Excerpt from a New Book about Greenwich 29 (draft)

Coffee and Cones

Back some 110 milesaway in Simsbury, the household was starting the day free of any real worries.  That is what life is like these days.  Other than learning about that, the first morning of the year was pure enjoyment.  You can’t do much better than waking up in snow-laden rural Connecticut, all sunny and shiny, with good friends, a savory breakfast and children begging to go outside to go sledding.  We pulled out a couple of plastic sleds and bobbled down a little hill in the backyard.  Technically it was a slant if anything.  In fact to call it a hill would be like calling a puddle a sea, but I tell you, that slight gradient provided all the exhilaration our aging bodies could want.  We carried on for about an hour until we tired having packed snow stuck to every nook and cranny of our clothes and we then got things ready for the journey back.  We said our warm and heartfelt adieus to our friends and began the return.

        The first leg didn’t require much traveling.  Three miles down the road, we entered the suburban world of broad and open shopping centers.  We stopped by a couple of stores somewhat relieved that the new month meant setting the reset button on our credit cards.  New year, old habits.  Not even the shops respected the holiday.  Fine, they opened a little later than usual, but that hardly constitutes a day-off.  This used to be a full-fledged holiday, but maybe I am going too far back in time.  We decided to seek temperature asylum inside the inviting warmth of a Starbuck’s.  I thought I would never hear myself say such a thing, but when in a desperate situation, one needs to take desperate steps.

            We went in and while the girls gawked at the window with the cakes and cookies, I tried to get a handle on just what I was supposed to order.  It isn’t easy at those places.  A simple coffee with milk isn’t often uttered.

         Now, of course, let me make it clear that I almost never go into the place because I really can’t stand it.  More than anything I think I have a greater loathing of the clientele than its coffee; and the cups I have tried, while acceptable, are hardly worth calling home about either.  But it’s really those people.  All of them.  A lot of them.  Some of them.  The guys who like to talk really loud about the kind the coffee they want, and carry on tight-knit conversations with the servers as if they have been best friends for years just because share a common liking for brewed toasted beans.  Just drives me up the wall.  Then there are the ones who sit and read their books, or browse the internet, or play with their iPads as if they are steering wheels.  Those people who just plain try to be cool there.

           But why is it?  What makes one of the nation’s largest chains cool?  Would they do that at a McDonald’s?  Hardly.  But I have to admit it, Starbucks has miraculously made itself seem both unique and ubiquitous at the same time.

            Even so, Starbucks has had a rough time of it over the past few years.  The novelty began to wear off as the numbers grew and, of late, the crisis has slammed them because gourmet coffee stops are becoming a luxury rather than a necessity.  Those are certainly understandable factors, but they were not the only ones:  according to one recent article, many of its customers have grown tired of its vast expansion, and some have left.  A woman and former patron decided to go elsewhere when they felt the Starbuck’s was becoming yet another “cookie-cutter” production, like other fast food chains.

         Jeez.  Now, how’s that for a shocker?  Does she mean to say that when there was something like only 875 stores she felt she belonged to an intimate circle of intellectual friends?

        For some reason this never seemed to occur to the immense number of knuckleheads before, or maybe it did and they simply accepted that there was no alternative in their lives, which says volumes about their understanding of free thinking and nonconformity.  It is a sad when I feel closer akin to Sartre by chomping on an Egg McMuffin than slurping a piping hot Starbucks coffee.  But in a sense, I do.

            Starbucks has been aware that its appeal was beginning to tire and couldn’t help noticing that for the past few years profits (“profits” I repeat, not “losses” as some understand) have declined.  The noticed that people were starting to feel more akin to the real local café touch, that Friends ambience.  So, what did they do?  They began to regionalize their produce.  Instead of making the world to conform to its methods, it took a look at local customs and interests and geared its offer towards that.  McDonald’s has been doing that for years, which is why they sell beer inSpain (in part because they can, God bless them) and because Madrilanians probably wouldn’t go for Egg McMuffins.  Spaniards just lack the proper taste buds to appreciate fine American fast food cuisine.

        The company took it a step further.  They have gone so far as to change the name of their cafés so that they sound more like a local place.  This would have been the equivalent of McDonald’s opening up a place under the guise Micky’s Bar and Grill and having a suspicious looking red-haired clown say while wiping the bar counter, “So what’ll it be boys?  Burgers and Coke on tap?”  Those fast-food chains don’t venture there, but massive beer producers do, for example.  They’ll come up with their own version of micro-brew brew, and marketed it as a select product, concealing the company name if and where possible.   This brings me to my point, why should Starbuck’s get the recognition it gets when it behaves like most other multinational?  That is why there is something that’s not quite right with the whole operation.  Something that doesn’t fit.  Some fundamental flaw in the Indie movement law.  I digress.

