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The Deadline Cafe: Episode 29

Episode 29

“Skilling says it’s going to be cold and rainy on Saturday. Not the best weather for the Great Evanston Coffee and Barista Challenge, you know—“ the Whittler said to no one in particular, waving the Chicago Tribune in one hand as he pushed open the café door early Friday morning. The Whittler was probably the only café regular who still read the Trib. Sergei and Jimmy D read the Sun Times, but everyone else scanned the alphabet soup (CNN, MSNBC, BBC, NPR) on their laptops, Kindles or iPads.

The Professor read the New York Times, but not the Whittler. If you asked him, he’d tell you he never bought anything with “New York” printed on it. Then he’d say, “Nope, I’m a Chicago man.”

Which was when the Professor would chime in, without looking up from his Times, “That’s what the new Mayor of Chicago says. Only he actually lives in Chicago. If seeing Chicago from your condo on Maple makes you a Chicagoan, then Sarah Palin’s a Russian, if you get my drift.”

It was as if the regulars had bit parts in a big play and they’d riff with each other like well-traveled jazzmen jamming on the road, improvising some new lines now and then. “Well, all I’m sayin’,” the Whittler said, summing things up, “is that it doesn’t look real good for the big coffee showdown tomorrow.”

The Professor, who was feeling a lot better since his little incident, especially with the chicken soup and hot meals one of the Knaughty Knitters had been bringing him, could only agree that the rain would really muck up things the next day.

Enter Hank, stage left, from the back room: “Ok, boys, here’s the latest. Our good mayor just texted every café owner in Evanston about tomorrow’s weather. Instead of having the coffee challenge out at Dog Beach tomorrow the coffee judges will make the rounds—incognito—and visit every café in Evanston by Saturday noon. Then at 1 o’clock they’ll announce their selection for Evanston’s best cup of café coffee and the best café cappuccino artist.”

“Sounds fair to me,” the Whittler observed.  And the Professor said he agreed with the Whittler, for the second time in less than fifteen minutes. So things were looking up already.

“Ok, then, let’s get out the word!” Hank clapped his hands, trying his best to put on a good face for all the regulars, “Tell everyone you know we need their support tomorrow. Really. This is it! It’s showtime.”

Minutes later, in the back room, a glum-looking Hank told Lissa and Oakey that the word on the street was that the fix was in: according to someone who knew someone, one of the coffee judges was a Yada Yada Java insider from Seattle or Portland. To which Lissa replied, “Hank, don’t go negative on us! For all you know, it’s someone from Portland, Maine, where they know coffee from clams.” 

Oakey tried to help: “Indoors is much better! Now the weather won’t affect Bobby’s cappuccino art. We’ll practice a little more this morning, then I’ll take him to the Art Institute to see the ancient Korean art. He’s almost ready.”

They each went in three different directions, like July 4th rockets on the lakefill, but each one had the same focus as a guided missile: not just to win, but to blow Yada Yada out of the coffee business in Evanston.

Thursday night, Hank had hardly slept at all. Just little catnaps until sometime around 4 in the morning, when Sherman (who’d spent a few days keeping Lissa company after she found him out chasing dogs on Dog Beach last weekend) woke Hank up, kneading his stomach and purring that loud “feed me now” purr. It wasn’t just the mounting pressure from the coffee challenge, which his financial guru said he had to win in order to increase the café’s market share and survive, it was the Kellogg man’s reminder that Monday, April 18, was tax day, which Hank had somehow overlooked in all the fuss.

And finally, there were those three little words that Lissa had snuck in there last Saturday. “I love you,” she’d said, just as matter-of-fact as if she’d said, “Coffee, black, no sugar.”

He’d almost missed the words, but his brain hauled them up from the memory well and there they were: She loved him. But why go to all those lengths to write the countdown numbers? Why the secrecy? Why the subtle threat that something dire might happen? Maybe she’s nuts, a certified looney-tune whack-job? Wait, it’s Friday, Helen’s on duty, doing her readings.

**

If you could have seen Hank when he stood up from Helen’s table on Friday, and waded into the now busy café teeming with customers, you’d have seen that he had a new smile on his face and a look of quiet confidence.

Moments later someone handed him a copy of the Daily Northwestern, and there, bold and big as life, was a full-page spread about the Evanston Coffee War and the big showdown the next day. Underneath the headlines were pictures of Bobby in the deflated coffee been outfit and “Mr. Big” from Yada Yada Java, giving his thumbs up white-toothed grin, the embodiment of California optimism.

In the column next to the photos, there was a straw poll of the undergraduate population. The race was too tight to call. But it looked like students were going to turn out in numbers Saturday morning to campaign for their favorite café and barista.

By closing time on Friday, students were swarming coffee houses all over Evanston, on Facebook, tweeting, texting and blogging about various cafés and chats about who was the “hottest” barista. Someone even posted a lecture on YouTube that the Professor had delivered on cafes, coffee and world history.

It was plain to see that Evanston was hopped up on caffeine and had gone coffee crazy.

 Episode 30 will appear on Monday.

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