Friday night was amusing. I headed to the radio station to sit in on the NARN’s guest hosting of the Hewitt show. I’ve driven down that road before, but this time I missed the exit, and found myself in one of those unusual situations: FREEWAY ENDS. That’s the sign that always makes you think of a road that stops abruptly before a cliff, with hundreds of battered cars heaped in the canyon below. Hmm. Too far, apparently. I got off, checked the map, wheeled around and speed north, with only a few minutes to spare before air time. Screeched into the parking lot, dashed into the airlock, hit the doorbell.

Nothing. No one. Again: wait: nothing. Pound on door. Nothing. No one. By my watch it was now showtime. Hmm. I got out my cellphone, called the show in California, and told them to put me on, whereupon I informed them on the air that I was upstairs pounding on the door. Ah technology! The cellphone signal goes out to a local pole, bounces up and off God knows where, ends up in Cali, gets rebroadcast via ISDN to the guys sitting 50 feet away in the studio. It’s like building a Saturn V to send men to the moon to write your to-do list on the lunar surface.

The show was fun, as always. Back home for my favorite night of the week. Did the website graphics, listened to music, watched a the weekly Noir Feature, caught up on all the Star Trek: Enterprises I’d been hoarding. For instructional purposes I watched an old TNG episode the TiVo had saved for me, and anyone who insists that TNG RULES and ENTERPR!S3 IS teh GHEY needs to be slapped hard about the mouth with the script for the TNG episode I saw. Granted, TNG got good around the time Worf got a haircut and Riker grew a beard and Picard got a pair, but "Enterprise" has been good from the start.

(It was the episode with the Binars, and the first of 2,309 “I’ve fallen in love with a hologram” subplots. And why did the holodeck doors sound like an elephant getting a proctological exam from someone using a cold plumber's snake?)

Saturday: errands. Haircut. I had some time to wander the mall without duty or child, so I went to the Apple store – you needed a crowbar to get near the Photo iPods; the place was thronged. Witnessed a classic mom-son conversation with a modern twist; the kid was STEAMED that mom was so CLUELESS about things, specifically, the ability of the G5 iBook to run system X, JEEEZ, MOM, DUH, OF COURSE, whereupon Mom coldly informed him that she knew it would run X, the question was whether they should wait for a G5 Powerbook that would take full advantage of X, which you would have understood if you were listening. Cross-generational geek discord.

Bought a calendar for the office – a vintage Coke ad calendar. I’ve had one every year for the last four years. Tradition! I’d put up a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit calendar but of course that would just ruin everything; no one would make eye contact or say hello, lest the Fatal Taint that presaged my execution rub off on them as well.

As I headed of across the vast marble plain of the mall I put my hand in my pocket, and felt the cellphone vibrate. Hmm. It was my wife. She’d gone on a picnic with Gnat earlier that day, and I hadn’t heard from them in a while. BECAUSE THEY WERE AT THE HOSPITAL! said my small stupid interior panic voice. So I called her back. Where are you?

At the hospital, she said. Gnat had an earache. She rarely gets ear infections, and never cries about them. This time she’d been crying, weeping big hot tears, so off they went. I said I’d join them there in a while. En route, however, I passed the Hallmark store. Now. It’s not yet Thanksgiving, but if I know how these things work, all the mission-critical Barbie-themed ornaments I may want for Gnat will soon be gone. Balance it out: would it be better to rush to the hospital now, and not have that Princess And the Pauper ornament when we put up the tree in two weeks, or get the ornament now and miss ten minutes of sitting in the lobby waiting to be called?

Duh. Got the ornament, along with a small 1950s stove that lights up. Part of my “get rid of the other ornaments” strategy, which I will detail at length in a future Backfence column.

