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RIP (2007-2011): Loyal Friend and Trusted Companion

They were a good pair of jeans, and will be missed.

It’s tough to look at something and know that time is not a luxury.  So has been the case with my favorite jeans, which I am about to put down and trash.

Everyone has a pair of jeans or similar piece of clothing that just looks good with everything, and always manages to find its way into your suitcase or backpack when you travel.  That “go-to” item, when you don’t want to0 put too much mental effort into figuring out what you should wear or what looks good on a Friday night or even a Tuesday afternoon.  So you can imagine the regret I have and guilt I’m experiencing, knowing that my jeans have lived well beyond their useful life.  Battered, bruised, abused, and torn, my jeans have seen much better days, and will be better off without me.  And they will appreciate not having to put up with the violence that is my washing machine, or the heat from my dryer.

Let me tell a little bit about my jeans…  They are from the GAP.  I bought them a long time ago, way before the whole controversy about the new GAP logo (thankfully they reconsidered).  It was somewhere in 2007, when I finally got them home.  They are/were loose fit jeans, and they managed to contort to my body dimensions in a way I never truly known jeans to contort before.  Whether it was running to catch a cab or sitting at a bar watching the Giants win the World Series, they always managed to make me look good (even though they didn’t have much to work with), and were always comfortable like a Herman Miller Aeron chair. 

Battered area that required "amputation".

We have traveled together on numerous business trips, weekend getaways, and various vacations, including my trip to Machu Picchu.  They have seen my ups and downs, and didn’t ask for anything in return.  I took advantage of those jeans, despite having a whole stable in my closet.  They legs dragged on the cold, hard streets of San Francisco when I didn’t want to put on a belt, causing them to fray and rip, resulting in the need for a little amputation, then after a while longer, a little more.  I’ve fallen asleep with them on numerous times, whether it be passing out on the couch while watching a movie, or stumbling home drunk and crawling into my bed.  They are normally one of the first things I reach for once I get out of the shower, and on a normal night, they find themselves, bunched up on the floor at the bottom of my bed. 

And there it is.  A eulogy to my jeans.  Perhaps its not normal to personify an inanimate object like a pair of jeans, but so what, I did.  I guess its time to trash them, and hope the next new pair prove to be as good a companion as the last.

Coffee Competition: The Roastery

The next contestant is The Roastery on New Montgomery.  I’ve been here before, and generally like the place.  It’s down the street the from the Starbucks I previously reviewed, but it’s not a mega-chain, and they serve Cafe Trieste coffee.  Generally, I like my coffee shops to have a little more character, and be a little less “sanitized” by a big corporation.

I ordered my coffee at around 11am today, as usual a large black coffee, but ordered a chocolate croissant as well.  The barista didn’t ask if I wanted to leave room for milk, which would have been nice, but whatever I still received my coffee.

I took a seat by the window, in a comfortable chair, but accompanied by a rickety table.  It’s such a pain to have an open coffee, a laptop, and a rickety table!  Needless to say, I discovered the rickety-ness aspect the hard way, as I leaned over to type on my laptop.  POOF!  the coffee, filled to the brim, managed a bit of acrobatics and listed  to the side like a boat, and spilled some precious coffee on the table – centimeters away from my laptop.  Unlike the government’s response to the BP spill in the Gulf, I quickly managed to contain the spill, and saved the day.  For the rest of my time at The Roastery, I perched my foot on the leg of the table to prevent other accidents.  Onto the coffee…

I found the coffee to be quite good.  It had the right temperature, the right flavor, and the right aftertaste.  All in all a good cup of joe.  You won’t be disappointed in the coffee if you come to The Roastery.

You won’t be disappointed with the vibe either, if you make the trek there for a cup of coffee.  The shop is located directly in front of the Academy of Arts, meaning you get a lot of artistic types.  Even the people who work there, seem to work at the academy. 

What you will be disappointed in is the fact that the staff does not do a good job cleaning tables after people leave, or cleaning the fixin’s station, which are a mess.  You really have to be a scout for a good table, and even then bring some extra napkins to make the table somewhat clean. 

You will also be disappointed in the WiFi access, which is a HUGE miss.  I love me some WiFi, and when I can’t get it, especially at a coffee shop, it’s a disappointment.  I mean, a coffee shop should get several things right – coffee, music, atmosphere, and WiFi.  A miss on either of those four items, and you are not doing the basics right. 

On a scale of 1-10 of nerdiness (as it relates to computers), I give myself a 9, and I kept getting kicked off the network, even with the right password, and even after doing a whole host of advanced manuevers and configurations to stay on.  It’s totally annoying to have access for 3-4 minutes, only to lose access.  Try sending a coherent email or surf the web in 3-4 minute spurts – a total pain in the butt. 

