Cafe Witness

Friday, June 30, 2006

BOB FM Must Be Stopped

If you're not a Pittsburgher, you still probably have your own version of BOB FM to contend with. BOB is our version of the JACK FM radio format, aka, "generic, male-named radio stations that play select Top 40 hits from the past 40 years." Like his brethren stations, BOB claims to "play anything," but his actual playlist consists of about the same 200 songs in heavy rotation, with occasional "rarities" thrown in for flavor.

BOB also does away with live DJs, for the most part, which actually makes sense considering these types of stations rarely have a local connection other than namedropping boroughs or events in the occasional audio bumper and therefore don't need to pay a guy to announce the names of songs everyone already knows.

On the surface, it's a genius concept. Who wouldn't want to listen to a station that plays NOTHING BUT your favorite songs from the past 40 years? You're guaranteed to be able to sing along with nearly every tune, and the familiarity factor will breed brand loyalty compared to those "other" stations that have, um, live human DJs and "new" songs you might not like (although, in Pittsburgh, hearing "new" music on a non-college radio station means you're actually hearing a song New York is already tired of).

But dig a little deeper and you realize BOB is intrinsically evil.

It has less to do with the absence of humanity -- let's face it: few DJs are actually "human" in the first place, but clever concoctions of sound bites that provide a time-killing bridge between commercials -- than it does the sheer infallibility of the format.

Radios are all about skipping around. Show me someone who can leave the dial on one station for longer than 20 minutes and I'll show you someone I don't want to talk to at a cocktail party -- or, more likely, someone who's never been to a cocktail party. Radios are about variety. At their best, radios are about unpredictability.

BOB FM renders all of those points moot.

Why skip around when one station is already playing all the songs you're already skipping around in order to hear? In the past hour, BOB just played Santana, the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, No Doubt and Duran Duran. And if you don't like what they're playing right now, you'll probably like the very next thing they do play, so why not stick around? They even have snarky self-effacing comments prior to their commercial breaks, so you almost feel guilty for clicking away because they're providing you with SO MUCH FUN.

Except if you're me, and you spend as much time per week in Crazy Mocha at the South Side Works as I do. Because the evening baristas tend to play BOB FM almost every night, and when they don't, they play 3WS, which has evolved from an "oldies" station into... well, the best of the '60s, '70s and '80s. Kind of like BOB FM but without the modern element.

All of this means I've heard the following songs WAY TOO GODDAMN MUCH:

Billy Joel, "She's Always a Woman to Me" (playing as I type)
Hall & Oates, "Rich Girl"
Vanilla Ice, "Ice Ice Baby"
The Commodores, "Brick House"
Marvin Gaye, "Let's Get It On"
Marvin Gaye, "Got to Give It Up, Pt. 1"
The Beatles, "Come Together"
Gary Wright, "Dream Weaver"

Don't get me wrong: I like all of the songs listed above (except "Rich Girl," but I was never a huge Oates fan). Hell, "Got to Give It Up, Pt. 1" is one of my jukebox staples when out drinking. But hearing it 45 minutes after hearing "Let's Get It On" is ludicrous, and hearing both of them AGAIN two days later is lunacy.

The others, and many more, illustrate BOB FM's penchant for playing perfectly fine songs way too often for their own good. Why? Because these songs are already embedded in our subconscious and we KNOW we like them. We don't need to be exposed to them as often as the (goddamn) X needed to play Evanescence 20 times a day in order to convince the public they were "good."

Thus, I now hate all of those songs listed above or am coming very close to it. Them and about 40 others I've already blocked out. But switching away would hardly help because Pittsburgh is LOADED with "classic rock," "top 40" and "80s"-oriented stations, and the (allegedly "alternative") X is essentially a "Best of the '90s" station anyway. (Fun Fact: Despite the X's evidence to the contrary, Radiohead recorded more songs than just "Creep.")

