Swivel at the Hips

The final path the epicenter the camouflage the Bing

The rumpus

I cannot recall I never will fall in love with you a fifth Time

Possums

These glands this foot these ears I trust might linger and Forget

Keep guessing

My panic finds fissures in the sidewalk must we now go Hunting

Pick pockets

She knows she bowls she accepts exceptions to every Tool

Buttress (too easy Mister)

In hand on the lamb embedded balls landmine Monkeyshine

Lips lips lips AND lips

This will can only be purely mistakenly rigorous Demanding

Ginger snaps

***

The token adult thinks twice before clearing his throat and pointing out the clever little flowers on the fireplace mantel (if only). This is really too rich and detailed in fundamental  wait…

The token adult thinks a third time and then growls from his gut in a manner only the best disappointments recommend. He’s forgotten his place until the street reminds him of pomegranate poems and the god he named miscellaneous when he believed in gods.

The token adult walks home.

The True Story of Kaldi

An old man in any time, his hands were like gods

His feet coming, like songs of mercy

His eyes, sour from sun, no better than dogs’

 

He was, like all saviors, a king and the least among them

 

Into his ears they poured their longing

for true shapes in the world

and he listened, like water listens

 

He blessed the hunt but burdened the hunters

He was, as his name insists, ever-present  and

a thing left behind

 

The women called him The Old Goat

 

 

On that day, he drifted away from the morning fire

one arm outstretched like the night watch

pointing at devils in the high grass and mist

 

They were in fresh lands unknown

They were fleeing the dry death of drought

They spoke of abandoning spirits

They pretended not to notice he was gone

 

 

His voice returned before him with the rising stars

screeching like a bandit bird

then singing like a new mother

 

The men stood in a fierce line against the approach

 

He grew out of the dim light, first running, then spinning

then raising his knees  and pointing his toes

as in the praying for rain

 

He spilled small red fruit from his bag

his mouth was full and dripping as he laughed

his face was as wide and white as the moon

 

Frightened, the children soothed one another with whispers:

it is only the prophet gone mad

it is only an old dancing goat

Instant Convenience, Mermaids, Good Enough

When Robert Falcon Scott set out for the arctic in 1901, he carried a version of instant
coffee, but what was then a powdery extract that clumped in water did not approach
commercial viability until WWI, when the entire production of the G. Washington Coffee
Company went to the troops. Most soldiers despised the coffee while acknowledging and
even praising the practical value of a hot, caffeinated, “cup of George” in the trenches.
After the war, use among civilian consumers remained limited. Serving instant coffee to
your guests in the 1920’s would be akin to serving freeze dried backpacking food to your
guests today.

Innovations by Nestle and others improved the taste of instant coffee but it wasn’t until
the 1950’s and the era of “space age” convenience that consumption began to grow
significantly in the U.S. In 1953, 10% of all cups of coffee in the U.S. were instant. By
1970, that number had grown to 26% and, correspondingly, by 1977 25% of Americans were drinking instant coffee daily. Instant coffee would cling to this market share through
the early 1980’s.

It’s not likely a coincidence that this growth in consumption of instant coffee closely
paralleled a decrease in overall coffee consumption. In 1962, American’s were drinking
3.12 cups of coffee a day per capita. By 1988, that had been cut almost in half, to 1.67
cups a day. Instant coffee did not cause the decrease, but it was a symptom. As daily
consumption of instant coffee hit its peak of 25%, daily consumption of regular coffee
bottomed out in the neighborhood of 38%, where it would remain until the late 1980’s.
Indeed, at 43% in 2008, daily consumption of regular coffee has not moved far from that
neighborhood.

By the early 1970’s, the quality of regular coffee had deteriorated to the point that
instant coffee, with its new “freeze dried” production process, could compete on taste.
In the absence of quality, convenience became a dominant determiner of consumer choice.

It certainly wasn’t price, as instant coffee sells for a premium at retail, one of the
coffee industry’s great ironies. Most coffee producing countries do not allow extremely
low quality coffee to be exported, but these types of regulations do not apply to coffee
that has been processed into instant, or “soluble” coffee. The result is that some of the
world’s lowest quality coffee, and thus cheapest, becomes some of the most expensive and profitable coffee per cup on the grocery store shelf.

