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Counter Culture

May 2, 2013 | by

A_small_cup_of_coffee“I would have said, You’re getting there. Now that you said, ‘You nailed it,’ we can never go to the Bluebird again.”

“I was trying to give him a little encouragement,” Clancy said.

“Well, you fucked us.”

The first restaurant we liked in Iowa City was the Bluebird. It’s also the only decent cappuccino in town. We’d go every morning, order our fried eggs, and get three cappuccinos each. The waitresses had to make the cappuccinos themselves. We ordered so many that some of them began to dislike us. One in particular, whom we called Lower East Side. But all of them tried to get away before we had a chance to say, Could we get another.

All, that is, except for a Swingers-looking guy, slightly pudgy, whom we were convinced was gay until Clancy complimented his signet ring.

He said, “My wife gave me that. We have the sealing wax, too.”

We bought a Nespresso machine, and so we stopped going to the Bluebird. Also Lower East Side was starting to make us feel uncomfortable, even unwelcome. Months went by.

Last Sunday, because we ran out of milk for our machine, we said, “Let’s go to the Bluebird.”

It was packed. We sat at the counter. Clancy got a cappuccino and I got coffee. He took a sip of his drink and said, “Blech.”

I tried it. “That’s terrible. It tastes like burned plastic.”

Clancy ordered a cup of drip coffee and pushed the cappuccino away. When the drip came, he poured some of the cappuccino in optimistically.

He took a sip. “Blech. I think that’s worse.”

I tried it. “It tastes like burned plastic. Get a new one.”

Clancy looked at Lower East Side and shook his head. While her back was turned he asked a different waitress.

At the end of the meal, Lower East Side looked at all our cups. “What’s going on here?” she said accusingly.

I said, “It tastes like burned plastic.”

Clancy said, “I think something’s up with the cappuccino.”

“It tastes like burned plastic,” I said.

She said, “Do you want me to take it off your bill?” For the first time since we’d known her, she seemed happy. She even seemed to like us. It was mysterious.

On Monday, perversely, we went back to the Bluebird. We sat side-by-side in a booth. We both ordered drip coffee. Lower East Side was in a great mood. When we’d finished our oatmeal, Swingers came to our table.

“So you two aren’t doing the cappuccino?”

“No, just coffee.”

Something was wrong. We didn’t know what. Swingers left the table and returned with two cups of espresso.

“We used LaVazza for years,” he said, “but we roast our coffee, so I thought, Why not roast our own espresso? Give it a try.”

We took sips.

“It’s got a woody taste?” I said.

“A woody taste?” He didn’t conceal his annoyance.

“It’s kind of one-dimensional,” Clancy said, very apologetically.

Swingers walked away. When we got outside I said, “It tasted like he strained a bale of hay.”

“What’s wrong with LaVazza?” Clancy said.

“It must be cheaper.”

The next day, we went to the Bluebird again. Lower East Side said brightly, “Two coffees?” We checked the room for Swingers and then nodded.

When we were done with our oatmeal, Swingers sneaked up from behind and dropped a cappuccino in front of us.

“This is my fourth batch,” he said. “Let me know what you really think.”

After Swingers left the table, Clancy took three big gulps, and I said, “Thank you. You’re a good husband.”




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  1. Henry Dark | May 8, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    D. Frankel is correct. This has gotten out of hand. Mr. Frankel, I believe that a lot of the commenters here are Iowans who feel as if they invited someone into their home and were told how beautiful that home’s decor was only to discover soon after that the cherished houseguest was running around town ridiculing the unwitting host’s taste in furnishings… But so it goes, and so, hopefully, it ends.

  2. David Frankel, Jr. | May 8, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Henry, relax, the world is simply too short. Get outside! Smell the tulips! Have a beer, buddy, get laid. I’m sure The Blackbird will survive and you will too, but man, you better get some sun.

  3. David Frankel, Jr. | May 8, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Here here, Henry! You said it brother!

  4. Henry Dark | May 8, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    A sane man. And I say this without irony.

  5. David Frankel, Jr. | May 8, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    As for the authors, you know what they say. pee in the sink, and guess what your washing your fingers in?

  6. B. Whitewood, Sr. | May 9, 2013 at 10:42 pm

  7. WTMc | May 13, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Henry is right about the fact that pieces like this one may strike a chord with Iowans. It’s nothing new for a fancy cosmopolitan to burrow in among the unsuspecting rubes of Iowa City for the purpose of later telling cute stories about them to the cultural cognoscenti back in civilization. See

    An essayist who chooses to write about an actual place and two actual people has to stand for the criticism not only of his or her prose but also his or her message. So, a few points:

    1. It’s shocking that the authors would so casually share the fact that they marked Swingers as gay, based on his appearance. Was it because he was stylish? Was it his pinky ring? Was it his short haircut? If Barrodale and Martin were thinking that their ironic voice would make this OK, they blew it — mostly because that kind of ironic bigotry has to be MUCH funnier in order to work.

