Category Archives: brimbie/brisbie

Pay me now or pay me later

One Saturday morning, that Saturday being today, my associate Brimbie and I made our way down Seattle’s garbage-strewn University Avenue. ‘Ah, feel that sun!’ Brimbie cried, but there was not really any sun visible. ‘You’re gonna tell me you can’t feel it?’ Brimbie asked.

No, Brimbie, I couldn’t.

Along the way to our destination, which was Café Allegro, I came across a cell phone that was broken in pieces on the ground. Using my razor-sharp wits to reassemble the phone, I began answering the text messages that had piled up on it as it lay in pieces overnight on the ground. In the meantime, Brimbie and I arrived at Café Allegro, where Brimbie lay his hands on a day-old doughnut and a bagel.

‘Would you like a bagel?’ he asked me.

‘No, I would not,’ I told him.

‘Would you like a doughnut?’ he asked me.

‘No, I would not,’ I replied.

‘Why not?’ Brimbie asked.

‘I’m not hungry,’ I explained.

‘Well why,’ Brimbie asked me, refusing the let the topic drop, ‘When I buy a doughnut and offer you a bite, you often take the bite?’

‘Because then perhaps I am hungry,’ I explained.

‘But if I buy a doughnut now and offer you a bite, you’ll eat that bite,’ he reasoned. ‘So I’ll just buy you a whole one.’

‘No, Brimbie.’ I told him.

‘But I owe you $6,’ Brimbie explained, ‘And I want to make it even with you. So eat the doughnut I buy you.’

‘No Brimbie,’ I told him solemnly. ‘I prefer to wait and collect the six dollars in a form that is better than a doughnut.’

And Brimbie gnashed his teeth, angry that he could not even up his bill with me via fried junk food. You see, Brimbie owed something, and he immediately wanted to pay up; I wanted to let the debt float about a bit until I could cash in the favour in some more useful or tastier form. He wanted me to pay now; I wanted him to pay later.

On the way back to Brimbie’s, after Brimbie’s hearty breakfast (of which no bites were taken by myself or anyone else apart from Brimbie), a call was received from the owner of the cell phone, and we set up a place to meet. On meeting up and handing over the phone, the fellow ‘gave me five’ twice, for a total of ten, telling me “You’re the man!”. He then said:

“If I ever see you around again, I owe you something.”

Now why couldn’t he owe me something right then and there? How do I know if I’ll see him again? He wanted to pay later; I wanted him to pay now.

It is just these types of philosophical and psychological dilemmas that we deal with every day in life, even on a Saturday morning in Seattle.

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seattle coffee nonsense, pt. 2

Near where I live, there is a house that has been zoned for commercial use, and within it there have been a number of assorted coffee shops. A few years back, it was called ‘The Blue Dog’. We went there sometimes as one of the girls who worked there had a thing for a member of our party, and as such slathered extra cream cheese on his bagels and drew island-sunset scenes in crayon on the wax paper wrapped round his pastries. The Blue Dog went under, and was replaced by ‘Curio Confections’, another café whose gimmick was that the menu regularly changed and you were supposed to check their website to see what they were serving that day– except the website was rarely updated. They also sold marshmallows, an item for which I’ve never noticed an especially high demand in any of the cafés I’ve frequented.

In any case, they went under as well, and the newest contestant for a viable business in that space is yet another café, this one called ‘Verbena’. I was not interested in going there, but my associate, young Brimbie, raved about the place, claiming that they gave you a free croissant with your coffee (or vice-versa, I don’t recall) and that the food was delicious. I inspected one of the croissants that Brimbie had, however, and found it to be filled with ketchup or some other condiment, and immediately decided I had no interest in such outlandish foodstuffs.

Yesterday, however, on a walk past Café Verbena, on one of those rare Seattle days in May when it’s above 45 degrees, my room-mate asked me: ‘Why don’t you ever go to Verbena?’- and so I said Oh, why not.