Consumption of instant coffee began its nose dive in 1983 when it dropped to 22% and then never looked back. By 1993 daily consumption of instant coffee was at 12% and since 2001 it has held steady at around 7%. In the same way that an increase in consumption of instant coffee paralleled a decrease in the quality and consumption of coffee overall, the subsequent decrease in consumption of instant coffee coincides with the emergence of the specialty coffee industry.

But the road to recovery, or at least double digit consumption, for instant may have
begun on February 18, 2009 when Starbucks introduced instant coffee. The company claims to have been developing an instant product for 20 years and has a patent pending on a process they insist replicates the taste of their brewed coffee. Howard Schultz told the Wall Street Journal that he has been secretly serving the instant coffee to guests in his
home and no one has detected the difference, which could say more about Starbucks’ brewed coffee or the politeness of Schultz’ guests than it does about the instant coffee.

But whether the claims about taste are based on objective testing or the hopes and dreams of the marketing department hardly matters. Even a modest but noticeable improvement in taste over the current offerings in the market could result in a successful product launch and the only significant revenue driving move the company has made since Schultz returned to the helm just in time to navigate a recession. And it is a move that plants a flag firmly in the territory where Starbucks will compete for dominance: coffee that is good enough.

Far from being snarky commentary, the idea that Starbucks has in effect admitted that it
is competing primarily in the arena of coffee that is “good enough” is potentially good
news for the company and its stockholders. It is also good news for the quality-driven
sector of the specialty coffee retail industry, those companies that have stubbornly
stuck to their obsessive pursuit of serving the best coffees in the world.

Coffeehouse customers reveal a surprisingly balanced decision making process not unlike
the mythical rational consumer, or at least they did in August 2007, when Mintel
International Group asked them what they are most interested in when visiting a
coffeehouse. Respondents were allowed to choose as many answers as they found applicable.

The top four answers:
Reasonable prices 62%
Serves me quickly 62%
Has consistently high-quality coffee 61%
Conveniently located to where I live 61%

One must imagine that the percentage of customers who would say “reasonable prices” has increased since August 2007, perhaps dramatically and perhaps at the expense of quality driven decisions. In any case, with the introduction of instant coffee, Starbucks sets
the stage to acquire a larger share of the price and convenience driven coffee purchase
without abandoning completely a commitment to a decent cup and the perception of quality. And no doubt, truly exceptional coffee will still be available from Starbucks through programs like Black Apron selections and the Clover single cup brewing device. But by and large, Starbucks appears to be taking dead aim at intrusions made into their market share by the convenience sector, which has come to understand in recent years the value of coffee that is good enough.

Fast food operators and c-stores, in unison to a degree that seems almost conspiratorial,
have come to understand that they need only increase the quality (and cost) of their
coffee incrementally to capture a larger share of the quality conscience coffee consumer.

At the same time, the quality-driven coffee retail sector could do little to compete on
convenience. To their credit, Starbucks saw this trend and responded with the drive through store, which averages 30% higher revenue annually than a store without a drive through. Once again, Starbucks is pushing back but this time they are introducing in one move a potential increase in revenue and accompanying decrease in costs.

For those coffeehouses where proper preparation of a high quality product are still the
rule of the day, Starbucks’ move by the light of day into the game of good enough makes
it that much easier to differentiate their business and define their niche. The specialty
coffee industry was created in opposition to the poor quality coffee that was prevalent
in 1982, when instant was still 25% of daily consumption and the niche was simply “us”
and “them.” Today, coffee quality exists on a continuum with very poor coffee on one end
and exceptional, very high quality coffee on the other. These exceptional coffees and the
retailers who serve them will have an easier time defining themselves in the minds of
consumers and competing for their customers as Starbucks lays claim to the middle ground.

Wacky Packages

When I was in 4th grade, I had this playground trick. If anyone was chasing me for any reason, and in 4th grade there are thousands of reasons, I would fall to the ground in a ball, covering my head with my hands, and the person chasing me would tumble over me and fall to the ground and a celebration would commence among all those involved in…well, whatever game it was. I was clever and tricky and brave all at once. Look out for that Ferguson fellow, they said. He might just drop and trip you.

