Coffee Club Culture

800px-Coffee_shop_JIIT

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons (not my coffee shop)

I knew he was trouble when he walked in. Tall, well dressed, self assured, he strode to the back of the coffee shop to the couches—clearly he saw someone he knew. But there was something palpable in the air. Anger.

I wish I didn’t, but I have radar about these things. Call it sixth sense, call it ESP, call it busybodiness. I call it tuned in, observant. Even with my headphones on, the music turned up, I knew something was about to happen.

This story isn’t quite as dangerous as I’m making it sound. Not quite. But almost. The facts were that this man—middle-aged man—went to the back of the coffee shop to confront what I found out (what we all found out) was his ex-wife. He wasn’t physically threatening but he raised his voice—in his defense, so did she. Then for the next hour they argued.

Yes, an hour. Raising their voices frequently, I couldn’t help but hear them. We all heard them. It was unpleasant. At one point, one of the guys who I see almost every day turned to me and said just one word: “Brutal.” Later in the hour another guy—I’d never met—and I shared a few pleasantries. First we acknowledged the stress and anxiety we were both feeling. The awkwardness that was unavoidable. Then we chatted about the road work outside. He was an engineer for a large project our town’s in the middle of. He said that sometimes people yell at workers, swear at them even. He was a nice young guy just trying to do his job.

The coffee shop I always go to (I called it a club in the title because it sounded better between coffee and culture) has been problematic for me lately. I finally figured it out. I’m a regular. I’m comfortable, as comfortable (almost) as I am at home. I know the baristas, I know the cashiers (even the new ones), I know a lot of the regulars. We chat. It’s wonderful, but I feel like I’m losing my edge.

This morning one of the other regulars apologized for sitting at “your table.” He smiled when he said it, but it turned out another regular had said something to him. We all smiled, but it made me realize even more that I’m too comfortable. I have “my table,” I know the irregulars who come in just to fight in a neutral place or escape someone swearing at them, the barista has “my special drink” (for the record, I only have it once in a while because it costs $5.40 compared to $2.00 for a cup of joe), I know the prices of everything, where everything is. I even alerted the staff this morning that the bathroom was out of paper towels.

I’m too comfortable, leading me to complacency, I realized this morning as I nodded to all the regulars on the way to my table (which I reclaimed after it was vacated—hey, it’s near an outlet), settled into the chair in the same position as yesterday, proceeded to log onto Twitter and Facebook. Then I caught myself. That was the whole reason I started going to the coffee shop in the first place—I was doing those same things at home, having trouble concentrating…and writing.

As for the argument, the angry words died down, the well-dressed ex-husband left, and the boyfriend came back to sit next to the ex-wife. It was all starting to make sense. But the culmination of the fight was still one more distraction I had trouble tuning out, proving once again I’m just too comfortable.

It’s time to shake things up again. Maybe next week I’ll try a new table.

Cheers,

Julia

Have you ever had this happen to you in a too-familiar public place? Do you get complacent in your routines (like I do), leading to lower productivity? Have you abandoned routines because it becomes TOO routine? What techniques have you tried?

Comments

  1. Wow, that sounds so awkward, but I have to admit the writer part of me was thinking, “Oh, that must’ve been really good dialogue to listen in on!”

    I know what you mean about being too comfortable, though. I recently moved my desk from the office to my living room because I realized I’d gotten into a rut of working from my couch because I get more sunlight there. It was killing my posture and just making me FEEL lazy. But now that I’m getting comfortable with my desk in its new place, I realize it’s not the desk I have to move, it’s me. So I’m making a point to go to a coffee shop or a co-working space more often.

    The only routine that doesn’t seem to get old for me, and that I wish I could keep up for longer stretches at a time, is waking up extra early to write. I find I can only sustain that when I’m deep into a draft or working on very intense edits, though (like I am currently). Ah, the complexities of the writer’s life! 😉

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      Yes, the complexities 😉 It was very awkward — and after the first few minutes (of thinking I could get some valuable diaglogue) I tried to block it out. As for working space at home, I’m trying to figure out how to do a standing desk, but more and more — I think it’s from long hours alone at home — like you I’m drawn to the idea of co-working and coffee shops. Maybe the trick is to move around to different ones. That’s so interesting about early morning writing, which is my favorite time too.

