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Feeling Lucky

Java Moon has the winning combination for a cold morning.

When Jim Ilg and his crew were renovating the space that would become Java Moon, they found a safe sealed up inside one of the walls. It's big -- all black iron and tarnished silver with a swollen head mounted over a heavy, footed pedestal that makes it look like one of those antique, bubble-headed Esso gas pumps. With its smooth curves and weight, it has the kind of gravity that some things take on simply by virtue of having lasted long past their appointed time. Very old cars, even ones junked and left to rust, have it. Historic buildings. Forgotten stretches of road dwarfed by superhighways, which take on new significance only after the pavement begins to crack and weeds grow tall along the shoulders.

Like those roads, the safe has an almost magnetic power. People come into Java Moon just to see it, to hug it, to lie across it and pick up its century-old vibe, to fiddle with its single-dial combination lock while they wait for lunch. "We get all kinds," says Ilg. "We've had hundreds of people come in and try the combination."

Ilg himself has tried it hundreds of times.

Safety first: Jim Ilg's got a lock on the coffeehouse 
crowd at Java Moon.
Mark Manger
Safety first: Jim Ilg's got a lock on the coffeehouse crowd at Java Moon.

Details

1116 Broadway, 303-813-9560. Hours: 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday; 6:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Coffee, plain: $1.15/$1.55/$1.65
CaffŤ latte: $2.30/$2.85/$3.15
Espresso: $1.35
Breakfast burrito: $4.50
Biscuits and gravy: $4.95
Cinnamon roll: $1.99

Closed location

But the safe has yet to be cracked. No one knows the right numbers to coax open the heavy door and make the thing spill whatever secrets it might be keeping. Could be anything. Could be nothing at all. There's only one guarantee: If you can pop the safe using only your bare hands (no tools, no blowtorches, no dynamite allowed), Ilg is ready to pony up $100 -- even if the old beast swings open and chuffs out only hundred-year-old air. But until someone comes up with the digits, the safe is a Schroedinger's Box -- a point of infinite possibility, incalculable probability and neat, self-contained mystery.

That safe is one of the reasons I keep coming back to Java Moon. There's something comforting about its mystical weirdness. Once in a while, I even give the dial a spin.

I like Java Moon for other reasons, too. I don't see 7 a.m. very often (noon, I think, is the best hour for waking), but if I must get up and out early, breakfast at Java Moon is some consolation -- although it's almost impossible to stomach all the rise-and-shine people who frequent coffeehouses at an hour when I feel nothing but vile. And while Java Moon's warm yellow walls don't make me feel any sunnier, the food often does.

So early one unusually busy Monday morning, I fortify myself with the sort of meal a lumberjack would eat if, rather than a sloppy chow line and a one-toothed hash-slinger called Cooky, the lumber camp had a restaurant like Java Moon attached, with Ilg working the clattering, steaming coffee machinery and a small kitchen doing the best it can with limited space but lots of ambition. In front of me are biscuits and gravy and a tall coffee -- plain and black. I'm sure it's some kind of fresh-ground, shade-grown South American dark roast something-or-other, probably harvested by well-meaning and eco-conscious college sophomores who spend their midterm breaks toiling beside the natives to demonstrate their bogus solidarity with the oppressed farmers of the Yucat´n. At 7 a.m., I don't give a damn about the agrarian revolution, but I can tell you this: Java Moon makes a good cup of joe. It's strong and fragrant when left alone, and even takes well to being sissied up into lattes, macchiatos and Americanos.

The biscuits and gravy? They're nice, too. The biscuits are fresh and fluffy, with just a little crust to them so that they don't turn to mush under the weight of the smooth, heavy sausage gravy. They come picnic-style on a black plastic plate. I eat them with plastic silverware, wipe my chin with paper napkins, and watch all the morning regulars do all those before-noon things that (presumably) make the world go round. There are people tapping on laptops, reading sections of the paper that don't have anything to do with sports or comics, staring out at the decayed urbanism of Broadway as though it might turn around any second, drinking half-caf white-chocolate mochas and chattering on cell phones -- which just makes me think again that there's nothing in the world so important that calling me up to tell me about it couldn't wait until noon. The earth could go spiraling off its axis toward the sun and I'd be perfectly fine with sleeping late and hearing about it on the midday news.

So while all those other people do something useful, I do something pointless. I try the safe. For reasons entirely beyond me, the combination to my high school locker pops into my head, and I give it a spin: 18-24-36. I yank the lever.

Nothing.

"The safe dates back to 1890," Ilg says. "And no one has gotten it open yet. We've had several professional safecrackers -- well, professed professionals, anyway, because how would you check something like that? None of them have been able to open it. We had one guy who said he got the combination, but then he wasn't able to open it. He said the numbers were right, but the door wouldn't open. What do you say to something like that?"

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