Thursday, April 24, 2008

Fond Memory: Water Bath "Slider" Coke Machines

Driving down Route 1 in Stonington, CT with my daughter, I saw an old Coke machine being used as a planter in front of a store and was blessed with a memory unrecalled for decades.

I am old enough to remember a kind of soda machine that was in the shape of a tall cooler. Lifting the lid revealed glass soda bottles submerged in chilled water, their necks protruding from horizontal slots in a metal plate. Buying a coke involved depositing coins and sliding the chosen bottle to the left and into a little bay where the bottle could be pulled up through tipping doors unlocked by the money in the slot.

As you can imagine, old Coke machines are a booming collectors’ preoccupation, and you can find every kind ever invented on eBay and websites devoted to Coke memorabilia. The kind of “slider” machine I was remembering was made by companies called Glasco and Ideal. The photo below shows the lid and innards of a typical machine.

I remember two wonderful features of buying soda from a machine like this. First, the soda came out very cold and wet. On a hot day, it was great to hold the bottle in your hand or press it to your forehead or cheek. Second, buying a soda from this kind of machine had a game-like quality. Often different kinds of soda were mixed together in the slots of the machine: Coke, Hires Root Beer, Orange Crush. To get the soda you wanted, you sometimes had to play a little Rubic’s cube game of sliding unwanted bottles out of the slot and into another row so that you had a clear path to the exit bay. This was a much more participatory form of soda purchase than today.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Of Tattoos and Misimpressions

Sometimes we are just wrong about people.

My daughter and I recently visited a sandwich shop, a national chain where submarine sandwiches—or what New Englanders call grinders—are constructed to your specifications by minimum-wage workers. The early part of the process, where you choose the sandwich and the kind of roll, was handled by a young white person whose behavior was typical of many people today in low-paying service jobs. By this I mean, he appeared bored. His thoughts were somewhere off in the distance, far away from his job and his customers. This chain of sandwich shops offers a choice of five kinds of rolls, and after telling me that my first two choices were not available, the worker offered no apology and seemed unaware my sense of disappointment. Of course, working as a “sandwich artist” at a place like this is a job, not a career. Almost everyone who takes a position like this considers it temporary, a mere paycheck to help them get by until something better comes along. But not everyone has this kind of distracted, uncommitted attitude.

When we moved down the line to the worker whose job it was to finish the sandwich assembly, we met a very different kind of person. This young man had tattoos up and down both arms, as well as the kind of neck tattoos that are designed to extend upward above the collar line. He was a thin but well-muscled man who looked like he might be Puerto Rican.

Based on what was immediately visible about this man, many people might guess he was a gang member and someone who might have spent time in jail. Expansive tattoos on a healthy non-white man often provoke fear, and they certainly got my attention. But a closer look soon contradicted any stereotypical first impression. This young man was very quiet, saying nothing more than “What would you like on your sandwich?” But he listened attentively, and the careful movements of his hands were very revealing. Without asking me to repeat my choices, he collected the peppers, tomatoes, and condiments, and quickly but skillfully arranged them across the surface of the meat. After asking me if I wanted anything else, he deftly folded the spongy bread, cut it in half, and wrapped the sandwich neatly in paper.

The young man’s construction of my sandwich was quick and efficient, and although I would not say the he was particularly warm, he soon won me over. His every movement spoke volumes, and any initial apprehension was replaced by admiration. His was a low-level, poorly paid position, but his mindfulness and attention told me that doing this job well was important to him. In today’s consumer-driven world, having a job like this is shameful. Most people who are stuck in these positions survive in the manner of the tattooed man’s co-worker, by tuning out the work environment and passing the hours on a mental vacation somewhere far away. But this tattooed man was different—so different that he stood in stark contrast to most other minimum wage workers.

In hindsight, I realized the man’s eye-catching external features—his tattoos, his muscles, and his ethnicity—told me nothing about him. At first glance, they were his most notable features, but they reflected nothing of the man within. In contrast his general demeanor and his deliberate actions communicated much more clearly. A picture is said to speak a thousand words, but in judging character, actions speak louder than words or images.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Simple Pleasures: Coffee in a Paper Cup

It occurs to me that an entire blog in praise of simple pleasures might be a wonderful thing. I am somewhat reluctant to take on another project, but I promise to devote much of this blog to the simple things that bring happiness—to me, at least. Many of them run along a gustatory theme: I have already shared my love of Postum and my fond remembrance of fish sandwiches at The Deluxe in Champaign, Illinois. For those who want to learn more about my philosophy of simple foods, I humbly recommend a piece I wrote a couple of years ago entitled “In Praise of Cheap and Local Eats.”

I love coffee and drink more of it than the average Joe (sorry), but this piece is not really about the coffee. It’s about the cup. Styrofoam may be lighter, but it is a stiff and squeaky substance that—when assigned to carry liquids—is far too clunky and slippery for the task. Furthermore, styrofoam’s fossil origins and virtual indestructibility add a heavy moral burden.

