Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Coffee Snobs

When I lived in Seattle, in the grungy halcyon days of the mid and late 90s, one of the many jobs I passed through was that of a barista. That's not really saying much. Just about anybody who lives in the Emerald City during their twenties ends up pulling espresso at one time or another. Except for my friends Joe, Megan and Gene, who all seemed to have adult jobs in their twenties for some reason. You can even work in fast food and technically call yourself a barista since even the McDonalds and Burger Kings in Seattle serve espresso. (Similar to how the ones in Maine serve those nasty-ass lobster rolls)

I did coffee for longer than any other job I had in my Gen-X slacker years (which I'm sure will end any year now). I loved it. Absolutely loved it. I sat at a cart outside the Safeway at 40th Street and Stone Way in the Wallingford neighborhood. A solo-shift operation, I had no co-workers or boss around all day long. I listened to music, read books, socialized with my friends who stopped by, and smoked cigarettes.

And mainlined caffeine. When I got the shakes I knew it was time to eat, so I would grab some corn dogs and tasty jo-jo potatoes from the deli inside using the money from my tip jar.

Ah, the tips. Cash in pocket every day. Beer and smokes money. And it was really quite amazing that I made any. I was a pretty shitty barista in so many ways. I was so rude to people all the time. I would abuse them and they would put a buck in my jar. It sometimes astounded me. Someone would ask me to make them a latte with sugar in it and I would give them the cup and tell them to put the sugar in themselves. And for this I got change given freely to me?

I think my schtick worked because Seattle is such a "nice" place. People are so damn polite to each other that it becomes tiresome. Coming and getting abused by the surly barista reading Emma Goldman's autobiography was a break in the day. And I was playing a character, the Coffee Dude. Like the peanut man at the ballpark or the bartender in the local dive bar, I played my part.

And really, if your drug dealer insults you do you really care as long as he gets you your fix?

I didn't really take the "art" of pulling espresso very seriously. Seattle is full of espresso aficionados, or so they think. Serving coffee snobs for as long as I did makes you realize one thing. They don't know shit. I pulled weak-ass shots all the time and people couldn't tell the damn difference. Someone would ask me for a drink with ristretto (short) shots and I would just make it how I normally do. They would take a drink and say "perfect!" Idiots. It was amazing to see such a large population of snobs who didn't actually know nearly as much about the subject they were snobby about like Seattle coffee drinkers.

Their request would be so specific and I would do it so general but they wouldn't notice one bit. I had people tell me the exact temperature they wanted to have their latte steamed to but I never used the milk thermometers. They never noticed. Or the exact amount of flavored syrup they wanted in their drink. "An ounce and a quarter of vanilla please." Like I would actually use the shot measuring cups. Puh-lease!

One day, after I had been doing this job for almost two years, someone came up and asked me for a latte with three quarters of a packet of sugar. I called my boss and gave my notice. I'd had enough.

It was a great gig for a while. But the uppity attitude about coffee finally got to me. It wasn't just that people had the way they liked their coffee. So many of them were convinced that their way was the only way. If you like your coffee some other way you just weren't a real coffee person. Anyone who asked for ristretto shots or a macchiato was especially likely to have this attitude. It's pretty annoying. I drank a lot of coffee over the time that I worked there in hundreds of different ways. Straight espresso, Americano, caramel vanilla mocha, cappuccino (both dry and wet), you name it I've had it. And they are almost all good. As long as you've got quality coffee you can't go wrong.

I thought about this recently because for some weird reason I've heard a few examples of this again lately. I've heard several people fairly recently, including my wife's lovely aunt who I like a lot and my best friend Joe, say that if you don't drink your coffee black you just don't like coffee.

I got news for you black coffee drinkers. Plenty of people who like to dress up their java know and love their coffee just fine. Just because I like to have a little hazelnut creamer in my cup 'o joe doesn't mean I can't tell the difference between good coffee and bad.

At one point I considered this idea, that I really just like the sweetness and not the coffee itself. I thought I could save money, since I flavor my coffee, by just getting a can of Maxwell House instead of always buying the quality whole beans. Big mistake. Once you've gone to such good quality you can't go back. So don't tell me I don't like my coffee.

And really, is there another food product that anyone would say that about? Coffee seems to be unique in that way.

I like my pizza plain. A perfect food that does not need anything extra. Would I tell someone that like mushrooms on their pie that they don't really like pizza? I think if I ever accused my wife ('shrooms and olives) of such a thing I would be sleeping on the couch. Those would be fighting words.

Hey, you put salt on your omelette! Man, you must really not like eggs.