  2. Shary says:

    I hate drama in public places in real life, so I probably would have left the café when the argument started. I should learn to hang in there and steal for my writing!

    I’ve never settled into a routine outside of the one I have at home, so for me, a café can still work its magic and shake things up. At the moment, though, I have to admit that not much writing is getting done around here. It’s all tap all the time until our next dance concert Labor Day weekend. I’m promising myself that I’ll get back into my writing rhythm after the concert is over. Fingers and toes crossed!

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I hate drama in public places too, Shary, and I was all set to leave several times then things lightened up briefly. Ugh. Finally when I’d had enough and packed up (after the hour) they wrapped it up. Sigh. LIke you, maybe I should shake things up and try a different coffee shop. (p.s. That’s exciting that you have another concert coming up! Can’t wait to hear all about it!)

  3. Julie Luek says:

    Oh Julia, I totally get this. I have a local coffee shop I go to, but like you, I’ve gone there so many times (although not a regular yet) that it’s lost that “sitting in a cafe being a writer” feel, which helped fuel my creativity a bit. I went through that with the library too. I ended up taking a hike one day and writing at the summit and on another, sitting by the river. Sometimes, even at home, I have to go outside on my deck, take a notebook and pen and not use a computer at all.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I think the variety is the answer, Julie — thank you for your insight and experience. As you imply, when things stop being fresh it may be time to move on. Ah, a day in the mountains, hiking, sounds wonderful… maybe I should take my work down to the water’s edge! Thanks for the new idea!

  4. Nina says:

    Loved this post . . . such a good sense of place. I’m always at different shops. It all kind of depends on where I need to be before or after for picking up kids and dropping them off. There are some coffee shops where I know I will get nothing done. It’s for Twitter and FB only. Some I like for visiting other blogs. Some I like for actual writing. Some are too cold (as in actual temperature) to get anything done.

    I once overheard one friend tell another that he (she?) had decided to live life as the opposite gender. The friend clapped and jumped up to offer hugs and congrats. It was a very nice response! (I just can’t remember now if it was a man deciding to live as a woman or the other way around.)

    I might do a post about coffee shops around Mpls and which ones I like for which reason. Thanks for the idea!

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      Let me know when you do the coffee shop post, Nina — I’d love to see it. I also love that different coffee shops fulfill different purposes. I can totally see that because maybe this coffee shop will now become my social coffee shop and I’ll look for another to write in! That is a sweet story about the two friends…so much sweeter and wonderful than what I heard!

  5. This post reminds me so much of what I tried at the beginning of 2012 — taking the Jeep out to write in different locales. But for me, it proved a bit unsuccessful in that I was so enamored of the nature around me, I did VERY LITTLE writing. And I have to confess: I do not and will never understand the allure of the “sitting in a cafe being a writer”… EVER. I need my quiet and I need to focus. So maybe MY answer is a little room with no windows, no cats, no people, no tempting aroma of coffee, no wild animals… Oh wait … Hubby’s ham shack? Ha ha.

    I AM going to try writing in remote desert locations again. I think, like Natalia said, if I’m deep into my project, the outdoor air may actually inspire rather than distract.

    Sorry about the Looney Tunes you had to deal with. Ick.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I remember your post about the nature writing! I loved it! The thing is that this coffee shop has been so successful in helping me write — earlier this year writing an entire manuscript. Maybe it’s as you and Natalia say that if I’m deep in my project it will be more possible to write anywhere. (Yes, the looney tunes was not fun to deal with, thanks for your sympathy.)

