I Basically Live In A Cafe


Today is the six-month anniversary of my patronage of a particular branch of a New York cafe. I’ve come here between 12 and 18 times a month, for four to six hours a day, for six months. I’m proud of, and embarrassed by, this. There are regulars here, but there seems to be none more regular than I am.

I’m such a regular that when I go to add milk to my tea, I sometimes line up the four metal milk dispensers on the bar in a neat row. Maybe I’ll even go so far as to place the glass simple syrup bottle and the plastic squeezy bottle of honey next to the milk containers in descending height order. This is how the baristas like things.

In the time since I first started coming here, a lot has happened, technically, but most of it has probably gone unnoticed by most of the people who come here, including the employees. Six months feels like a long time to me, but for the people who actually work here, it probably isn’t.

Since I first arrived in December, between ten and twenty AA members have had meetings with their sponsors here. The two outlets in the cafe stopped working, then one started working again. Several people have met to talk about their screenplays. Dozens more have met to talk about their plays. People have interviewed for jobs. A model had a meeting with a prospective agent during which they talked solely about her recent boob job, she complaining that her breasts now looked “too shiny” in photographs; he reassuring her that they looked amaaaazing. I have written 44 articles of between 800 and 3,000 words, written around 42,500 words in a document called “Journal,” and written about 15,000 words of a nebulous fiction project.

One barista has quit to go work at a bar and another male barista has taken her place. There has been a problem with the awning or maybe signage outside the cafe, and contractors including a middle-aged Hasidic man and a blonde 40-something man who looks like a surfer have come by to assess the situation. The artwork on the walls has changed five or six times. The espresso machine has probably broken once. Maybe not. The bar next to the registers has been cleared off to make room for five pour-over coffee contraptions, the management having presumably buckled under the popularity of pour-over coffee.

The man in the wheelchair who used to come in here and watch movies on a portable DVD player has stopped coming. The Japanese man who always brings a book, a notebook, his iPhone and earbuds, still comes, as does the Steve Jobs-esque man who always brings a different nonfiction book with him, along with a MacBook and a mouse, which does not move well across the cafe’s marble tables.

Today a man is meeting with a friend or possibly AA sponsor. He is explaining to or reminding the friend that he is on “the no-fly list,” and that he has been desperately trying to get the mother of his child to move back to New York City from what I’ve decided is LA. “I had a dream about her last night,” he tells the friend wistfully. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” the friend asks in a German accent. “No, man, I’m not trying to get back with her, it’s just that she’s the mother of my son, you know?” He shows the friend a picture of his son on his iPhone. A few minutes later they leave. The German puts an arm around his friend as they walk down the street.

Another person is working on a PowerPoint filled with bullet-pointed interview questions. Tell me about a time you had to resolve a conflict, reads one.

Famous people occasionally come in here — B.J. Novak, Terry Richardson — and fellow patrons get far too excited about it. The baristas tend to act like it’s no big deal.

It’s been suggested by one of the baristas that I be added to the payroll so that I can punch in and out along with everybody else. It would be fun, I think, if I could both make coffee and write at the same time, or rather, alternately every hour for eight hours. But then I would be roughly half as productive and half as good at each activity and would probably make the same amount of money. So I continue to type, or read entire books in one sitting as a means of putting off typing. Reading never looks very urgent or important, and I think the staff might wonder why I spend four hours reading here when I could read at home in a more comfortable chair. But I will go to great lengths to avoid writing, and will also go to great lengths to avoid avoiding writing by surfing the Internet. I have so little self-control that I have to go to a cafe at which wifi appears sacrilege.

In terms of sheer volume, and arguably quality, this cafe has enabled the most productive six months of my life, not counting the six months immediately following my graduation from college. I think after college I had not yet caught the disease of the Internet, and then I did catch it, and became increasingly unwell over the course of a few years, and now there is this cafe, my sanatorium. I was obviously very reluctant to check myself in here, as most people would be, but now I depend on its relatively monastic atmosphere and excellent non-contemporary music as much as I used to depend on the Internet.

Discipline begets discipline. Good habits beget other good habits, just as bad ones beget other bad ones. Since I have started coming here, I have also started running every day. Soon after I started running every day, I developed better eating habits and stopped drinking so much. In fact, I’ve basically stopped enjoying drinking, I think because running has taken the place of alcohol in my brain.

Being here, as opposed to floating around the city or Internet aimlessly like a piece of debris, has led me to ask myself, What else in my life can I crack the whip about? People talk about doing yoga or meditation to “stay sane,” but dead zones work just as well.

As winter has turned into “spring” and now summer, I have a nagging feeling that this routine is supposed to end soon. I seem to enjoy ending things for no good reason. But I think as summer approaches people feel the need to end a lot of things, to change. To go on vacation, or to quit their job, or to become single, so as to take full advantage of the weather and what it tends to do to people.

What it tends to do to people here, mostly, is that they don’t come here as much. The cafe, since college let out, is routinely half-empty. The voice of one barista echoes through the half-emptiness as he talks to another. The college students are busy working or interning for no money somewhere. The models are busy working in prettier, less humid places. But for the rest of us still sitting in here, things have taken on a bit more urgency. Namely, we talk to each other more. People seem more aware in summer that life will at some point end. They are more appreciative of everything, or at least the sun, each other, and sex. So I feel more invested in this dead zone rather than less. I tidy up the counter. I don’t mind that the price of my drink recently increased 25 cents. Discipline also encourages stubbornness, and so: there is really no other place like this in New York.

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