It worked wonders when used on kids my own size and weight.

Then one day, walking home from school, I got into a disagreement with a 6th grader named Chris. He was a hefty 6th grader and, though I can now be fairly described as hefty myself, back then I was waify, and that is being generous.

The disagreement centered around the complicated trade agreements associated with “Wacky Packages.” Raise your hand if you remember. These were stickers that came with gum like baseball cards and parodied well known grocery store brands. Look it up.

I don’t remember the nature of my business disagreement with hefty 6th grader Chris, but it was serious enough that I decided to insult him by calling him “Chris piss.”

I know, genius emerges at an early age.

Hefty 6th grade Chris began to chase me, across a football field in fact, and when I thought the moment was right, I dropped to my knees and covered my head and sure enough, Chris went tumbling over me…except. Something happened that had never happened before. Intense pain. Sure, having someone tumble over you was never comfortable, but it had never resulted in very intense pain in my shoulder.

I cried out in pain and everyone, including Chris, could tell that something was wrong. I was helped to my feet and someone, I wish I could remember who, sprinted off to tell my mom. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had broken my collarbone. The broken bit was pushing upwards against the skin on my shoulder so that everyone knew something was wrong. I kept walking toward home, though I was in pain and dizzy. Chris offered to give me the Wacky Package stickers that were in dispute, but in my pain and martyrdom, I turned him down, telling him this was all my fault, which, of course, it was for the most part.

My mom arrived and walked me the rest of the way home. Soon I was on my way to a very nearby hospital where a doctor told me I was going to get a shot that would feel only like a bee sting. I remember, very clearly, giving him a dirty look.

I spent the night in the hospital and in the morning they released me with a shoulder brace and instructions to stand with my hands on my hips with my elbows back, looking ever so much like my grandmother. I lied to my mother and told her I was pretending to play football, because I was ashamed of having called Chris, “Chris piss.” In fact, it took me several years to admit the truth to my mom, that I had, in large part, brought it upon myself.

Needless to say, Chris was forever in my debt, and I tried not to lord it over him too much. At school, I became that guy whose story changes, depending on the audience, to the extent that years later, when I saw Richard Dreyfuss in a movie where he related different stories about how he broke his arm depending on his audience, I was sure the idea had been stolen from me and my collarbone. I never painted Chris as a villain though, because, well, to call someone “piss” was beyond rational, and I had suffered the consequences.

When I reached 9th grade, Chris was in High School and was the number one pot dealer on that side of town. I often wondered if he still referred to his “product” as wacky packages.

Functional Beautiful

I have been obsessed with this photograph for a few days. This is a farm worker’s kitchen in Essex New York. It is actually a reunion of workers who have worked on the farm, Essex Farm, which belongs to Kristin and Mark Kimball. I read about them.

The thing that obsesses me about this photo, this kitchen actually, is it is the most beautiful kitchen I think I have ever seen. It is, to my eyes, 100% functional…and gorgeous.

I am a huge fan of good design. I am a huge fan of very basic, just get it done, functionality. I sometimes cannot reconcile the two.

If you came to visit me, and we sat on my deck to have a beer, you could spend a lot of time exploring all the non-functional details of my container garden. I have moose, seagulls, lions wearing nightshirts, Irish pub signs, and a ever increasing variety of containers in which things are growing, from a crock pot to a retired smoker. All of this is not only functionally irrelevant, it is, in more ways than one, dysfunctional. At the same time, if you ate the potatoes I had the the BBQ tonight, you would have tasted green onion, sage, rosemary, basil, all of which I “harvested,” chopped and applied to the potatoes on the deck, as I was cooking. Very functional.

Off the deck: compost placement? Functional. Fire pit placement? Functional. Garden tool placement? Functional. Metal rack from which all the garden tools hang, which was originally intended to display collector plates? Functionally dysfunctional. My entire backyard? Well, it depends on what kind of animal you are.

There is so much freedom when functionality is the bottom line. Look at the photo. Look at the floor. Freedom. Look at the plates and the serving dishes. Freedom. But the freedom of functionality so often, probably always, comes hand-in-hand with very, very hard work.