For that, I can recommend the coffee (and the pastries), but cannot recommending spending any amount of time at The Roastery.  I would love to support them over Starbucks, but given Starbucks, fast reliable WiFi access, I cannot see why you would want to spend time in the shop.

Grades:

Coffee: B+ [Generally satisfying, better than Starbucks.]

Service: C [Service at the counter was great, but when you get to your table, want to put sugar in your coffee, or use the WiFi, you will see the service fall flat].

Atmosphere: B [I like the atmosphere of this location.  They have a communal piano and guitar for crying out loud, and the people who both frequent this location and who work there, seem to define their own style.  However, I give a demerit for the intermittent internet access in this category as well.]

Price: $4.95 (with awesome chocolate croissant)

Coffee Competition: Starbucks

The first contestant is Starbucks (corner of New Montgomery and Jessie). I’ve been here before, and generally like this place. There is always music, a good crowd, and usually easy to find seating.

Today, I came in at around noon, which probably wasn’t the best time, since all of the students at the Academy of Arts are out for lunch or waiting for the bus, but nonetheless I’m here. There was about 2 people in line ahead of me, and the people sitting down seem to be in a good mood, either working on their laptops, talking, reading, doing schoolwork, or on their phone.

I ordered my drink, a large coffee. The barista didn’t ask i I wanted room for milk as other places have done in the past, which I think is a nice touch. In any case, I received my coffee.

With Chuck Berry overhead, I made my move over to the fixin’s station for some sugar. There are 2 stations, all stocked up with everything I need, and despite the minimal space to operate, I prepared my coffee.

Seating at this time was tough to come by, so I had to wait 3-4 minutes for a table outside. I didn’t mind about sitting outside, since I guess I am used to the cooler SF temps, and I still have internet access. Besides there is great people watching in this part of town. Side note: I was once having coffee hear, and saw a homeless man with a pirate hat sifting through the garbage can out front. He was making a mess, but it was still entertaining.

The coffee was consistenly Starbucks. It was a bit bitter, and also tasted a little greasy (I’m not sure how else to describe the finish), and left a burnt aftertaste.

Grades:

Coffee: B [Generally good, but the burnt aftertaste had me reaching for a mint.]

Service: B [More a function of the crowded register area, poor layout of the store, and the fact that I wasn't asked if I needed room for milk].

Atmosphere: B+ [I like the vibe of this location. Maybe its the artistic nature of the students or the fact that this demographic are more genuine and less "posh". People are smiling, and not reading the WSJ or Financial Times]

Price: $2.15

Coffee Competition: SOMA San Francisco

I love coffee. It’s something about that warm beverage first thing in the morning (or after dinner for that matter), that really puts a smile on my face.

I’m not talking about the fancy stuff either like a Decaf Soy Latte or “half-skim, half half & half, half decaf mochachinolattechai with just a dusting of nutmeg and cane sugar”. I’m talking about good old plain coffee, the stuff that Juan Valdez would be proud of. I take mine black, though about 15% of the time I’ll add some milk.

I wasn’t always a fan of coffee. My earliest memory of the dark goodness was when I was in middle school, when my dad, on rare occassion, would make a concotion of egg, sugar, and coffee. I loved that stuff, but at some point it stopped, and I never had that urge to grab a coffee in the morning – chocolate milk or OJ was always my preferred choice. Anyway, once I “grew up”, and started working in the real world, I would need to burn some time, while Windows would boot up (about 5 minutes), so would go to grab a coffee. By the time I was done making my coffee, my computer would be ready for my password. And so the tradition began. Now, I try to get one in the morning, and a coffee at around 2pm. So I am on two cups a day (large cups, but cups nonetheless).

Which brings me to where I am today – recently unemployed, with a computer, and some time. That combined with my overly critical nature, and the recommendation of a friend who said I should grade each of the local coffee shops, leads me to write this series of posts.

What I will do is have a cup of coffee in each of the local coffee shops and give grades to (a) coffee, (b) service, and (c) atmosphere.

The contestants include:

1. Starbucks at the corner of Jessie and New Montgomery.
2. The Roastery close to the intersection of New Montgomery and Howard
3. Philz Coffee by 4th and King
4. Panera by 4th and King
5. Blue Bottle in Mint Plaza
6. Chatz coffee on 2nd
7. Peets by Market and 4th
8. Four Barrell on Valencia (though out of SOMA, this is supposedly the best).

So there are eight. I think eight is enough for a good sample, though if I run across anymore, I may decided to add them in. Also, there seems to be a Starbucks on ever corner, so decided to choose the one across from the Academy of Art, because its open at more convenient times than the one closer to my apartment. There is also a Blue Bottle in the Ferry Building, but I question the genuineness of that Blue Bottle, since its in such a touristy location.

The rules are simple, I will get a large plain coffee, and will drink it black with sugar. I will sit at each location and post about the coffee (at the time I’m drinking, if possible). Let the games begin…

Remembering Love – Keepsake Necklace Survives In Vietnam Jungle – Returned To Giver

I guess these types of stories pop their heads up every Valentine’s Day. But this one was really nice, so I decided to post.

Courtesy of the AP, its about a young lady giving her Vietnam War photographer boyfriend a medallion before he left to capture the images of the war. He wrote to his Cecile frequently over the 3 years he was in Vietnam (over 400 letters), and when his helicopter was shot down, the romance ended.

Fast forward to today – diplomatic relations with Vietnam was restored and the State Department was able to survey the crash site, and among other things, they found the medallion buried in the hilly jungle. The story that returns to the medallion to Cecile afte 40 years is amazing. Take a look….

In Vietnam War love story, a medallion comes home
Feb 13, 6:03 AM (ET)
By JAMEY KEATEN

PARIS (AP) – It was a love token worn through the blood-drenched rice paddies and jungles of the Vietnam War.

For Henri Huet, the Virgin Mary medallion was his one constant link to Cecile, the woman he loved. The celebrated Associated Press photographer carried it in his pocket or hung it around his neck. It was engraved for her baptism and when he left for the war, she gave it to him.

On assignment, the military helicopter Huet was riding in got shot down over Laos. Huet was killed. The medallion the size of a penny disappeared into the thickness of a bamboo forest, where it slept for nearly three decades.

This past week, the gold medallion was again in the hands of Cecile, the culmination of an extraordinary journey that took it across epochs and continents – and whose mystery was unlocked by a long-lost trove of letters.

Their story started with an apple grabbed for lunch outside New York’s Rockefeller Center. The 20-year-old Cecile Schrouben was about to bite into it when Huet approached her and told her it was no proper meal. He suggested oysters instead, a nod to the rocky coast of Brittany, where he grew up.

The lanky man with a roguish grin was irresistibly charming. They had lunch, “American-style” oysters scrubbed especially clean. Before long, the Agence France-Presse employee and the dashing AP shooter twice her age were a couple.

He was at AP headquarters, recovering from a leg injury suffered in Vietnam. She was an AFP archivist, receptionist and general gopher. They jetted off to Mexico, where Huet took her under his wing and taught her photography.

Duty called in 1968: Huet was sent back to cover the war.

He wanted her to join him in Asia – but not in war-ravaged Vietnam. Parting, she gave him the medallion – a baptismal gift from her godmother, in keeping with Roman Catholic tradition.

They wrote each other letters, hundreds of them. The correspondence lasted nearly three years. She wrote her last letter the day he died – when she woke up in the middle of the night, sensing a “need” to write.

It was Feb. 10, 1971. Huet, 43, had boarded a South Vietnamese military helicopter in the town of Khe Sanh, near the border with Laos, with a mission to inspect efforts by U.S.-backed forces to sever Viet Cong supply lines.

With him were three other legendary news photographers: Larry Burrows of Life magazine, Kent Potter of United Press International and Keisaburo Shimamoto of Newsweek.

In a flash of anti-aircraft fire, the chopper was gunned down. All four photographers were killed, along with seven Vietnamese troops, one of them a military photographer.

Along with the men, the camera equipment, and the military hardware, a tiny disc of gold also tumbled down from the skies above Laos. On one side was a relief of the Virgin Mary; on the other was etched, “Cecile, nee le 16-6-1947″ – French for “born on June 16, 1947.”

For 27 years, the keepsake lay on an overgrown Laotian hillside.

The wreckage from the downed helicopter was inaccessible to U.S. military investigators until 1992, when Washington restored diplomatic ties to the communist governments of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

A U.S. search team found the crash site four years later. In 1998, a U.S. Army forensic team traveled to the site. Former AP Saigon Bureau Chief Richard Pyle and AP photographer Horst Faas, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage, were on hand for the start of the search.

The team, staffed with Laotian locals, found camera parts, broken watches, bits of wreckage – and the tiny cameo.

Pyle suspected it belonged to Huet because of the French. But he’d never heard the photographer speak about a Cecile, and a search of AP archive photos didn’t turn up Huet wearing the medallion.

With no proof of ownership, the medallion stayed in U.S. Army storage. Until a woman came forward with a mysterious packet of letters.

In 2004, Helene Gedouin, an editorial director at French publishing house Larousse, came across “Requiem,” a book by Faas about photographers like Huet who were killed in action in Vietnam and Indochina.

