What was on the mind of the writers and editors of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1963? The shitty coffee being served in the city's restaurants.
Chronicle culture writer Peter Hartlaub today marked the 50th anniversary of the paper's war on dismal coffee. The three-part (!) series featured the magical headline "A Great City's People Forced to Drink Swill."
San Francisco restaurants buy more than three million pounds of coffee every year from processors who profess to instruct them meticulously in its proper preparation.
Yet for all the money the restaurants spend, and for all the effort the coffee companies put forth to make their product palatable, most of it tastes as though it came from some vast common reservoir up behind Twin Peaks in which it had been brewed by the three scrofulous witches in Macbeth.
Now that's public journalism!
Hartlaub's story reminded me of a passage from David Owen's profile of George Meyer, one of the driving forces behind The Simpsons. In the piece, Owen explains that Meyer was hired to work on show largely on the strength of a small humor magazine he published called Army Man.
Despite its modest appearance, Army Man attracted a surprisingly broad and loyal following. It made Rolling Stone's Hot List in 1989, and for years it circulated in samizdat on college campuses. "The only rule was that the stuff had to be funny and pretty short," Meyer told me. "To me, the quintessential Army Man joke was one of John Swartzwelder's: 'They can kill the Kennedys. Why can't they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?' It's a horrifying idea juxtaposed with something really banal — and yet there's a kind of logic to it. It's illuminating because it's kind of how Americans see things: Life's a big jumble, but somehow it leads to something I can consume. I love that."
By the way, the guy who took the pictures for the Chronicle's series on coffee is the same guy who took the picture of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.