It’s monday, so it’s time for our second myth of the modern world. I promise you they won’t all be about coffee. I’m not obsessed or anything.
Anyway, with a little luck I won’t be sued over this one….
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When amateur mythologists and fantasists try to populate their pantheons and philosophies with spiritual and mystical essences, they often make the mistake of reaching too far. “Why is there pain?” they ask, and seek an answer. “Why is there evil?” “Why do we die?” “Who renewed Becker for all those seasons, and who’s divine cock do I need to suck to get him smote before pilot season comes along and he does more damage?” These questions are huge, and even if someone could intuit or make up answers to them, they would end up being unsatisfying.
(The answers, since we’ve brought the questions up, are ‘Sam from the television show Quincy,’ ‘the Croissandwich,’ ‘Randy Milholland,’ ‘Sam from Quincy again,’ and ‘Randy Milholland again,’ respectively. You will note that having these questions answered, in the end, didn’t really help.)
A successful mythologist, on the other hand, remembers the golden question always begins with “why.” Mythology, after all, has always sought to explain the unexplainable and to eff the ineffable. This is eternally the difference between mythology and religion, which seeks to explain nothing. When asking the question “why did my wife of five years get hit by a lightning bolt and killed,” mythology explains that Eltana of the Golden Ewe did look down from her mist covered mount and see the beauty of your wife. Growing sore jealous, she journeyed for eight days and nights until she found the Dwarven Smith Daedbot, who makes the golden lightnings on his forge of shining granite, and there did seduce him that her valet, trusty Bohem, could sneak into the forge and steal one shining bolt. Then, when next Eltana saw your wife, she did draw the bolt and fit it to her bow like an arrow, taking aim and letting fly, the bolt flying forth, sparks forking off it like the fletchings of an arrow and striking your wife down once and forevermore. But in so doing, the birds did weep and sing songs of lament, and therefore the Queen of the Heavens did lift your wife’s spirit up and set it in the sky, passing back through time to do so when the stars were set in their course.
Religion, on the other hand, answers “why did my wife of five years get hit by a lightning bolt and killed?” by telling you that by questioning the will of God you have condemned yourself to eternal hellfire. Or, if you are Jewish, an extra day and a half of Hellfire (not to exceed one year total) because you didn’t look up the answer in the Talmud to begin with — what, do I look like a reference librarian to you now?
Therefore, as we tell these tales of modern mythology, it behooves us to always answer questions that ask ‘Why.’
Which brings us to today’s lesson. Why does the drip coffee at Starbucks taste like crotch?
It is well known among those who enjoy the brewed arts that Starbucks is really quite good. Oh, you might have a local barista who can sling espresso that would make Starbucks weep with inadequacy, or you might disdain Starbucks as a corporate entity and therefore, evil, because you are a communist. Or something in between. But to be honest, Starbucks does really well by its espresso. Its lattes are tasty, its frappacinos are icy and delicious, and what they do with sugar free cinnamon dolce syrup, nonfat milk and a small amount of foam would make a jazz man cry.
However, their drip coffee, made the way you would make your own coffee at home if you weren’t so damn lazy, tastes like crotch. Burnt, overroasted, badly blended crotch.
It makes no sense to the scientific mind. After all, Starbucks clearly has testing kitchens and focus groups, and they already have machines that make the lattes with a touch of a button and very little human interaction, making the once noble Starbucks barista one lateral step away from a McDonalds worker — at least McDonalds workers actually have to turn the hamburgers over. Rationally, they should have also found a drip coffee that their focus groups love that comes in sack form that a drone can toss into the top of a chrome machine and push a button on.
And yet, no matter how heartbreakingly good the lattes become, the drip coffee continues to taste like crotch.
Needless to say, the crotchness of the drip coffee is tied inexorably to the automated machines that Starbucks now uses to make the lattes. And, of course, it involves a curse, as these stories are wont to do, a jilted lover, which is almost as common, and a short sighted business plan ultimately buoyed up by technology, which is more common in folk tales than you might think.
