Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Curse of the tiki doll

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Every day at Java Jack’s, a mini-morality lesson plays itself out for all to see and be seen. On the front counter of the South Minneapolis coffee shop sits a dime-store tiki doll that, when its button gets pushed, pounds its drums and plays a hypnotic voodoo solo that, frankly, gets pretty damn annoying if left to finish.

Which is why Julie Rathman, a full-time visual artist and part-time barista who at one time housed the little demon in her apartment, put a sign on the devil doll a few months ago:


For most first-world caffeine denizens on their way to the high-stakes business world or low-key family life, the temptation is too much.

“I love the psychological aspect of the coffee shop, and the decision people have to face,” says Java Jack’s manager Pete Christensen. “A lot of people ask, ‘Should I push it?’ They want us to make the decision for them. Most people stop, read the sign, and push the button.”

Does anyone resist?
At a time when values and personal responsibility are on the ropes, the news that people are blatantly disobeying the tiki doll sign is, sadly, one more reason to lose faith in humanity. But does anyone not give in to their worst side? Can anyone resist the doll’s temptation?

“Absolutely,” says Christensen. “Our neighbor is St. Luke’s church, and their pastor came in with her assistant pastor. When they were standing there, he read the sign and you could see the moral dilemma play out in his mind. I could tell he was probably wrestling with a lot more than just the doll in his life, and he took this as a little test for himself.

“And I’ve been there. I used to give myself these moral tests; I used to believe that you’re being tested, and I think you are to a certain degree. Anyway, he wrestled with it and came to the conclusion, ‘Nope. I’m not gonna push that button.’ And he really wanted to; he was denying himself some pleasure there.”

In “a life full of tests,” as the band Carbon Leaf once put it, most tests are not tests at all. Nor are they so black and white, boiled down to the act of to push or not to push. Sometimes you ignore the button, rendering it powerless. Sometimes you lean on the button a little; other times you sit back and imagine what it would be like to push the button.

Some days you push; some days you don’t.

“Some days you throw it up against the wall,” says Christensen.

To give in, or not …
In the end, everyone must ask and answer for themselves: Could you live without pushing it? Could you go on with your day not giving into your own curiosity, born of the primal urge to merge with the black magic, no matter what the consequences?

“First time I saw it, bam – I pressed it,” says Java Jack’s owner, Jerry Nelson. “Reverted right back to my 6-year-old self: ‘Don’t do that?’ ‘Yeah, right.’ “

Here it must be said that the tiki doll is not exactly legendary, or a big draw for the shop, or anything quite so exotic. At best, he is a mascot, often relegated to a storage shelf behind the counter when things get too busy and the staff doesn’t want to bother with the mass internal tsunami he inspires. At most, the tiki doll is a source of organic entertainment for the members of the jury behind the counter, most of whom blanch when customers ask if they should push or not.

Barista Josh Heffelfinger: “Don’t pin your dilemma on me, man.”

Barista Mandy Rismon: “I’m not your moral compass.”

Drums and vibes just keep going
Some customers push the button without giving it a second thought, and, when the drums and vibes keep going and the entire coffee shop is looking at the pusher, shaming him or her with Scarlet Letter looks, panic sets in.

“They feel really uncomfortable,” says barista Brittany Jane Jewkes. “They say, ‘How do I turn it off?’ I say, `I don’t know, you have to take it apart. That’s why we say don’t touch it.'”

The other day, a customer asked Christensen what would happen if he pushed the button. Christensen said he didn’t know, and when the man pushed the button and the doll did his thing, he said, “I think you just cursed your family.”

So beginneth the legend of the Java Jack’s tiki doll. Think not? When told about the demon and the dilemma, Kristin Thoennes, a writer, teacher and mom who lives near the coffee shop responded, “I can’t wait. I’m going in there tomorrow, just to push the button.”


You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply