Legends of Caltech

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Web Stories: Tales from the Coffeehouse

Blue slips: Caltech's underachiever awards. Popular door decorations. Can be used for 'Blue Slip Special' discounts at The Coffeehouse.

Fibonacci milkshake: Mixture of the last two milkshakes ordered.

by Laura Brady '97, Travis Hime '01, Doug Elliott '99, and others

Below the South Houses, in Caltech's Student Activities Center (SAC), sat the Coffeehouse. [It is currently semi-homeless, temporarily using space in the Red Door cafe while it waits for a new student activities building. –Eds.] Its student-staffed kitchen serves up late-night burgers, fries, invertible milkshakes, and sarcasm. Sometimes, the Coffeehouse was where schemes were born. At other times, it was where stories were made — stories like the ones below.

Invertible Shakes

Laura Brady '97, a Coffeehouse veteran, wrote to tell us about the proper way to make milkshakes:

A big part of Coffeehouse tradition was to make sure that the milkshakes were invertible, and this astonishing skill was often demonstrated in front of people, sometimes with disastrous results. If it was a busy shake night, we'd need to cool down the shake machine with cups of ice water so it didn't burn out. Sometimes, we got REALLY behind because the shakes had to have the correct viscosity to be invertible.

The Blue Slip Special

Travis Hime '01 told us about his attempt to take advantage of one of the Coffeehouse's time-honored traditions, Blue Slip Specials:

In the Coffeehouse's heyday, which was of course "when I was a frosh", Jaideep Singh '00 would offer half-price milkshakes during blue-slip season to anyone who received one of the dire midterm warnings. Whether this was to console distraught students or merely to encourage slackerdom was unclear. I was headed down to the Coffeehouse with a group of frosh who planned to take advantage of this offer, but I sadly had no blue slip of my own. A solution presented itself, however, in the neighboring alley, where Jaideep had posted his own blue slips outside his door. My plan was thwarted when Jaideep looked at the slip to see what class I was failing (Math 2a, I think). I don't recall what he said, but he wasn't very impressed.

The Coffeehouse Jukebox

Mason A. Porter '98 writes about how one of the better demonstrations of his cluelessness occurred in the Coffeehouse:

Before he became famous for being on TV and winning lots of money [see "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in Legends of Caltech III], Joe Trela '97 was one of several Caltech Legends who spent a ton of time working behind the counter of Caltech's Coffeehouse. One time, I stumbled out of a Hum class at night and recruited Steve Van Hooser '98 to go to the Coffeehouse with me. I hadn't slept much the night before, so I was even more zombified than usual.

I went up to the counter, ordered from Joe, and — noticing the spiffy, relatively-new Coffeehouse jukebox — decided to play some cool music. I also noticed a sign banning several songs (including "Hotel California", "Particle Man", and "Birdhouse in Your Soul") that were entirely too popular for the sanity of the Coffeehouse staff. I chose a song not on the banned list, "Strangelove" by Depeche Mode (one of my favorite songs). The music started playing … really loudly. For some reason, it seemed much louder than usual. (In fact, I suspect now that the music was even louder than I thought it was, but I figure that has something to do with my sleep-deprived state at the time.)

All of a sudden — without any warning whatsoever — Joe stopped what he was doing behind the counter (perhaps taking somebody's order or cooking something?), came out from behind the counter, stomped up to the jukebox, and angrily yanked its plug from the wall. He then stormed back around the counter and resumed his Coffeehouse duties. I turned to Steve to ask what happened and he had busted out in laughter and couldn't stop. I asked him why he was laughing and it was then that I heard the music that was already playing on the Coffeehouse staff stereo. And it wasn't all that quiet, either. I just hadn't noticed it. Oops ….

Life in The Coffeehouse

Veteran Coffeehouse hash slinger Doug Elliott '99 gave us a few more Coffeehouse tidbits:

There were three assigned positions (in order of seniority): Grill Monkey, Shake Boy, and Manager.

One of the most dire situations was ordering. We'd walk in to find an entire crate of mushrooms, or all the ice cream in stock was strawberry. This worked out to the customer's advantage, though, as this was an instant indicator of the special for the night.

There was a shake recipe book containing all sorts of concoctions. I remember a few of them:

I may be forgetting something in the Avocado Lust.... I do remember that the Shaggy had a piece of cubed toast in it, the Ice-9 had smashed ice cubes, and Peppermint Death had several caps of peppermint extract in vanilla ice cream. All shakes had to be made invertible or the Shake Boy got to be Grill Monkey and think about what he'd done. And if someone wanted color, we used chocolate ice cream.

One of the disproportionately expensive items on the menu was "one scoop of ice cream". To redress this obvious injustice, the Shake Boy's goal was to get as much in one single scoop as he could properly manage.

Sometimes things were supposed to be toasted. This was a problem because the Grill Monkey was usually busy running the grill, fryer, and microwave; it was easy to forget the ovens below the grill. If you leave bread in one of the ovens for long enough, it does in fact burn clear through, and then it makes a great gift.

Sandwiches came with the typical long toothpicks with colored plastic ends. They were slightly more than pointless garnish: they were used for shooting into the ceiling tiles. Techniques varied, but it was generally agreed that a fair shot was with a clean toothpick made while seated. [The Coffeehouse ceiling was crammed with toothpicks. The ceiling tiles were replaced while we were undergrads, but the newly-empty tiles didn't remain empty for very long. –Eds.]

On long weekends or special occasions, we would drag the SAC TV into the Coffeehouse. Since we never really advertised well what would be on and when, one basically had to just show up and see what we picked up.