       The rest of the day turned into a kind of tour of Connecticut.  First it was down toDurhamagain to have a New Year’s lunch with Janet and Bill and their son Rick, a good friend of ours.  We had a mid-afternoon meal.  Since it had snowed since the last time we were there, everything look just right for the occasion.  The hue, that undying afternoon light.  It starts around two in the afternoon and evolves constantly for a couple of hours.  The snow was aplenty, and the temperature right, so we decided to make a snowman.  Getting the initial ball together was easy enough, but once it came time to rolling it around, roll it did, but grow it didn’t.  I trekked all over the place until the wellbeing of my back found itself challenged.  Just what kind of snow did they have up there in centralConnecticut?  We abandoned the main goal and reduced our objective to snow-gnomes, and that worked out much better.

         Then it was over to my parents’ place where we met up with my brother and sister-in-law.  We had a little bite to eat while we combed the internet for some information on how to keep a little family tradition on January 1st: eating ice cream.  It’s a dicey deal planning one filling your belly with it on a melancholy New Year’s Day evening, but we managed to track down a local place that happened to be open, as if it had heard our beckoning; all it took was for one call to confirm.

         The owners specialized in homemade ice cream, and boy were they good at it.  The place was one of those tiny wooden shacks with doors that creaked when you opened them, tables and seats that wobbled, ceiling lights that would serve nicely for long-term interrogation, and ice cream servers whose average time as an employee was about three weeks.

       The ice cream was outstanding, as were the portions.  Thank God the previous days preparation stretched our stomachs to just the right size to handle the load.  It had one of those quirky features in the form of a map where people could pin their hometown on.  The United States was well-represented, except for maybe North Dakota, as were various places in the world.  The girls proudly pierced the paper of a dot which read Madrid.

       Years ago, places like this weren’t that uncommon in Greenwich.  Now they are a rare and endangered species, which was partially why we had to go to Hamden to find one.

     We finished.  It was time to get in the car and work off the calories at the accelerator pedal.

Excerpt from a New Book 13 (draft)

Leaving the Bubble

Oh, well.  Fun and games with numbers.  Finally it was almost time to get them to the train station. I was not waiting for the call to mobilize.  This moment did not come until a eight minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive.  Bridget announced as I started the car, “We’ll make it.  Just have to stop by Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee beforehand.”

      “The train is about to arrive and we’re still two miles away.  I think I can hear that whistle blowing.”  That was me feebly trying to avert disaster.

      “Oh, we’re doing better than I thought.  Come on.”

      I was being a Eurowimp, as some say, and had no understanding of how aNew Yorkcommuter runs under this pressure.  That may have been possible, but it didn’t get us any closer to the station.  She crabbed as she told me to relax.  Bridget, you see, possessed her own reality distortion field.  We could be at the donut counter paying for our coffee while the train was pulling out of Cos Cob and then be pulling into the station three minutes later and yet two minutes before it even arrived.  I don’t know how she did it, but we did it…coffee and all.  In any event, I have sent this data to MIT in hopes someone there could provide an explanation that adhere to the basic laws of physics.

       The rest of the day I spent hauling my butt up to Durham,Connecticut to pick up the car we would be using for the next couple of weeks.  I went up with my nephew Kevin, who had the kindness and patience to plow through I-95 Sunday traffic, which was exacerbated by the fact it was the end of the Christmas holiday weekend.  The minute we hit the highway, it stopped.  We stopped.  Then it was stop-and-go for the next60 milespractically.  I had taken along the entire case of the Beatles digitally remastered albums, 13 albums in all, figuring we had enough musical entertainment to tide us over, and should the need come to start over again, ten hours was a respectable span of time.

      We also engaged in a little chatting here and there.   My nephew was at an age where he was starting to think more seriously about what he wanted to do, though I am sometimes wonder what that age happens to be because I am just beginning to exit that stage.  Still I felt I had lived enough to at least act as an older and sager uncle who could cunningly extract his thoughts out about his future.  I might even contribute some tidbits of wisdom.  Cars are good for this purpose because the listener-victim normally won’t open the door and abort while driving throughBridgeport, Ct, at 70 mph.  That was the plan at least.  Instead it came out more like this:

        “So, do you have any fucking idea what you want to do with your life?”

         “Uh…no, not really.”