Our story begins in the hills of Feynman, where once there was a young coffee roaster. His name was Starbuck, and he was blessed with good looks and an industrious spirit. He provided the coffee for several coffee shops and cafes, and this coffee was universally regarded far and near. Men blind from birth would understand the colors of the rainbow when they drank this coffee. Barren wives would have strong children if they drank the coffee black. Cold hearted fathers would embrace their son’s admissions of homosexuality with warmth and compassion when the coffee had a little cream and some splenda in it. The spent beans, when used as a fertilizer, doubled the yield of corn and soybeans. When Starbuck’s drip coffee was served in carafes at diplomatic and negotiating tables, the lands knew peace at last.
Yet, through it all Starbuck was sad, because he worked very hard to roast coffee for others, but he had no cafe to call his own.
Starbuck knew exactly what he would want in a cafe, too. He would want a warm and inviting place, where the smell of coffee would warm the spirit. He would want a place where conversation was king, inspired by the wisdom of the ages being printed on the outside of the coffee cups. He wanted a place where jazz would be remembered, food would be light and invigorating, and mugs would sell for a season and then go on clearance. As he lay on his cot next to the racks of beans just off from his furnace, he wrote ancient words of power in his notebooks, trying to figure out the perfect combination to bring his dream into life. Words like “doppio” and “venti” and “seven dollars and fifty cents a cup.”
In the end, of course, it came down to funding. Starbuck was given great heaping piles of cash for his superior drip coffee, of course, but the roasting process was an expensive one and besides, Starbuck spent more time than he should at Indian Casinos. So, he went to see many, many bankers.
The bankers were not unsympathetic, of course. They knew he had amazing coffee, and it stood to reason that his cafe would be popular. However, there was still that gambling problem to be concerned with and even without it, there was no shortage of cafes in the lands at that time. Even the smallest, meanest hamlet had six or seven cafes and two diners — three if you counted the IHOP out on Oxcart Route Sixteen. The market was oversaturated, and the only way that Starbuck could support his business model was if he continued to provide coffee to all the other cafes, which of course meant that “Starbuck’s Cafe” would have nothing to offer but pithy sayings on the cups, and that’s not what brings in the tourist trade. You need an angle.
One banker, who could see the disappointment in young Starbuck’s eyes, said “look, maybe you could do something no one else does in the town.”
“Like what?” Starbuck asked, despondently.
“Well… you could have the coffee served by topless waitresses.”
“Sure. Put your waitresses in G-Strings and I promse you’ll have a packed–”
“I want a salon of learning and culture, where music and discussion are stimulated by tasty hot beverages,” Starbuck shouted. “I don’t want a cheap strip club.”
“All right, all right,” the Banker said. “Forget I brought it up.”
The pair grew silent.
“Besides,” Starbuck said, “nudity doesn’t naturally mesh well with coffee. It distracts.”
“I mean, I have nothing against sex appeal. But if you put a woman in a miniskirt and a smile, either the guy buying the coffee won’t ever notice the taste, or he’ll be so into the taste he’ll never notice the woman in the miniskirt. And besides, did you ever try to get a permit for adult entertainment in this town? I swear to–”
“All right already.” The Banker frowned. “There must be some way to conflate sex appeal with coffee.”
“Well, if there is I don’t know it,” Starbuck admitted.
And then it hit the Banker. “Of course,” he said. “The Baristas.”
Starbuck blinked, and his face turned pale. “You must be joking,” he said.
The Baristas were little more than a legend in the towns of the hills of Feynman. Somewhere between a tribe and a cult, the Baristas wandered the woods and the hills. They took the form of men and women between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four, the dressed in nothing but low rise jeans and sheer white tank tops that revealed their dark brown bra straps or the occasional scoop neck lycra tee shirt, while the men sported open flannel shirts over allegedly ironic tee shirts. Trained from an early age in the twin arts of slinging esperesso and snark, they could produce sublime drinks from the pump based equipment they hauled through the woods in their carts. The scent of their ground coffee and their beauty drew men and women alike in like sirens singing sailors to their doom — men and women who spent exorbitant amounts of money for their mysterious yet invigorating drinks, only to be cut down by their biting sarcasm and alluring disdain.
