Why I don’t write in cafés (though I’d sure like to)

This morning, I watched the haggard faces of the work-doomed file past me on the rush hour bus. Every soul within each trench coat seemed to be thinking: “Why am I here? Why am I not at –” replace dash with the place they would locate to if they won the lottery.

For me, that place would probably be a coffee shop. I’ve this dream where I sip a latte while tapping away on the keyboard, composing my chef d’oeuvre. For some reason, this seems to be a common dream for aspiring writers. It sure sounds attractive. Coffee, a peaceful setting, a constant stream of interesting people going by, and you in the midst of it all, scribbling down all those clever and inspired things that reside in your brain and are clamoring to be broadcast to the world at large.

Oh look, there I am now, on my way to a nice little coffee shop, the kind Hemingway would’ve surely found inspiring. I’ve got my laptop ready, my dreams sharpened up, my bum eager for prolonged contact with the comfortable red leather upholstery. The door tinkles open. The waitress greets me by hiking her chin up and turning her back on me. She struts behind the bar, and uses a wet cloth to carefully wipe the coffee machine steam wands before so much as glancing my way. I order a double cinnamon latte, since having cinnamon syrup in your coffee is almost as good as having a coffee and a cinnamon bun. The waitress sighs: “Anything else? We’re just opening for lunch.” I decline. Since aspiring writers are chronically short of cash, I ate at home.

I sit down with my coffee. There’s a nice spot in the middle of the café— only it’s not that nice. There are people everywhere. It is starting to be around eleven a.m. and contrary to my expectations, the café is already teeming with the early lunchtime crowd. I start to write, but instead of getting all those great ideas on paper, the only things that come out are all sorts of variations of “all work and no play make Laura a dull girl.” I imagine the people glancing over my shoulder, expecting to glimpse at some chef d’oeuvre, and only coming across sorry snippets of amputated prose with self-esteem issues.

After fifteen minutes of this, a business woman who’s been very busy tapping away on her computer gets up and leaves one of the corner tables. I rush up and take that seat before anyone can beat me to it. I feel so much better with an eyeless wall firmly behind my back. So now I write. The chef d’oeuvre’s still on the back burner, I’m just scribbling away, throwing a few words together to maybe assemble a blog post or a short story. And then, all of a sudden, I run out of my double cinnamon latte. You know, the one that cost me my part of this day’s food budget. That’s too bad, but I keep writing. It’s what I’m here for. After five minutes, I glance up. Is it just my imagination, or is the waitress giving me the evil eye? And is that couple with the heavy trays wobbling this way? Have they latched eyes on my empty cup? Are they going to…

“Excuse me? I don’t mean to rush you, but are you just about to leave? Do you mind if we sit down? All the other tables are full.”

“No, no. Take a seat. I’m just… Go on.”

They sit down, the woman sitting next to me on the bench. She could have a look at my chef d’oeuvre if it existed. I turn the screen the other way and start tapping. I can’t just sit there. For some reason I start to pretend that I am a serious business woman, preparing for a very important meeting. I acquire a pensive expression, like I’m trying to think of a tricky business problem. At that very moment, the waitress dives in for the kill. She snatches my empty cup away from me and asks: “Would you like anything else?” in the driest voice imaginable. Either she believes customer service is a type of teacake, or she resents me sitting there, taking up the space of serious people, the ones who don’t aspire to be writers.

“I’m fine, thanks!” I say, hanging on to my water glass, which still has a tiny sip of lemon water. I’m saving it. It’s my ticket to keep sitting for a moment longer. The couple eyes me. They’re smiling but I can see their expressions spelling out: “When you leave, we’re going to have a Meaningful Conversation.” Out of nervousness, I accidentally take a sip and drink all the water. The waitress is there like a hawk, her anorectic fingers fastening on the glass, black apron clacking professionally as she strides away with her catch.

Here I am, a gooseberry without a drink. The screen is a mess of sentences that don’t seem to come together in any meaningful fashion. I start to wonder if James Joyce wrote Ulysses in a café.

I give up. I pack up the computer, scoot my bum off the soft leather, and smile at the couple. They smile back. Their smile says: “Finally! It’s just the two of us now.”

I walk out, and face the autumn drizzle. I could go to the library and try to write there, but instead I head over to the bus stop. My face is grey, but my dream is refined. I dream of sitting in a café, uninterrupted, tapping away at the keyboard, composing my chef d’oeuvre, with a non-stop flow of latte and a tap on the gluten-free buns.

Not to mention service with a smile.

11 thoughts on “Why I don’t write in cafés (though I’d sure like to)

  1. Excellent!! I’ve had this before myself and thought your descriptions of it were just perfect.


  2. Nice piece — I like your style!

    I have a lot of friends who like to write in cafes and I don’t know how they do it. For me it’s not just whether I can afford to buy (and drink!) that much coffee, but how distracting I find all those other conversations and people around me. I just can’t stop people-watching long enough to concentrate on writing!


  3. I like my privacy when writing, so I absolutely understand.. Do you take the challenge if I do it, you do it?
    PS: My neon pink trenchcoat says more “I’M HERE!! CAN YOU SEE MEEEE?!?!?” than anything else 😀


      1. I recommend a pink trench coat, at least the colour will make you happy! I never thought I would wear it, but it has been my best friend since I took it home.


  4. Laura, I do believe you have solved the mystery of Ulysses for me. I can never thank you enough. And this goes on the list of things I wish I had written: “sorry snippets of amputated prose with self-esteem issues.” Deeelicious!


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