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Back Buzz - February 27, 1998

pumping heart Bauhaus Books & Coffee, 301 East Pine Street, Capitol Hill

The day I visited Bauhaus Books and Coffee was a day of sun breaks, those glaringly bright phenomena that fortunately aren't very common in Seattle in the winter. That's why I chose to go exploring in the late afternoon, when the shadows are diffuse and the colors sharpen. It's a great time for photography, romance, striking dramatic poses, and drinking cappuccino.

For being on a southeast corner -- i.e. with north- and west-facing windows -- Bauhaus is certainly a bright place in the late afternoon. But what a wonderfully congenial place it is. When I first walked in there was a mere scattering of patrons; after another half hour the place had fleshed out to a moderate crowd, the vintage Bowie on the sound system setting the mood; I felt almost as if I were at a party.

Bauhaus is a two-level coffeehouse with a collection of used books on art, architecture, film, and literature covering one wall. There is a scattering of tables downstairs, a loft full of tables at the top of the stairs, and a skinny sunlit room which suggests an enclosed porch on the west side. At first I opted for a nicely closeted booth in this area; but that damn winter sun which was about to sink into the southwest shone directly in my eyes. And if you know ol' photosensitive me, you know this is a JC no-no. So I grabbed the last place left in the main room, just enough in the shade -- although my table was awash with the sun's grand finale for several minutes.

My double short cappuccino was...well, it was -- how do I say this? -- surprisingly good! I really wasn't expecting such fine, robust, and absolutely fascinating shots from a bookstore-cafe hybrid like Bauhaus. The drink was served in the standard white coffee cup. The foam was beautiful and luxurious, if a bit overly abundant -- as well as wasted, since I couldn't find a clean spoon and the place was full of people, so I was loath to use my fingers. But what was it about the espresso itself? I don't know what kind of coffee they're using; I assume it's their own, or at least their own special blend prepared by another roaster. It tastes almost as if it has brandy or something in it. Yes, that's the taste I'm thinking of.

(In case you've never tried it, an excellent cappuccino can be turned into an exquisite delight by adding a shot of brandy or cognac. It's called a caffe corretto. Try it some time.)

Now that I look around, the reason there's so much light in Bauhaus is because of the building itself. The Melrose Building is one of those wonderful old structures with skyscraping windows that line East Pine and East Pike. It's very much like the building the Elysian Brewpub is in -- which, by the way, makes the best beer in Seattle, not to mention a heavenly eggplant parmesan sandwich; but that's a subject to be covered in some future beer and food column.

Speaking of food, Bauhaus seems like a perfect spot to start the day. With all these windows and this light, along with a decent dose of good-tasting caffeine, who wouldn't become fired up for whatever the day promises? I'm not sure if Bauhaus serves any sort of food beyond scones or muffins, but there's nothing wrong with a continental breakfast now and then.

Speaking of breakfast -- which I strongly believe is the most important meal of the day -- there was a story last spring about a woman who sued a pharmacy for half a million after she bought a tube of their contraceptive jelly, spread it on toast, ate it, and got pregnant anyway. Apparently she was too busy -- and, obviously, too stupid -- to read the directions on the tube. The woman, a former model and cheerleader, insisted that nobody "has time to sit around reading directions these days, especially when [they're] sexually aroused." I don't know about you, but the last thing I want to do when I'm sexually aroused is go in the kitchen and make toast. I never heard the final outcome of this lawsuit, but I'm voting for the pharmacy myself.

I hate to imagine what a romantic evening with this woman could be like. First of all, after vacuuming the house and waxing the kitchen floor with sealing wax, she'd probably take a shower using saddle soap, wash her hair with rug shampoo, sprinkle herself with gunpowder, and perhaps finish up with a nice drywall mud pack on her face. Then she'd get dressed, remembering first to adorn her nipples enticingly with some festive chicken-artichoke pasties.