Thus, if I switch away, I'm essentially switching into... the same things BOB is already overplaying. So why not just stick it out for five more minutes and hope they play The Gorillaz (for the fifth time this week)?

It's criminal, I tell you.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Avoiding Meat Has Never Been Easier

Every time I visit The Quiet Storm in Lawrenceville, I ask myself why I'm not there more often. It probably has something to do with the location (I'm rarely in Lawrenceville, which is out of the way for my daily travels) or the absence of free wireless. But the prices are low, the atmosphere is singular (think "Beehive but relaxed") and their magazine library is a treat (where else can I peruse the latest issue of Fast Company while sipping a latte?). And I've seen several good live music shows there over the years, especially as part of the Sound Kitchen series.

But the crowning achievement is undoubtedly their food.

The Quiet Storm is a vegetarian joint, and what isn't vegetarian is vegan. Since my girlfriend is a vegetartian, and I aspire to be (I backslide into poultry on occasion), I'm always looking for places that offer variety and value for the discerning herbivore. The Quiet Storm has an amazing selection of appetizers, sandwiches, wraps and entrees, all of which meet my own personal criteria: they taste great and they're affordable. Last time I was there, I tried the spicy peanut wrap, which was incredible (and incredibly spicy -- they don't lie).

Yesterday, I was meeting Chad Sipes of the eponymous Chad Sipes Stereo to discuss a possible acting gig on Something to Be Desired (the web series I produce) and I arrived early enough to grab some dinner. I decided on a bowl of all-bean chili with cheese, sour cream and a tortilla riding shotgun. I also requested a decaf and the counterman informed me they don't have decaf (!?) but he could make me an Americano, which was, he said, basically the same. I bought in.

The drink turned out to be very good (I'd had an Americano before but didn't quite grasp its decaf tendencies) and the chili was amazing. Hearty without weighing me down, spicy without being overpowering, and a dollop of sour cream added just the right amount of texture. I loaded some into the tortilla and created a makeshift handheld burrito, but there was enough chili there to qualify as a meal no matter how you look at it. I was truly sad when the bowl was empty, and that's a rarity among cafe food.

And, for those of you keeping track at home: a coffee plus a chili at The Quiet Storm comes to under $8. (Sadly, I forgot to tip the counterman on my way out the door, only realizing it as I was driving home. I'll have to make up for it next time I'm in. Which, considering my girlfriend comes home today and will doubtlessly be craving some quality vegetarian cooking, won't be too long down the road.)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

How to Occupy a Child for 60 Seconds

While sitting here at Crazy Mocha, a hyperactive child wandered away from his parents and decided to befriend me. I suppose I look harmless enough. The kid was incredibly smart for his age (maybe 6) -- which is probably a trial for his mom, judging by her inability to impart a structure on him that would keep him from wandering away and talking to strangers -- so I let him carry the conversation.

He told me had a computer like mine at home, but his was a toy, it wasn't real. Then he asked if I was drinking hot chocolate. I told him I was drinking coffee. He said his mom was drinking a MIX of coffee and hot chocolate. (I have a feeling she was drinking it during her pregnancy as well.) I decided the safest thing to look at on my computer was Sports Illustrated's homepage, which had a picture of David Beckham on it. We talked about soccer -- he doesn't play -- and then he asked me what David Beckham's tattoos said. I had no idea, and told him so. More interestingly, I never would have noticed the tattoos myself. Kids are amazingly aware of things we take for granted, like what we're drinking in a cafe or what soccer players have written on their forearms.

By now, his mother noticed he had wandered away and explained to him from the doorway that I needed to get my "homework" done (I love looking collegiate). He lingered, until I mentioned he should probably listen to his mom, and then he scampered away.

Kids. Keep an eye on 'em, but they do pretty well on their own.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Green Party Revolution

I was walking past the Barnes & Noble en route to the 61C Cafe and was politely stopped by one of two clipboard-wielding volunteers. "Stopped" is actually a stretch; they merely divulged their reason for existence to passersby in a casual tone: "This petition will help the Green Party get on the ballot in November."

