Into the Umisphere

We favour coffeehouses that feed the soul. This is, after all, an artistic inquiry, and art is about soul. Umi, on Chinatown's fringes at Somerset and Percy, satisfies.

You can often discern much about coffee joints from their design ethos. (So much depends/on a red wheelbarrow...*) Starbucks artfully camouflages a cookie-cutter tendency, yet all outlets bear the stamp of centralized corporate design dicta. Second Cup, ditto except on a smaller budget. Locally, Bridgehead differentiates itself with a slightly self-conscious blend of environmental hipness and industrial cool, shifting its semi-standard palette of design elements from outlet to outlet.

Umi is a bohemian one-off (our blog friend Robin K gently labels it 'screwy'), mainly pouring very good Central American beans (decafs are fresh-pulled Americanos). Gauzy deep blue drapes set off sunset orange walls. There's a library of well worn books, odd potted plants, a counter with a view onto the street (and into the Tang Coin Laundry). Wall art blends ironic feather-bedaubed black velvet with more serious oils. An aged white piano is in one corner, a neat stack of amplifiers and microphone stands in another, for weekend open stages. The effect is more chaotic than in the big chains, and yet, for us, more comfortably lived-in. The look is of evolving creativity.

People who go out to drink coffee, we find, gravitate toward reflections of their mental self-images. Of a morning, you'll find the well-dressed "grab some jet fuel and swoosh downtown to work" types at Second Cup and Starbucks. Table customers' lappies tend to be Windows machines. Those at Bridgehead tend to dress in earthier fashionable garb and often linger a bit longer, lined up with their backs to the walls to better display their mating plumage: white MacBooks, MacBook Pros for alpha types.

Uminauts can sometimes observe daring new mommies with ute-strollers, speaking of their husbands' rises in the Tory hierarchy, but the Umi look biases heavily toward 'urban artist'. Clothes are fashionable after their own fashion, but often not in the sense of any current designer other than the wearer. Laptops are in evidence, but there's less emphasis on WiFi Wanker brand flashing. From a scuffed duffle a riotgrrl may pull out a machine swathed in asymmetrical duct tape, as much to nullify a logo as to to strap it together.

Feeding one's soul aside, actual food items also reflect differing sensibilities. Starbucks caters to a distressing Americanized proclivity to vastly oversweeten everything, and make it huge. Bridgehead's treats are less sickly sweet, and sandwiches comprise earthy breads and creative fillings, often vegetarian. Umi's do too. But the real grabbers are the unassuming looking little dark chocolate with jalapeño cookies, in a basket near the cash register. They set off coffee in a way that is liable to knock your socks off if you care about details. We do.

Umi's open stages bear mention: they're higher-energy than any similar events we've seen in years. Artists and sell-out crowds are bright-eyed yet relaxed. Bands, soloists, poets and other spoken word artists, in any style you want, and just about all of it exciting and good. We like that musicians and crowds separated by less than a metre interact freely, supportively and humourously. We like that poets are applauded with loud finger-snapping. We like that Umi's counter staff can be coaxed out to perform a very credible spoken word/urban music rap. We also like the fact that everybody there, performer and watcher, is palpably excited about new art being made in real time. Umi is a hot medium. That's cool by us.


The semiotics of Nescafé

To all of you who have arrived here recently via Google, trying, apparently, to understand the semiotics of that series of Nescafé ads where a man and the woman borrow instant coffee, exchange meaningful looks, and converse archly, before finally getting to the romantic part: Welcome! It's not really what we're about, here, but you're certainly welcome to rummage around a bit. Perhaps (they said... archly) we can give you other ideas...


Field trip to the Glebe

Nothing like a boutique espresso, from people that roast their own...


Somewhat further outside the (alleged) box

Tuesday, June --, 200-.