“Neither man nor woman can tame the Baristas,” Starbuck said. “Any who tries is doomed to have their lives crushed immediately after their self esteem.”
“So it is believed,” said the Banker. “But I know a secret that could make the impossible possible. A secret that you could use to harness the alluring disdain and slung espresso skill for your own cafes. Those factors, combined with a good managerial plan to reign in their destruction and your own superior coffee would create a cafe that would draw all to your door.”
“A cafe… harnessing the power of the Baristas. Their untamed spirits yoked to the power of commerce.” Starbuck slowly smiled. “If I can use your secret, does that mean you’ll invest in my cafe?”
“Bet your life I will.”
Starbuck smiled more. “It seems that I am, friend. Tell me. What is this secret.”
The banker leaned forward, a slight smile on his face. “They have a Queen,” he said. “Draw her into your plans, and you draw the Baristas with her.”
The Banker went on to tell Starbuck of the woman called Fiona, the Queen of all Baristas, who bore the secrets of tamper and pump, and whispered in the ears of her followers, teaching them the ways of steam and sarcasm. The Queen was the wildest, the most beautiful, the most sensual and the most easily offended of them all. It was said the gods had blessed her, and also that her eyebrow and labriet piercings weren’t her only piercings, if you know what I mean. And I think I you do. Hint — it involves sex.
Starbuck was intrigued. “So, if I can get this… Fiona… to agree to our plans….”
“She will be able to supply Baristas to work in your cafe. They will bring with them the arts of sensuality, sarcasm and steamed milk, giving your cafe both a draw and an expanded menu. Their espressology and your remarkable drip coffee will more than dominate all the other cafes, with the exception of the IHOP out on Oxcart Route–”
“Yeah, I’m familiar with it,” Starbuck said, considering. “So how do I convince this Fiona.”
“You are a handsome man,” the banker said. “And she is lonely. And I happen to know that she has a secret vice for a really good cup of straight, black drip coffee.”
“How do you know all this?”
The banker smiled, as bankers are wont to do. “I got her a loan for a used oxcart. You’d be surprised how much detail goes into a standard credit report.”
And so Starbuck set out into the hills, with five pounds of his coffee beans, a portable grinder, a filter pot, a carafe and forty dollars in small bills. He walked up and around the winding paths, to the hills that were shrouded in perpetual mist and music was made in garages. For three days and three nights he walked, glad for having brought changes of underwear, and sorry he neglected to bring any kind of food. Tree bark was growing tiresome.
It was in a somewhat lightheaded state that he first smelled the unmistakable smell of freshly ground coffee beans. These beans didn’t smell like his, and he could tell from the distant whine of the grinder that they were being ground extra fine. Espresso fine.
He made his way through the mist, up the rocky path, rounding the corner and seeing a small tent encampment. This was a bazaar, with burly fishmongers hurling their wares and fortune tellers hunched over cards. Here there might be a dealer in antiquities, there there might be a bookseller. He nodded to the pikemen guarding the gate as he entered, and though many in this marketplace might seem passing strange to the eye, in his hunger and fatigue it all seemed to make sense.
He was tempted to stop, and eat, or perhaps buy a book or a wooden pen or something, but he held firm to his mission. He wended his way through the paths and tents, using his keen sense of smell and knowledge of coffee to guide him.
And then he saw it. Six carts, close at hand. Each with a twentysomething looking out at the world with calculated boredom. Their hair was short, their eyeglasses were narrow and librarianish, and their disdain was palpable.
And at the center of the carts, between the brown haired man with a well trimmed soul patch and circular glasses, wearing a golf shirt that was such an ugly shade of green that it had to be intentional and the blond hipster chick in the belly baring black lycra tee shirt and the men’s white Oxford shirt worn open over it, he saw her. Brunette, her hair short and spiky, her eyeglasses oval, wearing a brown tank top with a white woodcut print of a mermaid on the front that showed her black bra strap, a black miniskirt and thick brown tights that descended into a pair of beat up Doc Martins.
There was no doubt. This was the Queen. This was Fiona.
He worried that it would be hard to approach her, guarded as she was by her most fanatic of followers, but in the end the thing these Baristas were most fanatical about were ennui. Starbuck walked between their carts, enduring the derisive snorts of greeting, and stepped up to the circular table where Fiona was sitting.
“Yeah?” she asked, eyebrow arched.
“I’d like to talk to you,” Starbuck said.
“I’d like a pony, but I don’t have one. Unless you brought me a pony. Did you bring me a pony?”
Fiona pouted. “I don’t see what we have to talk about, then.”
“I brought you a gift, Majesty. Tribute to your beauty.”
“Wait, you brought me a gift and it isn’t a pony?”
“Well, yes. You see–”
“I didn’t think they made non-pony gifts. I’m not into jewelry, just you know.”
“It’s not jewelry. Your majesty, I–”
“It’s not a Pogues CD, is it?”
“Because I don’t know who the fuck told everyone I was into the Pogues. I mean, yeah, sure. Fairytale of New York and shit. I know, but that came out, like, a million years ago and everything else they did–”
“It’s not a Pogues CD. Jesus, can I just give you this?”
Fiona rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Captain Dan. Tell me it isn’t a shirt. One look at that offense to culture you’re wearing–”
Starbuck set his teeth, taking out his coffee beans and hand grinder.
“Oh Jesus. You brought me coffee?”
Starbuck didn’t answer. Instead he filled the grinder and began to grind, his superior beans cracking and releasing both their oil and aroma.
“Hello? I’m the fucking Queen of the Baristas. Do you honestly think I don’t have enough coffee in my life?”
Starbuck measured the ground coffee into the filter. Around him, the Baristas had taken a break from their ennui to watch, the smell of the superior beans cracking even their facades.
“You know, this one guy once brought me white tea he picked by hand in China, then dried for thirty days and nights himself, before canoeing back over the ocean by himself! I mean, sure the tea tasted like dog hair soaked in water, but at least he put some effort into it.”
Starbuck heated water to just the right temperature, Fiona’s disdain crashing around him like the water crashes into the rocky coastline.
Despite herself, Fiona was watching his every move. “Frankly, I’ve been trying to cut down anyway,” she was saying, as she watched him fill the top of the filter unit, the water making the grounds swirl and swell as it began to drip down into the carafe. “I mean, I haven’t really slept for about six years, and at least once I’m pretty sure I had seven heart attacks, all in a row.”
The coffee dripped, black mana descending into the carafe.
“Why won’t you say anything?” Fiona demanded, shaking her head to clear it.
“I wouldn’t dare interrupt,” Starbuck said, smiling a bit and pouring her a mugful. He set it in front of her.
Fiona stared at it.
Starbuck watched her for a moment, then poured himself a mug as well. “It’s not gonna bite you,” he said with a slight smirk.
“Oh, like I’d take your word on that,” Fiona said. She then shook her head, snorting. “Whatever,” she said, picking the mug up with an air of practiced contempt. She sipped.
She paused, and sipped again.
Starbuck sipped his own, watching her.
“Okay,” Fiona said. “That’s pretty fucking good right there.”
Starbuck shrugged. “It doesn’t completely suck.”
Fiona half smiled, and took another sip.
The affair had begun.
For weeks, the two were nearly inseperable. They complained about the service in bars. They bitched about concerts where they had thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They slept under bridges and danced naked in the streets of more artisticly minded communities. And they had lots and lots of sex.
And during it all, Fiona taught Starbuck some aspects of the ancient art of pulling espresso. She demonstrated the black arts of scrying in the sludge pot and the way to tell when milk was properly steamed by how badly the steamer cup burnt your skin when you touched it. And Starbuck taught Fiona the alchemy of the coffee roaster, showing her the means by which carmelization took a good bean and made it a phenomenal one or a terrible one, with a difference of only a few seconds or a few degrees.
And then, one day… ever so casually, Starbuck mentioned his thoughts about a cafe. And Fiona the Queen of the Baristas listened. She listened to him talking about the jazz and printing wisdom on the cups and making the place a homey, comfortable place for discussion and debate. And she listened to him talk about the oversaturation of cafes in the area and how loans didn’t grow on trees.
