Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Confessions of a Total Coffeehouse Rube

As someone who comes from a rural area, I am rather sensitive to the “country bumpkin” label, especially when I am traveling.  Not all of us from out in the boonies just strolled off the set of the Beverly Hillbillies.  I am perfectly capable of driving in multilane traffic, ordering in a fancy restaurant, and taking buses and/or trains from one end of a city to another by myself, among other things.  I don’t exclusively wear flannel shirts and jeans, nor have I ever once referred to a swimming pool as a “cee-ment pond”.

Overall, I’m pretty comfortable with life in urban areas, with one notable exception: coffeehouses.

How I'd like to come across in a coffeehouse.

How I actually come across in a coffeehouse.

As someone who rarely experiments when it comes to food and drink, I’ve always stuck pretty close to my “usuals”.  In the realm of fare commonly found in a coffeehouse, that would be plain old caffeinated hot coffee with just cream for me.  Sometimes I get all wild and crazy and try a flavored coffee like hazelnut or, if I am feeling especially daring, maybe even an iced coffee.  Someday I might even try a flavored iced coffee, but I will have to work my way up to that.

When I am on the road, I find that most coffeehouses make for comfortable places to meet with friends, get a little writing work done, or tweet a little.  The staff and clientele are usually friendly and considerate, and there is not an expectation that you will simply consume your order forthwith and quickly move on in order to free up a table for the next customer.

There is, however, the perfectly reasonable expectation on the part of the coffeehouse staff that you will actually buy something while there.  And that something should be more than a 30 cent cup of ice.  Therein lies the rub.  When confronted with the menu board in a coffeehouse, I freeze like Bambi in the path of a freight train at midnight.  If there are other customers waiting in line behind me, that freight train becomes more like one of those Japanese bullet trains.

At this point, you are probably asking a very simple question: Why not just order what you normally drink, a regular coffee with just cream?  To that, I respond with another question: Who does that in a gourmet coffee house?  It’s akin to going to an award-winning Chinese restaurant and ordering a cheeseburger. I may as well show up at the coffeehouse on a camouflaged ATV wearing a flannel shirt without sleeves and a backwards Mack Truck ball cap if I order “just a plain old coffee”.

Let me backtrack a bit.  I am currently working on a collaborative project with a writer from Connecticut, and we were recently planning on meeting halfway between our locations for a summit on the project, which put us in the Portland, Maine area.  We would need a place to do some work on a hot summer afternoon, and an air-conditioned coffee house near the water fit the bill almost perfectly, as long as I was prepared.

This southern Maine summit was an ideal excuse for me to take a mini-vacation, so I was already in Portland the day prior to the meeting with my co-author. High on my to-do list was some reconnaissance at the coffeehouse where we were planning to work.  It was a hot summer afternoon, and I had spent the first half of it in the sun-drenched bleachers at Hadlock Field watching the Portland Sea Dogs play baseball.  Not wanting to give up the great parking place I had found prior to the game, I decided to walk the five blocks or so to the coffeehouse.  By the time I arrived, I was pretty parched.  The idea of getting something hot to drink was not very appealing, but I wanted to sit for a bit and see how the place was.  So I stepped up to the counter.

First, I had to parse out from the mass of choices on the menu board something that sounded at least somewhat cold and refreshing.  I was looking for terms like “iced”, “frozen”, “arctic” and the like.

Next, I had to figure out what cold thing I was actually going to get.  There were lattes, café au laits, chais, cappuccinos, espressos, and all manner of other things, some of which I don’t think were actually real drinks, but just decoys put up there to weed out the weak like me.  I was getting a bit shaky in the knees, but I did not run screaming out the door.  Instead, I continued to stare glassy-eyed at the menu, letting one customer after another behind me in line go on ahead.

In time, I reached the conclusion that I was going to get an iced cappuccino because it sounded appropriate, yet somewhat safe.  Then it was a question of flavor.  There were choices like Mexicali Cream, Jamaican Me Crazy, Jazzy Java, and Streusel, all of which are probably terrific if you know what they actually are.  So I let more customers behind me go by.  Frankly, I cannot recall what flavor I eventually decided upon, though I do remember that it was vaguely chocolate-ish and quite tasty.  I think “Bavaria” was part of the name.  The experience is mostly a blur now.