Upon entering the place, you are greeted with a bombastic salutation from a frat boy behind the counter. The greeting is obviously packaged and quite phony, for I’d never set foot in there before and was hailed thusly: “Hey, how you BEEN?! Good MORning! Nice to SEE YOU! How’s it been goin’!” – and such nonsense, as though I were an old friend or dear family member:

[W]hat you are really buying is the “coffee ethic”… a place where you yourself can participate in communal life… an ersatz community…

(Slavoj Žižek, First as tragedy…, 2009, pp. 53-54)

I was not taken in by this showman, but online reviews of the place mention the “ridiculously friendlystaff, apparently much appreciated by the café’s demographic.

I had a small coffee ($1.50). It was served in some sort of ‘disposable’ cup (I couldn’t tell if it was paper, stryofoam, or what). There were no spoons present, but there were plastic stirring-things. If you feel that there is not enough plastic garbage in our landfills, this place is certainly for you. There was no milk, soy milk, cream, half and half, or any other sort of liquid that is popularly mixed with coffee. The coffee was ‘serve yourself’ from two coffee dispensers, in the style of 7-11 or some such convenience store. The two frat boys on duty talked amongst themselves about upcoming parties. One of the fellows turned to me and with a cocky grin told me “Here’s a free sample for you, one of our delicious scones”- it was a crumbly square on a plate, and as I went to inspect it, he bellowed “This is a BACON scone right here”. What! Having spent many a year in the U.K., I am well-accustomed to scones, and find that they may be plain, or filled with blackcurrants or ‘sultanas’, which is how the British refer to raisins. However, I have most certainly never been offered a scone with chopped-up pig parts in it until today. No thanks!

The atmosphere was disturbing. There were paintings on the wall that were all more or less the same: beach sunsets and rocky shores. A sign read ‘Commissions welcome’. The music played in here was strictly Top 40, with a generous lashing of Dave Matthews. No thanks!

The clientele seemed to be fellow frat boys, University of Washington undergrads, some people dressed up in black baggy cloaks and capes, and a girl who was telling her friend about a festival of druids she attended. I sat and tried to read, but the music bothered me, the customers bothered me, and for whatever reason, there was a fan on, although the temperature was 45 degrees (i.e., 7c). I had to keep my coat and scarf on.

There was a line of youngsters ordering things. They seemed to take about fifteen minutes to order, and referred to the coffee they wanted as “doing”: “I’m”, one girl said, “going to do a small spiced latte,” or some such garbage. They also gleefully ordered items off the menu, which appeared to be hot dogs and other such meaty fare.

If I wanted to drink serve-yourself coffee from a styrofoam cup while shivering in a coat and scarf, surrounded by hot dogs and listening to Top 40 radio, I could go to any gas station. No need to waste my time here.

VERDICT: I won’t be returning!

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seattle coffee culture

I spent many years in the coffee business. I have worked for a number of coffee roasters. I have dragged giant burlap sacks of coffee using metal hooks and I have thrown out my back doing so. I have poured green coffee beans down the hopper. I have roasted coffee beans in industrial roasters. I have dug foreign matter out of the coffee roaster. I have come home on many days with coffee-bean dust coating me head to toe. I have regularly found roasted and unroasted coffee beans in the cuffs of my pants and in my shoes. I have eaten coffee beans. I have slept on piled up burlap sacks full of unroasted beans in unheated, dark coffee warehouses. I have done the New York Times crossword puzzle while waiting for beans to roast. I have ground the roasted beans in shiny red grinders. I have accidentally lit a twenty-five-pound bag of chocolate-covered coffee beans on fire. I have worked for a number of coffee companies in different cities and I have roasted, ground, packed, and delivered coffee to dozens and dozens of cafés. I have worked at some cafés. I have made coffee. I have made espressos. I have made lattes. I have made bizarre concoctions using sugar-free Torani syrups. I have clipped a thermometer to the side of the pot while steaming milk. I have done “latte art”. I have thrown away a shot for people who wanted “a single”. I have emptied the coffee grounds every ten minutes into the compost dumpster. I can speak good Italian and can pronounce all your dumb versions of coffee better than you can. I have spent months collectively in French and Italian cafés, to say nothing of the Turkish places. I have drank coffee from a stall in Bosnia, a ‘hotel’ in Madras, a stand in Taiwan, a hut in Mexico, fancy cafés in Vienna, the side of the road in Slovakia: I have drank coffee many, many places. Friend, I am not here to brag, but simply to give my coffee expertise. In short, it is superior to those whose claim to knowing what they’re on about is limited to “drinking it”.

