Contemplating Friday: Your office, the cafe

coffeeI walked into my local cafe yesterday. I like the place: it has chairs and tables outdoors in what San Francisco calls a “parklet;” the barristas smile as if they’d been having a bad day, but now that you’re here things have brightened; the coffee is strong. There’s free Wi-fi, almond milk on the condiment counter, local art on the walls. To the newcomer this cafe seems like the classic version immortalized in our imagination. Here poets scribble their pained couplets, anarchists gather for meetings, scriptwriters toil.

But a second glance would quickly dispel this notion. The place was full, as always. Yet it was strangely quiet, as if 30 people had just been told that an acquaintance had passed away unexpectedly; someone they didn’t know well, but it was a shock just the same. Patrons sat unmoving, staring at open computers. One or two began speaking loudly on their cell phones. I sat down next to two women who seemed to be socializing, but when the words “search engine optimization” floated toward me and I took a closer look at their false smiles, I realized it was a job interview. This was not the café of old. This was the newest version, the Café Office Space.

I understand the value of a great café to work in. I wrote my first book at this one, years ago, well before Wi-fi and the word “coworking.” I had no contract, just a dream, and writing among the hubbub of strangers was comforting. Back then it was easy to wonder at how many people didn’t seem to work, here in the middle of the day. The tables were full then too, but they were grimy and mismatched. Low-fat milk was not served. Cell phones were new, and their use inside was a sin equal to lighting up a cigarette, punishable by grimaces and glares. Bad punk music blared from tinny speakers, the coffee shop workers’ (calling them baristas would’ve been met with suspicious frowns, as if you had cursed at them) small revenge against their absent bosses. Conversations were noisy but somehow they merged into pleasing background sound, like a sleep machine set on “Ocean.” We rarely spoke to each other, just exchanged knowing half smiles — here we are again  as we stuffed napkins under unsteady table legs, and wiped crumbs from our chairs. We were a community of strangers.

In sum, the café was a gathering place for society and its ideas, but real work — the kind someone paid you for — was almost nonexistent. The cafe was there as an affront to work. It was a sticky-tabled, scuff-floored testament to the idea that there were more important things going on than what the Man wanted from you.

But the Man has won out. Cafés have been appropriated as work spaces. There are rarely human voices, just the hum and occasional ding of computers. A social conversation will be met by pinched disapproval on the blue-lit face of the person at the table next to you (though, oddly, cell phone conversation is tolerated.) As I unpack my own computer and swivel my head to look for an electrical outlet, I wonder if I like the change. Edgy glamour has been supplanted by the gleaming silver of high end laptops. Socializing is muted.

But what am I complaining about? Even I am here to use my café as an office these days. My kitchen table won’t do. I want the energy of fellow humans around me. I take a seat, arranging my new desk. The person next to me nods, and offers a quick, but familiar half-smile. The café may not be for slackers anymore, but it’s a community all the same.

Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Caroline Paul is the author of "East Wind, Rain" and "Fighting Fire," and she co-wrote "Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology" with her partner Wendy MacNaughton. MacNaughton's illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, Juxtapoz, and Print Magazine. "Lost Cat" was inspired by the curious disappearances of their beloved Tibia.
Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Tags: Downtime,Tech Culture