Paper cups are also very light, but I find them much easier to hold. I also like the cup’s comparatively ancient origins. Indeed, this year marks the centennial of the invention of the Dixie cup, the first paper cup, which was born out of concerns for the spread of disease, particularly in schools. The paper coffee cup’s only drawback is that it can burn your hand, but even before the introduction of insulating rings, this problem was quite manageable and always temporary.

For me the paper cup has a democratizing effect on coffee drinking. I love a fine cup of coffee like those purveyed by Peet’s of Berkeley or the Coffee Exchange in Providence, and when making coffee at home, I tend toward the gourmet varieties. But out in the world where coffee comes in paper cups, my coffee drinking transcends class barriers. I do my best to avoid the pretension of Starbucks and the drive-thru car culture of donut shop coffee. I also drink my coffee black and never order lattes, cappuccinos, or Coolatas. I often buy relatively good quality java at independent coffee or bagel shops—especially my local haunt, The Yellow House, in Stonington, CT (shown above). But to me, any kind of coffee in a to-go cup is something of a treat, and often the standard Maxwell house brewed at a 7-Eleven, XtraMart, or Cumberland Farms is perfectly acceptable. In exchange for a little more than a dollar, you can have a stimulating, warm drink in a compact and highly portable container. A simple pleasure indeed.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Adventures in Radioland

For the author promoting a book, there is a distinct hierarchy of radio outlets. At the top are the nationally syndicated NPR shows, such as All Things Considered, The Diane Rehm Show, and Fresh Air with Terri Gross. Just below this are a host of regional NPR outlets, like Wisconsin Public Radio, KQED in San Francisco, or New Hampshire Public Radio. Both these levels of interview are typically done in a studio with high tech equipment, so there is little that can go wrong. You can, of course, be really boring or make some dreadful mistake, but because you are in a controlled environment, technical problems are kept to a minimum.

However, once you drop below these upper levels of radio, there is a great sea of less stellar outlets. Slogging your tome could involve trying to summarize 300+ pages in a 10-minute interview with a morning drive host from Wyoming or having the luxury of forty minutes to talk about your book with someone whose podcast may not be heard by more than a dozen people beyond his closest relatives. These lower-tier interviews are usually done by phone, at home or in the office, and this is where the high jinx can ensue.

The most important thing is that your surroundings be quiet. We have all heard the radio caller whose dog starts to bark incessantly or whose child begins screaming in the background. These hazards do not pose a problem for me because I have no pets or young children at home, and since I am a college professor, you might imagine my office would be quiet enough for radio interviews. Not so. Several times a day in the winter months, the radiators in my office bang so ferociously it is difficult to think, much less talk on the phone. As a result, I arrange to do most of my phone interviews at home. Unfortunately, recent scheduling problems have forced me to do a few interviews in the office, and because we are still in the heating season, I risked sending banging sounds out over the airwaves. Furthermore, my luck has been rather poor lately. So far during the promotion of my new book Going Broke I have done three phone interviews in the office, and the banging pipes have managed to make an unwelcome appearance for two of these.

When the pipes bang, I can never decide the best course of action. Of course, I am trying very hard to concentrate on what the interviewer is saying and what my next response will be. Meanwhile the pounding is getting louder and louder, and I am cupping my hand around the mouthpiece of the phone in an effort to block the sound of the pipes while retaining the ability to talk on the phone. Should I apologize to the interviewer? There is always the slim chance that the phone is not picking up the sound of the pipes and I will be apologizing for something that the listeners cannot hear. So usually I just carry on without mentioning anything, and so far, the radio hosts have done the same. However, in one case the radio host ended the interview rather abruptly. It is possible he had run out of time or was not getting as much out of the interview as he had hoped, but I had the distinct impression the loud clanging sounds in the background had something to do with it.

In contrast, home is usually a very safe environment. However, sometimes I am my own worst enemy. Last week I had a long podcast interview, and earlier in the morning I had been baking muffins. I used a digital kitchen timer, and I had taken the muffins out of the oven just minutes before the interview. Things were going great. The host liked the book and posed many thoughtful questions, but about twenty minutes into the interview, the digital timer began to beep. I thought I had turned it off, but instead, I must have restarted it. I always use a wired phone for interviews because wireless phones have poorer sound quality, but this means I am tied to my spot. As a result, there was no way for me to get to the timer to turn it off without leaving the phone behind, so there was nothing I could do.

After a moment the beeping stopped. This must have been the 5-minutes-to-go warning feature. Unfortunately, I was not finished with the interview, and five minutes later, the beeping returned. This time the sound kept going and going, as if shouting to tell me my muffins were burning in the oven. I knew there was nothing I could do, so I cupped my hand over the telephone mouthpiece and dove behind a couch to shield myself from the sound. Eventually the timer gave up, and the interview ended. Perhaps as a result of clever editing, the final podcast showed no evidence of interruption by kitchen timer, but I will never forget cowering behind the couch while I tried to speak intelligently about my brilliant new book.

Thursday, April 03, 2008