That out of the way, I have come upon a disturbing new trend here in Seattle Coffee Culture. Seattleites like to go about considering themselves to be expert appreciators of coffee, and are of the opinion that they have developed a ‘coffee culture’ here, the likes of which they consider rivals that of Austria or Italy or wherever-all-else coffee drinking is considered a grand art form. However, it is no art at all that I have discovered, but rather some alarming BS behaviour.

This behaviour is said to go down at Cowen Park Café. This is the café I normally go to, mostly because it is nearby. Those who are ardent followers of my whims, fancies, and caprices will know that when it comes to food and drink outside the home,

[m]y concerns number but three:

1.) vegetarian

2.) taste

3.) price

I don’t care if the help salaamed me when I came in, or if there was a hair on the dish. I’m not worried about a cockroach on the floor or if the clock on the wall keeps the right time. I repeat, my concerns number but three:

1.) vegetarian

2.) taste

3.) price

All else is mere detail. (source)

Well, when it comes to cafés, my concerns are a bit different. The reason for this is that I believe all coffee tastes pretty much the same. I know this is a great outrage. I know it’s blasphemy, even! I know a couple (we won’t reveal their names) who have coffee beans flown in from across the country, claiming these beans “taste better”. I know a fellow who brought packets of Starbucks coffee to Italy, since it “tasted better”. All I know is that for myself, once the beans are roasted, ground, stored, and percolated (or what-have-you), it’s all pretty much the same. You may get dishwater coffee at some church function or midwest diner, I grant you, but in the Greater Café Coffee World, they’re all pretty much the same to me. So, when it comes to cafés, my concerns number but three different threes:

1.) price

2.) location

3. ) ambience

Cowen Park Café, this morning

Let us examine, then, Cowen Park Café. Its name is properly Cowen Park Grocery; it lies in Seattle at the confluence of the University District, Ravenna, and Roosevelt neighbourhoods. It is across the street from Cowen Park, a tree-filled ravine that I commonly sit and read in (I can’t find much out about the park; the City of Seattle’s website gives a history of it, but unfortunately it starts and ends in the Ice Age! They do note that it is a “generally quiet enclave”). The place has been a grocery store for some time, but about five years ago, perhaps, it was bought by a family of Korean descent. They repainted it and turned one side of it into a café. They have periodically introduced other new attractions: fresh fruit and vegetables (pulled due to lack of sales), flowers and potting soil (still there), and “Korean tacos”: indeed, some days one of the owners is out there with a barbecue cooking up these “Korean tacos”, whatever they are. I have never seen such an item in Korea, nor have I seen any such thing in Mexico, so I imagine it to be some American junk food along the lines of sushi pasta or falafel pizza.

In any case, I always order the same thing: a small cup of coffee. Oh, sure, they have all sorts of things with exotic Italian names, and a pastry case full of pseudo-French pastries with the words spelled wrong.  Well, I’m not too worried about any of this. I just want my cup of coffee.