When she suggested that she could have the Baristas staff it, and actually remake the cafe into a coffeehouse that offered both his drip coffee and the espresso they slung, with banter and disdain served up alongside the lattes, she was convinced it was her idea.
The two were excited as they worked out the particulars. The cafe would be “Starbuck’s,” of course — it was his dream. But on the logo, they would put the symbol of the siren — the mermaid who drew in the viewer with a promise of caffeine and snark — that Fiona used as her own coat of arms. For a time, it seemed like it would be a very casual agreement between the two, even as the banker set up the financing. However, Starbuck became concerned — Fiona was mercurial, as many Baristas were, and obviously there was a chance of a breakup down the line. So he suggested that they draw up a contract, “just to make business business, and keep it out of their personal life.” Fiona agreed, and after they consulted the signs and portents, they put together a contract that would bind the Baristas to service within Starbuck’s coffee house for the numerologically significant thirty three years and thirty three days.
The cafe opened while the particulars were being worked out, and the first two weeks were nothing but success. Many were drawn to the legendary Baristas — was it truly them? Were they truly inside a cafe, their bite managed to alluring but nonlethal levels? And then, when it became clear that it was true, they stayed and chatted, sitting in comfortable chairs, drinking overpriced but delicious coffee drinks and wonderful drip coffee in equal measure.
So Fiona and Starbuck were feeling pretty good on the day the contract was finalized. Fiona signed her name and applied her seal, and Starbuck too made his agreement. He was content. Fiona was wonderful and snarky, his cafe was a hit, and his life was settling down.
The banker also smiled, as he slipped the contract into his files. “Excellent,” he said. “I have to admit,” he said to Starbuck, “when I told you how to land Fiona for this thing, I wasn’t sure it would actually work. I’m glad to see it did.”
The temperature in the room dropped at least twenty degrees.
“‘Land Fiona?’” Fiona asked, slowly.
The banker opened his mouth, looked at Fiona, and closed it again.
“It’s… not like that, babe,” Starbuck said. “Look, I knew–”
“I thought we came up with this idea together! I thought this was supposed to be me helping you with your big dream! Are you telling me you landed me like a fish, so you could get financing for your stupid cafe?”
Starbuck’s head swam. “It’s not… yes.” He said. “At first, yes. But Fiona, something happened. I… you mean everything to me now. It’s not….”
“Yeah? Prove it.” Fiona stood, drawing her bearing up, a rush in the background of ancient waves and seas swirling, the mermaid on her babydoll-T seeming to glare. “Tear the contract up. I’ll send the Baristas back to the hills. Close the place down. Show me I’m more important than your damn cafe.”
Starbuck swallowed, turning to the banker. He reached a hand out to collect the contract, but then he paused. He paused as he remembered the pride he felt as the customers cycled through the line, and as they sat down and played boardgames and discussed affairs of the day.
Later, he would convince himself he simply hesitated too long. But regardless of the reason, Fiona’s eyes turned cold. “You son of a bitch,” she growled.
“Fiona–” Starbuck said.
“Forget it. Forget all of it. We’re gone.”
The banker cleared his throat. “You can’t do that, Fiona,” he said. “You may be the queen, but you signed a contract. Thirty three years and thirty three days.”
Fiona turned her stare on the banker, who felt his blood run cold — literally. He felt his head swell, his skin shrink, his body twist until he had become a statue of pure salt. Some say the salt is pure sea salt, as a mermaid might gather. Some say it is the salt of a woman’s tears. As the banker was ground up and used in various trendy restaurants in the eighties, it’s hard to be certain now.
“Fiona,” Starbuck said, miserably….
“Fine. For thirty three years and thirty three days my Baristas will serve your cafe,” Fiona said, her voice harsh. “They will serve it well and with honor, because a contract is a contract, and anything less would do them a disservice and their espresso a disservice. But you will pay a price for this.” She leaned forward, and in her eyes a Nor’easter blew. “I curse you. I curse your hands and I curse the one thing your cafe makes that my Baristas have no hand in. I curse the means you used to seduce me and get past my snarky exterior. I curse your drip coffee. Now until the end of all days, the drip coffee at any cafe that bears your name will be worse than bad — it will be disappointing, and burnt, and crappy. From now until the stars die in their courses, your drip coffee will taste like crotch.”