Being a big fan of anything other than our current two-party system, and agreeing with nearly everything the Greens stand for, I signed up. Plus, the next page on their petition was blank, so I figured an extra signature would help get the ball rolling.

So now I have pamphleture for Titus North in my bag. I haven't read it yet, but I already know I'd vote for a guy named Titus, so the literature may be a moot point.

From North's website:

"Titus North is an adjunct professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Political Science department. He has worked for the Thomson Corporation since 1989 as a political and financial analyst and currently produces a daily English language digest of the Japanese financial press for Thomson, doing much of the translation himself."

Congress, baby. Congress.

Interestingly, the guy in the Homestar Runner t-shirt in front of me did NOT have time to be bothered with the minutae of politics, and sped pointedly on his way. That kind of attitude gives the Web 2.0 generation a bad name. It's not like the antiquated electoral system is going to change itself, people.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Often Overlooked Ingredient in a Cafe

Is it just me, or does the friendliness of a barista count a lot toward your likelihood to return to a cafe?

I was at a place I used to frequent quite often today and asked for a cup of decaf. (I'm on a decaf kick.) I was told it would take a few minutes to brew up, which was fine. The drink eventually came and life went on as we know it.

Later, I stopped back for two more cups of decaf and the (different) barista was not pleased. He informed me it would take a few minutes to brew. Evidently, this place makes decaf only on demand, which is odd. I could tell from his body language that he was not thrilled at the concept of wasting his time filling my order, so I asked if they had regular already available. Yes, he said, so I watched my order to regular.

"Thank God," he said, relieved, putting the brewing equipment down. Then, to his coworker, "These people and their 'decaf' -- what's up with that?" As though I'd walked into a coffee shop and asked them to make me a porterhouse.

Needless to say, that mystery ingredient that people in all walks of life tend to overlook: friendliness. I'm sure your job sucks, sir. Most people think their job sucks. But when your job is fulfilling my order, you don't have to remind me that your job sucks, because by extension, that lets me know I suck.

It also reminds me why I've stopped frequenting that place.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Bizarre Truth About Beverages

As a regular cafe-goer, I tend to develop habits. Sometimes I drink a lot of coffee for a few weeks, sometimes a lot of tea, sometimes decaf. When I have a lot of money to throw around, I like the specialty stuff. When I'm feeling saucy, I like a hot chocolate.

Apparently, these days I drink nothing.

I still buy something in every cafe I visit -- you kind of have to -- but I've noticed I can sit here for hours and work without drinking more than a few sips of whatever's in front of me. I have no worries about the temperature of my drink because it will be cold soon enough. I have no need to buy a "large" anything because there's no concern regarding volume; there will always be more than enough.

I'm quite certain this is a direct correlation to my emerging cafe-as-office theme, wherein I only stop to drink when I need to think about something. Otherwise, I'm typing something, and I don't even think to look at my cup.

By contrast, as soon as anyone sits down to chat, the drink disappears in record time. Consistent sipping is a time-honored way to pass the time during a conversation, punctuating stretches of words with a strategic splash. This is especially true when I'm a listener. In fact, if you watch me closely, I'll pick up and put down the same drink several times during one continuous wordless stretch, as though each cycle is a new action worthy of its own conclusion.

Perhaps when Ann returns from London and we begin frequenting cafes as a couple again I'll have a few moments to sit and chat -- and drink fluids -- again... as long as she's doing the talking.

Friday, June 16, 2006

A Whole New Meaning to "Cafe Witness"

I just happened to glance over my shoulder, here in the 61C Cafe -- which, as I mentioned yesterday, is in the Jewish section of town -- and saw a guy walking down the street with a t-shirt and picket-style sign that read (if I glanced accurately), "Be More Jewish: Believe in Jesus." The t-shirt also said something about "Believing in Jesus is Kosher."