Then she'd prepare dinner: perhaps a sauté of vegetables in a little mineral oil. Then she'd toss some cornbread dressing on the sea cucumber salad just as the Toilet Duck A L'Orange finishes cooking. Or perhaps she'd broil some silverfish instead, or make a big pot of Rocky Mountain Oyster Stew -- accompanied, of course, by a big basket of fresh-baked sea biscuits, or perhaps a hot crusty loaf of sweetbreads served with cocoa butter, K-Y Jelly, and fresh toe jam. For dessert she could prepare Baked Road Apples, or perhaps a festive penicillin mold, or maybe even a fancy cherry bomb, accompanied by hot coffee with vaginal cream.

And after she sets the table with the fancy sanitary napkins, she can prepare the Molotov cocktails and put on some mood music: perhaps pop some dental tape into the tape deck, or maybe one of her 12-month matured CDs into the CD player. And if her date never shows up and she grows too despondent, she can always check into the nearest roach motel and blow her brains out with a glue gun.

On the subject of breakfast, here's some e-mail with my Bay Area friend -- spread over the course of a few months last year -- concerning cereal boxes:

When I wake up in the morning I look forward to breakfast. But why has it become so goddamn difficult to open a box of cereal? I mean, it's easy to get the cardboard box itself open; it's that damn plastic bag inside that causes all the trouble. Sometimes it'll rip open with just the smallest amount of pressure; but more often it seems to be sealed tightly in preparation for a space flight.

This morning I found it nearly impossible to rip the bag open on the new box of Nature's Path Millet Rice. I've become used to having my 35% Fruit Muesli spew all over the kitchen every time I attempt to gently open a new bag, but I've never had this trouble with the Millet Rice before. I tugged at it and tugged at it until I'd rubbed the skin off my knuckles. Then I offered it to Max, who tugged and tugged and pronounced it impossible to pull open. So he grabbed a sharp knife and, with the hands of a surgeon, very carefully sliced into the top seam of the bag...

So how many times have you tried to pull open a new bag just to have it rip completely down, so that you have to pour the contents into a new unripped bag? Doesn't this defeat the concept of the bag in the first place? Isn't it there for our protection and the product's freshness, and not just as something to throw away as soon as we open it? It doesn't make any sense.

Why do they make so many childproof food packages? Is it because such a large percentage of American children are obese? Shouldn't us thin people have the option of purchasing non-childproof cereal boxes? The same thing happened to me with a box of Nature's Path Heritage a couple weeks ago. With my box the cardboard flap was epoxied in place, too. The plies of cardboard separated before the glue gave way. Then, as I tried to separate the bag at the seam, the plastic just stretched and stretched; when it gave way I didn't lose much, but the bag tore badly, exposing the contents. To keep the cereal fresh, I had to put it into a Tupperware container. Why has Nature's Path suddenly resorted to permanent adhesives? Perhaps the Sharper Image Catalog sells some laser-guided turbo cereal box desealer.

And speaking of unopenable packaging, were CD cases designed with the intent that, if stolen, the thief would be unable to get to the disc? Under the shrink wrap many of them appear to have a pull-strip, but I have only been able to dislodge about one in ten with fingernails alone. (I have resorted to carrying a utility knife to deal with all shrink-wrapped items.) Then there is the adhesive seal along the top edge, which always separates into at least three shreds and remains affixed to my fingers, impossible to dispose of. Finally, some CDs seem permanently affixed to the plastic hub and flex until they threaten to break in two without releasing. On one I resorted to prying the tabs with my fingers; thereafter the hub would no longer hold the disc. Oh, and the little booklet wedged between plastic tabs in the front of the case. If I'm lucky, I can release all but the first page or two without using a surgical instrument.

How do the children of today, with their limited attention spans, find the patience to open a CD?