On the way
to a familiar place
they left,
turned left,
somewhat further
outside the

ordered tuna maki
and perrier
and praised the sushi
sucked bubble tea
through a straw
-- mango? --
chewed dark gummy bubbles
with contemplative difficulty
puzzling out
their obscure flavour,
then opined,
'possibly blackcurrent';

It was a point of honour
not to ask the waitress,
who was Lucy Liu in a
Shanghai cowgirl outfit
taking an
incognito night
off from the
Hollywood rat race;

All present
cheered themselves
for leaving
comfort zones
blue and green walls,
there may
have been
sufficient caffeine
in the bubble tea,
and only trace amounts
of lead
in the Perrier.


Solo III

Wednesday, June -, 20-

Independent c-shop


Last time I was in the UK I noticed an upsurge in coffeeshops
I remember a place that used to roast coffee and the smell was wonderful, out in the street
When I was a boy
I used to walk by there on the way to school
One of those childhood memories
Then coffee went the way of... everything went to instant
Instant coffee bars, Nescafe and this stuff with crystals
I left the UK in my early twenties

Starbucks over there a lot now
A lot of these chains
Yeah they’re starting to do real coffee again
It’s not just about the coffee, it’s going in, sitting down, reading the newspaper
Everything comes back around again
There’s nothing new
Samuel Johnson
My memories of Turkish coffee
The smaller the cup, the stronger the coffee

One place we were looking for ping pong balls
Try to explain ping pong balls to
We decided to send a couple of kids to look for them, pay the kids to
A girl who was six and a boy who was probably three
Talked to the parents and they shoved the boy forward, he was clueless
We wanted the girl to go
Finally managed to explain to the parents what we wanted
Five Egyptian pounds, their eyes were wide
We walked by the store, how’d they know there were ping pong balls here
Anyway we saw the kids later walking up with baskets of kale and greens
Obviously spent their five pounds
Interesting how they kept pushing the boy forward
Nothing wrong with having the girl do it
Encourage equality wherever possible

I remember went in for a shave
There was a little kid with a cutthroat razor
I was a little perturbed
What’s your name, son, Sweeney?
It was a very close shave, a good shave

Even if you’re aware of the local customs, you’re not always aware of what your travelling companions are doing or not doing, so that can be a problem


Solo II

Tuesday, June -, 20-

Ottawa South BH


He was one of the original investors, did you know?

Back when

put some money in

at the time

coffeeshops in Toronto are getting really...

Bye Jennifer

Bye Tim, thank you!

like, the most expensive coffee in the world

huh huh huh huh huh huh ha ha ha ha ha



I wasn't

like what happened with wine

people with lots of money who are looking for

Tim Horton's has their customers, they're loyal

a dollar sixty seven for a small why not?

oh yeah and when I travel I look for them, I know what I'm going to get

she might be coming back now because she asked me

I can't stay at my friend's house anymore


she phoned

well anyway


Caffeine IV: Strange Brew

Second Cup has been on the Canadian upscale coffee scene since 1975, with mixed success. Perhaps it comes by its name because it gets things half-right, so needs two cups to fill expectations. In general, the Second Cup experience falls somewhere between Starbucks and Tim Hortons. It sells coffee at upscale prices, but pinches pennies obviously - a cabal of stringent bean counters offering astringent beans.

Since the early part of this decade, it's been owned first by Cara Operations - caterer to students and airlines - and later something called Dinecorp Hospitality, headed by a former Cara CEO. The affiliations may not inspire confidence among current and former Cara-feteria diners, aware of Cara's parsimony. Food was all 'bidness' and mouths were mere units. So, Cara and luxury coffee may appear to be a schizophrenic match, and in fact the Second Cup experience reflects this in some ways.

In Ottawa, the chain often matches Starbucks outlets corner for street corner, but seems to be trying to do it on a more restrained budget. Certainly Second Cups have the the iconic large espresso pumps, and many are possessed of large potted plants and big comfy chairs grouped around gas fireplaces. These are nice touches for people looking for a cosy little upscale experience for the price of a coffee. Inside, correct colours have been carefully selected by decorating consultants, staff are personable, but the spaces remain feeling barer and acoustically more live than is desirable. For the Ultra Cosmic Top Sekrit Project to succeed, acoustics are important. The Second Cup's distract. True luxury enfolds one in discrete muting. If one accepts the proposition that upscale is warm, the gestalt here is cooler than it should be, even for Marshall McLuhan.

