Hot Air: A New Religion And An Old Scientist

Worshipping The Bean

This is to be mourned. Crate & Barrel is leaving Michigan Avenue after the 2017 holiday season. The building that houses its current flagship store will then become the new home of a Starbucks Roastery.

First, Crate & Barrel. The place was founded in Old Town, famed as Chicago’s hippie neighborhood, back in 1962. Husband and wife team Carole and Gordon Segal opened their kitchen goods shop in an old elevator factory there, hell, before there even were hippies. Old Town at the time was indeed on the cutting edge of culture even in those pre–peace-love-and-soul days but the people who lived in and haunted the neighborhood were referred to as “bohemians.” That was the moniker for hepcats and hipsters in the interregnum between the beatniks and the hippies.

Avant garde cooking aficionados flocked to the Segals’ place where goods like imported utensils, Chinese household knickknacks, and the store’s signature clear glass tumblers and white porcelain crockery were displayed in — you guessed it — crates and barrels. The Segals resorted to such modest merchandising because, well, they couldn’t afford traditional display cases and shelving.

For a few generations of young homemakers, no kitchen was complete without those ubiquitous 500 and 750 milliliter French tumblers — the kind we at Chez Big Mike et L’amie still have and use, daily. Same with the heavy alabaster dishwear that looked like it came straight from the corner diner. Hepcats, hipsters and hippies went way out of style but Crate and Barrel stuff endured.

There’s no indication C&B is going out of business — after all the company still runs some 175 stores in the United States. The Segals sold their controlling interest in the by-then booming outfit in 1998 to a mail-order company based in Germany. Gordon Segal retained ownership of the spectacular glass-and-steel building at Michigan and Erie streets where he’d based his new flagship earlier in the decade. Around that time the boss of Starbucks, a guy named Howard Schultz, who’d worked his way up the ranks from store manager, struck up a friendship with Segal. Schultz visited Segal’s gleaming showcase in the late ’90s and noted in his private journal that one day he’d love to open a great big shrine to coffee in the place should Crate & Barrel ever vacate.

Out With The Old, In With The New

Which brings us, now, to Starbucks. Speaking of ubiquitous, this is the place that inspired the Jerry Seinfeld line: “I hear they’re now opening up Starbucks in other Starbucks.” The coffee giant ventured outside the Seattle/Vancouver markets in 1987 when the company opened a store in Chicago’s Loop. That was a big gamble for the firm and, of course, it worked, spectacularly. Now there are more than 25,000 Starbucks in every continent on the planet.

Now Starbucks is in the process of opening a half dozen or so “all-new coffee experience” locations they’re calling Roasteries. Chicago’s Roastery will occupy the entire four-story, 43,000 square-foot Michigan Avenue site. It’s really going to be a temple to the drug. Starbucks flacks describe the Roastery concept thusly:

It is a place where you can experience coffee from the unroasted bean to your cup of coffee. You can watch it being roasted. You’ll see the burlap sacks it comes in. You can watch it being loaded into the green coffee loading pit. You can buy it scooped at the coffee scoop bar. You can experience your coffee as a pour over, Siphon brewed, Clover-brewed, a shot of espresso, espresso beverages, and more. The experience is all about the coffee.

Look, coffee’s one of my four favorite drugs. (The identity of other three I’ll keep to myself in order to avoid prosecution and to maintain whatever shred of masculine dignity I have left.) If I don’t get my two mugs of joe at the start of any given day, there’s hell to pay.

But, honestly — the coffee experience? A temple dedicated to the beverage? C’mon, people, it’s just a jolt of caffeine.


Tune in this afternoon for Big Talk on WFHB‘s Daily Local News at 5. My guest this week will be Stephanie Solomon of Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard.