I don’t think anything about the kitchen in the photo is intentional beyond the fact that it works for people who work. The calender fits…there. The mailboxes work…there. Hang the pots with what? Nails. Nails work. A shelf is what? Wood. A shelf is wood. Wood works.

So, I’m not sure I will discover how to reconcile the zombie gnome in my garden with the tomato cages that are just stacked randomly about the yard, waiting for their turn. But I do know that if the kitchen in the photo were my kitchen, I would be proud of it. But I also know that this is a kitchen where nobody stares absent-mindedly into the refrigerator during the commercial break, wondering what they might snack on.

Sweet Georgia Green

My first spring in Georgia in 2010 I was out of town for a few weeks in April. When I returned I was hesitating and even making wrong turns trying to weave my way through different routes in my neighborhood. All of the landmarks I used to navigate had vanished. Everywhere I looked was a wall of green. The change was so dramatic that I just did not recognize the landscape. And beyond my neighborhood, some houses on larger properties had completely disappeared.

While I was in Seattle for a week recently, it happened again. I wasn’t losing my bearings this time but I was still struck by the change. Before I left I could see eight neighbors’ houses from my back deck. When I came back, I could see two, the same two I would be able to see all summer because they are on either side of my house. The rest had disappeared…completely. The only way I know they are there is because they occasionally fire up a lawn mower or yell at their dog to “go potty.”

It’s full spring in Georgia and it is beautiful. Fall is my favorite season here, but only by a smidgen. The burst of green, the birds pairing off and defending their territory, which is also my backyard, the peas clamoring to cling to something, anything, in my garden. The darkness of the mid-afternoon shade. I love it.

Yes yes, the mosquitos are coming, as is the humidity. It won’t be long before the only thing showing when I work in the garden are my eyes and my glasses will slide down my nose on a sheet of sweat unendingly. I will bask in the air-conditioning every 30 minutes and I will shed 10 pounds before August.

But I won’t care. I will remember the spring and look forward to fall, like a sophomore who knows nothing and everything at the same time. The sweat will sting my eyes and the bites will itch and I will cuss but I will cuss with a little laughter mixed in because how lucky can one man be? How lucky?

Sweet Georgia green. I loved growing up near the beach, sometimes on the beach, in California. But I have to tell you, my middle age is more suited to a climate that takes and gives in equal measure, a climate that requires my cooperation as much as my surrender, air that requires my active participation beyond simply inhaling and exhaling. I’ll tell you, if you grew up in California and walk out into a July day at noon in Georgia you will not be inclined to assume survival. It’s like a reminder, a reminder I need and appreciate and am grateful to experience. There are places where you can take the air for granted. Not Georgia.

Anything that requires you to be conscious of your breathing is a gift. Anything that requires you to stop and start again is a gift. Anything that forces you to acknowledge that some things are bigger than you…is a gift. Sweet Georgia green.

Another Tough Day In Coffee

Hey, most of my days are pretty damn good days, I mean, compared, or relatively speaking, or whatever. I get the bad days here and there, like everyone else, but bad days are rarely related to my job and when they are, well, it’s usually some petty stuff that is actually my fault and I can let it go in my sleep.

I work in coffee. Come on, how bad can it get? Recently, I was surrounded by 10,000 coffee people in Seattle and more than once I had to grab one of them by the face and say, “You work in coffee. How bad can it be?”

So, we’re good on the bad day thing, right? Now, let’s talk about a good day.

We have a partnership with Monday Night Brewing here in Atlanta. What I mean by this is they used our coffee for a cask coffee IPA over a year ago and it went well. Recently, they let us know they wanted to do it again, but step it up, do kegs and 22 ounce bottles and put our logo on the bottle and, yes, I pinched myself.

Tasting commenced, tasting of coffee and tasting of beer and palates wagging about the finer points of…palatey things. We settled on a coffee, we settled on a roast profile. Boom. The first batch was brewed, everybody loved loved loved it.

