Gus, Piano Tuner

There’s a moment before the start of a symphony when vibrations float above the orchestra.

It isn’t music exactly.

But it isn’t cacophony either.

Certain instruments break through the drone and send out sounds like mating calls in a forest — a piccolo looking for a willing woodwind, one tuba looking for another.

Symphonic tuning is more theater than necessity. Virtuoso artists take their chairs knowing their tools are, forgive me, fit as a fiddle.

The assistant leader instructs each section to tune to a note issued by an oboe. If Greenwich Mean Time is the standard for timekeepers and 32º F is the basis for relating temperatures, the A note (440 hertz) above middle C is the key for setting pitch.

Gus Roddy tunes the most mechanically complex of instruments. It has 88 keys connected to a hammer which strikes strings on a cast-iron plate. Each treble hammer hits three strings, tenor hammers hit two, base hammers strike only one.

Whether it’s a concert grand piano or a parlor-room vertical, Gus probes for a sweet spot. He tunes slightly out-of-tune, deliberately, so the piano sounds good in all twelve keys.

Strings stretch with time and are vulnerable to changes in humidity. The goal is 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of pressure across the plate.

Gus studied music theory and developed his ear as an undergraduate. It wasn’t until some years later that he went back to school to become a tuner.

Sophisticated apps have augmented the industry of course, but Gus’ certification exam required tuning by ear. Placing a vibrating tuning fork between the teeth is a time-honored craftsman’s trick.

What kind of music does the piano tuner-in-residence at our coffee shop turn to for pleasure? Beethoven, Bartók, Bowie, and the Beatles have been important to Gus.

But he’s reached an age, he says, when he appreciates silence.


Clare and Resiliency

“…The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” — Genesis 2:15.

You don’t have to be religious to understand why this passage appears in the scriptures that define three world religions.

We learned to work with fire. We shaped stone and smelted metals. We came to manage water and to cultivate lands. We domesticated animals for the nutrition and the labor they provide.

Two centuries ago we made an exponential leap. Machines used stream, not muscle power, to mass-produce and transport goods great distances. To feed a ravenous family, we’ve placed more demands on our earth’s resources than during all the millennia before.

“…And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination.” From the book of Jeremiah 2:7.

Clare Tallon Ruen is not a scientist but stewardship of the earth is central to her work as a dancer and a teacher.”

Clare diagrams and executes movements, creating what she refers to as ‘movement models’ which she combines with music.

She introduces school children to the interplay of the earth’s ecosystems. Recently she engaged students in a group pantomime to dramatize how sand and wind work to help common marram grass dominate the dunes of the Great Lakes.

She can explain that by creating a “rain garden” you can disperse storm water from your downspouts and filter the currents flowing across your lawn so that contaminants are diluted instead of concentrating in rivers and oceans.

Clare is involved with the concept of ‘resilience.’ It implies that if we’ve pushed our planet beyond a ‘tipping point’ as some scientists fear, we’ll need to find ways to help it recuperate — in the same way farmers rotate crops to let a field rest fallow and fleets retire from overharvested fishing banks.

Discovering the natural world as a child has fueled the curiosity of great scientific minds. Einstein held that imagination is more important than knowledge and Maria Mitchell wrote that “science is not all mathematics and all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.”

They would have understood and applauded what the dancer and teacher who visits our corner coffee shop is about.


Firefighter Tom

You’ll find the ladder truck from Fire Station Two double-parked outside our corner coffee shop some mornings.Tom Howard will run in to pick up a round for his crew.

You might think idling a hugely expensive firefighting vehicle for a coffee run is a waste of taxpayer dollars. It’s not.

Think of it as readiness training. Every minute on the street sharpens the team’s knowledge of traffic patterns, access points around town and behavior of equipment under weather conditions. Every emergency call sets off a mesh of calculations and responses.

Tom is part of an eight-member team that pulls a 24-hour shift. They stand ready at all hours to hit that pole and engage with sixty pounds of gear, tools and breathing packs.

Two meals are prepared each shift. You get your fussy eaters, restricted diets and meat-and-potatoes holdouts. It seems that leftovers don’t play well on Sundays.

There are occupational hazards. Firefighters seldom talk about fear but they worry about mistakes. A drop in adrenaline between shifts can feel like a loss of purpose and camaraderie, an isolating work cycle doesn’t help. Tom manages a hotline to deal with exactly those problems.

