Another magical night inside the Mobil minimarket. Grumpy, motionless clerk barely visible amid stalactites of rotating price signs and stalagmites of fawning treats. On a sturdy steel table in the northwest corner, the Acorto 993 automatic espresso-beverage dispenser comes to life at the touch of a button. “Take the guesswork out of espresso sales,” says the ad copy at “The Acorto grinds fresh whole beans, brews the espresso, steams and froths fresh milk, and delivers a perfect freshly brewed espresso beverage from espresso to cappuccino, caffe latte to Americano. The Acorto does all the work. No specialized staff training is required.” It grinds, it steams, it spews white and brown goop through two steel nozzles and into a Seattle’s Best paper cup. Double cappuccino, “designed and manufactured in the USA.”

The word “STERILIZING” appears on the Acorto 993‘s LCD panel, and things quiet down considerably.

Another magical night behind the bowling alley on Pico. Here on the dim wooden porch of a small bungalow, ambitious beverage-castigators Tom and Paul and I have cast ourselves as jurors in a classic contest of Man vs. Machine. The contestants:

1 (one) Starbucks hand-drawn double cappuccino (paper cup, plastic port-a-suck lid)

1 (one) Acorto 993 machine-made double cappuccino (paper cup, plastic port-a-suck lid)

Tom starts with the Acorto 993. He slurps, he swallows, he frowns; leans back; sighs. Cleanses his palate with a cheap cigar. Paul and I watch with great interest. Not because Tom is a more experienced taster, but because, in this light and especially with the cigar, Tom looks just like David Letterman.

“Underwhelmed,” Tom declares, pulling down the brim of his cap. “Underwhelmed by overroasting. There’s your copy.” Tom resumes his fervent palate cleansing. Preston the Underbit Dog joins us on the porch, sniffs at the coffee cups, mutters something and leaves. Paul downs a heroic dose of the Starbucks. Sloshes it around. Swallows. Stares equably in the direction of Preston, cup held fast at shoulder level, gaze drawn solemnly inward. For a long time.

“Scalded . . . milk,” Paul announces at last. “Scalded milk made by my grandmother in an old tin coffee pot. Has just the slightest hint of any coffee at all — old Hills Brothers or Folger‘s. She used to give me scalded milk just like this to help me get to sleep.” Inspired by the memory, Paul moves quickly to the cappuccino born in Mobil’s Acorto 993. Even in this light, Paul doesn‘t look like anyone famous. “At least you can tell there’s actual coffee in there,” he says, handing me the tepid cup. “Very bad coffee, made with European tap water pressed through a rusty screen.”

Tom leans in and takes a sip of his Starbucks. Swallows; leans back; frowns; sighs. Shrugs. Hits on his cigar again and says, slowly, with no discernible punctuation, “Double strength church basement coffee.”

“Meaning,” I ask, because I have to write it right, “double-strength-church basement-coffee? Or double-strength church-basement coffee?”

Tom looks at his cigar, then at Paul and me. And he repeats, just as slowly, just as evenly, “Double strength church basement coffee.”

Who would have imagined that the cheeseburger cheeseburger cheeseburger Greek-restaurant sketch from late-‘70s Saturday Night Live — Belushi at the register, Aykroyd at the grill — would evolve into the counter mantra of Starbucks? You say latte > he says latte > she says latte. Tall? > Tall. > Tall. Just like a computer. Customer commands, clerk relays message, barista signals reception and executes task. Dialog box appears: “Tall latte.”


Three cheeseburger lattes.


Cheeseburger cheeseburger cheeseburger. Latte latte latte.


Cheeseburger latte, cheeseburger latte, cheeseburger latte.

Evidence: Download one genuine Saturday Night Live Greek-restaurant video clip from Jeremiah Tieman’s archive at jayteedotorg ( The file‘s a 1.8MB QuickTime movie zipped down to 1.6MB — unzip with StuffIt Expander, WinZip or what-have-you. Add one 2.5MB MPEG video clip depicting a bartending robot strutting his Jim Beam straight-up technique (http:iml.millersv.eduvideoclips.dirrobot.mpeg) from the Intelligent Machines Laboratory at Millersville University. It’s in Pennsylvania. Finally, download an audio recording of Roger McGuinn performing “John Henry,” the classic folk song, at 7.5 inches per second on a Pentron reel-to-reel at 57 E. Division St. in Chicago in 1959 (http:bubblegum.uark.edufolkdenJhenry.wav). Open all three files in your registered QuickTime player (simultaneous playback‘s disabled on unregistered versions) and arrange traditionally — comedy on the left, robot on the right, folk song stretched beneath them. Set comedy and robot to loop. Reduce comedy volume by 50 percent (so it doesn’t overpower the wanly dubbed “John Henry”) and select Play All Movies from the Movie menu. One minute 42 seconds later, when the song ends, everything should make sense.

LA Weekly