Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Black As Midnight On A Moonless Night

My problem started early.

In high school, I slept in the backyard, in a boat house. That might sound odd, but allow me to elaborate. My family had a boat, briefly––a terrible financial decision made by a stepfather in the throes of a midlife crisis, but it didn't last long, and once we got rid of the boat, my stepfather set to work drywalling and wiring the boathouse, converting it into a detached home office.

Once my mom got rid of my stepdad, I made his former office my bedroom. And it was glorious. Sort of.

To a fifteen-year-old, the freedom of rooming in a converted boat house was thrilling, though I promptly realized I lacked the responsibility that came with the privilege. Every evening I'd bid my mother goodnight, walk across the lawn to my room, close the door, and party all night. It didn't matter that it was just me and my cat kickin' it to Rob Zombie until 4 AM. It felt like I was breaking every law in the book.

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Inevitably, I was a zombie every morning at school. I failed algebra because I couldn't stay awake. One morning in English class I dozed off, then woke up twenty minutes later to the entire class (including the teacher) staring at me, and was informed I'd been having a very loud nightmare about Gremlins. Clearly I needed to take matters into my own hands, and that's how I became a regular at the school coffee shop.

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It fixed everything. Suddenly I was alert and chipper all day long. How had I gone fifteen long years without knowing the restorative virtues of coffee? There was no going back. And that was precisely the problem. I became thoroughly dependent on my morning coffee, and the issue progressed well into college. I became a coffee person, one of those insufferable douchebags who laments, "I simply don't feel like a person before I have my morning coffee, you know?"

I briefly kicked the habit one summer in college while working at a coffee shop, of all places. Something about serving lattes all day makes you despise any and all coffee products. Unfortunately I only managed to replace one vice for another, and my trial separation from coffee merely led me into the arms of another hot beverage: tea. And that was even worse. Tea people are significantly more annoying than coffee people, and I somehow found myself falling in with the tea drinkers at work, perhaps because in a coffee shop, drinking tea is the only way to rebel.

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Sadly, tea never offered the same kick as coffee did. Soon after leaving my barista job I found myself under the control of coffee once again, and there was no turning back. I am now a 24-year-old slave to the Java Monster, and he is a cruel tyrant. At this point, it's become such a problem that it's the first thing I think about when I wake up.

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I am by no means a coffee snob. I'll drink whatever dirty mudwater you sling my way, but I have settled into my own little routine. When I'm away from Portland, the one thing I truly miss is the coffee shop across the street from my apartment building. Nobody else seems to make my cup quite right, and there's one barista in particular that brews it exquisitely. There's something a little ...off about her, something I can't quite put my finger on. My roommate once told me he's convinced she immigrated here from Cuivienén, which he subsequently informed me is the eastern land of Middle Earth where the elves originated. I then slapped him in the face and told him if he ever spoke Nerd to me again I'd put him in the ground.

That said, I think he might be right.

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I know brewing coffee isn't difficult per se, but the coffee I receive from her is always a cut above, and watching her work is a magical experience.

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I like to imagine Elf Barista received her magic powers a millenium ago, long before fair trade was an issue, when nobody knew the difference between Arabica and Robusta.

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I rarely stray from Elf Barista. I imagine most addicts find a dealer they like and then stick with them. Especially in Portland, where the coffee snobbery can be oppressive, I dare not deviate from what I know. I did so once, and the results were disastrous.

I found myself late for work one morning and stopped in one of those miniature hole-in-the-wall coffee joints. I was in a hurry, so without glancing at the menu I ordered the most harmless, universal drink I could think of.

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The barista was not having it.

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I haven't gone back there.

Begrudgingly, I've resolved myself to being a lifelong coffee drinker. I suppose at least part of it is mental, but if slurping down bitter brown sludge is what turns me into a productive member of society, then so be it. Miley Cyrus probably needs like 4 lines of coke just to get out bed every day, so it could be worse.

At least that's what I tell myself while I'm rubbing coffee grounds into my gums just to get a fix.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Close Encounters

One summer as a kid I was best friends with Glenn Close's nephew. We went to the same summer camp and we bonded over our fondness for Blue Yoshi (because he could fly, thus making him the best Yoshi). Glenn co-owned a coffee shop in town with her sister Jessie. I'd seen her a couple times downtown, but I never spoke to her until I inadvertently made friends with her nephew.

I was invited to a family picnic at his house, and Glenn showed up with a big bag of homemade cookies. She took one out and offered it to me.

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That was the first and last time I spoke to Glenn Close.