Feeling good about my selection, I stepped up to the counter, where I was greeted by a very pleasant young person who just exuded coffee house know-how.  Undaunted by the presence of this fountain of java knowledge which would make my own seem like a Dixie cup in comparison, I rattled off my order in what I thought was a confident tone of voice. I was going to ace this.  Then…

Order-taking person: “What size would you like?”

Me: “Huh?”

One would not think this to be a tough question, but for someone like me, in an actual coffee house, it is.  The sizes are not “small”, “medium” , “large” and “extra large”, but “tall”, grande”, “venti”, and “trenta”.  In my world, “small” and “tall” are just not the same thing.  If someone says “Gee, you sure are tall”, they do not mean that you are a small person.  And if something is “grande”, it sounds like “grand”, which is a variation on spectacular in my mind, like a grand finale.  It doesn’t sound like it would be just medium.  I panicked a bit.  For fear that I would say the wrong thing and end up with my drink being served to me in a bucket of some kind, I sheepishly asked for “whatever the middle size is”.

Now in a reputable coffee house, which this most certainly was, one’s order is not just thrown together.  It is constructed like a piece of fine art by a highly trained person known as a “barista”.  I believe that is Italian for “young person who is more hip that you will ever be”.  My barista, who was already busy with some other orders, was given mine on a slip of paper while I dutifully stepped aside and admired the various pithy mugs and bags of what I think was coffee beans for sale.  They were labeled with names like “Cappadocia Supreme”, and could have been magic beanstalk beans for all I know.

After a few minutes, I was handed a small cardboard cup that was very, very hot, and confusion immediately set in.  I had purposely ordered something cold because it was such a warm afternoon.  This drink was lava-like in its temperature.  Such was my confidence, or lack thereof at this point, that I was convinced that I had done something wrong or was missing something here.

I looked around the coffeehouse, hoping to see someplace where I was supposed to pour crushed ice or something into this volcanic liquid in order to create the frozen cappuccino I thought I had ordered.  Aside from a napkin dispenser, there was nothing like that anywhere.  I literally froze in place.  What was I supposed to do?  I considered just walking out with the hot cup and tossing it in the trash, hoping maybe my co-author and I could just do our work on a park bench or picnic table the next day instead of a coffeehouse.

Instead, I manned up and audibly cleared my throat to get the barista’s attention.  Being careful not to affect a “tone”, which I have been known to have and which is perceived as being sarcastic, I meekly said “I’m no expert on coffee-related things, but is this what I am supposed to be getting?”

The barista, probably young enough to be my daughter, looked at me sympathetically, as one might at a lost child in a shopping mall, and asked “What did you order?”   I mumbled something about having ordered a cold drink, and she swiftly swooped the hot little cup from my hand, gave it to the elderly gentleman next to me who had been reading a book of poetry whilst awaiting his order, and handed me a plastic cup of frosty, caffeinated goodness, complete with a yellow straw.

Relieved, I found a seat, fired up my iPad, watched funny cat videos, and sipped my frozen something-or-other, which was actually very good.

The writing summit with my co-author at that same coffeehouse the next day went very well.  He ordered some manner of something that wasn’t even coffee I found out later.  It was some stuff in a cup, but he also got a bottle that he poured into the stuff in the cup.  For fear that learning about this would cause part of my mind to blow a fuse, I chose just to live in ignorance of whatever it was. 

As for me, I chickened out when I made my order the next day.  I went with arctic lemonade, which I figured would not elicit any awkward beverage-related questions, and even mentioned the size I wanted (grande).  I was feeling pretty smug, having not looked like a hillbilly in the coffeehouse in front of my co-author.  That is until the order-taking person asked, “Do you want whipped cream on that?”

Wait…what?  On lemonade? Is that even a thing?

I need to take a class on coffeehouse fare before our next writing summit, I think.  Either that or I’ll just go with a regular old coffee with just cream, like a total rube.

***CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE: I would like to thank the staff of Coffee By Design on India Street in downtown Portland, Maine for their patience and graciousness as I struggled with the language of coffeehouses, and for their allowing my co-author and I to take up space in their wonderful shop for the better part of a Monday afternoon while we went over our project together.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Watch That Speedometer, Bub!

If you are a Maine police officer, please do not read any further.  I’m sure there are some funny cat photo websites that you would enjoy, and what follows is really not something you would be interested in anyway.  See you at the next post!

Are they gone?


Let’s talk about speeding.  Specifically, places in northern and eastern Maine where you definitely should not do it.  Even if you don’t drive in those areas and cannot envision a situation where you would need to, unless you and your vehicle are picked up by a wind funnel “Sharknado”-style and dropped in northern or eastern Maine, read on. I hope to capture your interest anyway. 

Again, unless you are with the police.  Then, it’s the funny cat photos I recommend.

I am not a real leadfoot driver.  My current vehicle is an SUV with all the get-up-and-go of a lawn tractor.  What it lacks in speed, it makes up for in power and comfort, so I’m okay with it.  Even before I got it, I seldom drove more than 5-10 miles over the speed limit, and then usually only on open highways.  I will admit that I did once have a testosterone-fueled hunger for speed, when I was in my teens.  Some friends and I decided to see if my ’72 Chevy Caprice would really reach the 110 mph mark on the speedometer on a flat straight stretch of highway. (It could.)  I shudder to think what could have happened that day when I look back at it, and certainly don’t encourage such behavior.  I got stopped for speeding only once, back when I was 16 and taking some friends on a ski trip.  The officer caught me doing 77 in a 55 mph zone, and suspected I was doing even more before he locked the radar on me. (He was right.)  The fine was steep for my teenage budget, and the whole thing was a wake-up call for me.  I started to ease off the gas pedal after that, and my driving record is as pure as the driven snow from that point forward.

Now let me be clear: you should never drive at an excessive or dangerous speed.  I think we would all agree on that.  But there are some stretches of road where it is very easy to creep up to 47-48 miles per hour without realizing it when you are supposed to be doing just 35.  And that’s breaking the law.  I do it sometimes and so do you.  Yes, you do, so don’t argue with me.  It’s not a big deal, we think, and often that is true.  However, there are some places where you are wisest to just stick to the speed limit, because for whatever reason, the police are especially picky there.

Northbound I-95 detour between Island Falls and Oakfield:  This detour has been in place for a few weeks now, and diverts all northbound interstate traffic through several small towns before rejoining the highway.  The police presence has been pretty constant all along the detour, and justifiably so.  A lot of vehicles are passing through some normally quiet, populated areas.  There is also a considerable Amish population here who travel the roads in horse-and-buggies, along with many older people and lots of farm equipment.  Keep it at the speed limit, fasten your seatbelts, and make sure your license plates are not obscured, as I have heard reports of all these things being reasons to get pulled over here.  And watch out for moose.  Seriously. It could be very bad for both you and the moose if you don’t.  The laws of physics don’t favor either of you.

The entrance to the University of Maine at Presque Isle, at the edge of the downtown area:  This is a favorite spot of Presque Isle police to catch speeders coming down the hill from the south on Route 1.  After miles and miles of 55 mph on that road, many find it tough to slow to the residential area speeds required coming into downtown Presque Isle. You really should slow down, to keep people safe and to avoid a ticket.  Plus, UMPI is my alma mater, so you should drive slow to see if they’ve erected a statue in my honor in front of the school yet.  I’m thinking it can’t be long now.

Downtown Monticello: This is another spot on Route 1, about 12 miles north of Houlton and 30 south of Presque Isle, where the speed limit goes from 55 to 45 to 30 and then back up again.  It’s a populated little village, and the police are quite vigilant about keeping speeders under control there.  Don’t get too cocky with similar speed limit changes in Bridgewater and Mars Hill either, unless you were already planning to make an involuntary donation to the state treasury.