Which brings me to today. At 10 this morning I arrived at the brewery and my friend and colleague Ren Doughty arrived also with a certain poundage of coffee and we watched as our coffee was added to beer, which included: Tasting the beer before the coffee was added. Tasting a previous batch, you know, for comparison. Tasting the beer as it came out of the filter where coffee was present. Tasting the beer as it came out of the tank. Tasting a previous batch, again, for comparison. Tasting a porter…because it was there and there was a glass and a spout. And, finally, tasting a previous batch because I was being interviewed for a video for a beer blog.

It just plum wore me out. Tough tough day.

The Sign Spinners of Cobb County

I don’t know about your part of the world, but in mine, Cobb County Georgia, the number of “sign spinners” standing on street corners helping hock everything from pawn shops to pizza parlors seems to be proliferating. After sitting at countless red lights watching so many of them display their talents, my curiosity overwhelmed me and I tried to befriend them.

It wasn’t easy, actually. Apparently, they often get approached by strangers and it rarely turns out well. The first sign spinner I met, nicknamed (no joke) Tony Baloney, summed it up well when I first walked up to him and said hello.

“Dude, I’m not buying any and I’m not selling any except for what’s printed on this sign, and I forgot what it said the second they handed it to me.”

I told him I was thinking of writing an article about sign spinners and then I learned my first lesson about this class of day laborer.

“We’re not all spinners,” said Tony. And he was right. Tony himself didn’t spin his sign, he danced…sort of. The “Baloney” in Tony’s nickname might have come from the fact that he appeared to have consumed quite a bit of the luncheon meat. He didn’t dance so much as shake and jerk and punch the air with his sign. Occasionally, he would launch into a wicked and reckless spin that would sometimes cause cars near the curb to veer or break out of fear Tony was going to fall into traffic. He always recovered though. He listened to speed metal on his phone, which made a lot of sense. Tony told me that the sign holders referred to each other as “Postmen,” even the women.

“I know Tony, man,” a Postman who called himself Ricker Rocker told me (turns out all of the Postmen have nicknames), “Tony Baloney is a legend because he makes more money than most of us. People can’t take their eyes of the dude. He’s like an accident waiting to happen but it never does. I bet that guy makes twice what I do and I have talent.”

Ricker wasn’t just bragging. The things he could do with a sign were pretty amazing. Unlike Tony, Ricker did spin his sign, but he could also flip the sign and whip it around his body in a manner reminiscent of nunchucks.

I tried to ask him more questions but he told me he just wanted to listen to his music and work his sign. He said I should talk to “Old Abe” a Postman down in Smyrna that had been working the same pizza sign for years. Ricker told me “Old Abe” was a clown.

And that’s exactly what he was, a guy dressed as a clown and holding a sign advertising a nearby pizza parlor. He was older than the other Postmen I had seen, but still younger than me, perhaps in his mid-30s. He was also less suspicious, and when I told him I was writing an article, he invited me to meet him at the pizza place, “when it gets dark,” and he would be happy to talk over beer.

A little over an hour later I was sitting with “Old Abe,” aka Donald Miser, who was no longer wearing the somewhat chaotic clown outfit but did, indeed, sport a Lincolnesque Amish beard.”

“So you’re curious about Postmen?”

I started to answer but he interrupted me.

“I came up with that, you know, ‘Postmen,’ because we are like sign posts and we also deliver a message.”

I agreed it was very clever, but before I could ask a question, Donald launched into a kind of tutorial on Postmen.

“There are basically five categories of Postmen,” he said. “You have your now classic ‘spinners,’ you have your ‘dancers,’ you have your ‘clowns,’ which is anyone who wears any sort of costume that isn’t full-body, and you have your posers, and the puppets if you want to count them.”

“Really?” I was surprised.

“Yeah, of course. We’re not exactly organized, but we have our lingo, you know.”

“Okay. I have met Tony Baloney and Ricker Rocket. Tony is a dancer and Ricker is a spinner, right?”

“Well, Tony, that kid is a hybred. You can’t call that dancing but he moves with a lot of energy and I have never heard of him falling down. It’s worked out for him. But if you want to see a real dancer, you should watch Lovely Linda, who has been working a We Buy Gold sign outside of old Marietta square, or Howard the Duck who is a block south of the Big Chicken landmark on Cobb. Howard works a car dealer sign I think, but he does the whole break dancing routine with the sign in his hand. Impressive. Linda does these sort of slow ballet things, very flexible.”

