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Back Buzz - February 3, 2007

pumping heart Zooby's, Winter Garden, Surrey Street, Sheffield S1, South Yorkshire

When Sheffield's Winter Garden first opened a few years ago, I couldn't help but find it amusing. Stocked with more than 2,500 temperate-zone and tropical plants, the Winter Garden is a giant parabola-shaped glass greenhouse displaying the flora of my Southern California childhood. Surrounded by pedestrian benches, the central planters feature fan palms, bamboo, flax, eucalyptus, acacia, birds-of-paradise (or is it bird-of-paradises?), and brightly-coloured giant flowers flagrant in their sexual allure. Even though in California they're as common as mobile phones, the palm trees are the main draw for me. After all, it's been 17 years since I lived among them, and I admit I do sometimes miss them just a bit.

A couple of years ago I was working on a project at the Sheffield Archives, inside which food and drink were prohibited. When it was raining or snowing, as an alternative to having a drafty lunch in the nearby train station, I would occasionally make the longer trek up to the Winter Garden to eat my sandwich under the palms. With entrances at Surrey Street on one end and from the Peace Gardens on the other, the Garden adjoins the MacDonald St Paul's Hotel, and the diners in the Yard Canteen & Grill are separated from the plants by a mere layer of glass, presumably lending a terrarium sort of view. In fact I can picture the Winter Garden filled with water and stocked with giant Japanese carp. I think it would be quite a unique dining experience.

Adding to this surrealism are the rather irregularly mounted ceiling fans that spin above the palms like some sort of tropical wind farm. On the cold January afternoon of my recent visit I felt as if I should have swapped my beret for a Panama hat. But since there was nowhere handy to get a mint julep or a Hurricane, I opted for a cappuccino from Zooby's, which is what I originally intended to write about.

Situated between the Surrey Street entrance and the interior entrance of the Millennium Galleries, Zooby's is a takeaway deli offering sandwiches, hot paninis, salads, cakes, smoothies, milkshakes, and espresso drinks. For some reason I decided to have a cappuccino. Since I'm used to double macchiatos it's a bit difficult for me to expertly judge a single cappuccino served in a large paper cup. But I was surprised by the robustness of the coffee which was in no way muted by the milk foam. Zooby's uses Fair Trade coffee as well, so you can feel good about spending your hard-earned money and whiling away your time in such a huge fern bar.

No, seriously, regardless of what it sounds like, I like the Winter Garden! I really do. Because it is so very, very, very strange and, as all my close friends know, I do like strange things. "Strange things in the night, exchanging planters...zooby zooby zoo..."


Speaking of strange things, parabolas, and life in an aquarium reminds me of a recent e-mail conversation with a workmate:

Today, for the first time in six years, I went to The Doctors.

Today's doctor is a small, round, slightly jovial black man. He begins by testing me on my postcode for fear that I might be from the wrong end of my street. As it is, I am from the wrong end of my street, but I make noises to the effect that I am aware of another end of the street with a different postcode, and that I just don't know what that postcode is. He seems concerned. I assure him I've been with the surgery since they started. He moves on.

Phase 2: he stethoscopes me on both sides. He asks me to take deep breaths. Through the mouth. I suddenly realise that I've forgotten how to breathe. This concerns me slightly. After about five false starts, trying to inflate my lungs while expelling air, I finally get somewhere. He seems unimpressed.

Phase 3: he takes my bloodpressure. It is normal. But my pulse is a ridiculously high 100. He moves from unimpressed to slightly concerned.

Phase 4: some sort of Star Trek weapon... he finds a little plastic cup for holding nuts or raisins, and sticks it on the end of the weapon. He puts it in my ear. He takes it out instantly. He has taken my temperature. Boring but quick. My temperature is in celsius, which seems to mean that it is high. He now seems less concerned about the heart-rate.