I-95 between Houlton and Bangor: There are many turnarounds in the median where state troopers tend to sit, hoping to find someone putting the pedal to the metal as they jam out to some Lynyrd Skynyrd.  I’ve driven this highway more times than I can count, and it is among the prettiest and most mind-numbingly BORING stretches of road ever laid down.  Personally, my mind wanders when driving it. Some suggest that it never comes back.  Nevertheless, it is very easy to let your vehicle creep up to a high rate of speed without realizing it.  The police know this all too well and stake out I-95 fairly often.  Some of the most commonly used turnarounds for the police are the ones just before and just after the main Houlton exit, the Island Falls area, Medway, Lincoln, and any of those between Orono and Bangor.  There are speed limit changes from 75 to 65 at Orono and from 65 to 55 in Bangor, so be especially vigilant there. 

NOTE: Occasionally, there are speeding “stings” on the I-95 medians between the Bangor city exits.  Just because you’ve made it past one police car without getting stopped, don’t speed up.  Sometimes there is another one at the next median, and maybe even at the median after that too.  The traffic is thick there with lots of lane changes and a fairly narrow road, so it’s best to keep at the speed limit anyway, police presence or not.

Route 1 in Indian Township and Princeton: The police departments in these two towns are well-known in eastern and northern Maine for cracking down hard on speeders.  This busy highway passes through some pretty populated areas there with lots of pedestrians.  It is said the police departments there are quite strict about enforcement as well.  If the speed limit says 35 mph, then that is what you had better be doing, and no more.  I’ve had drivers riding on my tail shaking their heads at me for going exactly 25 in a 25 mph zone in Princeton on more than one occasion, but I don’t care.  I’m not getting a ticket just to keep some yahoo behind me happy, and chances are, I saved their speed demon butt from a ticket too.  Alas, the only gratitude I tend to get is a one-finger wave, it seems.

North Street in Houlton: Busy and straight with lots of swift traffic, it’s an easy place to creep up to 40 mph or so, but the speed limit is 25 and the local police will hold you to it, especially near the interstate ramps and as you are approaching the downtown area.  Much of the year, this street is riddled with potholes you could lose a Smart Car in, so that’s added incentive to keep it at the speed limit on North Street.

Union Street and Stillwater Avenue in Bangor: Two busy, straight, multi-lane roads with lots of traffic.  Almost everyone tools along at ten miles over the speed limit, and the multiple lanes makes it almost too easy to do so.  Bangor police could stop speeders there round the clock if they wanted to.  They don’t, but I’ve seen more vehicles pulled over by police on those two roads than the rest in Bangor put together.

I’m sure there are many more in the northern and eastern Maine area as well.  Please know that I am not encouraging excessive speed here amongst you, dear readers.  And I am certainly not trying to foil the police.  I’m sure they’d prefer to see you at the speed limit regardless.  I’m merely trying to keep you on your toes, so that your absentminded drift a few miles over the speed limit don’t result in a ticket.

Stay safe out there!  

Monday, July 1, 2013

Party Like It's 1985 on Mount Desert Island

My latest adventure in Maine this summer took me to Mount Desert Island, also known as “The Island of Lost Tourists”.  Actually, it’s a beautiful place, and while it is no doubt touristy, it is certainly worth visiting.  The home of the resort town of Bar Harbor and world-famous Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island is 108 square miles in area, and the 52nd largest island in the contiguous United States.  It is accessible by car via the Trenton Bridge on Route 3, and also by boat.  The nearest airport is on the mainland in Trenton, just a few minutes away.  Blimps, trains, and flying saucers to MDI are not currently available.

There are many, many resources to help you plan your trip to Mount Desert Island.  Just Google it.  This post is intended to give you my casual, tourist-on-a-budget point of view.

Theme music: In my last post, I explained how I like to choose a specific type of music as my soundtrack for a road trip.  For this one, I chose the music of 1985, a high-water mark year in my life, as it was the one when I started in radio and also when I got my driver’s license.  Some of the major acts on the charts in 1985 include Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, Tina Turner, and Sting.  It was a good year for cool music,.  While it is by no means a requirement to have theme music on your trip to MDI, I highly recommend it.
         *Official 1985 Tune for Theme Music tip: "Freeway of Love" by Aretha Franklin.  The Queen of Soul’s comeback song from that year sets just the right tone when driving on a warm summer day.   “So let’s drop the top baby, and cruise on into that better-than-ever street.” (Okay, so it’s not Shakespeare.)