Off to the hospital. It’s the one where Gnat was born. Constant renovations; drywall, marble and linoleum from the Chad Everett era leading to a hallway renovated in the 90s which leads to a big sun-drenched lobby built in the 21st century. Gnat was cheerful and fine; the pain was gone. But the doctor diagnosed an ear infection, and sent us off with the usual prescription. Wife and Child continued on their day, and I continued on my errands. Got home, nuked yesterday’s pizza, read the paper. Which brings us to:

This. It's the sort of story I find fascinating. Local coffee shop faces competition from Hated Chain. I know the independent shop, or at least I know where it is – I lived a few blocks away many years ago, when it was a video store. (It was originally a gas station.) While I am sympathetic to the independent store, I don’t ascribe any moral value to the fact that they’re not a chain. Some do, of course, which is why the chain was met with pickets, tossed eggs, and graffiti that said “corporate scum.” (If the defenders of chain stores ever picketed or vandalized smaller stores, of course, they’d be brownshirts, the omen of a fascist future we all know is poised to descend.) What matters is the quality of coffee. I don’t like Caribou Coffee very much; it has a burnt and oily quality that reminds me of . . . well, Starbucks. But at least Caribou isn’t trying to sell me a Lifestyle, and Starbucks always tries to flatter me with CDs and bookstore tie-ins and pretentious backstories for the various blends. Eh. Sometimes, if I may be blunt, I just want a goddamn cup of coffee, and I resent the fact that I can’t just say “a cup of coffee, please” and have the matter settled. On the other hand, I am tired of going to an independent coffeeshop, asking for a cup of coffee, and watching them squirt 12 tepid ounces out of an airpot filled an hour ago, the faint taste of hazelnut still adhering to the inside of the pot. Better to have mediocre fresh coffee than decent stale coffee so cool you can chug it like a Miller Lite.

There’s another local chain that brews it just the way I like. Do I go there on my weekly trips with the Giant Swede? No. We go to Caribou, because it’s in a strip mall with a used music store and a periodicals shop, and we go there every week for the Cliff Notes version of current pop culture. Or we go to the Caribou attached to the grocery store, because we have to pick up stuff for dinner after we’re done slamming back the joe and setting the world straight.

I’ll give Caribou a pass for its décor – they use a Northwoods cabin theme, which is nice, or a gorgeous Arts and Crafts motif, which I love. I like to sit by a fire in a Stickley-inspired chair: so sue me.

Anyway. Here’s what amused me. My favorite quote in the article:

. . . a 71-year-old consultant who lives in the neighborhood, said the shops couldn't be more different.

"Brewberry's is sane, with decent music that won't drive you crazy," he said. "It's nonoffensive and filled with creative, communicative and articulate people having meaningful, in-depth discussions.

If I am to assume from this that the Caribou is INSANE, with indecent music that strips away my sanity like turpentine, and it’s an offensive place filled with uncreative people who would be having meaningless, shallow discussions if they weren’t uncommunicative and inarticulate, fine. Not my experience, but your mileage may vary. Of course, it’s possible that the dead souls moaning inside Zombie Coffee across the street are there for another reason: they were heading north on Fairview and turned into Caribou because it was easier than turning left against traffic. More quotes from the same fellow:

"There's nothing wrong with Caribou if you want a fine, efficient cup of coffee, but it's the exact same shop as the one I visited in Tokyo," he said. "It's standardized."

Efficient coffee! Say no more. I saw the best minds of my generation, seduced by efficient coffee with grey-flannel coasters, the grinders singing whirr-whirr-whirr like big steel teeth handed out by the brain-drilling dentists of Madison Avenue! I saw Ike and Nixon golfing with Mrs. Olson. I saw Henry Ford’s Pinkerton-enforced assembly line, turning out Stepford armies of Juan Valdez clones, picking beans for pennies, crying “Oligarchy! It’s the richest kind!”

From here on in, I will never enjoy a cup of coffee if I have the nagging suspicion that the floorplan has been employed in Hamburg or Kuala Lampur.

I understand the desire for local independent merchants – I prefer to patronize my local hardware store rather than go to Home Depot, for example, but each has its advantages. I just hate to feel like a traitor to the rich tapestry of human history because I want to have a cup of coffee near a fireplace with those lemon scones the chain carries. The crumbly ones. Yum.

Saturday night I watched my new favorite zombie movie ever, “Dawn of the Dead.” Sunday was perfect – had the first concert of the Minnesota Youth Symphonies concert at Orchestra Hall. My fifth year? Sixth? Total joy. Afterwards I hit Target in full concert dress to get a head start on Gnat’s Christmas gifts, then home to write the column for next Sunday. Now this. Now I’m beat and now I’m done. New Matchbook, as usual for a Monday; see you tomorrow.


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