You're drinking PBR instead of Guinness? You really hate beer don't you? (This one seems likely to get you beat up in many places)

You don't ever hear people say these things. Only coffee drinkers seem to pull this attitude.

I'm so glad I'm not an espresso jockey anymore.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Family gatherings.

Words that send shivers down my spine.

I've had an aversion to family functions for as long as I can remember. Even in childhood I knew I was not like these people and wondered why the hell I should be forced to spend so much time around them. My aunts, uncles and cousins are a group of some of the most simple-minded, prejudiced, uneducated, unworldly and incurious people I've ever been around. Anything not of the white, Judeo-Christian, rural world is just odd to them. Anything different is a target for scorn and contempt. That eventually included me. Whether it was the kind of music I listened to, the haircuts I had as a teenager or the pierced ear, I was a weirdo. Different is bad, after all.

The shit thrown at me wasn't nearly as bad as having to listen to the subtle and not so subtle bigot-speak. There wasn't a racial joke they didn't love and the word fag was thrown around without thought. Ever since I hit adulthood I've tried to spend as little time as possible around it all. With the exception of funerals and maybe one of my grandmother's landmark birthdays, I've kept my ass away from Waterloo, Iowa, where most of my extended family lives. I'm already dreading my grandmother's 90th birthday next May. It will be the first time I've been there in 5 years, the last time being her 85th. I get to look forward to being the black sheep who lives in the "big city" and putting up with lots of dumbass questions. Half will be about how I can live in a place like New York (most of them can't see the difference between that and living in Baghdad) and the other half will be about "Ground Zero."

I've been able to shield my wife from it for a long time but at that event she may finally be exposed to the backward-ass bumblefucks that are my family.

For the most part I stick with immediate family gatherings. That isn't very often since we are all pretty scattered. We got together a couple of years ago at my dad's place in Arizona (parents are divorced of course), and I just got back from a gathering at my sister's in Gainesville, Florida.

My sister called me a couple of months ago to invite me down. My brother and his family we're going to go there as a surprise for my mother, who lives in the Tampa area, and she wanted me to come down too.

I wasn't sure about going at first, but my sis sounded like she really wanted me to come. My sister is the person in my family that I actually like and it is hard for me to say no to her.

So a gathering of my brother's family (wife and four kids), my sister's family (husband and two kids), my mother and me. My wife couldn't come on this trip due to work commitments.

My brother is basically a huge prick. He has a picture of Ronald Reagan hanging on the wall of his office and voted for George W. twice. He honestly thinks using "tactical" nuclear weapons is a good idea. He believes that solution to the problems in the Middle East is to move all of the Jews from Israel to America and then nuke the whole region. And this guy is a father to four kids under the age of eight. He screams at them a lot

My mother is her own kind of crazy. She went from being an angry single mother who beat and emotionally abused her kids to being a Born Again Jesus freak. Though that hasn't stopped her from being an angry control freak.

The most sane person in the whole family, including me, is my sister. This is probably why she also has the nicest kids. She is usually the peace maker of all of us.

The weekend went along as it usually does, with everyone getting along for a few hours at a time until there is a blowup over something stupid. Like parking spaces. Seriously, that can be the subject of a major fight in our family. I usually end up drinking way too much just to try to numb the whole experience and to keep me from trying to strangle my mother.

Now I knew that my brother and his wife were churchgoers, but I had no idea how crazy it had gotten. Well, I had a little clue at Christmas when my sister-in-law sent out one of those form letter cards that praised "His" name and all that. But I really hadn't seen it in person. They make their kids pray out loud even in restaurants, and this includes a singing version I guess they learned recently. Fuckin' creepy.

It wasn't until dinner on the second night that it became a "thing."

When they were praying my oldest niece Alex, who is seven, noticed I didn't participate.

"Why didn't you pray Uncle Deni?"
"I don't believe in it."
"You don't believe in God?"
"No, I Don't."
"You don't believe in the Bible?!?!?"
"No Alex, there's a lot of people that don't."
"But it's true!"
"Not to everyone."
"So you're going to Hell?"
"No, I don't believe in Hell."

At this point she got fairly upset and said to my brother, "Daddy, Uncle Deni doesn't believe in God."

He told her that he knew and that "we are working on him." See, I told you, a total prick.

My niece actually got upset and left the table, I imagine thinking that her uncle is going to Hell. My brother went and spoke to her and she came back but would barely look at me. No way to know what he said to her, but I imagine that they spoke about working on saving me. When her mother showed up in the room she noticed she was upset and also took her off to speak to her.

My sister-in-law then came back and said to me, "Deni, when you have those kind of conversations with Lexi, just remember that she's seven."

