In our continuing series intended to remind you that life is better than before, despite the calamitous storm of news that clatters down 24/7 like buckshot on a tin roof, we present installment No. 9,275: why it is harder to drive into the ditch than it used to be.
Let us back up to 1965. Our family is taking a car trip down Hwy. 10 to the Cities to see the wonder of the world, Southdale. We stop at a cafe along the way and torture the adults by playing "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am" by Herman's Hermits on the jukebox. That longhair stuff, for them, was like listening to toddlers yell, and I can only imagine their expressions upon hearing the line "Second verse! Same as the first!"
Why were we there? Coffee. The drivers needed coffee to keep from falling asleep and going into the ditch, and in those days coffee was not a common commodity along highways. There weren't any McDonald's, and if you went into a gas station to ask for coffee, you'd get a strange look: You want some steak, too? Maybe baked Alaska? Look, pal, outside of gas, oil and pop, we got combs and air fresheners in the shape of pine trees.
Sometime in the late '60s, gas stations put in vending machines that served something that resembled coffee — brown swill so hot it was like licking the tailpipe. You could add some powdered white chemical that probably wasn't entirely dioxin or asbestos, and it might keep you awake.
That was then. Today: You walk into a gas station, and 20% of the floor space is devoted to coffee. There are signs on all the urns, the usual coffee-snob nonsense:
MILD. Sumatran beans provide subtle notes of silk, cocoa, twine, with hints of balsam wood gently shaved by introverts. (Translation: Folger's.)
BOLD: A robust Colombian blend! (Translation: the MILD version with less water.)
FAIR TRADE: Finest arabica beans, slow-roasted by authentically solemn men with substantial mustaches and a burro tied up outside. (Translation: You're probably going to pitch a fit because there's no soy milk creamer.)
At a coffee bar in a Wadena gas station, I saw an urn that boasted a BRAZILIAN blend, and you could tell it was authentic because it had a parrot on the label. In the past, Wadena's Brazil options were limited to nuts. I'm sure the fine print assured us that 5% of the profits went to help the rain forest, as if some employee of the station had to count out dimes at the end of the day and FedEx them to Sao Paulo.
In the old days, cream for your coffee consisted of something in a carafe trending toward Chunk Status. Cream today: tiny plastic cups that erupt when you pry them open, but at least you're spilling French Vanilla on your pants. We didn't even know what French Vanilla was in 1965. Then again, I don't even know what it is now.
As a veteran of the byways and back roads, I knew it was wise to sample the coffee before I bought it. Sure enough, the urns were almost empty and the temperature was apathetic. Perfect for sipping through that tiny hole that makes you think you've stuck a straw in a volcano, but not worth the money.
I went to the counter and said, like an idiot: "Pardon me, but all the coffee is tepid."
Tepid. I also should have put an MPR tote bag over my head. I'm from the Cities, where tepid coffee is just not done!
"I'm sorry," the clerk said. Neither of us knew what else to say, so I left.
Down the road 17 miles I found another gas station coffee bar, and you will be relieved to learn that the temperature conformed to my exacting specifications. I would not drive into the ditch from drowsiness now.
Not that I was worried about the ditch, anyway, because I have a self-driving car. I think. Maybe. I'm still learning about all the features, but as far as I can tell, one button activates sensors that override your control and keep you in your lane. Automatic pilot! Heck, get out a deck of cards and play solitaire on the dash.
I turned it on as I picked up the coffee cup, just in case something happened, and felt the car orient itself to the center of the lane. This is the world in which we live: You can sip Brazilian coffee at 65 miles per hour with your hands off the wheel.
This column will be rendered obsolete in 2026, when self-driving cars will have built-in coffeemakers and people will recount tales of the ancient days when you had to stop your car, get out, go inside, pour coffee, whine to the clerk about its temperature and then get back in your car. The innovations of today will be boring and old-timey to them, just as our wonderland of roadside coffee options have made our parents' world seem neolithic.
Second verse. Same as the first.