I'll admit it. I'm one of those pretentious coffee shop assholes. I leave my perfectly good, perfectly quiet house and pay $4 for a frivolous espresso drink, then sit down to write or read.
I did it at first five years ago because I felt that, in order to be a fancy, successful writer, I needed all the bells and whistles - gorgeous, shiny notebooks that would eventually contain the gorgeous, shiny prose that would make me famous. When I was eighteen friends introduced me to the creamy, sugary, frozen/frappe drinks that made coffee tolerable, and the quiet ambiance of the coffee shop made the whole exercise seem comforting - even necessary. That summer after I graduated high school I wrote page after page of bad fiction and gained five pounds.
Today, I can tolerate unsweetened coffee with milk and prefer to write in a beat-up OSU notebook. Somehow, the prospect of writing seems much less intimidating that way. But I still haven't kicked the coffee shop habit, even if I now go mostly for the sake of pleasure and productivity. There is just something to be said for getting out of one's house, which is full of chores to be done and various other distractions. Often times at home I'm ready to buckle down and write, but I decide to check my e-mail first. Next thing I know it's five hours later and I'm finding myself laughing my ass off to a Dr. Tran video.
Going out increases accountability. I'm much more aware of what I'm doing when I'm not alone at home. Plus, I'm much less likely to start watching that must-see documentary on sex addiction when other people can see my monitor. (I swear it's not porn! They blur out the genitals, see, so that means it's scholarly! )
Had I gone to college twenty years ago, I can imagine myself drinking black coffee at some hole-in-the-wall place and writing angsty poetry, back when it was still kind of hip. But it is no longer a fresh concept. Everyone has jumped on the bandwagon; even McDonald's has its "McCafe" now. Starbucks has a worldwide empire (I know this because I've had the same drinks dozens of U.S. cities and five different countries). Soothing, mellifluous Italian words like espresso, latte, and cappuccino are no longer for the elite or trendy.
I know this because today I'm at a chain coffee shop. I'm trying to write, and I keep stopping. No matter how hard I try, I just can't get absorbed in what I'm doing. When looking for a seat I chose carefully because I have bad tendency to sit next to the most obnoxious customers. I found a comfy chair across from a guy sitting by himself with a laptop, seemingly a safe option. But before long, the two employees are yakking so loudly behind the counter that I can hear them from where I sit - over my music. Then, the guy with the laptop starts responding to what they're saying. Apparently, he's a regular.
"You're, like, the biggest eavesdropper ever!" the girl barista half whines, half giggles flirtatiously at the man.
Really? Because eavesdropping implies I had a choice whether or not to listen. I'm growing irritated; I'm even starting to sympathize with the anonymous customer who once left a survey comment at my job complaining the staff was too loud in the morning when (s)he tried to study. (Savor this moment, people, because I don't often side with customer complaints.)
Another man enters and sits next to the guy with the laptop, holding a book. They know each other, and they start talking loudly about cell phones and computers for over an hour. The guy barista even joins the conversation for a while while replacing creamers behind me, talking over me to the men. While this occurs another man (a large man in a bright orange shirt, no less) is outside leaning on the window next to which I'm sitting as he talks on his cell phone. I'm literally surrounded by people and noise, and it's two in the afternoon on a Wednesday.
This is what has become of the writer's haven and once well-kept secret. This is what has happened to local cafes, bars, and restaurants of all varieties with the advent of chains. Instead of a relatively small clientele who generally understand the unwritten codes of conduct, places now have to deal with every schmuck who walks in the door barking into his Bluetooth (or, as the brilliant late George Carlin once put it, "these self-important techno dicks" - watch this video at 5:05).
It's not that I don't think everyone should have a right to go where they prefer - and for whichever reasons they'd like - but what happened to the little local place I used to frequent where people could just sit and be themselves? Where all I could hear was the hum of quiet conversations, soft alternative music, and milk steaming? Whatever my reasons for doing the whole pretentious wannabe coffee shop thing, it used to be something I truly felt was mine, and it was easier then to ignore the fact that other people were discreetly doing the exact same thing when I didn't have to listen to the details of their phone plans.
My phone rings. It is my boyfriend, and I don't give a flying rat's ass about answering in public because no one else seems to care about the atmosphere of the place. I tell him where I am and what I'm doing, and he responds that it's "fancy," but he's dripping with irony. Born in New York City in 1990, he came of age long after Starbucks blew up and only yuppies started to go there with their laptops. Like me he's a writer, but unlike me not a coffee drinker. Like my past boyfriends, he seems to think I'm trying too hard to create a writerly image, or maybe I'm just assuming a veiled criticism that isn't actually there.
Maybe I should just cut the crap. Perhaps I really am still clinging to some dumb writer fantasy I got off of TV, still just the lame high-schooler who does this in the name of my own vanity. I could, after all, get as much accomplished on a park bench or at the T.G.I. Friday's in the afternoon post-lunch lull. But those places still don't have super-comfy leather chairs and the delicious scent of espresso beans and baked goods, nor do they have the romantic (if not naive and vain) promise of potential writerdom. Perhaps it's time to start getting my coffee to go and re-acquaint myself with the public library, which is among the last public places where it's acceptable to tell loud douche bags to kindly shut the fuck up.