“I will definitely check them out,” I said. “Do you know when they usually work?”

Donald frowned at me, which made him look even more like Old Abe.

“Man, if we wanted to work set hours we’d be pulling shifts at Walmart. But you can never go wrong with rush hour, right?”

“Okay, yeah, I see. What about the others? What about spinners?”

“I’ve only seen Ricker work a few times. Last time I saw him he was working a real estate sign on 92. He’s a good spinner but not as good Timmy Two Time. I haven’t seen Timmy in months but he was working a jewelry pawn sign up on Roswell near Johnson Ferry for a long time. Timmy could spin and flip two signs at the same time. He was older than me and word was he was once a professional juggler. Man that guy could toss a sign like you wouldn’t believe. He should have been on stage somewhere or in the circus. Maybe that’s what happened to him. I hope so.”

Old Abe was lost in thought for a moment. I asked him about the “posers.” He shook his head.

“A poser is a postman that just stands there holding the sign and doesn’t do anything. Sometimes you get a poser who is a newbie, sometimes you get a poser who doesn’t give a damn and was hired by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. But some posers come to it naturally, either they’re just so good looking or sexy they don’t need to do anything, or they have so much attitude or presence it just pours out of them and they don’t need to do anything else.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen a poser.”

“You sure? There’s Parker Posey, not too far from Tony’s corner. She pretty but it’s her attitude that works the sign. She dresses just shy of sexy but it’s her expression and body language that gets attention. It says, ‘Seems like you could just walk up and talk to me, doesn’t it? Go ahead then, try it.’”

“What’s her sign selling?”

“Usually a beauty parlor or stylist or whatever,” said Donald. “But I’ve seen her work clothing stores. There is Prad Bitts up in Kennesaw. Just stands there looking like a male stripper and holds a sign for a lingerie store. Dumber than a bucket of nails though, while Parker is working on her master’s degree.”

“What about the clowns?” I asked.

Old Abe brightened. “Well, the clowns started it all. Ten years ago there were no spinners or dancers. I mean, we might have done the occasional jig, but none of us were break dancing or jerking around to speed metal.”

“Are there other clowns around here?”

“Down in the city there’s a few. Vicky the Viking, dressed exactly as you imagine, has been working an All You Can Eat Buffet sign in midtown for years. Norman the Nerd works a computer repair shop sign on the perimeter. I have not seen another clown actually dressed as a clown in a long time.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“I think we make people uncomfortable, if you want to know the truth. We’re old school and clowns have gotten a bad rap, ever since that little clown attacked that kid in Poltergeist. That, and the puppets have taken our place.”

I’d forgotten about the puppets. “What’s a puppet?”

“The puppets are the foam suits, the full body costumes you can stuff anyone into and just tell them to move around and hold the sign upright. The puppets are usually just some employee of the advertiser trying to pick up more hours. They lack commitment and they don’t understand their role.”

“Their role?” Now I was really intrigued.

“Yeah, you might think it’s a Postman’s job to hold the sign and get attention, but it’s not. The Postman’s job is to make a connection. Even Tony Baloney, looking like he’s having an allergic reaction to something, looks up to make eye contact. All of us do, to one degree or another. And even when we don’t make eye contact with you we are making eye contact with someone or doing something human that says we’re just a person like you trying to make a buck. The puppets don’t make this kind of connection with anyone.”

“You think puppets are less effective?”

Old Abe smiled and then laughed. “What? Man, I have no idea. The day someone does some sort of actual ROI study, or whatever you call it, on all of us is the day we’re all out of a job. That’s what I think.”

He walked out of the pizza parlor, stopping to get his pay from the manager at the cash register. It was clear that, to the people who made the pizza, Old Abe was no more relevant that the neon “Open” sign hanging in the window.

I wished I had thought to ask him if he enjoyed being a “Postman,” but then I thought he would have very likely refused the terms of the question and asked me if I was happy writing about them.

11-20-12