  6. Lori P says:

    Hey Julia! Well, I’m reading this at my favorite coffee shop, though I swear I’ll get to work on the WIP just as soon as I finish my sandwich. =) Since I live in Seattle, there’s far too much foot traffic to achieve regular status. Every time the seat is different and occasionally there are no seats. But anything beats the deafening quiet at home. So I’m happy to be here staring at my blank screen.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      Okay, Lori, I think you actually read my mind today (with several of your comments). First, we have just two coffee shops in town and occasionally they’re quite crowded… and today I was hogging a table (how I felt) and — truth time now — watching an ASHTON KUTCHER speech someone had posted on Facebook (I had headphones on). I suddenly looked around realizing others might want to use the table. I’d been there two hours and had ONE SMALL cup of coffee. Still, second comment I could relate to… it’s deafeningly quiet at home. Sigh. Here’s to finding an empty seat! Thanks for taking your break time to read my blog :)

  7. Definitely. That’s one reason I’m doing this triathlon. Trying to push myself out of my comfortable box. I definitely need to do that with my work. I’m stalled on a story for a local magazine. I just don’t have any interest or heart for it. I need to push for a bigger challenge. Once I get my butt in gear and finish this piece (and do a good job in spite of my tude) I’ve got to set my sight on writing goals out of my comfort zone. Loved this piece Julia.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I feel so much the same way, Jamie — I really want to push myself away from comfortable. It’s a good thing to do it prior to the empty nest, so way to go. I am very impressed by the triathalon, by the way, WOW. Wish I could be there to cheer you on. As for the writing, it can be frustrating when it doesn’t go easily, but then when you push through, the feeling is amazing. Hang in there, Jamie, you can do it!

  8. I’m big on writing at the coffee shop, Julia. It’s not because I love the coffee shop so much. I think it’s because my apartment is so small. Sometimes I just need the change of scenery. (On my wish list: a home with a proper office! Heaven!)
    At home, I always find things to distract me. The Internet, sure, but also I notice that the floor needs vacuuming, and the dishes need to be done, and look over there, I see some dust on that shelf. At the coffee shop, there are other distractions, but I can tune them out more easily because they don’t apply to me. That must sound strange!

    Things at coffee shops here are different. Brooklyn is such a writerly city, there would never be that kind of exchange happening in the coffee shop. They would take the conversation outside, or someone would ask them to do so. People even take their cell phone conversations outside.

    Hope your writing is coming along well!

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I can really understand the “so small” reason for coffee shop writing. Even though I have a desk and a kitchen table and a dining room table, I still feel closed in at home. It’s more the familiarity than anything, I think, that allows my mind to wander. At the coffee shop (when it works), it’s not my place so your other reason also makes perfect sense. EXACTLY my problem so it doesn’t sound strange in the least! I actually just mentioned that in my last week post on WriterUnboxed! I wish I had variety like you do, to choose from…is Brooklyn too far a drive from Maine?

  9. Barb Riley says:

    You’re such a rebel—thinking about switching up tables at your coffee club/shop! LOL

    Since I need silence when I write, I stay away from public places with lots of people coming and going. Well actually, the one place I go for out-of-house-writing is the library, and, as most libraries tend to be, it’s pretty quiet there. 😉 But I hear ya on shaking up the routine. Grabbing a notebook and pen is my “go-to” shake up. I’ve also found that traveling is good for me, so sometimes I’ll take the train into the city (the ride is over an hour) and write while on the train. Somehow simultaneously moving and writing invigorates me out of the same-old/same-old, dusty and stale thought process.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      HAHA. Guess what? I took your advice and sat at a new table today (TRUTH TIME. That same guy was sitting at my table again!). I remember your suggestion for writing in notebook with pen, but this is the first time I’ve heard the train idea. I really really like it. There’s a train between here and Boston which is four hours roudn trip, but I may give it a try. Great idea, Barb! thank you!

  10. I just learned this lesson myself a couple of years ago. Changing my routine–even if it’s unrelated to writing, like driving a different route or walking in a new park–is the best boost for my creativity. Even though I know this, I still get in ruts sometimes, like you. Honestly, I should have thanked my local Panera Bread in my acknowledgements, I was there writing so much.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      That’s a great lesson, Jessica, thank you for sharing it. It’s hard because in some ways I love the rut, the routine (since the coffee shop regulars become my co-workers in a way). There’s no doubt if I get the current WIP (I’m querying) published, I will be thanking that coffee shop crew. They were key!

  11. Oof! That sounds super awkward and very juicy. 😉 I bet every writer in that place was eavesdropping for dialogue ideas. I know exactly the feeling you’re describing about getting too comfortable. I think there’s value in routine, but I also think there’s inspiration in new surroundings. Maybe you should try a different coffee shop in town for a bit?

