Will that be Tall or Grande?

For many the traveler (and perhaps even more so for the traveling artist or entertainer) an important role is played on the road by coffee—that friend that wakes us in the morning, keeps us alert behind the wheel, picks us up for the next gig, keeps us going. And while I don’t drink it in the hours immediately preceding a gig, any other time coffee provides that combination of stimulant and old familiar friend for me in much the same way that public radio and spring creeks ground me, pick me up and pique my creative sensibilities anywhere I go.

 As important as the drink is in my travels, the coffeehouse serves an equally significant function.  A perennial source of artistic energy, caffeine and wireless internet, the coffeehouse de jour, like the trout stream and the NPR station, grounds me, calms me, focuses me and keeps me in touch.

When time allows, I love seeking out the local coffeehouses.  There, the internet is usually free, the clientele predictably free-thinking, the music usually independent, and the coffee beans are rarely over roasted.  There, I feel at home.

But let’s face it, there isn’t always time to do the research and driving to find that oasis. Often, the local house is on the other side of town—out of the way and inaccessible in the time available. 

Enter Starbucks.

Yes, Starbucks.  I don’t drink their coffee.  It is always way over-roasted for my taste.  I don’t understand their menu board and they don’t understand what it means when I order anything in the “regular” size.  They ask if I want a grande, which sounds really big, but then a tall sounds even bigger and I have no clue what venti means.  Their tea wears labels such as zen and calm and when asked,  they are all green.  Unless they are chamomile, in which case they smell alarmingly like mint.  But the cake is usually good, the chai is predictably sweet and the chairs are always comfortable.  Unfortunately, the internet comes at a cost – $9.99 for twenty-four consecutive hours.  In other words, Ten bucks for twenty minutes – usually all the time I need to check email and send a response or two. 

I have been to two Starbucks in the last two days.  The first one, a suburban strip mall joint, played reggae so loud that I couldn’t concentrate.  I asked them to turn it down and they very quickly and politely obliged, but just as quickly the volume of the baristas increased so that I was hearing the sexual exploits, preferences and wishes of the teenaged staff over the music complete with the most colorful of language bandied about as if they were in their parent’s basement drinking cheap beer.  Looks were shared among the customers and several got up and left.  I stuck it out but was not very productive.

The next day I visited a smaller, urban ‘bucks.  It was morning rush hour and there was a line of professionals being hustled efficiently through the assembly line by a young woman who knew half of them by name and knew the preferred drinks of half of those.  When I reached the counter, I was unsure of what drink I wanted.  Definitely no caffeine.  I scanned the board several times for tea offerings before finally spying a row of boxes behind the barista.  I had to lean over the counter in order to read the labels.

“What do you want, Honey?”

“What is Zen?”

“Green tea.”

“Envy?”

“Green tea.”

“China Green Tips?”

“Green Tea.”

“Om?”

“Green Tea.  Which one do you want, Honey?”

“Do you have Sencha?”

“No, Honey.  We have Envy, Zen, Om…”

“That’s Ok.  How about Chamomile?”

“What size?”

I held up my cup.

“One bag or two, Honey?  People are waiting.”

“Make it two.”

She pulled two bags from a box labeled “Calm,” dropped them into my cup, and added steaming water.  As she handed it to me, the aromas of apple and mint found their way to my nose.  I sensed no chamomile, but I didn’t question it. People were waiting, after all.

“Thanks, Honey,” I said, but she didn’t hear.  She had already moved on to the next one.

“What can I get you, Honey?”

I left the shop and headed down the street to the festival.  It was raining and cool and the warm travel mug felt good in my hand.  Comforting.  Grounding, even.  

Cockroach Hunter

It’s remarkable how convincingly, at 3:30 in the morning, a dead, brown, rolled up leaf can pass for a monster cockroach – complete with layered, translucent, glistening wings; curiously twitching antennae; flexed and ready legs prepared to jet across the floor in search of my bare foot or the nearest crevasse.  Even more remarkable is how quickly my heart leapt into my throat at the first sight of it.

But more amazing still is that less than three minutes after my first encounter I returned from the kitchen with a glass of water and suffered the exact same reaction to the exact same leaf.

Now, at 3:45 in the morning, with my heart racing but my thirst quenched, I sit at the computer writing rather than sleeping because it will be a while before my pulse quiets enough for me to resume sleep and laying awake in the dark thinking about roaches just ain’t my cup of tea!

I will remain awake, probably for the remaining 105 minutes until my alarm goes off because I can’t stop thinking about a non-biting, non-stinging, nonpoisonous and by all accounts harmless insect.  Which, as far as I know, isn’t even in my apartment.

When I was 16 years old I worked for a short while in a to-remain-unnamed fast food restaurant in Chattanooga – one of a young, growing southern chain specializing in chicken filet sandwiches and fresh-squeezed lemonade.  Our store prided itself in its cleanliness and was particularly sparkling on this particular week as we had just scoured the entire place in anticipation of a visit from some of our company honchos from down in Georgia which had at the last minute been cancelled.

