Tunnel Mole on Speed

Tunnel Mole™ has learned about a new religious holiday--hey, it's the one we celebrate this weekend! Coworkers tell TM that Sunday is NASCAR Day; what with the Coca-Cola 600 and the Indy 500 on the same day.

I don't know about you, but I feel the need for speed. One of our society's greatest poets, Samuel Hagar, perhaps said it best: "Write me up for 125 / Post my face, wanted dead or alive / Take my license, all that jive / I can't drive 55! / Oh, yea! / I can't drive 55! (four times) Uh! (Solo)"

Would rather do it than watch it, though--that's for losers. Speaking of beverage purveyors and speed, my weekday hangout, the Downtown Houston Tunnel, has got both fer ya, at one of the few places on Earth, I'll bet, where you can peruse the New York Times while tanking up on a delicious frothy version of Nature's legal speed AND being stared at by NASCAR stars.

OK, you've figured out we're talking about a Starbucks, because even though Houston was farsighted enough to build a tunnel system, it's not the Pacific Northwest, where there's actually a free market in excellent coffee. And you've figured out we're not talking about actual NASCAR drivers because they need to be behind the wheel, to perform for the audience, most of whom are at home, behind their own wheels -- of their pull-up Coleman ice chests (park it right cher next to the recliner, boy).

And across from the Starbucks is the Pennzoil store, festooned with NASCAR cutouts of guys who, we'll take their word, are the stars in that organization's firmament.

All your Pennzoil-related needs are there, in a store that resembles an airport gift shop -- only with cooler stuff, like kiddie cars big enough to hold an actual tot. Need a onesie for a baby shower? Check. It's even got a logo of supermajor Royal Dutch Shell on it. (You know, the clamshell thingie. Perfect gift for a Houston kid, as most parents who can afford to have children here probably work for an energy company.)

Perhaps as a way to compensate for fossil fuels crapping on our climate, the Pennzoil store sells Metro passes every so often.

The Starbucks across from it has easy access from the street: Take the escalator down from Pennzoil Place. On our way underground, we saw a really happy young woman in a modified burka (we know; seems oxymoronic) wearing jeans and chattering on a cell phone. So we figured we were in Oil Country, and wondered if oil company employees were more demanding about their lattes, hence the superb product and service at that particular Starbucks. But other demographics dominate that store, said Eric, one of several cheery baristas there.

"We get a mixture of lawyers, a lot of people in the arts -- and oh yeah, we get a lot of cops," he offered helpfully, along with a stellar brew.

For people from the arts district AND police AND lawyers from the courthouse to frequent that Starbucks, that tells us there aren't enough stores in the area. There's only Starbucks has only three stores in the massive tunnel system: under One Shell Plaza; Pennzoil, and Chase Tower -- another five are above ground, downtown. Compared to any other coffee places downtown, Starbucks pretty much rules. Nonetheless, there's no hint of a monopoly at the branch in the tunnel at Pennzoil Place -- it stands head and shoulders above many others in town.

Which reminds us, the only Starbucks ever closed in like its 30-year history was in the Tunnel, under our favorite parking garage, McKinney Parking Garage run by Merit, at Travis and McKinney. There's a sign teasing that it will reopen in Winter 2006, but maybe that's a typo.

(That garage has the coolest feature for contract parkers: Which you swipe your entry (and exit) card, the screen pops up "Hello, Tunnel Mole." A companion clapped in glee upon seeing that, but later pointed out we'd been exiting--and shouldn't it say, "Au revoir, Tunnel Mole"? We don't care. We know the Merit folks mean "hello" for "aloha," which applies either way.)

Cheer up, speed freaks! Devin Hart, a Starbucks district manager, tells us the company's looking at expanding. A hint: one might be near the old Enron building. That makes sense: Houston's energy trading is exploding again, but not necessarily in a bad way. But that's another story, another day. Aloha. --Tunnel Mole

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