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Back Buzz - January 30, 1998

pumping heart Nice Day Coffee Company, 1401 North 45th Street, Wallingford

As you first walk into the Nice Day Coffee Company, you get the impression you've just entered a popular chain; the atmosphere is almost a cross between Baskin Robbins and some upscale burger chain. Whether Nice Day is in fact a chain I don't really know; they don't seem to have a web page. But the windows are plastered with huge signs offering lunch items such as PIZZA, BAGELS, PIZZA BAGELS, etc., just like in a chain store. And it seems to be the East Wallingford teen hangout. I didn't even know there were teenagers in Wallingford, but it makes sense with all those two-story family-style homes.

Nevertheless Max and I decided to check it out. The front room was loud, bright, and full of teenagers, with TVs and music blasting from the corners. On our way to the back room we passed a small library area featuring books from cooking to fiction. The back room sports Maxfield Parrish-style murals and wooden slatted chairs and benches which give the place an outdoor garden feel -- if it weren't for the low ceilings and track lighting, that is. There's a PA and a small stage in one corner, presumably for small ensembles and perhaps some spoken word. I really like the tables: brass and gold tin sheets hammered into bubbles and encased under glass tops.

All that aside, I had a very nice barista, "nice" meaning sweet and congenial. My double short cappuccino, made with their own coffee which they sell at the cafe, was served in a huge glass café au lait cup. Not too much character, though: not robust or sweet, just somewhat bland. The cappuccino was nicely foamed, although a bit heavy-handed. And there were no spoons in sight.

Nice Day's oxymoronic logo features the sun wearing sunglasses. Now just why would a sun have to shield its own eyes from itself? Does this indicate an autoimmune disorder? It would be like people walking around with masks painted on their faces so they don't have to smell their own skin. I mean, it just seems cruel. I have to wear sunglasses myself; but I'm not exactly radiating tons of fiery radiation, either.

And what's with this "Nice Day" bit, anyway? Why not "Pleasant Day" or "Great Day" or "Fun Day" or "Relaxing Day" or even "Not Terribly Exciting But At Least Not Disturbing Day" instead? I mean, nice is such an ambiguous word. What does it mean, anyway? According to my Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, the word "nice" has 16 different meanings. So do they mean "Nice Day" as in delightful day? Or do they mean kind day? Or perhaps they're trying to say a day characterized by great precision. Or maybe a minutely accurate day. Or how about a day showing delicate perception or a refined day or a virtuous day or a suitable day or a carefully neat day or a sufficient day? Perhaps they're talking about a day having fussy tastes. Or perhaps a coy day or a trivial day or a wanton day, although those particular meanings are obsolete. Actually, what Random House has to say about the word "nice" sums it all up, shall we say, nicely:

"-- Usage. The semantic history of NICE is quite varied, as the etymology and the obsolete senses attest, and any attempt to insist on only one of its present senses as correct will not be in keeping with the facts of actual usage. If any criticism is valid, it might be that the word is used too often and has become a cliché lacking the qualities of precision and intensity that are embodied in many of its synonyms."

In all fairness, perhaps The Nice Day Coffee Company is French in origin, referring simply to the city of Nice. If so, they don't seem to be doing a very good job of conveying the ambiance of a café in Provence...

As long as I'm griping about the word nice I may as well mention some other overused terms that bother me: time frame, reinvent, revisit, empower, responsive, sustainable, team player, paradigm...oh, there's just so many I can't think of them all in one sitting. And what ever happened to proofreading, anyway? Is it a lost art? Not only have I run across glaring mistakes in expensive magazine ads, but I've seen elaborate billboards flaunting the possessive "its" with that damn apostrophe inserted! Come on, guys! Its is the possessive form; it's is a contraction for "it is." Get it straight, okay? It isn't that difficult! This kind of advertising is costing somebody a lot of money; you'd think someone would proofread the copy maybe just once before it's sent off to be published for all eyes to see.

