John Coltrane sets off coffee shop revolt

Artigiano is my favourite Vancouver coffee shop. They make the best coffee in town and were tracing hearts, leaves, trees etc in that perfectly thick, creamy cappuccino foam when most coffee houses thought a sprinkling of cinnamon (ugh) on watery froth would make us feel that we might just be sharing our latte with Fellini on Rome's Piazza Navona. Artigiano, with its true Italian ancestry knew better - until they let John Coltrane loose in their West Broadway branch this past Labour Day.

This was John Coltrane in his later career, his sax screeching and screaming in the wild, abrasive upper registers - and screeching and screaming, and screeching and screaming some more. The coffee shop was empty. I would later wonder if this was a coincidence. I yelled my order at the cashier - she yelled her response. Somewhere in the stratosphere Coltrane got more agitated. And so did I. As did the man in the line behind me who was muttering to his partner about "this awful jazz'. "Could you please change or lower the music?" I asked. Now, anybody who has ever asked for music to be changed knows that there is a new law in the Universe that allows a mysterious force to hold sway over music in stores, restaurants etc. And this mysterious force has TOTAL CONTROL. It is usually located out of town and does not allow the simple act of turning a volume dial ever to be performed. I know because I've asked the people in Shopper's Drug Mart if they can change their music and I'm always told that it comes "from Toronto". And Toronto, apparently, wants loud, dumb music to be played at all times.

But I'd had higher hopes of Artigiano. Their music has often been truly background, soft and smooth like the sumptuous foam on those lattes. My companion had suggested they actually switch the music off but I knew that was like asking the Queen to friend you on Facebook. You just didn't ask because you knew it would never, ever happen. The girl behind the counter had disappeared into a back room. Now she came back smiling, mission accomplished - except for one thing, Coltrane was still riffing away up in the stratosphere, getting madder and more frazzled by the minute. As were we. The man in the line behind me asked for the manager.

Enter Desiree Olexi - a very young, pleasant-faced woman. But as she strode towards us, I could see on her pretty features, the new face of customer service. Not that old 20th century model where 'the customer is always right', and the customer's satisfaction and happiness are paramount. Oh no, here came 21st century customer service. It follows the model of what I call "The New Defensiveness." This model says that "you may be the customer but we are right and we will dig our heels in and insist on how right we are even as you are walking out of the shop."

Desiree set about explaining why the music could not possibly be changed/muted/stopped by entering into a complex, technical monologue that involved a lot of incomprehensible jargon about the iPod that ran the music being broken and, apparently, stuck on John Coltrane - which every single customer in the place very obviously was not.

"You have a customer rebellion on your hands," I said, gesturing to the unhappy half dozen of us in the shop. My friend came back from seeking refuge at an outside table to report that 'it's even louder out there and the people out there hate it." But Desiree was not to be swayed. The music had been turned down, she said. (It hadn't). Today, at least, she could do no more. Perhaps tomorrow the recalcitrant iPod could be fixed.

The man behind me in the line tried a new approach. He explained, calmly and politely, that he himself works in management and the one thing he had learned over the years is that, "it is not what you are saying but how you are making the person to whom you are saying it FEEL." He looked over at me and I confirmed that I felt patronized and insulted.

But Desiree Olexi wasn't really having it. Locked as she, and so many young managers are, in the need to be right, she failed to see that the time had come for some serious damage limitation. Instead, John Coltrane won, Desiree won. We drank our two miserable lattes faster than I've ever drunk a coffee in my life, and we left. We won't be back. There's an excellent French coffee shop, Baguette and Co, further along Broadway. They serve the best croissants in town and they don't deafen their customers. I hope Desiree and John will be happy together but it's a shame things went that way. One flick of a switch, one recognition that the people who pay your wages need to be heard and my imaginary mid-mornings with Fellini could have continued. Oh, and by the way, the great Federico once commented during a French tv interview, that he could not understand the fad for background music - music while you shop or eat . "Music is for listening to," he said with a shrug.