One thing's certain: Helen Mirren wouldn't offer me no fucking oatmeal raisin cookie, that's for sure.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Last Best Place

As a rule, I wait awhile before I tell people I grew up in Montana. When I divulge this fact, I'm inevitably forced to field a series of inane questions. Most people seem to view Montana as some kind of backwards, mythical wasteland. At best, they picture some quaint Little House on the Prairie type nonsense. At worst, they imagine Deliverance.

The truth is that Montana is a beautiful place, but it's difficult to construe this fact to strangers.

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When talking to someone about my childhood, there are several falsehoods I have to debunk on a recurring basis.

"Yes, there is a speed limit in Montana."

"No, we don't eat bull testicles... that often."

And my favorite:

"No, I didn't ride a horse to school."

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For better or worse, living in Montana wasn't all that different from what I saw on TV growing up (quelle surprise, we had television sets), although there were a few standout aspects of my childhood. For instance, some folks don't believe me when I tell them this, but on occasion I'd find myself running alongside herds of deer in gym class. My high school was on the outskirts of town, and if weather permitted, the gym teachers would have us run the mile outside. Wildlife doesn't just disappear in the face of expanding urban industrialization. They still gather and graze, and when confronted with a bevy of sprinting high school kids, their intuition was to join in, resulting in complete chaos.

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Though Montana is generally business as normal, as I got older there were increasing exceptions. It can be a challenge to entertain yourself in the country, especially at night. On evenings when storms blew the power out, we'd sit in the basement and wrack our brains for ways to stay occupied. This is how The Eighteen Hundreds Game came to fruition.

The game is simple. You sit in the dark and imagine it's the 1800's. Simple, right? You get bonus points for wrapping yourself in a sheet and pretending to be a Brontë sister. And if you're thinking, "Hey Adam, they totally had electricity in the nineteenth century," well, then, you have a pretty good idea of how effective the Montana education system is.

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Not everyone understood the appeal of the game, however.

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After graduating I went to college in Boston, but I returned home to Montana during summer breaks. Like most kids under the legal age, I became all too familiar with that veritable quandry of where to drink at night. For kids in Big Sky Country, the solution usually involved lugging tallboys of Budweiser out into the wilderness and drinking under the stars. And for me, the favorite spot was on top of a giant rock just north of the airport, nestled away from the city lights (and those pesky cops).

As most agrestic youths know, drinking in the wild comes with a unique set of dangers. I can't count the number of times I huddled atop that rock with the resolve to finish my beer no matter what, come rain or shine or alien invasion.

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The principle tenet when doing anything in the wild is to prolong breaking the seal as long as possible. Once those gates open, there's no turning back, and there's nothing worse than drunkenly stumbling around rugged terrain in the dark.

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Because of course, danger lurks around every corner.

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The first Montana summer where I was finally old enough to go to bars was a borderline religious experience. It wasn't long before I discover The Crystal Lounge, Montana's premiere karaoke bar. When it comes to small town dive bars, the fancier the name, the grosser the establishment. And The Crystal Lounge was a fabulous petrie dish of fail.

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It wasn't the cheap drinks that appealed to me, or the nearly pitch black atmosphere, or even the soft "plink plink" of Rohypnol being dropped into bottles of Miller Lite. As with any scuzzy hole-in-the-wall, it's the clientele that makes the memories. And this is where The Crystal shines.

One of my favorite regulars is an older woman who comes in on Saturday nights, has a drink or twelve, and then submits her karaoke request. Every time she sings "I Will Always Love You," dedicates it to her son Darrell stationed in Iraq, and sings the entire song in a single high-pitched note barely audible to anyone of the non-canine variety.

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Then there are the bros with backwards Nascar hats, and their girlfriends with over-processed Ramen Noodle hair, but my most revered client by far is a quiet guy who comes in on the weekends, always followed closely by the flashiest hooker I've ever seen. This is notable because while Montana certainly has hookers, they're generally of the bargain bin variety.

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This fella must import his girls from out of state. I've never seen him with any of the budget hookers who meander the streets downtown at 7 PM on a Tuesday. His hookers are Gucci Mane music video type hookers. They strut around, giving off attitude and raising drinks to his lips, and when it's time for him to sing, they hold the microphone up for him, and he mutters quietly along to the throbbing beats of the loudspeakers, barely discernable to anyone in the building.

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The Crystal Lounge has become tradition when I return home to visit, even if it's just for a weekend. I can only hope that someday I'll slowly degenerate into one of The Crystal's regulars, smelling of Newport Menthol 100's and nursing a Wild Turkey on the rocks while I wait for my turn to belt out Shampoo's "I Know What Boys Like," thinking I'm being ironic, but only succeeding in making everyone uncomfortable and confused.

...Maybe I should dream bigger.

UPDATE! The Crystal Lounge now has a YouTube channel, so now you can experience the horrors for yourself. I present you with Vera. You're welcome.