It therefore came as quite a surprise when Will, my best friend and one of the closing crew, spotted a medium-sized cockroach on the wall in the back room, right next to where we breaded filets for frying.  Had our manager been there, I’m certain we would have quickly killed the intruder and alerted the captain, but on this night the closing authority was Michelle – a young girl no older than myself who was new to the job and not one we saw any need to impress or brown nose.  So, rather than kill it, we decided to catch it.

I approached the roach with a cup my hand, thinking that I would trap in against the wall, slip a piece of paper underneath the cup and then pull the cup and paper away from the wall with the roach safely trapped.  The first part of the plan went as prescribed and the roach was swiftly and easily trapped, but as I was about to slip the paper underneath, I realized that  the roach had never moved – not at my approach, as the cup came down around it, not even now that it was trapped. This, of course, raised several questions.

Clearly a great deal of air pressure would have been created by the slamming of the cup.  Could this pressure have squeezed the exoskeletal armor of the roach enough to have caused internal damage, killing the roach instantly?  Could the trauma induced by the simple knowledge of being captured been enough to cause cardiac arrest and death?  And if either of these things had happened, wouldn’t a dead roach fall off the wall?  And if a dead roaches don’t fall off walls, was the roach dead when we discovered it and if so, why don’t we see dead roaches all over walls everywhere roaches live?  And, perhaps most importantly, if it was already dead, did it die from eating the chicken?

After pondering these questions for a minute or two, we decided to remove the cup and see for ourselves if the roach was alive or dead. Expecting a mad dash behind the shelves, I was flanked by Will and Kevin, each double-fisting cups  and prepared to quickly re-contain the prisoner should it escape.

Slowly I lifted the tomb.  The roach remained motionless on the wall.  A ploy?  We watched it for a few seconds then Will poked it with one of his cups.  It took off running.  And fast.  Luckily, Kevin was there and slammed another cup down over her.  We could hear it scurrying around the perimeter of her cell. One lap.  Two laps.  Three. Four. Then silence.  After a minute passed without any movement, Kevin lifted his cup.  Once again, she did not move.  Then I got a great idea.

“Let’s tape it to the wall.”

We didn’t discuss my proposal.  We didn’t need to.  Will went to the desk and found a roll of packing tape then came back to the wall where Kevin had replaced the cup just to be sure and I was standing guard in case… well… just in case.  Will tore off a piece of tape and handed it to me.  Kevin lifted the cup.   In one swift motion I placed the tape over the roach, sealing it against the wall on all sides.

We stood silently and proudly over the victim of our prowess for a moment until Michelle looked around the corner and suggested that we get back to work, which we did.

This all happened on a Saturday. The restaurant was closed on Sunday and Will, Kevin and I were off on Monday and Tuesday.  Now one might expect that the Monday morning crew, upon seeing a roach taped to the wall in the back room would take appropriate measures to remove the offense.  One might also think that our boss would have had questions for us.  But on Wednesday, when the three of us returned to work, the roach was still taped to the wall and there were no questions, no comments.

Now there were several possible motivations for why none of our coworkers removed the tape and the roach – curiosity, fear, entertainment value… just to name a few.  And it is entirely likely that our boss simply never noticed the tiny transparent tomb given that his job did not frequently include breading filets.  Whatever the reason the others had for leaving it, we decided for the same reason that led us to capturing it that we too would leave it there.

A week after the night of the capture, the roach was still entombed (and presumed dead) and Michelle strongly suggested that we remove it from the wall.  The dignitaries from Georgia had not come the  previous week as expected, she explained, and it was rumored that they had re-scheduled for the following Monday.  We agreed that we did not want them to arrive and find a dead roach taped to the wall above the breading station and I volunteered for disposal duty.

The tape was still sealed on all sides of the roach, just as when I had applied and there was no sign of any struggle.  The roach was perfectly archived there and I assumed that removing the tape would remove the roach as well and then I could just toss the whole lot into the trash.  But to my surprise, the tape came off smoothly and the roach stayed on the wall…  and then… began… to run.  After a week of food and oxygen deprivation, the roach was alive, aware, and off to the races, moving faster and straighter than I had ever seen (or have since seen) a roach or any other insect move.  This time, unfortunately, I had no protection on my flanks and no cup of my own and the roach made a beeline for the shelves, behind which it disappeared, never to be seen again.

Two years after my roach encounter, I found myself living for one semester on the campus of Tennessee Technological University where my dorm held the distinction of producing for several years running, the winner of the all-campus cockroach race.  I suggested to the captain of our team that research I conducted while in high school, uncovered the secret to cockroach training and I thereby guaranteed that if given the opportunity, I could produce the fastest cockroach TTU had ever seen.  But I was a freshman, he was an upper classman and my chicken-feeding-followed-by-deprivation training regimen would not be followed.  So our cockroach was trained without my assistance or advice and finished third – breaking our string of victories.  And although my dorm-mates were humiliated, I was somehow satisfied with the knowledge that, if given the chance… just maybe… I could’ve won that race.