The ‘lattes’ at this place are said to be something special. The Seattle Weekly, a middle-class status-quo-style publication owned by an Arizona-based corporation, sent a staff member to Cowen Park Café. She wrote that she ranked said latte among the ‘Top Five Lattes in Seattle‘. The people at Cowen Park have taken this recommendation to heart, printing out copies of the article, highlighting the relevant bits, and posting them around the café. I think I may have had a latte there before. It tasted the same as a latte anywhere in the world. People (usually Americans) I meet in Italy spend their time raving over how the lattes in Italy are superior to those elsewhere. “What can it be?” they ask me. “The Brazilian beans, transported in filthy gunny sacks to the other side of the world in musty, worm-chewed ship holds? The sun-kissed, grease-secreting, gently rusting Italian espresso machines? The local water, gently infused with cocaine residue? The milk, from scandal-ridden Italian drinks giant Parmalat? Or is it something deeper, much deeper, something we can’t see, something unknown to science, something intangible, undefinable, something in the Italian soul?”

I don’t know, it all tastes the same to me. Some have suggested there must be “something wrong” with my tongue. That may or may not be, but a square is still a square.

The coffee at Cowen Park comes in white cups which are usually chipped. A small, which I get, is $1.67 (up from $1.34 in 2010). The location is good (near my house). The ambiance is OK (unobtrusive) to poor, due to the many dogs and children people bring in there. However, that’s a failure of all Seattle coffeehouses, to actively prohibit pets and children, so I can’t fault Cowen Park alone. The music they play is generally one of five things: NPR (they rarely play this nowadays; it was more prevalent years back), classical (baroque, medieval, opera), or what sounds like Portuguese fado when the owner is working. When employees are working, we hear something along the lines of The Rough Guide to Arabic Music and The Greatest Hits of French Yé-yé. None of them are too annoying, and Cowen Park’s competition, Herkeimer, down the street, assaults my ears with droning, tedious, rambling Radioheadesque  go-nowhere-rock. So Cowen Park wins there.

However, pleased (or content) as I am with Cowen Park, they have their detractors. Sometimes they forget to give me my coffee: I’m not concerned as I have all the time in the world, but some of the go-getters in the world get upset at that. The service is pretty bad: people who’ve never even been there ask me “Aren’t they notorious for bad service?”. A common greeting (barista to customer) is “Do you want something?”. Some of this used to bother me at first, years ago. Now I don’t care. For other people, though, things are going downhill there.

I took coffee with young Brimbie last week, and not only was he given a coffee smaller than that he paid for, he was given a croissant so hard and stiff that upon thrusting a finger into the top of it, the golden, flaky pastry collapsed and his finger emerged cleanly from the other side. Brimbie chalked the event up to “a lack of respect” and vowed he wouldn’t go back there: a loyal customer for years, he decided he wanted to “explore other places” that would “show some respect”, i.e., give properly-sized coffees and freshly-baked croissants. However, the places he favours I disapproved of, since they were

1.) more expensive

2.) further away

3.) had TVs blasting in the café, only used paper cups, or other things I didn’t care for,

so I convinced the erstwhile young Brisbie to give another try to Cowen Park. He examined the contents of his pocket. Within he found some bits of lint, some vegetable matter, a crumpled dollar bill, and some coins. ‘I can’t go–‘ he told me. ‘I don’t have enough for a tip.’

‘So don’t tip,’ I told him.

‘If you tip,’ he told me, ‘they say your name’.

Hold on! If you tip, they say your name?! And people are excited by this? What is this, you tip and they say your name! ‘Oh yes,’ Brimbie told me. ‘They just say Hello and Thanks if you don’t tip, but if you do tip, they say your name at the end.’

What nonsense is this, Seattle Coffee Culture?! Do you know, in Italy and Austria, the reputed homes of coffee culture, they don’t even have tips! Do you know, I’ve carried and roasted and ground and delivered and made (and consumed?) thousands of pounds of coffee in my life time, and no-one’s given me a tip! This is a scary new development in Seattle Coffee Culture. Does it extend to other cafés? Who came up with it? Arrrrgh!

I don’t want you to say my name! I just want my cup of coffee!

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