The Last Picture Show

How long does it take for the smell of decades of daily popcorn to fade from the street in front of the neighborhood movie house? Our local cinema, the Hollywood, in Vancouver's Kitsilano, closed its doors forever one Sunday last April. And today when I walked past, the smell of popcorn was still there. As long as it lingers on the Hollywood's block of Broadway, it's easy to imagine, that nothing has really changed, that next Monday, as so many Mondays over the past decade, I'll buy my $6 dollar double bill ticket, my bag of popcorn and settle into one of the Hollywood's comfortable red velvet seats. The sign on the cinema's marquee is a gentle reminder that it's all over. "Farewell friends. Thanks for 75 great years."
On the last night, they asked us all to stand and sing "God Save the King" just as it had been sung 75 years ago when the Hollywood opened. And a full house of all ages stood and sang heartily. It was the least we could do. The actor MC'ing the event sang, "Smile". We'd need that over the next couple of hours as we watched the film chosen for the final show, "Cinema Paradiso", that deeply sentimental, melancholy Italian tale of the glory days of a local movie house and the changing world that brought them to an end. The changing world that has brought one of Vancouver's last local theatres to an end, is one of high rise condominiums, rising rents, a city in search of 'densifying' in order to squeeze more taxes our of the populace, and a public that is choosing to watch its movies at home.

The Hollywood sits or sat on the most villagey end of Broadway. Tall, shady trees stand higher than most of the businesses up at this far west end of this main city artery. There is something of the true far west in the eccentric single storey shops and restaurants here: Kids Books, Artigiano, East is East, Baguette & Co, a few Chinese greengrocers, Calhoun's, Parthenon, Olympic, Ace Cycles, Used Book store. And in the middle of them all stood our very own Cinema Paradiso, our Last Picture Show. It had one of those Art Deco columns and the "stripes" , the paint was peeling but the glowing red and blue neon was still beautiful, particularly in the small cursive sign over the marquee that read "Pick o' the Plays".
Rumour has it that soon Broadway's bucolic, tree-lined, single storey world will disappear. Some whisper that the city plans to run a sky train along the middle, others say that the whole block will be torn down to be replaced by condos - most likely in the 'grey and glass' style so prized by local architects and probably, poignantly called, "The Hollywood."

I'd heard the rumours but didn't think it would come so soon. Like all human beings, I like to believe that my sources of pleasure and comfort will go on forever - even small, slightly shabby pleasures like sitting in the Hollywood in Vancouver-damp clothes on a Monday night, wondering whether I should have paid an extra 50 cents and got real butter on my popcorn. And wondering whether I'd have the stamina to sit through the double bill and only managing it once.
An architect friend of mine was also a regular. When I discussed the closing with him, he said, "Well, I'd love to say come along to the last show with me but frankly that's something I want to do on my own. I want to sit in my usual seat, eat my usual popcorn and just say a quiet goodbye to the old place alone."
Movies are, after all, a very solitary experience that we share with others. So he went on his night and I went on mine. And we said goodbye to the kitschy mini-chandelier in the tiny foyer, to the box office that looks out on the street with its fading postcards of French New Wave movies - Brigitte Bardot in "Le Mepris". And to Alice the 92 year old grandmother who has sat in that box-office for so many years, selling those tiny little pink and blue paper tickets that have been demoted to cloakrooms and raffles in the rest of the world.
Last night as she posed for her umpteenth photo, clad from head to toe in scarlet, she whispered to me, "Oh I would hate to be a movie star. They have to do this all the time you know."
And good bye to the big clock to the left of the screen. I could always gauge the power of a movie by the number of times I looked at that clock. During "Lost in Translation", halfway through the film I concluded that the clock might actually be more entertaining.

I've commented on this before but North American culture is not fond of farewells. Sadness does not sit well with a people programmed for positivity, for new starts and looking towards the future. But surely, feeling the loss of something or someone is part of being human. This insistence on being perky and upbeat at all times and at any cost diminishes us as people. And so at the Hollywood last night, we called on the Sicilians to help us grieve our very real loss. You could hear the sobs and the rummaging for extra Kleenex as the Italians gathered in their piazza to watch their Paradiso be demolished.

But afterwards, as we poured out into the street one last time, eyes were wiped dry and everyone was brisk and upbeat...and a little at a loss as to what to do or say. For a few brief moments, so many of us were taking pictures of that wonderful old marquee and the red and blue neon sign, that we spilled onto the road and held up the traffic. But it was only for a few seconds. The order was established, the Broadway buses could pass and for the final time, we all made our way home from the local movie house.