Pronunciation and Meaning: There's no real consensus on this.  Many locals call it Mount “De ZERT” (emphasis on second syllable), though you will hear plenty of references to Mount “DEZ ert” (emphasis on first syllable).  Neither pronunciation will get you voted off the island, though turning your vehicle around in a private driveway just might, especially if it is Martha Stewart’s.  (She had an incident with someone doing just that a few years back.  It was not “a good thing”.) Personally, I switch back and forth between the two pronunciations, though “MDI” is an easy shortcut and the most common term for the island. 

The island was named "île des Monts Déserts" by explorer Samuel Champlain way back when.  It means “Island of the Lonely Mountains”.  Apparently, when approaching it from the sea, the mountains appear much sooner than any other land, and they seem to be alone in the ocean.  Hence the name.

        *Official 1985 Tune for Pronunciation and Meaning tip: "Miami Vice Theme" by Jan Hammer, because, like Mount Desert Island, Mr. Hammer has problems with people pronouncing his name properly too. In his case, Jan rhymes with “lawn”, not “fan”.

View from the top of Cadillac Mountain, as taken by me.

Traffic: The Trenton Bridge is the only way onto and off the island by car, so it can be a bottleneck.  It’s a good idea to allow yourself plenty of time to get on and off MDI if you are keeping a schedule.  There is always construction on that stretch of road in the summer.  At what exact point that seemed like a good idea, I do not know, but it happens every single summer like clockwork.  Plus, there are many roadside attractions on that stretch of road, including a zoo, which can get passing motorists’ attention and slow them down or cause them to make an unplanned turn.  Driving Route 3 onto MDI is a lot like making your way down a busy sidewalk in New York City: just go with the herd and watch the guy in front of you at all times.

Ellsworth is a city on the mainland that acts as a gateway to the island.  You almost have to pass through Ellsworth to get to MDI by car, unless your car floats.  Ellsworth itself is a beautiful place with great people and a wealth of amenities.  I lived there for a year in the mid 1990s and loved it. The only downside is that the traffic can be maddening in the summer, especially on the main drag, which is Route 3, locally known as High Street.  If you aren’t sure where you are going in Ellsworth, pull over and check a map or ask someone.  It’s no place to make a wrong turn, as the domino effect of such an action could result in an embarrassing traffic clog at best, or your accidentally ending up in Canada at worst.

Don’t give up hope though.  Once you are on the island, you can just park your car and leave it for the whole day.  The Island Explorer is a network of buses that hit all the high points on MDI all day long at regular intervals for free.  L.L. Bean helps fund this free service, and it really makes your day a lot easier to negotiate.  Just study the schedule before you start your day, and make sure you wear a watch.

Last thing about traffic: Never, ever try to make a left turn onto Route 3 unless you are at a traffic light.  There is a special place in Hell for people who do (or try to).
        *Official 1985 Tune for Traffic tip: "Things Can Only Get Better" by Howard Jones.  You’ll have this song going through your head as you sit in construction traffic for what seems like a geological epoch and stare at the skinny guy with the great tan and bottle of Mountain Dew holding a STOP sign.

Bass Harbor Light on a foggy day, as taken by me.

Accommodations: If you need a place to stay, there are hotels, motels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, cabins, cardboard boxes and bus benches to fit nearly any taste or budget on and near MDI.  However, the closer you are to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, the more likely the accommodation will be a) fully booked and b) expensive.  I am a fan of both camping and being cheap, and there are numerous campgrounds on MDI and nearby which are almost always cheaper than getting a room.  They are generally well-maintained, but often quite busy and booked well in advance.  I personally recommend Lamoine State Park campground, which is about 20 minutes off the island, just outside of Ellsworth.  It is clean, beautiful, quiet, has a nice view of MDI, and most importantly for me, away from the hustle and bustle.  The cost of a campsite per night at Lamoine State Park will be less than what you will find for a campsite on the island itself.
        *Official 1985 Tune for Accommodations tip: "One More Night" by Phil Collins, because that is what you will want as you are packing up to leave Lamoine State Park. It’s really a nice spot that could be a whole trip in itself.
A scene from the campground at Lamoine State Park, taken by me.