As an engineer he drives ladder trucks and fire engines and is certified in medical response and Hazmat. His thing is opening cars with kids locked inside. “Good enough to be a cat burglar.” he laughs

The 25-year-veteran firefighter earned a master’s degree in divinity after a deepening of his faith and has been asked to preach at various congregations. There’s that quality about him.

Physical realities catch up with even the fittest firefighters. Tom will be ready for the next chapter of life. “I believe the Lord has called me for something.” he says. And the good Lord willing a ‘98 Harley and a Yamaha Motocross will be part that something.


Rich Quinn’s Tour of Duty

Rich grew up believing that he had a duty to serve his country.

Rich watched World War II movies on TV. He knew that John Wayne had done us proud and that the peace we engineered was as much a victory as the war we had won.

Despite Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about a ‘military industrial complex’ the U.S. waded into a ‘limited’ civil conflict. it ended up sending almost three million Americans to Vietnam.

That televised war bitterly contradicted our image of ourselves.

Just years earlier The Peace Corps had been created to spread American ideals around the world. That mission, Rich Quinn realized, would allow him to serve honorably without drawing a weapon.

He trained for ten weeks at Columbia University before shipping out to coastal West Africa.

Not everything made sense in Ghana. Volunteers weren’t sent to posts based on their skills but on the alphabetical order of their names. The town where Rich was assigned didn’t need an English teacher so he was hijacked to teach French — the good people of Bechem forgave his shortcomings because the presence of an American was prestigious.

There was no running water. The latrines were foul. Rich contracted amoebic dysentery, dengue fever and a festering skin disease that landed him into the hospital in Kumasi. “If it weren’t for penicillin I wouldn’t have made it back home,” he laughs.

Peace Corps volunteers were free to leave at any time. Many were shipped home because they couldn’t hack Africa. “This is a mistake,” Rich remembers thinking after his first year. But he stayed in Ghana and met his commitment.

Corps members believed that by serving a two-year tour they would be exempt from the military draft but that policy had didn’t appear anywhere in writing. Just after Rich returned home, the Selective Service initiated a lottery.

His birthday drew a draft number of 19 out of 365. He had served his country honorably but there was now a likelihood he would be called back for a second tour, this time in the military.

Every day for three years Rich went to the mailbox expecting to find the induction notice that never came.


Rachel Krumholz, Printers’s Devil

This kid, a kid you’ve never met before, shows up at the coffee shop. She takes the stool next to you and wants to know what you’re doing. She’s genuinely interested.

You’re struck by her curiosity.

“I’ve always been a writer,” she tells you. That explains things a bit.

At one point she imagined a future as a makeup artist but that was before she walked into Room S105 where her high school’s newspaper is produced.

She immediately wanted in.

“Democracy can’t function when there are untold stories.” the young printer’s devil explains.

She’s currently writing about her school which is a mix of urban and suburban, poverty and wealth, a jumble of religions and languages. Her question is why students cluster in a self-imposed segregation.

Last year she caught the attention of the powers-that-be when writing about sexual assault — they hoped she would tone it down. Her stats were challenged by a few students who tore up their copies in protest.

“I don’t mind being controversial.” she admits.

She wrote about a district-wide dress code that got tangled up in race and gender; and about teenage use of marijuana for medical purposes (with and without a prescription).

On one of her early assignments someone grabbed the wrong photo of a classmate attending a testy, essentially whites-only country music festival. It was a painful mistake. “We can’t pat ourselves on the back.”

The sixteen-year-old who recently got a driver’s license, juggles advanced-placement work plus soccer and the newspaper. She allows herself a minor meltdown now and then and sorely misses having time to read for pleasure.

If you’re one of those people who disagree with the cost, or the very idea of public education, you should have a cup of the house blend with a kid like Rachel Krumholz.

Rachel is your tax dollars at work.

It’s too early to tell but it’s possible that cutting through fake news and alternate facts will be Rachel’s way to provide a return on our investment.


I Shot A Man in Reno

There’s a guy at our neighborhood coffee shop… who writes a blog. He’s been at it for years.

He keeps a notebook where he details the genius and the idiocy of humans like you and me. The things we do fascinate him no end.

Blogging is like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it in the ocean. There’s not telling who will find it.