Now, almost exactly twenty years later, I’m reminded of all this at 3:30 in the morning because I was frightened by a dry, brown, rolled up leaf on my dining room floor and more questions are surely begged.  Had that leaf been a roach, what was there to be afraid of?  Perhaps the idea, twenty-two years ago, that a roach was able to defy death and live to be a champion is somehow frightening to me – that any creature could exhibit even the possibility of immortality.

Or maybe roaches are just plain creepy and I don’t want them creeping around my house, in the dark, when I’m usually asleep or, if awake, barefoot!  But now it’s morning and the sun will be up soon so I’m going to put on my shoes and make some tea.

A Visit with Wren

Of all the people I have met since moving back to Chattanooga, I can say without hesitation or apology that I have a favorite.  His came is Wren. I have always tended to connect with children and dogs more quickly than adults.  Birds, too, come to think of it, but despite his name, Wren is not a bird.  He is a little boy.  I asked Wren how he got his name, and without looking up from the superhero postage stamps he was studying, he replied, “A bird.”

I asked him what kind of bird he was named after.   

“I like Green Lantern,” he said.

Hoping to find the answer on my own, I started listing the wrens.”

“Winter wren?”

No response.

“Cactus?”

Nothing.

“House wren? Carolina?  Sedge? Marsh?”  

Wren was paying no attention to my inquisition, so I turned my attention to his superheroes.

“How come he’s green?” 

Wren looked up, shrugged, then looked back to his stamps.

“And what’s with the lantern?”

“It’s cuz he’s the Green Lantern.” 

Wren rolled his eyes at the pointlessness of my question just as his mother, Heidi, who had been listening from a few feet away joined the conversation. 

 “What’s your full name, Wren?”

 “I don’t like Aqua Man.” 

“What’s not to like about Aqua Man?” I asked. “Aqua Man is my favorite.  He can talk to the whales, the squids, the dolphins.  And they talk back, too.”

Wren looked up from the stamps.  His father, Stuart, stopped chopping peppers and looked over from the kitchen. 

“Wouldn’t you rather be able to fly?”  Stuart asked.

“Yeah, I’d fly.” chimed Wren. “Why would you want to talk to fish?”

 “Oh, come on, guys, imagine the impact I could have on the world if I could talk to the whales.  I mean, how do you think they feel about over-fishing?  About global warming?  And what about all that noisy sonar?  That must drive them crazy!  Just think, If they had a way to communicate with us – about what we are doing to their home.  Imagine being such an advocate! The responsibility and potential! There would be no more arguing about our impact.  We would have to respond – to change things.”

I was feeling pretty good about my decision to back Aqua Man – the altruism of it! – when his father spoke up.

“Yeah, imagine requesting a meeting with the president so you can tell him that you’ve been talking with the whales and there’s some things they want him to know. That’ll change the world.” 

“Is it Canyon Wren?” Heidi asked him.

“Can the Green Lantern fly?”

“It’s Canyon Wren,” she said to me.

“I would have gotten there. Eventually,”  I responded.  “Cool name.  Hey, how fast is the Green Lantern?”

“Bobickly!” said Wren excitedly.

“Bobickly?”

Wren looked at his father and grinned.  Clearly, they knew something I didn’t.

“And just how fast is bobickly fast?”

Wren looked at me with a furrowed brow.

 “It’s a noun,” offered Stuart.

“Ok. I get it.  What is a bobickly?”

Wren smiled.

“I’ll show you.”

Wren got up from the floor and walked over to the door.  I thought maybe he had a bobickly out on the porch and was going to retrieve it until he stopped and turned around.

“Watch behind him,” said Stuart.

 Wren took off running as fast as he could across the room.

At 5 years old, Wren couldn’t run all that fast, but I understood what they were after. 

“Wow!  It’s like you blurred.  Like you were everywhere at once!”

“That’s a bobickly!” they proclaimed together.

“Aqua Man doesn’t get bobicklies, does he?” I asked. 

“Nope.  Not fast enough.  And he can’t fly, either.”

“He can breathe underwater, though…”

“Tell me a story.”

“Only if you put the stamps away.”

Wren was reluctant, but I held my ground and with Stuart’s encouragement, he put the stamps away. Then, together, we told the story of Mr. Wiggle and Mr. Waggle – a tale of best friends who moved so fast through the mountains to see each other that they left bobicklies in their wake.  The story ended just as it does every time, just the way it was taught to me by Jim May:

“…good night, Mr. Wiggle.”

“Good night, Mr. Waggle.”

Cause they were best friends!

By the time we had finished the story, Stuart had finished making supper and I needed to go home.  I put on my shoes, said goodbye and headed out the door.  As I got to the bottom of the steps, I heard the door open and I looked back.

Wren was standing in the doorway waving, with a big grin on his face.

“Goodnight Jim!”

“Goodnight Wren!”

Cause we were best friends!