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Back Buzz - August 1, 1997

pumping heart Coffee Messiah, 1554 East Olive Way, Capitol Hill

As soon as I read about Coffee Messiah in Clark Humphrey's column in The Stranger I had to rush over and check the place out. I hit it during a lull: the place -- which opened two weeks ago -- was empty and the barista was out on the sidewalk juggling, I assume in an effort to attract customers. Or perhaps he was simply killing time. Whatever his intentions, he warmly welcomed me into the sanctuary of Coffee Messiah.

At the entrance is a small altar featuring a figurine of Jesus surrounded by candles. The walls, painted in good bold Catholic colors, are covered with portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and everything else is decorated with religious imagery such as crucifixes, doll heads, saint candles, a Statue of Liberty or two, and gargoyles. There are two choices for seating: one of two luxuriously inspirational chairs, or the more austere pew which runs the length of the western wall. The tables are heavily resined with a Braille-like texture, each one incorporating a heavily-resined gargoyle perched on the edge. In fact, these tables are so heavily resined you could probably kill someone pretty easily with one if you had the strength to hurl it across the room. I doubt that such a liturgical atmosphere would drive many souls to such extremes, however; but if it did, I think this would be the perfect place to repent one's sins as well, perhaps over a latte and donut.

Yes, I did say donut -- across from the espresso machine sits a real live donut-making machine! I was quite disappointed to discover that nothing other than paper cups are available at Coffee Messiah, and as a rule I wouldn't review such a place. But the paper cups feature a very substantial red Coffee Messiah logo, and my double cappuccino came with a complimentary mini-donut fresh from the donut maker. How, in such a nouveau-bohemian scone-and-muffin-infested city like Seattle, can a mere mortal resist religious icons and donuts? It's not easy.

My double cappuccino, although presented in its nonrecyclable paper cup, was quite good: very rich, robust, and strong. The beans are from Batdorf & Bronson, a small roaster in Olympia. Like B&O Espresso a block or two away, Coffee Messiah currently offers a spectacular view of Olive Way being torn to shreds by large pieces of road equipment, right at the Denny Way curve. I found myself wishing the sounds of roadwork would drown out the disco dance music which blasted so incongruously from the hallowed walls of the cafe. Why couldn't the barista have put on some more appropriate music -- something like Handel or Bach or the Vienna Boys' Choir, or at least the Seattle Men's Chorus?

After finishing my cappuccino I decided to check out the restroom, which I'd been advised to visit with a quarter in hand. No, it wasn't a pay toilet, but there was a box with a coin slot above the toilet paper dispenser. Since there was no indication of what would happen once I dropped my quarter in the slot, I braced myself for a surprise. Would I hear the voice of God booming down upon me, encouraging me to wash my hands? Would the room turn into a confession booth? No, I definitely was not expecting what did happen next. I wouldn't exactly call it holy or enlightening -- although I admit that, not having grown up in a Christian household, I probably wouldn't recognize "holy" if I saw it. So I won't tell you what happens when you drop a quarter in the slot -- but I will say the mirror ball hanging in the corner is a dead giveaway.

Speaking of growing up without religion, the following e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend is from a year ago:

At last year's Concert for Cathedrals at St. James Cathedral I saw an operetta-like piece which was about three students who stop at a farmhouse and ask the farmer and his wife if they can spend the night. When the farmer and his wife see the students' pockets bulging with gold, they slaughter all three students and stuff them in pickling brine. Then a stranger comes to stay with them, refuses all the food they offer him, and finally asks if they have any fresh meat. When they say no, he tells them they're lying, that they killed students, and that he's really Saint Nicholas. (Funny: he didn't look anything like Santa Claus.) Then the farmer and his wife admit their sins and the students are brought back to life -- just like on TV.

Yes, that must be the same story that my high school French teacher and former music instructor taught us to sing. All I remember is the chorus, "Il était trois petits enfants qui s'en allait glaner aux champs," and the fact that they stopped to visit someone who ended up hacking them all up and putting them into jars. It was supposedly a traditional French Christmas song.

So Santa Claus did have a taste for pickled student parts! It's hard to believe, after growing up with all those warm childlike stories of laughter and reindeer on the roof and stockings full of toys. I guess the legend of Saint Nicholas giving presents to delighted little children probably developed well after he had to give up human meat because of his blood pressure.

It gives new meaning to all those department store Santas bouncing toddlers on their knees while the parents watch. Perhaps that tradition came about from Saint Nicholas placing children on his knee to determine which ones would be the fattest and juiciest.

Kind of makes you wonder about the origin of the ham-for-Christmas-dinner tradition, doesn't it?