And what the hell happened to the verb to say? Have you noticed how young people talk these days? They'll say things like: "We were walking down the street, and I'm, like, 'Wow, it's a nice day!' And my boyfriend's, like, 'Yeah, it's cool!'" They don't even use to go anymore (i.e. "So I go, "Let's eat Chinese food." And he goes, "No, let's get pizza.")

Perhaps verbs are endangered, which isn't very good news considering how some people tend to lose touch with other parts of speech as they age. I have a relative who already tends to omit his objects; what would he sound like if he used no verbs? It's rather terrifying to think of: "Oh, so we were, like, and he's like, 'Hey! She's, like, my --'"

So I'm, like, yikes!

Speaking of words, here's a recent e-mail exchange about beer-tasting terms:

Yesterday Max and I met a couple friends at the Rock Bottom Brewery to have lunch and to taste their winter brew, Winter Bock. It was surprisingly decent for a bock beer: a bit too malty, however, but with a nice dose of hops. I would call it furry, like Maritime's Flagship Red Ale, because it leaves a furry feeling on your tongue.

The other evening when I was drinking a Cold Cock Winter Porter I remarked to Max that Cold Cock was the only porter I've ever been impressed by. Then I mentioned that most porters seem too vertical, like Bruce Springsteen's voice or Margo Timmins' voice, whereas Cold Cock is nice and rounded with plenty of overtones. It was then I realized that I taste my beers (and everything else) not only with my tongue and nose but with my eyes and ears. I tend to taste geometry and harmony along with fruitiness and nuttiness. Those smooth, unrounded beers that bore me are usually way too vertical, with little variation from the Y-axis; the ones which are intensely malty with no other character are too horizontal; in fact, I could chart them all on a 2-D graph -- or even a 3-D graph -- with my favorite beers marking the widest and most undulating parabolas. I'm going to try imagining that graph while I taste the rest of this winter's brews. What other visual terms could describe the taste of beer? Rectangular? Ovate? Turquoise? Polka-dotted? Fluorescent?

As far as sounds go, for years I've considered the voices of male (and the lower-voiced female) singers to fall somewhere in the horizontal-vertical range, with Bruce Springsteen's harmonic-free voice being vertical, Weird Al Yankovic's overtone-rich voice being horizontal, and Elvis Costello's voice being well-rounded, ranging back and forth from horizontal to vertical. (Tom Waits is fairly vertical, but with a good dose of greasy modulation. And the irritating voice of Smashing Pumpkins vocalist Billy Corgan is nothing but a bunch of scattered points which don't even come close to forming vectors.) I could describe beers the same way, with vertical describing smooth and horizontal describing the fuzzy or furry character (there's two more terms!). So can a beer be described as triadic? Contrapuntal? Baritone with a short but pianissimo mezzosoprano solo at the finish? And then there are all those words describing both audio and visual aspects: dentate, spatulate, widely modulating, echoing. Wouldn't you like to taste a 12-tone beer with a Moëbius-strip head?

Yes, that's what the beer-tasting vocabulary needs: more variety and creativity.

Are there specific labels on the X and Y (and Z?) axes of your beer charts, or are they impressionistic factors that can't be converted into words? I know I don't have anything close to the multi-band gustatory apparatus that you do. For charting the taste of beer what I would envision would be something like a horizontal spectrum with all the distinguishable characteristics of malt and hop (if not the entire spectrum of flavors -- fruity, spicy, earthy, sour, salt). At any band a vertical line would show the intensity of that flavor. Monochromatic beers would be thin. Full-flavored ones would be broad-spectrum. "Lite" beers would be indistinguishable from a blank chart.

I guess you would need at least three dimensions to chart the time element as well -- the preamble, the peak and the finish of a good sip. And what about the creaminess of the head or the tingle of carbonation? I don't think I could really pin a beer down to a scientific chart. A beer has layers; it is perhaps best captured in the abstract, with oils.