A view of MDI in the distance from the campground at Lamoine State Park, as taken by me.

Food: The two things of which you must partake while on MDI are ice cream and lobster.  You might even try lobster ice cream, which I am sure is a thing somewhere.

There are lots of roadside ice cream places on Route 3, but it is pretty much tradition that you get at least one cone in one of the shops on Cottage Street, the main street through downtown Bar Harbor.  The most famous is Mount Desert Island Ice Cream, where President Obama had a coconut cone during a vacation there a few years back, though they serve Republicans and independents too. 

Lobster is served almost everywhere you look on MDI and vicinity.  My favorite place for lobster, hands-down, is the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, which is on the right just before you take the bridge onto MDI.  They boil their lobsters in sea water, over wood fires, with a stunning view of the narrows between the island and mainland.  Even if I am not stopping for lobster, I always roll down my windows to get a whiff of the woodsmoke and seafood smell that emanates from this local gem.  The clams are great there as well, and they ship around the country!  Just remember, they are not open on Sundays.

Whatever I eat when I am out of town, I try hard to buy from local operators, like the two businesses I just mentioned.  The locals give you a unique flavor for the place you are visiting, and depend on visitors like us to keep themselves financially afloat.  I recently saw a funny but poignant sign outside a “Mom and Pop” restaurant that I liked a lot which said “Stop in to eat or we’ll both starve.”
        *Official 1985 Tune for Food tip: "Fresh" by Kool and the Gang, because the lobster on and around Mount Desert Island is just as fresh as you can get without actually boiling it up on board the lobster boat itself.  Local lobstermen are resistant to letting us flatlanders do that, I’m told. Something about "being in the damn way".

Sand Beach, as seen from the Loop Road, taken by me.

Sightseeing: If you are planning a trip to Mount Desert Island, there are four things you absolutely must see, and about a million others that you really ought to.  
  •         Cadillac Mountain: The highest point on the eastern seaboard of the United States, you can drive, bike, or hike to the top.  Cadillac Mountain is the spot where the sun first touches the United States in the morning.  It tends to be busy, but the amazing views are totally worth it.  Be sure to bring a sweatshirt if you are prone to the cold though.  It gets chilly up there.
  •         Sand Beach: While it’s usually too busy for my taste, Sand Beach is a gorgeous spot of sand along the Atlantic.  I can sit and watch the ocean waves for hours, but here you can also see outstanding mountain vistas at the same time, including “The Beehive” right behind you.  One of the most entertaining aspects of any Maine beach is watching the tourists think that they are going to actually swim in the Atlantic.  On purpose.  For fun.  Yeah, right.  The water temps rarely get above 60 degrees, so it’s always good for a few laughs from those of us on shore, especially when some macho goon is trying to impress his wife or girlfriend as his lips turn blue.
  •         Thunder Hole: This is an indentation into some seaside cliffs where the waves make a resounding boom during high tides, especially when the waves are really rolling.  It really gives you a clear picture of the sheer power of the ocean.  I went there a day before a hurricane rolled in back in 1997, and will never forget it.
  •          Downtown Bar Harbor: Over the years, the center of Bar Harbor has evolved into a series of gift shops, restaurants, art galleries, inns and the like.  There is a waterfront park which makes a nice spot for a rest or a picnic.  Short ocean cruises to view whales, puffins, seals or lighthouses leave from the pier in the downtown area.  The shorefront walking path is a nice cool place to explore on a warm day.  And folks visit Bar Harbor from all over the world, so the people-watching is fascinating.  Remember to get the obligatory ice cream cone.  I think it’s a law or something.

Among the million other things you should see are Seawall, Bass Harbor Light, Wild Gardens of Acadia, the Oceanarium, Echo Lake, the College of the Atlantic campus, the land bridge to Bar Island, the schooner Mary Todd, Abbe Museum, Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, horse-drawn carriage tours, and more.

        *Official 1985 Tune for Sightseeing tip: "Don’t You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds.  No matter how full your sightseeing itinerary is, you will forget something, I’m sure.  All the more reason to go back to MDI for another visit.  I am going to make at least one more trip there myself this summer.  Maybe I’ll see you there.