    2. When I read this, I hear a story about a guy who really loves coffee, fighting a battle to roast his own, and sharing that journey with two people he believed to be friends. Still though, it’s hardly worthy of an essay. To me this piece felt like wannabe snarkiness in search of a target, settling for a good trashing of whatever was handy. (Barrodale: “Hey — wouldn’t it be cool to write one of those really snarky Paris Review-ish essays?” Clancy: “Yea — how’s your coffee?”) If this kind of thing is worth 1000 words, there should be hundreds of artisanal pickle-makers, brewers and fromagiers in Brooklyn shaking in their boots.

    3. Swingers is not pudgy — just solidly constructed. The guy rides his bike to work most days. No one needs to worry about his health.

    4. More fundamentally, Swingers didn’t deserve this. This is a guy who hires recovering addicts, who has been a friend to the mentally shaky who hang out in his coffee house near Bluebird, who has picked up lonely, elderly customers and taken them home for Thanksgiving Dinner, and who has applied his entrepreneurial streak to food (and coffee), resulting in a good place to eat and to work. There are plenty of bad people in the world on whom to train that new Writers Workshop meat-axe. Write about them.

    Finally, a shameless plug: if you go to Bluebird, try the Huevos Epsteinos. I can’t comment on the house-roasted coffee, but they definitely have the meat smoker figured out.

  8. Horatio | May 14, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Wow, what a poorly written, judgmental, condescending, and arrogant commentary about a great restaurant. The mean- spirited bigoted authors should go back to drowning kittens and leave essay writing to others.

  9. Henry Dark | May 14, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    I have to say that, while I agree with the spirit of their remarks, WTMc and Horatio should take Mr. Frankel’s advice: grow up a bit, fellows. This is one case when I feel like “What would Jesus do?” is in fact an entirely appropriate question.

  10. Henry Dark | May 14, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    And as it happens, I have been to Swingers house for Thanksgiving dinner, and he is an excellent chef. For whatever that’s worth.

  11. Henry Dark | May 15, 2013 at 2:17 am

    Identity theft is an ugly thing. This (the original) Henry Dark hasn’t posted here since May 8, when I agreed with Mr. Frankel that this absurd little drama was played out. That being said, there can never be too many HD’s.

  12. Henry Dark | May 15, 2013 at 2:37 am

  13. Henry Dark | May 15, 2013 at 4:41 am

    HD2 – x + y = CM

  14. J. Fernandez | July 20, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    I was brought back to this long-exhausted conversation by this review:

    Suddenly the lousy writing and seeming lack of intellect/wit make perfect sense. Has our culture really been so debased that a “middle-aged philosophy professor” sings the praises of a talentless conman, while his Iowa Writers’ Workshop wife takes potshots at people who work for a living?

    For shame.

  15. Henry Dark1 | November 12, 2013 at 2:47 am

    Indeed, Mr. Fernandez, indeed. Tao Lin is not the problem, however–the real rub is the educated idiots who ought to know better praising Mr. Lin’s brain-dead, imbecilic ramblings. I dare anyone, including the great and brilliant Clancy Martin, to tell me just how it is that Mr. Lin’s work moves him. Mr. Lin, whose poetry is nearly as thought-provoking as his prose, is laughing his ass off at all the suckers who claim to find some meaning in what is surely a mildly elaborate (and damningly effective) practical joke on the pretentious. Ever heard of Ern Malley? A “middle-aged philosophy professor” ought to have a bit more of a clue, but hipsterism is a disease which makes fools of the gullible and robs them of all credibility. MORONS. Sorry, but it had to be said. Good night, sweet prince.

  16. Joe Stud | January 27, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    I had to chuckle because something similar happened to me. I usually buy the espresso gring ethnic coffee at our corner bodega. We like strong sweet coffee and espresso. The price is usually about $4 per brick. One day I was feeling fancy and bought LaVazza. I made it at home and it tasted like burned plastic. I figured I bought an old can. It was about 7$ a can for less amount than a brick. Never gave it another thought until I visited a coffee shop and the owner offered me coffee, excitingly telling me he served only the best. I had two croissants and he brought the coffee. It tasted like burned plastic. I didn’t say anything since I’m not one to make a scene. I covered my coffee to go and asked him what coffee he was using. He was so excited and told me it was LaVazza.

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