Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Home away from Home

I love coffee shops. When I first moved here, there were exactly two: the Starbucks in the Barnes and Noble, and the alternative/independent coffee shop across town. That one was often smoky and chilly, so I usually hung out at Barnes and Noble (which was sterile and overpriced). Since I had fallen into the habit of reading and writing in coffee shops while living in Buffalo, it was very difficult for me to continue working on my dissertation once I moved here. I needed an environment in which there was enough going on that I would be distracted from the solitude of my work, but not so much noise or activity that I would be unable to concentrate.

Ironically, almost the very second I finished my disseration, coffee shops started popping up all over the city. At this count, there are at least seven Starbucks and five or six independent coffee shops, with one that just opened last month and another planning to open any second.

My current favorite is the only one that is open 24 hours a day. I've noticed that the "cool" people (including me, of course) hang out there, which I think is due to the fact that it is open so late. The other night while I was there, the background music was courtesy of Left of Center, a Sirius station that featured all of the bands from my high school and college days (Echo, The Cure, etc.), many of which seem to be coming out with new stuff that's pretty good. Which made me feel both nostalgic and hip at the same time.

The thing is, if you have to do a lot of reading, coffee shops are the best places to be. No matter how engrossed I am in my book, there is always the danger that I might fall asleep. This is especially true at home, where I am probably already in my pajamas, and where everyone else is very likely already asleep. Coffee helps prevent this from happening, but so does the interaction with other people, the snippets of interesting conversation, the chill that reaches you when a customer opens the door. Too, I am still enough of a New Yorker that I don't feel entirely safe falling asleep in a public place. There is a part of me that worries that I will wake up, cold and alone, missing a kidney and lying in someone's bathtub. Or at the very least, that I'll wake up and find that my wallet and phone have been stolen.

And I think I speak for everyone who has ever been a teacher when I say that coffee shops are what stand in the breach between the pile of ungraded papers and insanity. (I know of one professor who contends that what stands in his breach is a large bottle of red wine, but ever since that time in high school when I stole (and drank much of) a jug of red wine from the concession stand where I worked, I have never been able to look red wine in the eye.) During those times when you have been looking at the printed page for so long that your eyes are crossing, you can at least stand up, stretch, and wander over to ask the barista for another chocolate dessert with extra whipped cream. (Weight gain is an occupational hazard for teachers. It is extremely difficult to grade papers while using a treadmill.)

The danger of adopting coffee shops as substitute living rooms, however, is that you cannot control who hangs out in your coffee shop as you can in your real living room. If someone comes into your home reeking of smoke, talking loudly on a cell phone, or being a Republican (kidding!), you can always ask him or her to leave. In a coffee shop, however, you can't do this, so when someone starts playing the piano, or breaking up with her boyfriend via cell phone, or holding an AA meeting at the table next to you, you either need to get over it or pack up your stuff. But the great equalizer about coffee shops is that, if you are one of the people being annoyed on any given day, chances are good that, next time, you will be the one annoying someone else.

The other danger is that no matter how cool the coffee shop may be, if it serves sandwiches, it is likely to be co-opted by the suburban elite during the lunch hour. Not that this town really has a suburban elite - it's more that there are definitely times when a wealthier and more conservative (also professional and heterosexual) crowd is in evidence, and times when a significantly poorer and probably more liberal (also student/underemployed and queer) contingent gathers. So the trick is knowing when to go so that you are there with your peeps, if that's important to you. (My peeps tend to be there mostly late at night.)

You'll notice I haven't said much about the actual coffee at any of these places. That's because it is, in my opinion, the least important thing. I'm all about the atmosphere - can I work there? Are the people friendly? Is it a comfortable temperature, with comfortable chairs? Will the music be too loud? As long as the coffee doesn't suck - and for me, "doesn't suck" translates into "isn't Sanka" - I'm happy.

But I will say that my favorite place makes a mean mocha.

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