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Back Buzz - January 12, 2004

pumping heart Costa Coffee, Abbey National Bank, 34 Fargate, Sheffield S1, South Yorkshire

Having lived in Seattle for a decade I've purchased espressos in some odd locations including tune-up garages, hair salons, nurseries, and of course book stores. Having an espresso cafe inside a bookstore makes a lot of sense, and of course I've written about a few. (See my reviews of Bauhaus Books & Coffee, Elliott Bay Book Company, M Coy Books & Espresso, and Borders Books.) There are even a couple of bookstores in Sheffield where one can sit and enjoy a cappuccino.

But until one recent day in Sheffield City Centre I had never sat and enjoyed an espresso inside a financial institution. Situated in a popular pedestrian zone, this branch of Costa Coffee offers its fine espresso drinks, desserts, and snacks amid the ambience of customer queues, cash machines, and financial services desks.

Because it is inside a bank this Costa Coffee is no-smoking, although in the summertime one can sit at the outside tables and smoke. I visited in December, during the peak of the Xmess holiday shopping chaos, where endless chains of broad-beamed credit card wielders clogged the pavement, inching along slowly from one sale to another, consuming every PlayStation, scented candle gift set, and musical necktie in their wake. Yes, I admit I myself was downtown purchasing a gift -- one gift, mind you, and I knew exactly what it was and where to find it. Even so it was going to take me an eternity to get from where I was to where I wanted to go. So it was a choice of either knocking down everybody in my path while snapping and cussing and hyperventilating as I hurdled baby prams and wheelchairs...or pausing midway for a soothing espresso break.

So I sat inside the bank and ordered a double macchiato, which was served in a very big cappuccino cup. Nevertheless it was a typical Costa macchiato, well prepared and just the right strength with beautiful foamy milk froth. It was actually more like a double short dry cappuccino than a double macchiato, which was fine with me because I had some time to kill (hopefully nonviolently) and it was a pleasantly wintry day which invited a linger over a big hot drink.

And there I sat, sipping my pretty drink and watching the occasional borrower, remortgager, transferer, opener, closer, and converter, all moving their funds in and out, in and out, faster, deeper, harder...oh-oh-ahhhh...yes, I never knew banking could be so exciting and stimulating! Must be the caffeine...

As I finished my cappuccino -- er, macchiato -- I received a quick call on my mobile, and I have to say the reception in the bank is dreadful. If you move over near the indoor cash machines the reception becomes clearer. I suppose, seeing as how we're already well into the 21st century, I should start rating mobile reception in my coffeehouse reviews. But then again maybe I won't. After all, we're talking about supposedly relaxing coffee breaks here, not irritating interruptions. But then texting can be relaxing, as long as you don't become addicted. I suppose coffee is addictive as well. Ah, well, whatever pleases you...

Speaking of mobile phones reminds me of an e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend from a couple of years ago:

Saturday afternoon I went to Cody's to buy a book. I read the first chapter over a perfect pint of Racer 5 IPA at long-ignored Raleigh's Pub, just half a block up Telegraph from Cody's. Their back patio gives me as much a European feel as anything I can recall in this state: lots of trees and flowering vines, a view pleasantly obstructed on all sides by apartment buildings of antique brick, and, yesterday, beaucoup de monde. A bench in the shade of a redwood tree near the back wall provided a perfect place for me, my pint and my book. People milled about looking for a place to sit. Peripherally I noticed two women walking in my direction, away from the crowd, each talking into a cell phone. No, actually, pausing at the paragraph about the sample Pubs database (about publications, unfortunately) to take a sip of Racer 5, I saw that one of these women was in fact talking to and stroking a small green parrot perched beside her ear.

This suggested an engineering challenge for Nokia: how about a mobile parrot phone with a mouthpiece under the tail, which renders the words coming from the other party into parrot-speak? This would afford true hands-free operation and also provide a more pleasing spectacle for us bystanders who have grown bored and annoyed by people walking down the street speaking to lifeless slabs of high-impact plastic.

Excellent idea! Why haven't I seen these yet? What about all the other hideously popular motifs? How about talking into a Tall Bud can? What about a mobile phone shaped like a hand grenade? And, of course, the obvious: a banana.

How about a mobile with a pinwheel which spins and whistles as you talk? How about one that sets off fireworks when it rings?

And there's this e-mail exchange from several months later:

We finally got a mobile phone! We've been needing one for a long time, especially when we travel and find ourselves having to spend lots of money in freezing phone boxes -- and of course we can't leave messages because nobody can call us back. And at home, if somebody's going to call us about some matter, we often end up waiting around all afternoon for their call when we could be out doing errands or having a pint. This is going to make life so much easier.

The amazing thing is everything this little Nokia is capable of doing. The instruction manual is huge! Right now we're just learning how to make calls and answer calls and check our messages and store numbers in the address book. Apparently you can also use it as a WAP phone, a calculator, a kitchen timer, you can play games on it, compose your own ringing melodies for different callers, send and receive text messages, open the garage door, program your washing machine, cook dinner, etc.

Congratulations on your new device. I have to admit that cell phones are just about becoming a necessity. Everyone at my company has one (at least one), and I'm treated like some sort of Luddite because there wouldn't be a way of reaching me immediately if something went wrong with the web site while I was on vacation. Pay phones are getting ridiculously expensive. I use the emergency phones now and then to report someone stranded in a stalled car in the center divide; once a towtruck arrived just as I was beginning to state the problem I was reporting, and more and more often I suspect that I'm risking my life standing by the side of the freeway trying to help out someone who dialled 911 from their cell phone the minute their car stalled.

Even if you don't need your phone to cook, can you get it to tell you the quickest route between two locations?

There's probably a way of doing that. Aside from being able to call for a taxi while sitting in a pub having a pint (which I've done twice now), this mobile phone enables us to get every detail about every call we make as well as every call and message we receive; dial numbers by speaking words into the phone (i.e. "Rick" or "Taxi", vocal cues you can add to the phone book); send and receive pictures; chat live through text messages with another mobile user; record our own different answer machine messages for different incoming numbers; redial one of the last 20 numbers we've dialled; divert calls to another phone; use as a memo pad or stopwatch; use hands-free; charge in our car cigarette lighter; switch to call waiting; and set the phone to ring, vibrate, or simply display a musical note, or any combination.

Oh yeah, and just like a regular telephone we can actually receive phone calls! We haven't actually done this yet, aside from calling each other back and forth from our home phone to see how functions work.

Basically it's a pretty amazing little instrument and it'll take weeks and months, possibly years, to figure out how to use the goddam thing.