         “I know how it is.  Well, you’ve still got time.  Lots of time, trust me.  It helps to listen to the White Album for guidance and escape.  Now, listen to John’s lyrics on this song, they’re awesome.”

       I-95 is not a very scenic national road.  It doesn’t even seem to pretend to be.  Its purpose to expedite travel, or at least that was the original idea, and to take you through the major coastal cities which about a century ago bustled and generated the majority of the state’s economy.  Like much of Eastern Coast America, that all fell apart during the second half of the 20th Century.  Major efforts have been made to renovate these downtrodden areas, some with greater success than others.  There are townships which have jumped to life while others which are still limping by.

       Once you slide inland from the shoreline, you realize you are in a decidedly different part of the state all together, if not in a different state all together. Durhamis a scant21 milesfrom then center of urbanNew Haven, but you might as well be in upstateVermont.  It was rural.  Rural big time.  Rolling roads, acres of farmland and woods, barns with roofs falling in.  The downtown itself boasted a splendid green with all the major houses and local important buildings literally separated from each other in classicNew Englandfashion.  It was delightful and spooky at the same time, a sentiment which may have been compounded by the fact I had just passed an awesomely and deliciously frightening cemetery on the way in.  It was set on a hill so steep I couldn’t imagine how in God’s name they could stick bodies in there.

      We weren’t in Durham for long, just enough to meet Janet and Bill, the parents of a good friend of ours who had the generosity to lend us their wheels.  We had been in touch for quite some time but we had never formally met.  They are sweet and wonderful people, the kind that set you down a plate of freshly baked cookies as a welcoming gesture.  Either that or a beer.  They were thinking about making a little dinner and they were being joined by a friend of hers.  Just as I walked in the kitchen, Sue said, “Martha (to be honest I can’t recall her name), do you know who this is?  It’s Brian Murdock!”  Music and applause, maestro.  That’s what should have come next.  I wish someone at the time had had a camera to fully capture the stupefied look on my face, because I had been in that town for little more than ten minutes and I was being introduced to perfect strangers who were supposed to know me, and, as I feared even more, whom I was supposed to know.  That wouldn’t have been the first time, but inDurham?

        “You were in his house!”

        This was beginning to freak me out because now I really didn’t know what was going on.   I knew there was something spooky about that town.  I looked around the room to see if there was a mirror for me to check if they actually had a reflection, but I didn’t see any.

      “Oh, yes!  How do you do?” I said timidly.  She extended her hand, I looked to see if it was a skeleton, and engaged in a nice warm shake.   I played along not wanting to look completely clueless.  “This is my nephew, remember?”

        “Oh hi!  No.  What’s your name?  We’ve never met before.”

          Something wasn’t right.  I needed more careful explaining, but none came.  “And, Martha, you slept in his bed!”

          Ew.  This woman was sixty years old.  I certainly would have recalled that.  I interrupted.  “That’s enough!  What is going on here?”

          It naturally turned out that they had been in my house back in Madrid.  I knew Janet had, actually, I just couldn’t recall the part about the friend.  It kind of happens that way when your home is a kind of inn.  I like it that way.  I grew up with my house being that way, why would I want it any other way.  Just the thing was, so many people had passed through these doors that long ago I lost count, and when you do that, heck, you’re bound to bump into someone in a place like Durham who says “Hey, thanks for the digs.”

         We all had a good laugh.  We stayed a few minutes and made some friendly conversation then decided to head back as it was getting dark.  Taking their advice we stuck to the back roads hoping to get to theMerritt Parkway.  We ended up on I-91, the turnoff must have been at some unforeseen road a few miles back.  Before we knew it we were just north ofNew Havenin a neighborhood Greenwich kids dread to find themselves in.  Empty parking lots, half-abandoned warehouses, gas stations encased in robbery-proof bunkers, parts of old American cars strewn along the sides of the street.  Good oldBrunswickSchoolfor boys, my training ground for life, had never prepped me for this.  Since then, I have lived in some pretty skanky places, and slept in some nameless holes, acted like a bum and mingled in hostile atmospheres; but there are still times when my goddamn upbringing told me once again…“man…you just don’t belong here, so get out!”

         And out we went.  Calmly but without a pause.  And we pulled on to the highway and drove to the junction with I-95.  It was backed up like hell the way it always is, but this time, worse still because of the day and time at hand.  People were leaving every place and going back to every place and there was no way out of it.  I had lost touch with Kevin’s car.  He had lost touch with me.  We would meet back home at some time.  I put the Beatles’ White Album back on and took the trip in stride.