Sunday, March 2, 2008

Cafés, or, The Silent Face-Off

Cafés, in Cambridge, are crazy. That photo above? That is a photo of Starbucks from someone else's Flickr account.

See all the empty chairs? Is your mind blown just a little bit?

Obviously, this Starbucks is not in Cambridge.

Today, I walked from Harvard Square to Central Square, mainly because it was outrageously beautiful out. Also, I had many books about washerwomen's labor unions and Atlanta and New Orleans, and I thought it might be a good idea to read them. I love reading in coffee shops, I really do. But lately, I have had kind of a rough time finding shops whose profusion of delicious drinks are matched by availability of open seats. I'm low maintenance. I don't demand a profusion of seats. Just one would be okay.

So I set out for Central Square, with the idea that I would combat this conundrum by systematically evaluating every coffee shop between Central Square and Harvard for seat availability. If I knew more math, or perhaps more computer science, I would love to formulate some kind of useful theorem about people and how long they stay in cafés. Mainly, when they are likely to leave. From the outside, it appears very unpredictable, but since restaurants who manage their own seating seem to have a good idea of how this works ("your table will be 15 minutes, miss,") I'm pretty sure there's some science behind it.

Anyway, so you'd think that I would have started at Harvard and moved outward, but no. First of all, that would have been far too sensible for my tastes. Also, I knew that if I started from here, I would become progressively more and more distressed as I encountered failure after failure, whereas by trekking out to Central Square I was accepting the prospect of repetitive failure from the outset.

(I am not pessimistic, you see, except for when preemptive pessimism allows me to preserve my overall optimistic outlook.)

Fortunately, after steeling myself against the possibility of 5-7 instances of failure, I ended up failing only once. Which, by contrast, seemed like a giant success! To be honest, I probably could have taken that seat at Clear Conscience Café, except it was a table for three, and I was only one person, and since I was going to all this effort to combat the inefficiencies of café seating, it seemed silly to monopolize an entire table. And by silly, I mean unethical! (I was trying to maintain the moral high ground? After all, it WAS called Clear Conscience Café.)

(You may be starting to realize that I have potentially put too much thought into this.)

The next stop on my tour happened to be a corner Starbucks. I know, right? Starbucks. I like independent coffee shops and everything, too, but so does everyone else in Cambridge, I guess. So, Starbucks. I found an attractive brown leather chair in a sun-drenched corner, experienced the briefly glowing sensation of unexpected success, and draped my outerwear over the chair before going up to order. Since it was so sunny and everything, I decided to get an iced green tea latte. It tasted wonderful.

But! Here are some things I've noticed about coffee shops around here.

1) People get very passive-aggressively competitive about finding and keeping seats. Also, there is a silent face-off anytime a new student, freshly determined to complete her reading in a pleasant and bustling and caffeinated setting, enters a packed coffee shop. She looks around beseechingly, thinking that everyone there has overstayed their welcomes, a $4 latte certainly shouldn't give them the right to monopolize a table for hours! Especially when they're only using one of two chairs. Even though she was planning to do the same thing. Everyone sitting down peers up from reading, looks protectively at the empty chair opposite, and thinks: how inefficient this, but how lucky I am.

2) Taking the empty seat across from somebody is TREASON. In Starbucks, at least, where everybody is supposed to mind their own business and protect their hard-won electrical outlet. Interestingly enough, though, I had kind of a disorienting experience the other day at Petsi's Pies. I was listening to my iPod (sorry!), and reading about washerwomen, and sitting across from an empty wrought-iron chair. And then I looked up and noticed that someone was trying to get my attention. The place was packed, and a very nice graduate student wanted to sit across from me, quietly, and do her work. At Starbucks? Never. But since this place is tucked into a neighborhood, I felt warm and neighborly, and also guilty for listening to music on headphones, as that decreases social efficiency so dramatically. (People feel terrible for interrupting you, and don't know how to discreetly get your attention!) We sat together, amiably, for the next hour. There was the brief incident of her compulsively trying to clean something on my half of the table, and then apologizing for being compulsive. But in a neighborhood coffee shop, I was happy to accept compulsiveness as charming. AND quirky!

3) I just think there's a culture clash between people who want to use coffee shops as mobile offices—want electrical outlets, free wi-fi, peace and quiet—and people who want them to be friendly, gently social, non-passive-aggressively-competitive spaces. Spaces, maybe, where it is possible to occasionally find a seat?

4) The chairs. They are uncomfortable. I would like them to be comfortable. But maybe this is the way the coffee shops avoid encouraging people to stay all day long?

Is there a solution to these conundrums? I do not know. But as long as coffee shops continue to serve delicious beverages—suitable for all kinds of weather!—I really have no choice but to frequent them. So! Stay tuned for more field reports of social inefficiencies. Tempered, of course, by century-old news of washerwomen's labor unions. Because some things? They just never get old.

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