I said, "All I did was answer a question honestly. Would you rather I lie to my niece?"
"No, just remember that she's seven and doesn't understand."
"Maybe you shouldn't be raising your daughter to be intolerant and bigoted."

This caused a big uproar. They tried to convince me that they weren't raising her to be intolerant of other beliefs, but I pointed out that they are teaching their kids that their uncle is a bad person and is going to Hell.

My sister-in-law actually tried to feed me a line of bullshit about people who don't accept Jesus as their savior going to Hell, but that you can be a good person and still go to Hell. What a crock. And I'm the one that is supposed to remember that she's only seven. They send them to Sunday school and tell them tat Hell is this horrible place that you don't want to go so you better be good, and they are supposed to understand that you can be a good person and still go there?

My mother and my brother chimed in at different times to argue with me. My brother even used the phrase "the truth" when talking about what they are teaching their kids. How arrogant can you get.

My mother denied that Christians are trying to convert everyone else, despite the fact that I had to sent her an insulting email to get her to stop sending me her religious propaganda email messages.

At some point my sister-in-law tried to tell me that they do want their kids exposed to different ideas.

That is always the thing parents like these say, but it is such a lie. What my brother and his wife are doing is feeding their children full of dogma so that when they finally do get exposed to some other points of view they will resist listening to it. Nobody who really wants their children to hear other philosophies and theories teaches them that the religion they believe in is the absolute truth and that all other religions are "false."

Another generation of intolerant bigots being primed in my family. How wonderful.

Luckily my sister and her husband are raising theirs to be smarter than that.

There is hope.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


You know, when I was younger one of my many reasons for wanting to avoid marriage had to do with seeing all of those depressed husbands being dragged around the mall while their wives shopped. You know the ones, you always see them sitting there with their wives' purses looking completely dejected and often even sleeping. Sometimes with a stroller in tow. Really pathetic if you asked me.

This last Sunday the wife and I went to the Macy's at Herald Square. For those of you not from New York, this is THE Macy's. The one of the Thanksgiving parade and Miracle on 34th Street. It is pretty much how you might imagine it. There is a sign on the store that says "World's biggest department store" and I'm not sure if it is a fact or a slogan but it sure seems true. It is a massive store, taking up two buildings spread out over an entire New York city block, between Broadway & 7th and 34th & 35th. And I don't remember for sure but I think it has at least 12 floors in each building. It is a really daunting place. And somewhat annoying as you might imagine. But when you live in Manhattan there are times when it really is the best place to go for certain things. Like dress shirts. And apparently women's undergarments.

I needed dress shirts and a new pair of black shorts. My wife needed to look at some bras. So off to Macy's we went. It was crowded of course. We got me a dress shirt, shorts, and a few other shirts. My wife wasn't happy with the bra selection so she went home empty handed. It was a somewhat annoying day, being in a big crowded department store filled with tons of people, a good number of them tourists.

But I got to thinking how not-so-bad it was. I hate shopping. Always have. I would have thought that having a wife would make it even worse but in fact the inverse is true. Shopping in so much better since I got married.

In my single days when I needed something like pants, shirts or shorts I would run in to the store, quickly find something that seemed passable and probably my size and run out. So it goes without saying that it was not uncommon for me to end up with a) shit that didn't fit, and b) clothes that looked fucking stupid once they were on my body. And being a single guy that stuff just sat in my closet for years because I never bothered to take it back. That would have required an extra trip to the dreaded store. Good Will used to get a lot of great unworn clothes from me.

It is so much better with my wife there. First of all, since she actually finds me attractive (at least that what she says) she is always looking out for stuff that I look good in. With her around I also always try clothes on now. This has stopped me from walking out with things that looked like good choices on the rack but look really dumb on me. She has also convinced me to go with the bigger size in pants despite my insistence that I want to stay a 34, even though I'm really a 35 now. I would walk out with 34s thinking, "Well they don't feel horribly tight," not realizing that even if they don't feel too tight they look really goddamn tight and make my gut and my ass look even bigger.

She's also really good at matching ties to shirts, which I'm proud to say I'm really shitty at doing. I have no interest or talent in putting dress clothes together. With the wife around I don't walk out of the apartment looking like an idiot with a plaid tie and a striped shirt.

So things go so much better at the clothing stores than they used to for me.

Sure, I sometimes have to find the husband chair in the women's department when my honey needs to find some things for herself. But she never takes all that long when I'm there and she never, ever makes me hold her purse.

It dawned on me that all of those miserable husbands aren't unhappy because they've been dragged to the department store by their wives. They're unhappy because they've been dragged there by their fucking lame, shitty wives.

And I don't have one of those.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


The conclusion of the story of my time at the Jensonia in Seattle. (Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3)

I got back to my apartment with my beer and I was wired up to no end. I cracked open a Henry's and picked up the phone. I called my buddy Joe and after he answered I think I said something along the line of "Dude, somebody got fucking killed in my building!"

I was telling him the story and there was a knock on the door. It was a cop. (Hey look, I'm finally getting to the impetus for this 4-part story I started three weeks ago!)

"I gotta go, there's a cop at the door."

The cop, just like they always tell those young uniform guys on Law & Order, which this one looked like, was canvassing. He was asking me if I saw anything, where I was and what I was doing at such and such a time. I told him had been home watching a baseball game by myself and a part of me wondered if I suddenly became a suspect with that likely story.

During this time my cat was trying to get out of the open door, and I kept having to shove him back. I asked the cop if he wanted to come in, after apologizing for having to keep dealing with the cat. Right after I said that I realized that my apartment had some, shall we say, herbal aroma wafting through it and a couple of "pipes to be used with tobacco products only" sitting out in the open. But he said no thank you.

As he was finishing up questioning me, my usual neighbor posse walked by on their way back to the ex-handy man apartment at the end of the hall. He told me to come back to his place when I was done, while making a joint smoking gesture with his fingers behind the cop's back. The cop left and I think I called Joe back and a couple of more people, but I'm not really sure.

I grabbed my half rack of Henry's and went down the hall. There was a gathering that seemed to be a make-shift wake for Bob. There was the butch lesbian couple, the big former Marine, the ex-frat boy sports lover, a girl I didn't know and of course our host, who was taking a big hit off a bong when I walked in. Just about everybody had beer, though I had the best stuff there that night so mine went quickest. It tells you something about just how cheap the other beer was when Henry's is the finest quality beer in the room.

It was a really nice bonding with the neighbors kind of evening. Topics of conversation ranged widely, the baseball playoffs, the college football season, favorite restaurants, where to get cheap stuff, weird jobs we've all had, weirder people that lived in the building, just about anything. Of course there was talk about poor Bob. What the hell happened? The people who knew him the best figured that he finally mouthed off to the wrong person. He was what you'd call an ornery cuss.

We all also wondered what would be happening at the building. Nobody figured to be there much longer, either because it was getting too creepy or that the new owners would force us out eventually. It seemed to already be happening to one person. The young girl there that I didn't know had come home that night to not just a murder in the building but also an eviction notice on her door. She said she had been late with her rent, but we told her that the eviction notice was legally questionable at that point. She was fairly upset and was the first crier of the night.

There was also music. Our host pulled out his guitar and played a few things. One was this really great song he wrote that made me think of the old Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs about the plight of the working class. I remember there being a great line about "working in a factory like a trained chimp."

I was really impressed by the depth of his songwriting. A truly beautiful song by working class guy with a guitar.

He then followed that up with a rendition of the Gilligan's Island theme sung to the tune of Stairway To Heaven.

We laughed, we cried, we got fucked up.

I didn't really know Bob, or even really like him all that much. Some of the people there knew him better, others not at all. But someone getting killed in the very place you live is a little unnerving and everyone needed somebody that night. And we were the somebody to each other.

The following months at the Jensonia continued the downward spiral. On one occasion some drug cops came and raided someone's apartment, which was rumored to be because of heroin dealing. Another time a guy on my floor, about my age, was found dead in his apartment from an apparent overdose.

I finally got my notice of a rent increase, about double, at the end of the year. I had already been invited to move into a house with some friends who were losing a roommate so I was leaving anyway.

I moved out of the Jensonia in the middle of February 1999.

Bob's murder was eventually solved. It was as people suspected, he was drunk and ornery and started a fight with someone. The guy happened to land a perfect punch to his nose and ended up killing him. He was charged with manslaughter. I never found out if he went to jail or not.

In later years there were several fires at the building at it was finally condemned. I've read that there are plans to tear it down but as of right now I believe it is still standing, though empty.

I've lived lots of places since then. The rest of my time in Seattle was living with friends in a house at 5th Ave NE and NE 52nd St, which was both cheap and a fabulous place to live. I then moved back to Chicago, then to Boston and New York.

I've been living in more middle class places since the Jensonia. On one hand that's nice because that usually means less skeezy people hanging out in your building and less chance for a murder or an OD down the hall. But on the other hand these kind of places seem to be less likely to have people hanging out with, or even really knowing, the neighbors. I'm not saying it has never happened since I left the Jensonia. But it has never happened on the same level. I'm lucky if a resident where I live now even gives me the head nod hello in the hall.

Poverty is bad for lots of things. But it is good for bonding with your neighbors.

R.I.P. Jensonia

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Neighborhood Watch

Part 3 of the story of my time at the Jensonia in Seattle. (Part1 & Part 2)

Things were chugging along at the Jensonia. I was working in an office building a short walk away, doing some theatre work in the evening with a theatre company run by some friends and myself, partying a lot with those same friends (we were pretty good at theatre, we were great at drinking together), and hanging out at the apartment with my motley crew of neighbors. It was baseball season, and the handy-man from down the hall and the lesbian girls would come over to my place a lot to watch games on cable. They usually brought beer, dinner and other tasty treats.

It was a great slacker life in the slacker capitol in the slacker decade. Even my day job was one of those office gigs where I mainly just showed up, drank coffee and surfed the Internet.

Now the Jensonia was somewhat of a rundown ghetto building, but it was a livable place despite the lack of upkeep and its location next to the 8th Avenue viaduct. But one day a notice got slipped under the door announcing the sale of the building. Overnight we went from having family ownership that resided on site to being owned by a faceless company. The couple that sold the place moved out pretty much right after we got the notices and the downward spiral of the soul of the place began exceptionally fast. Word started to spread that long-term tenants (some for over 20 years) were getting huge rent increase notices. In Seattle you couldn't actually be evicted without cause, but landlords had no limit to how much they could increase your rent. So that was often used to get people with expired leases or on month-to-month to move out. So the new owners started sending out rent increases that were doubling the price of the units. They then turned around and rented places out with weekly rates. Seriously, weekly rates.

They even put a sign on the outside that said Jensonia Hotel.

One of my neighbors, when we saw the sign, "If this is a hotel then where is the fucking concierge desk?"

They were turning the place into a "resident hotel." So instead of being a place where a bunch of lower income people lived, it was becoming a place where a bunch of seedy people stayed. It started to look that way pretty quickly. When I came home at night there might be some residents sitting on the front steps drinking beer and socializing. You know, just having a good time and joking around. But that turned into walking up to the building late at night and there being people who didn't live there waiting outside for someone to come along and open the door. It became kind of scary. A lot of these guys who might be waiting on any given night weren't the types you wanted challenge. So they would come in when I unlocked the door. I started to dread having to go home after dark, wondering who would be waiting by the front door. It was always a great relief when there was no one there. But that was rare after a while.

A dark cloud had cast its shadow on the Jensonia. I didn't realize how dark until one night in October.

I was home alone on this night, watching the baseball playoffs. I don't really remember what night of the week it was but I think it was the night that the Yankees finished off the Rangers in the first round of the '98 post-season. The game ended and I decided to do some laundry. I grabbed my dirty clothes and headed towards the stairs.

Oh yeah, during all of this the elevator stopped working altogether and the new owners appeared uninterested in fixing it.

When I got to the second floor landing there was yellow police tape stretched across the staircase.

"What the fuck is this?"

I heard voices at the bottom of the stairs in the lobby and was trying to hear what was going on. I thought that it could have been a joke. That would be the first thought of a milquetoast kid who grew up in the suburbs. I waited listening for a while, contemplating crossing the tape and just heading down to the lobby, and then I heard someone coming up the stairs. It was a female uniform cop and what I assumed was a detective. I asked them if I could get down to the lobby and they told me no. I asked how I was supposed to get out of the building and I was informed that the emergency exit in the back of the building on the second floor was open for people to get out. Like a lot of places in Seattle our building abutted a hill, that's why the back exit would be on a higher floor.

I threw my laundry back into my apartment and headed to the back door. The backside of the building was pretty dark and I had to make my way down the hill through the trees. When I came around the corner to the front I couldn't believe my eyes.

There must have been a dozen or so police cars with their lights flashing clustered in front of the building.

"Holy shit."

I kept walking and went up the hill to the Shoprite. I didn't need anything from the store but I didn't want to look like I came out just to see what was going on. Up by the store I ran into the now former handy man, the new owners let him go and he was now just a tenant.

"Dude, what the fuck is going on down there?"
"Didn't you hear? Somebody killed Bob."
"You know Bob, the kind of surly guy with the scraggly beard that hung out front drinking beer. He has that shitty blue car with all the tools in the back seat."
"Oh right. He's dead?"
"Holy shit. What happened?"
"Looks like somebody smashed his face in."
"In the lobby?"

Well, I knew what I was going to get at the store now. I bought a half rack of Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve. I was going to need some beer this night.

To be continued...

Next - The Aftermath