The book inspired her to delve deeper into the life of Huet, who was a relative of hers through marriage – one of his brothers had married her aunt. She met Faas, and two years later they co-authored a book on Huet.

In the fall of 2006, upon return from a photojournalism conference in the south of France, Gedouin found an email in her inbox.

“Hello, I have nothing to do with Henri Huet,” the message read, “but it turns out – by the greatest happenstance – that I have in my possession a correspondence from Henri Huet that he wrote to a woman. They are love letters, and there are about 400 of them. I’d like to meet you.”

The letters were addressed to a Cecile Schrouben. In one of them, he mentioned a small town in Belgium where she was born. Gedouin went through the local phone directory, called all the Schrouben households she could find – and in the fourth call, found Cecile’s brother.

“I said, ‘could you call your sister and tell her that we have something in our possession that she had lost?’” Gedouin recalled.

“The next day, she called me.”

The letters were all the proof the U.S. military needed to release the medallion.

Pyle got in touch with American authorities after learning about the letters from Gedouin.

“When I called the (U.S. Army) laboratory director in Hawaii and told him this, he was ecstatic,” Pyle recalled. “He said: ‘That’s it, that’s the final proof. That’s what we needed.’”

Larry Burrows’ son Russell, as a relative of a crash victim and one who has had repeated contacts with the U.S. military about recovering items lost, was sent the medallion in a Federal Express parcel last fall.

Cecile told AP she had stored the letters in a box in a Paris apartment where she once lived. In a chaotic move, she left them behind.

A young man who had helped the new owner move in noticed them. Intrigued by the epistolary romance, he gave them to his mother for safekeeping.

Why the woman came forward after holding on to the letters for 15 years remains a mystery. Gedouin declined an AP request that she provide a way to contact the woman.

Huet was born in Dalat, Vietnam, in 1927, the second son of four children to a high-society Vietnamese mother and a French civil engineer for France’s colonial government in Indochina.

Pyle has described Huet as one of “the three finest people that I ever met in my life;” Cecile calls him one of the two “best” people she has known. “Lost in Laos” – a book by Pyle and Faas about the photographers in the crash – cites a U.S. officer calling Huet the bravest man he’d ever seen.

Colleagues and acquaintances describe Huet as modest, discreet, full of integrity and compassion – and a charmer of women.

He spent his early years in the care of his mother’s family. His father then had the children sent to his family home in France. A turbulent youth, he eventually settled down and studied painting. He took up photography while in the French navy.

In the 1950s, he married a Russian-Vietnamese woman, and had two children with her. But the marriage didn’t last.

“He was a mystery man,” said Pyle. “The only reason we didn’t know anything was that he never told anyone anything.”

In a small ceremony this past Tuesday, Russell Burrows gently handed a Ziploc bag containing the medallion to Cecile at the opening of an exhibit on Huet’s work at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris. The show is co-curated by The Associated Press.

“Such a small thing for such a big story,” Cecile said. “It’s made a long journey.” Over a black sweater, she wore a three-pointed silver pendant that was designed by jeweler Georg Jensen – the first gift Huet gave her.

Cecile declined to show the letters Huet had written her, saying the correspondence was private. She said that Huet, who was an intensely discreet person, didn’t intend for them to be made public and she wanted to protect his memory and intimacy.

Cecile left New York for France in the mid-1970s. She worked at now-defunct TWA airlines and then Air France, and married in 1978 – becoming Cecile Blumental. She and her husband have two daughters. Now 63, she has five grandchildren.

She says her five-year-old granddaughter will get the medallion one day.

The Littlest Things Sometimes Mean So Much

As many of you know, my position at work was recenly elminated as part of a corporate restructuring, and the lifecycle of the product I helped to managed.

Well, I recently started to apply for positions within the organization that let me go, and a day after my first round of interviews, while having lunch with a friend at a vegan restaurant (yes, I did say “vegan”, which is a whole other story), I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. Contrary to what I normally do (i.e. ignore), I went outside and answered the phone. What ensued was something that really touched me…

An acquantaince from work, whom I didn’t know all that well, was on the other end, and he told me that he saw me interviewing with the hiring manager, and that same day while speaking with her conveyed how much of a pleasure it was working with me, and how he thought I would be a good fit for the position.

Totally out of the blue, especially since I never told him I was released, and especially since I never gave him my phone number. I tried to convey over the phone, how much it meant to me to get his phone call, but I’m sure I didn’t do a great job (I followed up today with a quick thank you note).

That phone call totally humbled me, and truly touched me. Not necessarily the recommendation itself (though that was nice!), but the fact that someone would take it upon himself to proactively, without solicitation, go up and say something positive on my behalf. And then ask around for my phone number and give me a call.

All I can say is “WOW!”. I learned something that day about being a better person.