One audience the man keeps in mind is his grandchildren’s children. He imagines they’ll be given school assignments to write about relatives who lived back in simpler times like ours.

He imagines them desperately rummaging through the family cloud the night before a project is due (procrastination is an inherited trait) and lifting entire passages from his posts (plagiarism is too).

As a writer he worries whether particular ideas or catchphrases will make sense to future readers. What was Y2K? There once were 50 states? When in doubt he turns to the baristas on duty.

He asks Hollie what she associates with the phrase:

“…a man in Reno.”

Hollie draws a blank. Minutes later he adds a clue:

”…I SHOT a man in Reno.”

Horror flashes across Hollie’s face.

”On no!” she cries.

At which point the dirty-chi, the medium-drip, and the soy-cappuccino in the window turn and chime in with the precision of backup artists in Nashville:


Hollie laughs in that infectious way she does.

The blogger makes a note to embed audio into his post. He fantasizes that his great-great greats will score points by playing ‘The Folsom Prison Blues’ during their show-and-tells, some hundred or so years from now.


Crystal Ball

The older crowd at
our neighborhood coffee shop…
uses Harold Schlegel’s crystal ball to look at the past. The younger afternoon crew is more interested in seeing the future.

The accuracy for the two modes are an amazing 97.052% and 98.308% respectively.

There are risks involved of course. No one is quite the same after even a brief encounter — $179.95/minute — with the past or the future. It seems our neural synapses aren’t so different from those of our Neolithic ancestors after all.

Harold will explain the dangers of his app before you ever touch his silicate sphere, and his legal team will insist that you sign a waiver. Don’t be deterred.

The one thing my colleague’s groundbreaking process fails to do, at least as of this writing, is to make sense the present and the colorless, odorless truths floating over our heads.


Serema and Soheil

The long forced march is behind them.

The couple seated at the table are about to harvest what they have sown. They’re giddy with achievement and release.

They’ve done it. They’ve nailed it. Totally aced it. They have tee-shirts as evidence of every function they’ve endured as students.

For one of them the immediate future involves tenure track at one of the Ivies; for the other an individually tailored portfolio of responsibilities within an international consulting firm —all of this due to years of work. And now even the gods of relocation have smiled on them — neither will need to sacrifice a career for the other.!

They’ll move to the East Coast within months. As they sit here today, they’re comparing the advantages of towns that triangulate their workplaces.

The young couple has been a part of our community for six years and has discovered that something as incidental as a coffee joint can shape the quality of life in a way few people would imagine.

There’s a reason their names and faces aren’t revealed in this post. Halfway around the world there are families and clans and religions that keep their distance from one another. A ethnic Kurd and an ethnic Armenian, a Muslim and a Christian, are not meant to be together.

Here at our coffee shop, at the most visible table in the center of the room, the man and the women don’t need to hide their troth.

They’ll tell you as a matter of fact that their decision of where to live next, together as a family, revolves at least in part around finding a coffee shop like this one.


Carla’s painting of George Gerber

The man in the painting was not ‘merely dead’… but as the coroner in The Wizard of Oz once described it, he was ‘really most sincerely dead.’

However being deceased didn’t suit George Gerber. And it didn’t last long.

By all accounts George was a sociable man, a vibrant man, something of a character. He had moved from New York City at some point and wore a Yankee’s hat to prove it. He loved baseball and its traditions. “Now it’s just ‘money ball,’” he complained.

The man who lived alone in a balconied condo building within easy distance of the coffee shop had spent his working years at the Internal Revenue Service. We can assume that Agent Gerber was very good at what he did.

George kept up with the papers each day and happened to have a face the Chicago readers of Nelson Algren or Studs Terkel would find comforting. No one recalls any mention of a wife or children.

The portrait that Carla Hayden painted is sizable. She plied acrylic washes until she found the whimsy and panache of the man she enjoyed. When the piece was unveiled its subject was delighted, predicting that it would end up at the Art Institute.

After George left this earth the owners of the Brothers K, Brian and John Kim, afforded the work a position of honor near the double-urn brewing machine where, as you can see, George remains very much alive.

First-shift baristas report the hint of a frown on that painted face during pre-dawn hours. But it disappears as soon as the Brazilian, Papua New Guinean or Guatemalan coffee is brewed and George breathes in the caffeine he needs to face the day.

Here’s Carla’s artistic statement… Read more…