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Back Buzz - July 3, 1998

pumping heart Espresso Roma, 4201 University Way Northeast, University District

This popular University District hangout is located in a nice bleak corner spot on the lower part of University Way, also known as "The Ave." The room features tall ceilings and unusually stark decor. There is a large structure of four Roman columns positioned rather jaggedly and asymmetrically across one side of the room. Ceiling fans spin lazily from above, and there's evidence of a one-time mirror ball on the ceiling. Lots of south-facing window seats provide sunny seating, and there are plenty of other seats in the cooler, darker recesses of the room. The east-facing deck was unfortunately closed on this particularly warmish day.

As we waited for our drinks, a surprisingly loud eerie chanting of female voices filled the place, crescendoing to an earshattering point as the barista suddenly disappeared in the back room. Was this a heavenly chorus signaling the end of the world? Were we about to be abducted by aliens? Was I about to see a large-format video of my life played in reverse? Would I ever get to taste my double short cappuccino? Yes, of course; my fears were allayed as the barista reappeared and cranked down the stereo in the corner.

After we seated ourselves at an especially dim table I began my analysis of my drink. First of all, the barista served my double short cappuccino in the wrong cup: a tall white coffee mug. It had a good-looking layer of milk foam, but the shots were way too weak. And the drink was very wet, i.e. full of milk. The coffee, Espresso Roma's own roast from California, tastes like it could probably be very good and pleasingly smooth if only it were made strong enough.

Max says the fresh-squeezed lemonade is quite good, if a bit too sweet. But at least the sweetness doesn't come with light: yes, the darkness of the room appeals to me! In fact, Espresso Roma has a very, very plain cement floor, which makes me feel as if I'm drinking coffee in somebody's garage. But if you prefer sunlight with your espresso, take one of those window seats where you can gaze out upon the businesses across the street: Johnny's Flowers, Ram Copy Center, Professional Copy, and Shalimar Indian/Pakistani Restaurant.

A bird just flew out the front door. Do they serve many birds here, I wonder? Do birds like lattes or would they prefer straight shots? Which would I prefer if I were sphincterless?

Speaking of birds, a sparrow is sitting on the table of the woman next to us. The woman is obviously a student, but who is the bird? Is it the Brown Bird of Knowledge? Yes, this bird acts as if it comes here regularly. It reminds me of the birds who used to fly in and out of Union Station in Los Angeles; they lived an indoor-outdoor life, like that of the average cat.

A young man just walked by with a very thick, fuzzy head of neon red hair. It looked too much like a wig, but I think it was probably his own. I'd love to watch him wash and dry that stuff. Perhaps if I ran out and asked...

No, I won't, because I need sleep! I apologize for rambling like this, changing directions at each turn. But I feel like a sleep-deprived student, perhaps one of those at the window tables. Thank god I don't have a final in Russian Linguistics or Economic Botany I have to study for. Of course, I suppose in a coffeehouse like Espresso Roma I should be studying Latin while I sip some ancient pre-coffee concoction. Is it really 1998? Or is that B.C.?

And speaking of Latin and ancient drinks, I'm reminded of two separate e-mail exchanges with my Bay Area friend. First is the one about ancient water:

A friend sent me an article about how a vodka distiller in Newfoundland is going to start harvesting water from 100,000-year-old Arctic glaciers, apparently because the water is the purest to be found on the planet. The vodka will be called Vodka Borealis. The article quoted Campbell Evans of the Scotch Whisky Association as being somewhat skeptical that the drink would catch on:

"One hundred thousand years old sounds quite young to me. Water has been flowing over our Highland rocks for 800 million years. The whole idea leaves me cold, if you'll excuse the pun. Won't it be salty?"

So, like the 75-year-old Scotch I once tasted, will they advertise Vodka Borealis as being 100,000 years old? Or would the Scotch Whisky Association then have to put new labels on their Scotch, calling it 800,000,000-year-old Scotch?

Perhaps they should start making vodka using water from those house-sized snowballs that are supposedly bombarding the Earth...

When I went to my friend Vickybob's last week I brought along a bottle of Ice Age drinking water, harvested from Canadian glaciers, which I had noticed for the first time the day before at Andronico's Market in Berkeley. It was in a cool transparent blue plastic bottle with long, thin, silvery hologram letters spelling out the name. And it was only about a dollar for the 750-ml. bottle -- worth it just to have a blue bottle to take on hikes. On top of that, it tasted good. (The water itself was clear, though, not bluish.)

Besides glacial ice (for which I have heard the Japanese pay a premium price to get glacial ice cubes in their cocktails), there is another form of ancient water in the world. I just finished a book, Sahara Unveiled by Atlantic Monthly editor William Langewiesch, who took some time off to make his way across the Sahara -- by bus and hitched rides -- and write about the physical, political and economic conditions. Some of the material appeared in the Atlantic back in 1991, and I was impressed by this excerpt then:

"Of greater importance for the future are the deep aquifers, whose discovery was a by-product of the search for oil. The mere knowledge of their existence has had a profound effect on life in the Sahara. Known as confined aquifers, they are pools of fresh water trapped in permeable rock strata at depths of 300 to 6,000 feet. They hold as much water, according to one estimate, as the Amazon River discharges in two years...

"But there is a problem. The deep aquifers are being recharged very slowly, if at all. This means that the aquifers contain mostly fossil water, deposited long ago, when the Sahara was not a desert. The water that Sollah and I were drinking was perhaps 5,000 years old. In western Egypt well water may be five or ten times as old. My comparison to California was only partly correct. Much of the irrigation water in the American desert comes from rivers and reservoirs -- short-term, renewable surface supplies. Some waste is perhaps affordable. The deep water of the Sahara is different: you pump it here for keeps. Like oil, it is not renewable."

So it might be appropriate to ferment and distill spirits of dry climes with 50,000-year-old Egyptian well water. What would that be -- tequila? Is there some regional liquor of North Africa?

So what does the term "50,000-year-old water" mean, anyway? Now that I think of it, water is simply a conglomeration of molecules, each made up of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, right? So if water sits in a sealed well for 50,000 years, wouldn't a lot of the molecules break up and form other elements, at least temporarily? If the water were to freeze, for instance, the water would turn into ice; if it were to heat, some of it would turn to steam. Are ice and steam made from water still considered "water"?

That brings to mind another idea: how about making customized liquor from one's own body fluids? Sweat, blood, and even urine could be distilled into pure water which could then be used to make spirits. And then -- like all the brew-your-own beer places -- customized labels could be provided for the liquor. Imagine the possibilities: Bob Blood Bourbon, Jamaican Jim Cum Rum, Single Malt Sally Sweat Scotch, Wally Whizz Whiskey, Mimi Pee-Pee Brandy, Ooze of Suzie Ouzo...

...and here's an older conversation about Latin:

Something strange has been happening to me for the last couple of weeks. I find myself suddenly understanding all the Latin I hear or read. Is this some strange form of epilepsy?

Have you had a recent organ transplant from a deceased Latin scholar? A report I heard on NPR news last year mentioned a group of heart transplant recipients who developed a craving for the things that their late young donors liked -- such as beer and Chicken McNuggets. Did you ever hear some of the selections by Dr. Ammondt, the Finnish professor who, inspired by a dream, translated several Elvis ballads into Latin and recorded them?

Wow! I'd like to hear "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Jailhouse Rock" in Latin! I wonder what Billie Holiday would sound like translated into Russian. And what would Hank Williams be like sung in German? How about the Sex Pistols in Hawaiian? Actually, I think the Sex Pistols' simple 1-4-5 chords would translate nicely to slat-key guitar.