The waiting room was laid out oddly... like a cinema or a church: bench seats forming Vs from a central aisle. Ill people sat, looking up at a matrix board which will occasionally beep and tell them who's next. It all seemed needlessly hitech. As did the check-in... where I had to play with a touch-screen monitor and be asked questions about my gender and birthday. The dentists seems far more sensible in comparison.

Your visit with the doctor sounded intriguing. What sort of device or scope did he use to test your postcode, and did it hurt? I remember when I lived in California the traditional 5-digit zip codes were suddenly extended by a hyphen and 4 more digits, producing an epidemic of malaise and forgetfulness caused by swollen postcodes. I was told it was nothing to worry about and that the swelling would go down once I moved out of the country. Which it did; and then my 7-digit Folkestone postcode shrunk by a further digit when I moved to Sheffield. So it was just a temporary affliction.

If you're from the wrong end of your street, do you have to walk in the opposite direction to get anywhere? Or does walking backwards work? If you could twist your street like a Moebius strip would this solve the situation? Of course I suppose this would only benefit half the people living at the wrong end of the street, because the other half of the houses would fall off...

I'm glad you figured out how to breathe because I think it's a very useful skill. And it's a good thing your temperature was in Celsius rather than Kelvin. As to the high pulse rate, had you just expended a lot of energy running to the doctor's? The only time my blood pressure tested somewhat elevated was after I ran about a quarter of a mile uphill from the bus to get to an appointment on time -- and 20 minutes later they re-checked and it was down to my normal barely surviving level. I would think if you had to walk all the way around the world in order to exit your street that this might raise your pulse temporarily.

At my doctors' surgery there is a loudspeaker which first crackles loudly and then commands each patient to report to a particular room number -- but these are all in the voices of the various doctors and nurses on duty, and there are no fancy screens to touch. Your surgery sounds much more fun. What sort of questions did you have to answer about your gender and your birthday? Perhaps what size and colour your gender is? And what about your birthday? How you celebrated it? How many presents you received? What sort of cake you had? Doctors are getting very strange these days... I live on a crescent, and I can set off on the right hand footpath, and keep going, and follow it around the wood behind my house, and wind up back where I started from. The people on the wrong side can't do this without going around the entire estate. Making a Moebius strip would solve this, by creating a circuit that would take in both the route around the wood and the route around the whole estate. This would prove useful, especially for the purposes of motor racing.

Houses falling off is the only negative. But the houses have strong foundations. The problem would be the traffic, which would have to maintain a specific momentum to retain surface tension.

I was amazed the doctors knew how I'd celebrated my birthday, actually. And ever so slightly concerned. Only slightly, because in a way it is comforting to know that your doctors are taking such an interest. My gender is profoundly yellow today, and looking rather small. I should probably have it taken out. But then what if I'm asked another question about it? I'd be stuck for an answer. Tell me, where did you last see your gender?

I think the last time I saw my gender was when I had one of those disco mirror balls, and if I suspended it at just the right height and pointed a torch at just the right spot I could catch a glimpse of the edge of my gender, usually on the turquoise side. But I haven't tried this since the last time when I pulled a muscle in my aura and sprained my chi. I had to wear a splint for weeks.

I'm starting to wonder about this Moebius idea. I know it's always dangerous when I start to wonder in four dimensions...but if it were possible to twist my route to work into a Moebius strip, would it then take me the same amount of time to walk home as it does to walk to work? For some reason, no matter how fast and energetically I walk home, it always seems to take ten minutes longer than walking to work. I can't figure this one out, especially since it's basically a north-to-south-and-back-north direction so time zones wouldn't account for anything. My aura fell off when I was five. I've not had any problems though, except new agers scream and run away from me. That in itself is not always a bad thing.

Maybe it's the vertical aspect in which the time zones operate. Maybe it's to do with gravity. It's easy to go down the hill to work, though you might get a bit warm as you enter the atmosphere. But returning, you need to reach a specific escape velocity, and that can be slow work. I think this may be the reason for your disparity in journey times. By adding a Moebius twist, you could distort the gravity field in such a way as to play to your advantage either way.