I attempted to open a new box of Perky's Nutty Rice this morning. Not only was the plastic bag inside impossible to open, but the cardboard box itself seemed to be welded shut with silicone sealant or some sort of space-age adhesive; I had to half-mangle the cardboard box to get it open. And then, after cutting the plastic insert with scissors when I couldn't pull it open, I attempted to carefully pour cereal from the overfilled bag into my bowl. And what happens? About a cup of Perky Nuts spills out of the bag and down the sides into the box! This, of course, is the soon-to-be-stale cereal which I always pour out into the trash before folding down the box for recycling. I'm starting to wonder just how much of the cereal we eat is wasted this way. How much is wasted by cereal boxes in this country alone? I'll bet it's enough to feed an entire starving third world country for a year. Have you ever dealt with 10-pound or 20-pound bags of dry catfood or birdseed or perhaps soil amendments -- heavy paper bags whose mouths are stitched with string instead of being glued? I've always been baffled by knots and sewing machine stitches, so I don't understand how this works. But it's some kind of slip stitch; and when things work right, you can just pull the string free from one side without much effort. Perhaps the makers of Millet Rice and Perky Nuts could begin packaging their product this way. You could save the bits of string to entertain cats or suture up the wounds inflicted by less user-friendly packaging.

I noticed that the box of Heritage cereal says that the Natures Path people would be happy to hear our comments. But they have no 800 number, and they're in Canada, so you'd have to pay extra postage.

As I recall when we used to buy them, the 25-pound bags of Johnny Cat kitty litter were stitched with string. It was always a pleasantly satisfying feeling to grab hold of the string and pull, unraveling every closing stitch cleanly and perfectly. It was a good way to open a heavy bag.

We've since changed to Tidy Cat, which is a hell of a lot cheaper and just as good. Unfortunately the 20-pound bags of Tidy Cat are glued -- or, I suppose, welded -- shut. It takes a good deal of tearing, pawing, prying, ripping, and cussing to get a bag open, and then you have to hoist the damn thing up, trying hard not to pour the contents all over the floor.

It's a tough world out there -- tough to open, anyway. So why do packaged products come sealed for eternity, impervious to those prying hands of consumers, when truckloads of plywood boards and drywall panels roar down the highway with barely anything to restrain them? How many times have you found yourself nervously tailing a 2000-pound wobbling wall of lumber which threatens to unload itself on your windshield while you struggle to open a small package of antacids which are sealed like a Chinese puzzle box? I finally received a reply to my Sept. 17 letter to Nature's Path about their inner plastic bags. The letter, from Quality Assurance Manager Nicki Brockamp, says that the packaging on all boxes of Nature's Path cereals -- including Millet Rice and Heritage Flakes -- has been changed to indicate that the inner bag should be cut. The company has also been "experimenting with a film that provides a very strong seal but can still be pulled open." They've got the film approved and hope to be using it very soon.

So we have an easier breakfasttime to look forward to -- and fewer cereal flakes on the kitchen floor.

Surprisingly there was nothing else in the letter but the letter itself. When I wrote to the M&Ms Company back in the 1970s asking if they were ever going to use red dyes again, they replied with a letter and a coupon for a free large bag of M&Ms. When I wrote to Starkist around the same time about a can of Nine Lives Catfood that seemed emptier than usual, they replied with a letter and several coupons for free cans of Nine Lives. When I wrote to Maxell in the early 1980s, enclosing a cassette tape which my car stereo had eaten, they sent me a new tape and a coupon for some free tapes. When I wrote to CalTrans in the late 1980s asking them about the renaming of Route 11 in Los Angeles to Route 110, they replied with a letter and --wait a minute, they didn't send me a coupon for anything! (But if they'd been using their heads they would have enclosed a certificate good for a free tank of gas. Or at least a bag of cement.)

So what's the point in writing letters to manufacturers of products if they don't reward you for the effort? I feel like a salivating dog with nothing to salivate about.

Yeah, it sounds like you got short-changed. Is Nature's Path some kind of low-margin company that can't afford to send a few freebies? Not even a few sample flakes in the envelope?

I found that the most thankless people of all must be publishing companies. When I read new paperback editions of Les Miserables and Faulkner's The Hamlet about ten years ago I found several dozen typographical errors in the text, in one case with an entire line misplaced on the page. I painstakingly logged them, typed them up, and sent them to the publisher (two different companies) and never received even one word of acknowledgment.

For more on Nature's Path, read this >update