You know, in this day and age when a college education is viewed only as a ticket to riches — as opposed to a gateway to knowledge — meeting someone who has decided to devote her life to doing well and good for other human beings makes life… worthwhile. My old comedic friend, Aaron Freeman, once spoke of the Christian adage, Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me. And I knew a fellow, a successful Michigan Avenue lawyer, who was confronted by the principal of his Jesuit high school long after he’d graduated; the principal, a priest, challenged the high-powered attorney, saying, “What have you done for the kingdom of god and man lately?” With that, the attorney quit his job and went to work as the chief fundraiser for the school because he knew it was instrumental in keeping a lot of inner city kids out of jail and on the path to civility.

Now, I’m not saying one has to believe in Jesus or any of the other countless gods we humans like to pretend exist but there are truths even in comforting myth institutions like religions. The truth is, our species needs special individuals who eschew wealth in order to care for the less fortunate among us.


Stephanie Solomon could have pursued fame and riches on the stage or she could even have elected to make a treasure in the financial arena. Instead, she chose to work for modest — I mean modest — rewards by helping the hungry eat.

Meeting folks like Stephanie is perhaps the top reason I do Big Talk. I hope you tune in. If you miss the show this afternoon, come here tomorrow after I post the podcast link.

Old Man Shakes Fist At Fossil Fuel

It’s interesting and compelling enough that John Goodenough has invented a spectacular, needed, and invaluable device at the nearly-overripe age of 94. That’s what the story was about earlier this month in the New York Times.

Well, the story wasn’t even about him, per se; it was about old fogies like him being creative and innovative. The superannuated, we believe as a society, are good only for wearing adult diapers and forgetting their adult children’s names.

In other words, Go away wouldja?

The story’s a splash because — would you believe it?! — old bats and birds can actually, y’know, do things. By holy god, what’s next? The poor have wants, hopes, and dreams?


Anyway, Goodenough is the guy who invented the lithium-ion battery back in 1980, when he was a callow youth of  57. And, by golly, even a 57 year old human hardly merits the air she or he gasps in this youth-obsessed world.

But 94? Sheesh, what, was he born before the Cubs last won the World Series? (As a matter of fact yes — shoot — I can’t use that one anymore.)

My mother was 92 when she turned in her timecard in 2014. She had countless grandchildren, more numerous great-grandchildren, and even a gang of great-great-grandchildren. She was ancient. I could hear her knees and hips click all the way down here in Bloomington when she was able to muster the energy to get up off the kitchen chair. Heck, my own joints jangle like a tambourine every time I raise my body from the near-dead.

Nevertheless both Ma and I still had (and have) brains and hearts, contrary to the picture electronic media paints of anyone over the age of 25. For pity’s sake, the NYT story about elderly people being creative and innovative might as well have carried a screaming headline for all the preconceived notions it smashed.

And, yeah, that’s revolutionary enough but take a guess what Goodenough has invented now. I quote from the NYT piece:

He and his team at the University of Texas at Austin filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles.


Wait a flippin’ minute here! Lemme quote further from the press release from the University of Texas about this development:

Goodenough’s latest breakthrough, completed with Cockrell School senior research fellow Maria Helena Braga, is a low-cost all-solid-state battery that is noncombustible and has a long cycle life (battery life) with a high volumetric energy density and fast rates of charge and discharge.

Here’s the inside dope from his own paper, published in the academic journal, Energy & Environmental Science. I ain’t gonna provide any quotes from the paper because I don’t understand a single goddamned word in it. It’s chock-full of terms like enthalpy, dielectric, and wet. In the context, I have no notion even of what wet means.

In any case, this battery can relegate fossil-fuel cars to the Museum of Quaint Stuff. That is, if such a thing exists — and I’m sure it does. Probably has things like mood rings, Pong consoles, and Google Glasses.

So, that’s where we are in the year of somebody’s lord, 2017? The oil barons, sheiks, pirates, and lobbyists have so taken control of this world and the ways we think that the announcement that a battery that can safely, efficiently, dependably, and inexpensively power your hot rod is noteworthy solely because some outlier old coot invented it?!


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