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I think you’re right about every writer eavesdropping… no one left, that’s for sure! Thank you for your advice about trying a new coffee shop… I have one other to try (we only have the two!).

  12. Erika Marks says:

    AWKWARD!

    Oh boy…I am always amazed at how people engage in private discussions in public spaces. Sure, we’ve all had our moments but as soon as the volume rises, it’s time to relocate, people!!

    But then as we love to say, Julia, it does make for good book fodder, right? 😉

    I love that you all shared eye rolls and quiet groans. I am always so impressed at writers who can work in coffee shops–I can’t do it!!

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      It was horribly awkward, Erika, and pretty surprising to me (the introvert) who feels uncomfortable if I laugh too loudly. Yes, time to relocate! It was a bonding moment among regulars, however! As for being a writer who can write in coffee shops? Maybe I’m a used to be?

  13. Cynthia Robertson says:

    I’ve never tried doing any serious writing in a public place. My life’s too busy, at present, I think. It would simply cut into my writing time too much to have to load everything into my car and go someplace else. I wish it wasn’t so! It sounds fun and inspirational.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      Yes, the loading and unloading does take a little time… although now after figuring out what I really need for a few hours, I’ve gotten it down to a bit of a science and one bag I slip my laptop into when I’m ready to go! Here’s to more time soon so you can give it a try.

  14. Uncanny! You’ve written about the exact issue I was dealing with today.

    As you saw on Facebook, yesterday j visited me in Taos. Being out and about with her, combined with the conversations we had about writing, provoked a desire to shake up my routine. I’ve been writing at home, enjoying the quiet and the comfiness (house clothes) of home after leaving a stressful office job. But it was clear I was losing my sense of creative adventure. It was too safe.

    This morning I said to Brian, let’s have breakfast at El Gamal. We sat on the patio and I enjoyed the glimpse of Taos Mountain I could see behind the parking lot. It was a perfect summer morning – not too hot. I was determined to continue enjoying the outdoors and combine it with some writing. After breakfast I took my laptop to Wired – the best coffeehouse for writing outdoors. The moment I got there, I spotted a friend. We had coffee together and a long chat. Moments after he said goodbye, rain started to sprinkle. Sigh. I headed home before the rain could start soaking. Might as well be in the comfort of my office than sit indoors at Wired (been there, done that). It’s pleasant hearing the rain on the roof and knowing I don’t have to drive home.

    However, I shall not give up. Must have at least one adventure this coming week. Thanks for the extra impetus!

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      Glad you could relate… and I agree with this wholeheartedly: “However, I shall not give up.” The days I stayed home I really felt restless and wanting to get out of the house. I switched tables at the coffee shop with mixed results, but I’m also starting a new WIP so I’m nto sure where the restlessness is coming from. Here’s to more adventures that fuel our writing, even if they divert us for a short time. Eventually they fuel the fiction fire, right?! Can’t wait to hear what you come up with, too, Milli!

  15. Great post, Julia! I also went to a coffee shop to give me more unction to write, but found myself people watching instead. Too much going on for our observant eyes. Can’t wait to hear new stories from the perspective of your new table! :)

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I love this: “more unction to write”!! There IS so much to see, so true. I switched tables this week, and the new one seems to be more social, maybe too close to the barista? So I end up running into and chatting with a lot more people — regulars and irregulars 😉

  16. I always liked the idea of being a regular somewhere, and a coffee shop sounds like as good a place as any. Better than a bar at my age. I can’t seem to manage getting myself out of the house to do it. I’m pretty darn comfortable right here, and mostly the patrons are friendly and mild mannered.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      Haha, you’re so funny. You know what’s so strange is that I never wanted to be a regular– I guess it’s the introvert in me–and it always surprises me when they even remember me! Still, now that it’s happened, I do kind of like the companionship. You’re lucky you have those mild mannered patrons… me? Not so much some days :)

  17. Eliza says:

    I’d love to find a cafe like yours to write at on a regualr basis but I’m afraid I’d break the bank with my expensive grande-mocha-turtle-pumpkin-cappuccino-lattes concoctions! I love a plain ol’ cup of coffee just fine but I’m always tempted at coffee shops to get fancy drinks!

    … Now my 3 pm latte craving is raging in full force…
    :)