And Second Cup's current logo, like its retail spaces, sports a somewhat stripped feel. Earlier logo iterations were gold leaf on darker backgrounds, often in three-dimensional carved wood. Artistically, they looked edgier and more stylized. An interim version attempted to duplicate the wood in thick Styrofoam. Closer than, say, five metres, it looked like the cheese it was. The current minimalist version is a one-dimensional, bland, over-homogenized pabulum of commercial art cliches that substitutes painted drop shadows for actual depth.

SC's trademark brew bouquet is emblematic also: it's a lighter roast than that favoured by Starbucks - thinner-bodied, fruitier and more acidic on the palate. In earlier times, espresso drinks sometimes tasted of coffee tinted dishwater, rather than the requisite velvet darkness, because baristas drew so inconsistently. Latter-day coffee machines may have cured this, but as in the case of Starbucks, automation reduces the luxurious sense that a skilled artisan is crafting a small treasure just for you.


Caffeine III: Accessory Digression

Yeahyeahyeah, I know. Boushey's is not a coffee place so much as a tiny upscale deli market. There's no place to sit, and coffee is hardly the main event. There may not be a main event, because Boushey's, an Ottawa institution for decades, is all things to all people - on a restricted floor plan.

Nice-quality fresh fruits and veggies in the windows front a labyrinth of narrow aisles and high shelves jammed with a colourful and diverse selection of bottles, cans and boxes filled with gourmet goodies and basics. If you run out of coriander and cooking sherry for the ratatouille at 10 PM, Boushey's has got your back. Ditto if you need emergency dairy for your Cheerios in the early A.M. There's also a small but (very) serious butcher counter, and a huge selection of Lebanese (and other world cuisine) takeout in the coolers, for those week nights when you're too ratted out to make your own tabbouleh or hummus. Naturally, this kind of compact cornucopia, fronting onto one of Elgin Street's busiest blocks, does not come cheap. You will pay.

But we were talking coffee. And right beside the cash is a coffee pot and a mound of giant muffins.

The coffee? Purest parboiled Bunn-omatic battery acid, served in Styrofoam. If not titrated with discretion, it will torque your nervous system into twisted, teeth-chattering jaggies for hours. Apparently some people like this effect. To each, his or her own. It's just over a buck, and does the job.

But beside the coffee carafes is that mound of giant muffins. All kinds, for a very reasonable $1.25 apiece. Baked on premises, so that if you time your arrival to just after 8 A.M. on weekdays, they're piping hot. Cognoscenti ignore the cakey berry varietals and head straight for the original - honey-bran with raisins. (There's a low-fat version with dates, but proper mouth feel is elusive here.) Cognoscenti also arrive early. They go fast, there aren't many leftovers, and yesterday's muffins are kinda tough if by chance you find one.

The coffee is strictly for emergencies. But for those ambrosial muffins - an ideal complement to the (other) coffee of one's choice - all is forgiven.


Solo observation

Tuesday, May -, 20-

Ottawa South BH


Boom boom boom, b-boom b-bah

Cymbal clash

Klatter, chatter

C’est comme une...

This is why

Funny story

Only John would organize a huge

For Louise in Sudbury

Wah wah

Yeah exactly

Subdued roar

Caffeine II: Veni, vidi, vici... venti?

Lately, Starbucks' exponential race toward world coffee domination has reached the point of satire. It was driven early on by roasts dark as sin, giant manual Gaggia espresso pumps, shops staged in earthy siennas, browns and oranges, and attitude heavy baristas. All lent whiffs of fashion forward luxury and edginess. Lately, as company stock dividends have plateaued, these have been augmented with in-house music production and distribution, and an array of rather costly stainless coffee toys.

