Coffee Culture

It began in law school when I was miserable and lonely and sick of sitting in my apartment with study guides and hardcover texts splayed about the floor. I needed to get out and I needed to get out regularly. Where I ended up is where many other people end up these days in similar situations: a coffee shop. Specifically, Starbucks. There was one near my apartment so I went there and ordered a froufrou coffee drink, sat with my books, and ogled attractive people while pretending to study.

And that's been the formula ever since. I'm writing in a coffee shop right now: Tea Lounge in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. I'm leaning against a brick wall, I have my laptop on my lap and I'm watching a mother and son play Pac-Man.

A coffee shop is like a greenhouse for my brain. At home I have too many distractions: TV, TiVo, DVD player, DVDs, Netflix movies piling up (Eraserhead on pause because Craig fell asleep). A coffee shop is a vacation for my brain. Despite the people, despite the noise, I can home in on my work and not cave into temptation. Unless, of course, the coffee shop has a wireless Internet connection, in which case I'm in trouble.

Tea Lounge has wireless, and after writing that last paragraph, I checked about 14 websites, my email, my IM account (I'm AdamR218; say hi!) and my Friendster page to see who looked at my profile. But we're back now, and where were we? Oh yes, talking about coffee shops.

Doing work at a coffee shop is way more social than doing work at home. People will sometimes talk to you—unless you're wearing your iPod, like I'm wearing my iPod right now, ignoring the people around me while listening to Nellie McKay. But sometimes I leave my iPod off, and people approach me and ask me if I'm on the Internet. These people tend to be older people still baffled by what computers do, what the Internet is, and how it all works.

"No, I'm not on the Internet," I'll lie, trying to convince myself that I'm actually doing work.

"Oh," they'll say, disappointed. "Sorry to bother you."

Once, however, I was at Joe with my iPod off and I had an extra ticket to see Nellie McKay in concert. I was going with my friends James, Diana, and Kirk and Kirk had to cancel at the last minute. So this guy with lip rings and eyebrow rings and bright-orange hair sat down at my table and somehow we started talking. He said his name was Robe. "Robe?" I asked, before he said it again and I realized that he was Rob with a British accent.

He was an art student—a painter visiting from London—and we talked for a good hour about literature (I was reading Bleak House at the time), painting (Goya, his favorite painter) and the differences between Americans and Brits. As I was getting up to leave, I asked him if he wanted to come see Nellie McKay. I could tell that he didn't know many people yet here in the U.S. and that he might want companionship. "Sure," he said, eagerly.

We were the unlikeliest of friends—a neurotic Jew and a British punk—but coffee culture brought us together, and now every time I see him there, we sit down and have a chat.

Looking around me now, I see clusters of people. Some are isolated, like the woman next to me reading from a book called Sold American and typing on a laptop. Others are holding babies and chatting (this is Park Slope, after all). Some are noshing on pastries, and others are pouring tea. And some, like me, are drinking coffee.

To my mind, the quality of coffee is slightly less important than the quality of environment when weighing the merits of a coffee shop. Good coffee will certainly make you want to come back, but if there's nowhere to sit, or if the seats are uncomfortable, or if the staff is inhospitable and irritated at your commandeering a table with your laptop, you won't want to go back.

That happened to me at Jack's, once, in Manhattan's West Village. Jack's is often ranked up there with Joe as having the city's best coffee. It's stir-brewed, meaning they stir the coffee grounds while it's brewing. I think the coffee there is fine, but one time I was sitting, doing work on my laptop, and they asked me to leave. Granted, they asked me really nicely, and also, granted, they have like four tables in there, but that was difficult to shake off.

Joe, on the other hand, is a different story. I love Joe's coffee, and, even more, I love Joe's environment. It's a big open space with big windows and light shining through. It once had a sign up that said, in effect, "Please enjoy your drink and then leave, so someone else can sit." They were reacting to the bane of coffee shops everywhere: me.

There are a lot of mes at coffee shops these days. We come with laptops and sit and stay for hours. It's a viral phenomenon and rather than combat us with hostility or further aggression, Jonathan Rubenstein, the owner of Joe, took down the sign. His approach is very zen and very wise. Now the same people come back day after day with laptops doing the work they've come there to do. And everyone loves it.

Everyone, that is, except for the people who come in looking for a table. They look desperate, frantic, and very often, they leave. I've been among them, too: I've walked into Joe with my laptop on my back and an overwhelming sense of dread—I'll never get a seat.

Here's how to overcome that:

  1. Getting a seat is a state of mind. If you convince yourself that you'll get a seat, you'll get a seat
  2. Don't rush the ordering process. Go to the bathroom, get in the line and then, after ordering, mill around while they make your drink. It's in this window of time that a seat usually becomes available
  3. When you get your drink, get it to stay so that your need clearly expresses itself. As you stand there holding it, look around for empty chairs at occupied tables. That's key. Because that leads you to step 4, the most important step
  4. Ask someone if you can sit at their table. You'll be surprised, most always they'll say yes. And who knows, maybe you'll strike up a conversation? Regardless, this is the best way to always get a seat at a coffee shop: ask for one.

Coffee shops offer one of the last vestiges of community in this day and age of isolation, iPods, and Internet. You can still isolate yourself with music and laptops at a coffee shop, but you're in a public sphere, a social sphere that's easy to lose touch with in the post-graduate afterlife. To my single friends, I say, "Don't go to a bar, go to a coffee shop. Read a book and drink some coffee and you'll meet someone." It worked for me, that's where I first met my boyfriend Craig.

Well, not quite. I saw him at Joe, over and over again, but I couldn't tell if he was gay or not so I didn't say hi. It was on Friendster that I saw he viewed my profile. I saw his picture and thought, "Hey, isn't that the guy from the coffee shop?" I wrote him an email, he wrote back, and we've been dating for ten months (and we go back to Joe together quite frequently).

So go to a coffee shop. Bring your computer or a book. Don't worry about a table—you'll get a seat. Avoid Starbucks, if you can. And keep your iPod off if you're not doing work. You never know who you're going to meet.