What kind of balls (or misguided passion) does it take to walk through a neighborhood predominantly inhabited by people of one faith and call them out on it loudly? Probably not as many as it takes to do that while wearing a suit -- as the Mormons who have been known to patrol these corners, handing out their Book to slow-moving passersby, have established -- but a pretty big set nonetheless.

Is now a good time to mention I'm agnostic?


I've also borne witness to, and even joined in, the "61C Shuffle." This is the name I've given to the act of table-shuffling that goes on among the laptop users here as tables nearer to a power outlet come open and the folks with red battery icons migrate closer to the lifesource.

I sincerely hope we're not all playing Yahoo! Spades in here... SOME of us have serious work to do.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

61C Faux Pas

A guy sitting beside me in the 61C Cafe just sneezed twice and, reflexively, I said "God bless you."

Then I remembered I'm in the Jewish section of town. I don't think they do that here.


Meanwhile, The Mayor is still answering questions about his skirts. I'm convinced that if I'm ever lonely over the age of 60 and am looking for a cheap excuse to drag conversation out of strangers, I'll start wearing socially unacceptable garments and drawing attention to them by saying things like, "Beautiful day today. And just a slight breeze."

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

61C: A Cafe, a Bus Line, a Lifesaver

My internet is down at home this week, so I've resorted to working from cafes. This isn't far from what I already do on a daily basis, but there's a difference between working on the move by choice and being smoked out of one's abode.

Fortunately, I've found a convenient solution that's only a ten minute walk from my apartment: The 61C Cafe on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

Named after the main busline that runs down Murray Avenue, the cafe has long been on my radar though never a staple of my regular pit stops. That may have changed as of this week.

Although I've only been there a few times, I can already tell it meets at least 3 of my 5 Key Elements for a Good Cafe: Good Coffee (their decaf is oddly amazing), Variety (multiple types of cookies, pastries, specialty coffees and a wide swath of fresh-squeezed juices means I won't be bored anytime soon; plus, they have danish!) and Free Wireless, which is new since I last visited around January and the wireless was apparently leaking in from somewhere else unreliable.

I haven't been around enough yet to tell if they have anInviting Atmosphere or Friendly Baristas, but there appear to be a number of regulars on-hand so the place obviously has a stickiness factor. One of the more colorful characters is a guy who calls himself The Mayor of Squirrel Hill (self-appointed, apparently). He enters with aplomb and has his daily proclamation well-prepared before he walks through the door, so he can issue it without actually being asked. He also chats up any woman within a five foot radius, most of whom seem to tolerate him the same way you tolerate that vaguely amusing uncle who touches you a little too familiarly at family functions.

As near as I can tell, he appears to be the 61C's version of Norm from Cheers, except the folks at Cheers actually appreciated Norm's company. This guy appears to be more of a running joke than a supporting character; today he came in wearing a skirt, one of many he's purchased from a company in Seattle in the interest of "freedom."

Cafe Witness Tip: There are only two available outlets in the 61C, making a grand total of four plugs for laptop power sources. If you stop by, make sure your battery has a full charge because those spaces are prime property.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Panera: Keeping It Real

I'm in-between dual freelance video shoots today and have ducked into Panera in the Galleria Mall for a bowl of soup and some free wireless. Due to the unpredictability of freelance payments, I am on my last dime, so rolling at a place with food AND free wireless was the only way to go.

Of course, you can tell Panera is a real cafe because I'm not sitting here for five minutes before a guy peeks around the corner, sees me online, and asks if I'm getting a connection or not. I tell him I am, and it's moving swiftly. He returns to his seat, dejected, since the wireless obviously doesn't snake around that particular wall.

This brings up a good question:

What are Five Key Elements to a Good Cafe?

Everyone's answers will differ, which is why I didn't say "the" five elements. Here are mine:

1. Good coffee. This should go without saying, but I've had many a bad cup of coffee / latte / etc. in many a cafe across this wonderful world. Thus, let's establish the core reason for a cafe's existence: providing a quality cup of caffeine. Ideally, this extends to the teas (hot, iced or chai), syrups and bottled drinks, the pastries and the other edibles, but it all starts with a good house blend.

2. Inviting Atmosphere. Different cafes accomplish different goals. Some are meant for relaxing, some for socializing, some for inspiration. The best can do all of the above and more, depending upon layout, music choice and time of day. Top 40 radio stations on the PA, unpadded wooden chairs, dishes left scattered about? This helps no one. A clean (but not obsessively so) environment, cushy chairs that also offer support, smooth jazz and Sinatra? Now we're talking. Bonus points if there are enough flat surfaces to place your drinks on without needing to juggle.

3. Friendly Baristas. Granted, I don't need to know everyone's life story. Sometimes a little mystery goes a long way. But keep this in mind, baristas of the world: most of you are smart people. We know that, because this is the low-stress job you craftily chose during grad school, and we would never second-guess your decisions. But most of us are smart people, too. That's why we come in: for a recharge or a caffeine boost to help us get through our mentally taxing days. So when you sneer or talk about us under your breath, we pick up on that. If that affects your tip jar, so be it.

That said, a friendly barista is one of the day's pleasures. I've been known to choose one cafe over another solely because of the pseudo-bond I've formed with whomever I know happens to be working that night. Both barista and customer know they only ever get to see a small amount of the other's personality in a day, but it's amazing how much of one's personality comes through in those few exchanges each day, added up over time. Whether it's just "Your regular today?" or a lengthy story about what happened when your dog ran away, when totalled at the end of the year, you might just think you've learned enough about someone to actually "know" them. So, please, be someone worth knowing.

4. Variety. There's one cafe in town that actually flunks at least one of the above criteria, if not all three on some days, and yet I'll still go back every so often. Why? Because they have a great selection of food -- possibly the best in Pittsburgh. Obviously not every cafe is concerned about food selection -- "this isn't a restaurant," I've heard before, and they're right -- but the difference between a place that provides more than cookies, brownies and biscotti and a place that doesn't can be found around lunchtime or dinnertime, when I'm forced to migrate from a place I'd otherwise be happy to stay in for another cup, IF ONLY they had something to "eat."

The same applies to coffees and teas. Yes, too much choice is overwhelming. And yes, it's a pain in the ass to get accustomed to a seasonal drink, only to have it ripped from your clutches when the new season begins. But I would much rather pick and choose from a variety of coffees on a daily basis -- at LEAST a daily special -- than fall into the rut of "same ol', same ol'," day after day, week after week...

5. (Free) Wireless. Not everyone goes to cafes to work. I do. I need wireless. And, given the choice, I will ignore each and every one of the above criteria if I have a massive amount of work to do and only one coffee shop within 10 miles has free wireless. It's not even a choice for me; it's a necessity.

If I don't have work to do, this doesn't even occur to me. But when do I not have work to do? And if one cafe has made their wireless internet free to all customers and another forces its patrons to be customers of Provider X (Telerama, in Pittsburgh's case, or T-Mobile in all Barnes & Nobles) or pay a day rate for what will probably amount to a couple hours' usage, again, the choice is made for me.

Those are my criteria, broad-based as they may seem. What are yours?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Grant Application Follow-Up

Minor update: the Sprout Fund Seed Award we applied for last month, to buy new equipment for Something to Be Desired?

No dice.

Thus, we sally forth as usual, with no cash and big ideas. Probably better than big cash and no ideas. At least, that's what we tell ourselves...


Incidentally, the aforementioned Asian American Film Festival was a success, with a wide audience appeal and a few sellout shows, which always boosts the egos of those involved with such undertakings. I was barely involved, but even I was happy to see the final day's film -- Water, by Deepa Mehta -- sold out and unfortunate latecomers turned away at the door. Now, if they can get a sell-out show every night at next year's festival, they'll be well on their way.