The jury remains out on whether Starbucks' putative 'culture' may have diversified to the point of dilution. Although the charming-looking little gray-haired lady who reads newspapers all the time and the tattooed guy with pink hair and skintight low-rise jeans remain dedicated habitués of the Elgin Street store (pictured above), they cannot themselves comprise a culture.

The retro mermaid woodcut logo adds a siren call to a coffee demographic more upscale than Tim Horton's lowbrow target. It lends the company image weight, and a soupçon of the history it does not actually possess. It has also been carefully (and not altogether successfully) bowdlerized and Disneyfied over the years, de-emphasizing its racier aspects. She's a siren! Selling small sins! Why neuter her?

For the record, Tim Horton's kitschy mid-20th-century badging style is fully appropriate to a company that opened its first outlet in 1964 - seven years before Starbuck became anything beyond first mate on the Pequod.

Starbucks trademark dark roast borders on smokey and burnt. Appropriate to an oily espresso or French brew, it has not made a fan of every palate, especially those acclimated to venerable supermarket can coffees like Maxwell House, Edwards and Nabob.

Yet the heart of that dark roast, like the mermaid, hints at more exotic mythical depth than an ex-hockey player's retirement plan. At least if you're not Canadian. Tim's still claims to be bigger here. Its prosaic ethos packs gladly into a lunch bucket thermos, but Starbucks sells a mystical experience supposed to be worth paying for and waiting for, rather than quickly-slung cups of joe and deep-fried sugar pastries. Naturally, one pays extra for coffee positioned as an acceptable indulgence, with just enough of an air of lingering sin to make it enticing. The aroma is equal parts over-roasted coffee and imagined brimstone.

Minimum-wage baristas these days are not overly knowledgeable about the coffees they purvey. Nor can many any longer draw a proper espresso unassisted. The corporation opted some time ago to automate its espresso machines in the name of chain-wide drink uniformity. Although... Starbucks' chairman and returning CEO, Howard Schultz, has belatedly realized that quasi-artisanal coffee craft may also have had something to do with the chain's growth. It's a bitch trying to appear exclusive and emulate McDonalds at the same time...


Caffeine: double double or nothing?

Before we get the Ultra Cosmic Top SeKrit Project fully underway, we're going to need caffeine. And if we're going to need caffeine in Ottawa, Tim Hortons is a starting option. It's been considered the quintessential Canadian coffee chain for years, even when it briefly was owned by American interests. (How Canadian is that?) The furniture is hard, the ambience is fluorescent, the coffee is on the slightly better side of 'lousy'. What it's got going for it is donuts, urban ubiquity, a lot of 24-hour drive-by windows, and a population that loves it. The oddly corporate-looking Wikipedia entry mentions, apparently without irony, a Tim Hortons Culture.

Why? Because it's Spartan but serviceable, perhaps a submerged reflection of the country's Protestant ascetic stock. Protestants are far from the only patrons these days, but the mainstream Canadian ethos remains, at heart, no-frills and unfussy. The coffee may be lousy, but it's fresh, cheap, hot and highly caffeinated. If you order it predoctored with enough no-extra-cost cream and sugar - the famed 'double-double' - it's palatable enough to goose a groggy brain toward sentience for a kid's Peewee hockey practice at 5:00 AM, a sunrise departure to cottage country, or a red eye, cross-country barn-burner of a road trip.

Despite the fact that many in the thrifty Timmy's tribe may snicker at the prices Starbuckians will ante up for a 'coffee beverage' such as the decafnonfatnofoamskinnysoylatte, the two almost-separate demographics share an important commonality: the insider's off-the-posted-menu SeKrit Sign. Whether it's a doubledouble or a decafnonfatnofoamskinnysoylatte, only those in the know can order without the words tripping on hesitant lips. Knowledge of each is acquired only by observing other, more senior adepts and acolytes of the order. Each in its milieu is the caffeinista's equivalent of a Masonic handshake. And almost everybody wants to feel they belong somewhere...



Tuesday, May -, 200-

Unexpected project meeting, Elgin BH

Discussed tactics and buzz

Photos: time lapses


you’re going to be around

oh yeah, I’m moving

good times, good times

rustle, klink

krinkle, munch

beeeeep beeeep beeeep

I don’t see anyone who looks pregnant, do you?

you’re welcome, bud


The fairest trade of them all...?

