Noe Valley Voice May 2001

Tully's Employee Journeys to the Dark Heart of the Question Game

By Justin Taylor

A sad cloud has formed over Noe Valley, signaling the grave times in which we find ourselves. Hundreds of thousands of people are killing each other in Rwanda, the polar ice caps are melting, mad cow disease is spreading, and the 24th Street Tully's Coffee store has had to cancel its "Question of the Day" contest. As an employee at the coffee shop and a new resident of this neighborhood, I am tormented by this devastating turn of affairs.

Background: For the past year, Tully's has played a trivia game with its customers. Every day, a question, usually taken from trivia cards, went up behind the counter, and those with the right answer got a free cup of coffee. A simple and fun little diversion to lighten moods, inspire food for thought, and draw some regular customers.

I recall the twinkle in one patron's eye when she knew that Mae West was the model for Betty Boop, or the departing skip of another when I assured him that E.T.'s profession was, indeed, botany. I did not just serve coffee, I warmed the cockles of my customers' hearts. Oh, how soon this fantasy was to be shattered.

Three months after we started, my co-workers and I had a wake-up call: These games were serious. As our customers were to inform us many times--through half-hour phone arguments, line holdups, letters to Tully's headquarters in Seattle, and ever-so-kind suggestions--our questions were either too hard, in poor taste, or insufficiently answered. In other words, our answers were not exactly the same as theirs.

Some customers graciously supplied us with their own research. I had no idea that the trivia card makers were so negligent. I can see now that we should have cross-checked the trivia with the neighborhood's intellectuals. How insensitive of me. Suddenly, I just served coffee.

Why, I wondered, does one choose to play a half-baked coffeehouse question contest? Perhaps to raise one's I.Q.? Or is it to prove that, once and for all, a ferrule is not only a metal ring to reinforce piping, but, when spelled feral, is also an adjective meaning wild and untamed? No, it's for the free cup of Tully's Joe, you ninny!

One of my co-workers, a barrista at the cafe for almost a year, said she used to enjoy the smiles when the customers got the answers right. But pretty soon, even the winners got to complaining. They'd be disappointed that all they got was a cup of coffee when what they really wanted was a triple latte.

Other people would stick their head in the door and look straight at the question board to see if they could answer it. Their lips would move. Then they'd split.

Thanks. You have a nice day, too.

My therapist, who provides me safe harbor during these stormy times, said we should try some "tough love." So we put disclaimers up on the board such as "Take a deep breath before answering," "One guess per patron," and "The prize is only a cup of coffee."

We also made a special effort to lighten up the game--picked questions that were totally black and white, joshed with the quibblers, gave them the coffee anyway, even when their answers were incorrect. But no, that didn't satisfy our many Mensa members.

So, on April 1, 2001, Tully's management replaced the daily question with a notice that the game had been put to bed. Retired. Stopped. Remarkably, we were not met with chagrin, but with charitable corrections of the notice's punctuation and grammar.

After weeks of fasting and sulking in the corner of my bedroom over my failure as a member of the human race, I finally realized my salvation. I would take my case to the people of Noe Valley. I would inform the locals that of all the Tully's cafes in San Francisco with a question game--from Cole Valley to Pacific Heights--ours was the only one where the game had been shut down. And I would seek their wise counsel as to where we went wrong.

On my day off, a bright and warm Sunday morning, I sat down and conversed with a group of Tully's patrons. To my astonishment, most blamed the attitude problem in our trendy enclave yuppie scum.

"You're just gonna get pushy intellectual know-it-alls in Noe Valley" was the opinion of one regular customer (also a longtime Noe Valley resident). "They're in their late 20s, and suddenly they get a bunch of money out of nowhere and they think they're invincible, so they won't be told they are wrong."

Another guy chimed in, "It's not healthy to make so much money so young." His wife, a 17-year resident, said the game showed "the skewed perspective of some people in this neighborhood. It reconfirmed my lack of faith in humanity. I think these anal-retentive folks need to seriously look into Prozac."

"The whole Bay Area suffers from this prideful, entitled, I'm-gonna-push-in-front-of-you-with-my-Beamer attitude," said a visitor from San Mateo, "but you have your hands full here."

To blame the yuppie for everything is easy--traffic, outrageous house prices, earthquakes--but in my experience, this mythical villain is not the type of customer who gets involved in the game. The yuppie types go to Starbucks. No, our eager competitors are modest Noe Valley veterans, the kind my stepdad refers to as "politicos--with lots of free time and an axe to grind." I prefer to call them walking barrels of fortune cookies. They've got more free advice than one could ever solicit. Ever.

I did talk to one regular (low-fat hot chocolate with whip) who went into a rant about the "[bleep]hole liberales... Noe Valley is full of 'em. Conservatives would never try to dispute the facts. If you're wrong, you're wrong. Liberals just wanna [bleep] with the rules."

One thing is true of the many people I interviewed and just about every customer who read our cancellation notice: They all want the Question of the Day back. It turned out our game really had lifted moods and stretched minds. Unfortunately, we are still too busy licking our wounds from the last round to ponder another go. Despite this, customers are offering advice on how to make the game work.

Paul Robertson suggests we "offer the idiots who argue a little kid's cup if they want free coffee so bad. Make them feel guilty, and call it the Baby Cup," he laughs. "That way, when they walk down the street, everyone will see and they'll say, 'There goes the crybaby.'"

I think Paul may be on to something there. But I'd go even bigger. The idle minds of our community are crying for recognition of their unique gift for trivial knowledge. Why not honor them with an annual street fair of trivia contests? We could block off all of 24th Street, and each merchant could hold a game outside his or her door. Everyone could come: the Yuppies, the Politicos, the Strollers, the Dog People, and the rest of us in between. Tully's pedestrian party game would be a waste of time compared to the real impressive stuff we'd dish out, such as a spelling bee in Russian and MIT Ph.D. thesis questions. Winners would not only get store prizes but big A+ buttons and Gold Star stickers that said, "I Was Right!" We could invite a famous genius to think of the hardest question ever and the first person to answer it would get a free something from every store and the "God's Most Wondrous Creation" T-shirt for a whole year! Imagine the community feeling this would foster.

Meanwhile, rumors from Tully's management are hinting that a game with lower stakes may soon return to the board. Till then, I'll continue to just serve coffee.

Justin Taylor lives on Chattanooga Street.