Alone with People

Dear Reader,

Clacking keyboards, clanking appliances, and clucking customers make up the soundtrack of Starburcks on a Wednesday afternoon. I am sitting alone in a corner huddled over my laptop in a small café filled with teens, the odd-adult, and a few hardworking twenty-somethings. It is an interesting experience to be alone in a public place.

The coffee shop culture, especially in large cities like Boston, is ever growing. Inviting locales are those that offer cushioned seats, a multitude of plug outlets, and water on tap. Cafes resistant to the culture are those that have sparse seating, closed wifi, and strict rules about who may occupy a table (e.g. tables reserved for parties of 2 or more, no laptops, etc.). Starbucks is, perhaps, the original trailblazer of the coffee shop culture. In my mind McDonald’s is to fast food restaurants as Starbucks is to coffee shops. Like McDonald’s, Starbucks is often taken to go, but has seating available for those who prefer to linger.

Today, I have chosen to get some work done at Starbucks in lieu of the office. From my pillowed perch, I am afforded a glance into the lives of my fellow neighbors. Starbucks, in my opinion, is a place where humanity from all of society’s nooks and crannies mingles. Waiting in line for a grande americano is the great equalizer. Businesspeople in suits on smartphones, high school students, blue collar laborers, foreign tourists, and homeless people who reek to the high heavens can all be found in line at Starbucks. I have seen Chinese tourists who uttered no words in English pantomime orders, police chiefs loudly pronounce their drinks, and regulars who simply nod, hand over their card, and receive “the usual”—Starburcks is a place for anyone.

Starbucks is also an ideal site to be alone in public. At my local Starbucks, most of the seating was made to comfortably accommodate no more than one person. There are high chairs along a bar, small tables with two stools, but only big enough for one laptop, and one communal table, that usually hosts two to three singles. My independent soul thrives in crowds. It can feel nourishing to travel the world alone, with purpose and excitement beside but separate from fellow humans. Sometimes I prefer to be “alone, alone”—like in the comfort of my home—however, for work tasks, typing away on a laptop in a crowded café feels like enough human closeness to feel connection, but also enough space to feel free to do my own thing.

The Starbucks crowds predictably ebb and flow. At 7am, the floor is quiet, but the first trickles of the impending morning rush hour are apparent. Right before 9am, you are left to choose between a long-anticipated dose of caffeine or a late arrival at work. The crowds increase with lunchtime and recede (then at my location, crowds peak again at 2:30pm with the end to the school day for the public high school). Starbucks has no dinner rush and after 3pm things are relatively calm until close.

The right café crowd can make or break your experience. Sometimes I feel that seeing others typing furiously on their laptops, scribbling hard into their notebooks, or scanning the pages of a novel sends invisible waves of positive reinforcement that I should focus on my own tasks at hand. Also, at other times when everyone seems to be chatting away or posting on Instagram, then I feel that it is time that I too take a break.

To me, the best cafes are the ones that have a little ‘hum’ or ‘buzz’ to them. The ‘sizzle’ and ‘pitter patter’ of machines, mumbles of conversation, and sweet tenor of overhead music creates a consistent source of melodic clatter. This blend of sounds makes it so you can hear each if you choose to focus on them, but they can also fade into the background if you turn off your ears. Sometimes, I do not get so lucky with the noise. If a café is sparsely populated it is much easier for one’s ear to zero in on a conversation. Even very interesting and eavesdrop-worthy exchanges become irksome when you feel that there is no ‘mute button’ to temporarily muffle the words.

I enjoy my solitude as well as the company of others. When the conditions are right, a long stay at the local Starbucks is a nice compromise. Whether you choose to spend your time at home, in the office, or in a cafe, I hope your environment is pleasant, the seats are comfortable, the water is free, and wifi is open.



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