Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump.
Coffee shops represent the mundane, dependable heartbeat of American life better than any other place. They chug along, tirelessly, day after day after day, selling delicious products to customers who are either in a rush or who want to sit and relax for a while: there’s usually no middle ground. All sorts of people pass in and out of the doors.
They are the crossroads of boring daily life.
There’s no better place to sit for a spell and be reassured that life is still thudding along. Existence is still going. People are out doing stuff, and having beverages.
It’s all okay.
Coffee shops are the stereotypical haven of writers. People trying to craft “The next great American novel,” or whatever. But this trope came from sound beginnings. Where else could a writer observe such a diverse cross-section of average people? Where else could a writer sit with a laptop/pencil/whatever, largely ignored for the hours and hours needed to painfully extract words from their brain?
Coffee shops provide solitude and solidarity in the same breath. Sometimes I find them peaceful…during those lilting afternoon hours when most people are away at their “Real” jobs, doing whatever it is they do when they’re not drinking coffee and eating pastries. Other times I find them annoying, loud, grating…during breakfast and lunch hours when they’re nothing but a rush of activity, boisterous conversations, and people sitting close enough to me to frustrate me for no real objective reason.
The music in my particular haunt varies wildly, thanks to a new partnership with a certain large corporate provider of streaming internet music. Sometimes it’s a nice smooth jazz, other times it’s thumping pop/club music. The shop seems to flow with the tempo of the music, though that’s probably my brain imagining things.
I’ve become a regular here now. Most of the employees know me by name and will ask me how I’m doing. I haven’t told any of them I’m a “Writer” because I still don’t know if I believe that myself. I throw out some occasional reference to my part-time “real” job, or a platitude about a mutual friend, and that usually suffices. I would get to know these people better if it didn’t require so much work, and the breaching of the personal/professional barrier. Lately I’ve taken to using the magic of online ordering, in order to keep the delineation clear and more quickly regress into the quiet isolation of sitting to one side, poking away at a laptop.
There’s one girl who works here who has no idea who I am, even though I’m here at least four times a week, often for many hours. It’s completely hilarious. Every time I go to collect an order from the counter and she’s working, she looks at me like I’m some kind of coffee bandit who is clearly there to steal someone else’s food or drink. No amount of introductions or friendly salutations have changed this dynamic. I don’t know how I’ve managed to stick in the minds of everyone else while leaving her to think me a miscreant, but I wouldn’t change it. It’s part of the charm of this place.
I started coming here to escape the norm of my “regular” work space, a desk about three feet from where I sleep. It seemed right to have a special place for writing, to treat it like it was a real job where I had to go somewhere, because hey everyone, it’s totally a real job. I have an easier time doing it if I at least try to trick myself into thinking I’m really doing it, rather than just pretending. The other customers help me to stay connected to people, so that I’m not writing from too-limited a pool of characters and experiences. I’ve also found that what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about big parties being more intimate than small parties is true: I can sit for hours with headphones on and no one will really notice me. It’s great.
Tools are weirdly important. “Gear lust” is often associated with video games or movie buffs or audiophiles(eek), but I’ve found that it can strike just as often for writers. There’s always new small PCs, new tablets, new apps, new keyboards, new noise-cancelling headphones, new writing surfaces, new weird pens and pencils…if you want to gear-up to be a writer there’s an infinite supply of stuff out there. My main go-to’s are a cheap Chromebook and a nice set of headphones, but I’ve seen people haul giant keyboards in here too. I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a “writer” in my travels, but I did see an artist once with a full Wacom tablet setup, complete with multiple monitors and power bricks…that was pretty crazy and cool. I didn’t talk to him. I was too busy being alone.
I made money at writing once. So I guess that makes me a real writer. I used to write product reviews for a local magazine. The review format is not too dissimilar from the humdrum essays they teach you to write in school. Even in this era of personality-based criticism, there are still basic things your reader is going to want to know about, and so you have to mention them. I still write reviews from time to time as a warm-up to fiction, and it’s nice to have a reminder of the days when I was a “real” writer.
I think writing would be easier if I liked the sound of my own voice in writing. I like to read other people’s work because it sounds nothing like myself. I always try to make my own writing sound unlike me, so that I have an easier time reading it. It doesn’t usually work out. Like right now, I’m furrowing my brow just looking over this paragraph.
Thankfully, the coffee shop doesn’t care if I find my own writing off-putting. The friendly employees and that one skeptical lady continue to produce delicious beverages, and it continues to smell like pastries, coffee, and burnt bagels. It helps me to be mindful. No one is coming over and telling me I’m not a writer. I’m the only one who is so skeptical.
I wish more places had the quiet reliability of coffee shops. That would be a-ok in my book. Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump.