Cafe Culture: “Working”

Carla Fran, tender churl,

I conducted an experiment in public solitude yesterday and thought I would acquaint you with the results. In some respects it resembles the challenge of looking “come-hithery” while learning the musculature of the belly-dance chest circle.

The goal: to try “working” at a “cafe” in “the city.” This is something people do. I haven’t been getting any work done at home. Yes, it’s always struck me as faintly silly that people claim to seriously work in a cafe, where others congregate to caffeinate and talk, but I suspended my disbelief. Or lied to myself about my intentions.

After noodling around for five or six hours and selecting some reading material, I boarded the subway and took off. I found, to my surprise, that somewhere along the ride I became a jumpy, sunken, resentful version of myself–a version left over from my college days, when I loathed the starlets in the making and the Prada-be-backpacked sorority women and felt a little (okay, a lot) contemptuous of everyone around me.

It might have something to do with my contact with the sciences too. They bring out a deeply serious version of me, all curves and percentages and amino acid structures. Thank God I took some time away, or I would have been singularly humorless.

The serious, paranoid and sullen me walked moodily into the cafe and sat down at a table next to a couple.

A few words about rage: I attended a football-watching event at a local bar on Saturday. A friend asked that I be her wing-man. I agreed and spent most of the afternoon seething at the bizarre structures that reproduce endlessly around the institute of the Football Game: the ironed-straight blondes with their makeup and yellow t-shirts, the tall toothy Ken-dolls high-fiving each other in coordinated and unimaginably off-putting shows of bro-love, the Jack Daniels booths, shirts and games, the abundance of sneakers, the wetness and elbowing and braying.

I wondered, as these feelings eddied and surged, erupting occasionally in derisive snorts, whether classism or snobbery had seeped into my impeccably fair-and-balanced world view. Sitting in the cafe, observing the comically loud man–an academic, it became clear–bellowing ironic idiocies at the slightly drunk girl next to me, who kept brandishing and nearly spilling her beverage, I was pleased to find that my hostility and spite transcend social categories.

Back to the cafe. I’ll never forget this time when I was in Atlanta, also sitting in a cafe. I’d decided to sit there and write whatever was around me. I landed on a guy sitting on the couch to my left. So I wrote about him. As I wrote, I noticed him glancing at me every so often. He had a notebook too. Growing suspicious, I got up. Mimed–in the way one does, to total strangers with whom one doesn’t otherwise communicate–that I had to go to the bathroom. As I walked past I glanced down at his notebook. He was drawing me. I was writing him, he was drawing me. Together we’d created an unmeaning closed circuit of artsy-fartsy solipsism. So much for the naive subject.

Eh. Forget it. I’ll never really get back to the cafe. Which by this point had turned into more of a bar anyway. The loud couple took over my table. The cafe transitioned to beer; I stuck with coffee. I talked to an Indian about his ambition to live in Dubai. He was sweet but silly-looking. An earnest contrast to the assortment of men there, one of whom had borrowed his hairstyle from Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia. The youth’s proud livery of many sideburns, many hats. I felt self-conscious about my hair.

The work I did: laughable. Yes, electric energy. Stimulating noise. But if hairs be wires and black wires grow on our heads, mine weren’t sparking for proper brain-work. Don’t know if it’s the sort of thing I could learn to do. I arrived home exhausted and filled with phlegm. Felt bleak, a little like I’d stolen something from myself.

So, where can a person do real work? Well, I’m home after a day of more-than-usual production. Find that the key to focusing at the library is a) reading in a recumbent position, but face down b) listening to classical Indian music and c) using hair to fashion a curtain around me so that I’m not visually distracted. It’s not always easy to find an available couch, and my arms get a workout holding half of me up while I read. Sometimes they even shake. Still, I’ve made some progress today, arm tremor be damned. And nobody was drawing me.

Fondly,
Millicent

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