like I do every day, dressed in civilian clothing.

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