Thursday, March 27, 2008

Days of Beer and Lithuanians

Sometimes, a building means so much more than just bricks and mortar.

Such was the case with our favorite local sports bar, the Jocks & Jills location in suburban Alpharetta, which closed its doors shortly after St. Patrick's Day last year. At that time, I posted a blog entry detailing the immense pain and suffering that this shutdown caused our after-work P-Council and lunch groups.

Today, while on the way to another favorite replacement haunt during the lunch hour, we noticed that not only is our old place still closed, but now it is being demolished. There is a pervading air of finality about the entire J&J experience.

You might wonder how one place could hold so much sway over us? It's simple -- J&J served as a repository of memories which could never be replaced. Memories such as:
  • The day that Mike told me we simply had to visit J&J because they had these two cute Lithuanian waitresses working there.
  • The six dollar (including drink and tip) Thursday Men's (plus Tanya) Lunch Special. It had started at four dollars, climbed to seven, then came back down to six when business fell off a few years ago.
  • Anthony's incredible repeating lunch order: a turkey sandwich with fresh (never cooked) jalapeno slices and french fries.
  • The night that we used J&J as a launching pad prior to our first P-Council field trip to see "Borat".
  • Lunch pizza, the crust of which never seemed to be quite done.
  • Our regular lunch waitress, Rachael, who always took good care of us. Rachael wrote our entire order down on a napkin most days.
  • The time Allison tipped Vaida a dollar, even though she only had a glass of water. Allison did it for our sake, she said.
  • Our annual Christmas Stocking Dump, where we traded silly gifts with each other before the holidays.
  • Rich changing the channel on the TV in the men's room from ESPN to Lifetime.
We don't always know all the reasons why these sorts of things happen, but we do know that tearing down Jocks & Jills means the end of a historic chapter in our lives. So thank you, J&J. Thank you, Rachael. Thank you, Vaida and Inesa. We will always remember you.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Coffee Snobs

For some years now, I've had a reputation as a "coffee snob". Prior to the advent of Starbucks and Caribou, this phrase would have made very little sense to most people, but now it's rather common. It refers to a person who will not drink "ordinary" coffee like Folger's, Maxwell House, or Hills Brothers, but rather prefers to shell out the $1.50 or more for a cup of joe at a dedicated provider. But there's a reason we coffee snobs do that.

On an icy cold Chicago morning in 1981, I picked up the morning paper to find a wonderful article about coffee. The central concern addressed in the article was why your own coffee never tastes as good as that in a restaurant (well, most restaurants, anyway). The author of this article summed it up by saying that most people simply do not use enough coffee when preparing their morning brew. The article also suggested that for maximum flavor, it was best to buy whole bean coffee and grind it just before brewing. We bought a grinder, began adding more coffee to our mix and found that, indeed, following these steps resulted in a much more robust, satisfying cup of coffee.

We went along at that pace for several years, trying first one coffee, then another -- A&P's Eight O' Clock blends and Chock Full O' Nuts seemed to be our favorites. But then I began to try darker roasts of coffee, and that's when the fun really started.

We lived in Charlotte for two years back in the early 1990's, and for one of our Christmas parties, I mail ordered (there were no shops in the city yet) Starbucks coffee and served it at the party. I lost count, but I know that I made at least eight full pots of both caffeinated and decaffeinated, all of which was consumed that evening. People kept asking, "What kind of coffee IS this?" Many of them had never heard of Starbucks but simply loved the bold taste of this coffee. And the rest is history, as far as Starbucks is concerned.

Coffee can be roasted for varying lengths of time, and what most people do not know is that the longer it is roasted (i.e. the darker the beans appear), the less caffeine and acid it contains. As coffee is roasted, it loses its moisture -- this is why you often see oil on the surface of dark roasted beans. In addition, the roasting process causes caffeine to break down chemically. That cup of espresso that we all find so stimulating actually contains less caffeine ounce for ounce that a light roast cup of regular coffee. It's the dark roast taste (and its being ground to a powder before brewing) which gives espresso its kick.

Almost every morning, my friend Rachelle and I head over to the cafeteria in our adjacent office building to get a cup of Starbucks. On rainy mornings, one of us will generally stop to pick up two cups at the Starbucks drive-thru. A few weeks ago, as a joke, our friend Mike posted a sign at Rachelle's desk which read "Coffee Snob", complete with a cartoon picture of a (six-fingered) woman drinking a cup of coffee. At my desk, he posted a sign saying "Quasi-Coffee Snob...Will Drink Office Swill", with a picture of a rather bohemian looking guy. I liked this, and I took it as a testimony to the fact that I've done my homework.

After all, where do you think I got the name "Whole Bean" for this website?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Solid State School Night

Last Thursday night, I headed to Karaoke Night at the Wild Wing Cafe in suburban Alpharetta with a couple of my P-Council friends. I must admit that I had never to my recollection been to karaoke in a public setting, so I was somewhat intrigued. When the local band Rock Mafia opened the first set by launching into Metallica's "Enter Sandman", one of my favorites, I found myself drawn (with the assistance of an enthusiastic friend who literally pulled me) to the stage to watch them close up and to feel the kick of the bass drum and the insistent drive of the amplifiers. It was not the first time I'd done this.

Back in the 1970's, I played guitar with a mess of garage bands and one regular crew in Memphis. In those days, amplifiers such as my big old Kustom, covered in padded black Naugahyde, had gone "solid state", which meant that there were no vacuum tubes to blow out and ruin a performance. Back then, I got a taste of how it felt to get up in front of a crowd when you knew exactly what you were playing, when the amps were cranking and there were no shorts in the cabling, just driving it and feeling the response from the audience. It's an extreme rush, to say the least. But I digress.

Thursday's karaoke experience was, shall we say, lively. It's been a while since I've been inside a place quite that crowded. Wild Wing wasn't exactly Bob's Country Bunker in The Blues Brothers, but it wasn't that far removed, either. There was no chicken wire in front of the band, so I suppose you could say that it was reasonably safe overall. We only had one untoward experience, and the perpetrator eventually apologized for his rather bizarre comments to us, so that was all good in the end. I thought for a moment that things might get out of control and that I would perhaps witness a barfight, but fortunately, that did not come to pass.

We were treated to performances ranging from the sublime to the outright odious. A young lady did a very passable interpretation of Guns 'n Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine", and then shortly thereafter some guy shouted "Let's do metal!" and launched into what I think was a Fuel song. An Asian kid accentuated his vocal performance with some bizarre gyrations, all the while his pants chains swinging in time to the music. Someone sang Aerosmith's "Dream On", which I probably have not heard in twenty years. Through all of this, Rock Mafia did not miss a beat; in fact, I was quite impressed when the band not only knew when to play, but when not to play, the mark of truly good performers.

If you can stand a place like this, you really do see some terrific musicians. Today's guitar players are privy to tons of gadgets which we didn't have in the old days. Every once in a while, I head down to Guitar Center to check out all the technology and while there, I see kids who can play the hair off a dog -- it is truly amazing. So it's reassuring to see a band like Rock Mafia, young guys giving it their all and performing truly decent covers of music all the way back to the 70's, playing it with the same passion that we did. Nicely done, Rock Mafia.

Oh, and by the way, I never have worn chains on my pants.