Two or more years ago, I clearly recall the since-departed 5th Muse stating her belief that Bridgehead was a fine place for her to be.

Partly because she judged the male patrons cute. More particularly because she'd reasoned that, since they were buying fair trade coffee, they must be possessed of developed social consciences. Therefore, they'd make good dates. Like all idealistic generalizations, this one seemed and seems problematic.

Yet. Yet. How many people patronize Bridgehead because they believe it to support their values? How many - secretly or overtly - hope to meet a suitable partner there, presumably self-screened to share their deeper values? If BH merely marketed beverages and snacks, the well-coiffed, well-dressed lovelorn could as easily line up to suck budget-conscious double-doubles and Ice Caps amid the luridly utilitarian fluorescent and arborite ethos of Tim Horton's.

They do not. Not when I'm there.

So it may be that what BH really sells is simultaneously more important and less concrete - a localized zeitgeist/gestalt/tribal affiliation that appeals to a specific demographic, in search of an atmosphere that will appear to reinforce very specific things about themselves. The team owes it to art and science to observe and explore these phenomena in their puzzling inferential multiplicity.

I must end this journal entry, though, with a salutary warning to myself and Pandora to be cautious about leaping to premature conclusions. It may be best to refer to a long-ago Elgin Street Irregulars weblog posting:
"I wonder whether the Muse is equipped to navigate the unseen pitfalls of her own ideals? And I think to myself that... she's trying. But does she have any reliable maps or guides? The soul is a very large continent..."


Research Log

Being the first installment of a scientific account of an artistic inquiry into a certain mysterious phenomenon in and around the vicinity of the semimythical city of Ottawa, Ontario.

Wednesday, May -, 200-

Inaugural Project Meeting, Glebe BH

Parameters are discussed.

Photo: reversed fair-trade logo

Overheard: You aren’t even hiding your disgust.

Thursday, May -, 200-

Elgin BH

Methodology is discussed. Initial platform and responsibilities for actions.

Photos: reflective surfaces and clandestine subjects


... stuff going on locally is part of what sustainability is all about

the time is right

a lot of energy and issues

we want to capitalize on that

support systems around addiction

I’m really excited about the possibilities here

I think we can do some neat stuff

I insist I’ll take it

I wish

swallow my pride

yeah I would probably do that as well

medium skim latte

thump bang klatter

I used to love them as a kid I thought

they’re almost done


salsa music

medium lemonade to go

ah yeah they’re just

so probably

a little bit



Blame it on the clown

Blame it on the clown. Pandora was press-ganged into working peripherally on a clown show. Not just any birthday-party hack in a red nose, but a real circus clown. Certain people and puppies are deathly afraid of clowns, but our intrepid duo is made of sterner stuff than that. We knew what had to be done.

And Pandora's strategy involved areas in which semimythical coyotes hold a certain small expertise. I looked forward to our collaborative activity, if not the clown act. While not afraid of clowns, I'm not wild about about them, either.

A string of abortive emails later, we realized the clown show, fast approaching, had to be addressed, and we weren't going to be able to pull it all together in time to reach that transitory goal. Pandora went solo with something quick and dirty.

Yet the germ of a much larger idea had been seeded. Mulling it over, we began to feel a certain excitement. We realized our chosen subject had not been researched in any but the most desultory way. It fully merited further, deeper, much more elegant exploration. After the clown show was a wrap, of course.

We have since developed and refined our ideas. They have grown, flowered and become our Ultra Cosmic Top SeKrit research project, a landmark effort with far-reaching - nay, life changing - implications for a significant percentage of Ottawa boulevardiers. Days are early, yet. We're devising working hypotheses. We're examining them from every angle. We're setting up methodologies with which to test them stringently and thoroughly. We're in the field now, scrutinizing our subject through the lens of something much like the scientific method. We're gonna need a lot of caffeinated beverages...