And the Queen of the Baristas turned and stormed out, and Starbuck would never see her again.
And in Starbuck’s roasteries the superior beans curdled and turned black and bitter, burnt as if from the glare of a woman scorned. And in all the cafes and coffee shops and even that IHOP out on Oxcart Route 16 men and women spat out what had been great coffee and, with a voice almost as one said “what happened? This tastes like crotch.”
Over time, those cafes found other sources for their coffee beans, of course. Disappointing, compared to the legendary beans of Starbuck, but absent any burnt crotch taste. And Fiona, though she was never again seen in public, was more than happy to wreak another kind of vengence against her former lover, as Baristas began to appear in the towns and cities. They appeared with their carts, and they founded their own coffeehouses, where the snark ran even thicker than in Starbuck’s cafe.
But Starbuck’s cafe, right at the start, had the Baristas making excellent espresso right when all the coffeehouses in town had their beans go to crotch, and by the time replacement beans had been found and the Baristas had founded their own espresso shacks and shops, Starbuck’s was well established as a place to get excellent lattes and the like.
Starbuck himself had no stomach for business — not after he saw the banker turned to salt and Fiona’s departure. So he hired some good businessmen and managers, and they saw the coffeeshop expanded, with new locations added. And over time Starbucks (focus groups didn’t like the apostrophe) spread out over all the land. And for thirty three years and thirty three days Baristas came down from the hills to serve in these new locations, because a bargain is a bargain, and a contract is a contract. And if they spit in peoples’ lattes, well — no one noticed.
Starbuck himself continued to work in his original cafe. And for the most part he was happy — he liked his customers and the atmosphere of his coffee shop was wonderful. They learned new tricks of blending chopped ice with the coffee and making cold drinks, and there was mass marketing and the like. Really, he was happy to let his managers deal with that. He learned how to pull an espresso himself, though he was never really good at the snark side of things.
And through it all, Starbuck continued to roast coffee beans and Starbucks continued to offer drip coffee. And even though that coffee tasted like crotch, Starbuck refused to take it off the menu. Some say it was pride. Some say it was guilt. Some say Starbuck couldn’t quite cope with having the thing he was once renowned for taken off the menu entirely. Either way, the people of the land learned to just order lattes or americanos or the like, and in some rare situations they learned to like drip coffee that tasted like crotch — to the point where the company actually sold their ‘special house blend’ coffees for people to brew and enjoy at home, their spouses silently learning hatred for the brew.
Of course, as the decades passed, the time appointed in the contract drew nigh. Starbuck was just as happy — his sins would come home to roost as the Baristas left. But his company managers, having been appraised of the situation, pushed the research and development department to develop a soulless machine that would grind, measure and pull espresso while steaming milk to a specific, thermometer checked temperature. And so, when the day arrived, and the Baristas solemnly took off their green aprons and stepped out of all the branches of Starbucks in the world, walking their paths and again rising up the hillsides and down to the sea, the cafes rolled out their new machines and hired some teenagers selected for their own cheer, spunk, attitude and disdain to push the buttons.
Starbuck watched this without comment. If you can find his original shop these days, you can still see him in there most mornings, pushing the buttons and preparing truly bad drip coffee. He won’t answer questions about the Queen of Baristas, but he’ll play you in Scrabble and he’s more than happy to up your order from a grande to a venti on the sly.
In the afternoons and evenings, however, he walks into the hills or down to the sea. And he can be seen there with a hand grinder, a bag of coffee beans, and a portable rig. He very slowly, and very carefully measures out his coffee, grinding and pouring it, and preparing two cups. Black. One he sets for someone else, and one he keeps for himself. He drinks every drop, though even he can’t avoid wincing now and again. No one knows what he does with the other cup.
They just know he’s waiting for it to be picked up, with a sigh and a snort and an affected “whatever.” And they do not pry further.