Once again I find my plan to work hard on some serious posts has been interrupted so I’m exiled to Starbucks to be online and as I always do I can find some way to comment on modern life. Now I’m not just checking in with you, dear friends (as Starbucks wanted me to do when I logged into their WiFi and they wanted me to use FourSquare to tell everyone where I am so I’ll attract some company (and customers for Starbucks), which is an appalling idea to me since I just want to sit quickly in the corner and fiddle with my computer). So here’s my observation.
I’ve never “hung out” in coffee shops, even back in college when it was sorta the thing to do. And as Starbucks became a craze I had no interest in expensive coffee. But gradually the black hole created by Starbucks sooner or later had to suck me inside their event horizon and now I’m trapped. It started when I would travel to my company’s headquarters and I discovered a conveniently located Starbucks near the office and could save twenty minutes in the morning picking up “breakfast” and taking to the office, rather than having to go get breakfast while on the road (which involves actually putting on clothes and waiting for service). Bringing Starbucks to the conference room was what everyone else did so it worked for me, and, a) their “breakfast” wasn’t too bad (certainly the coffee was better than motel dregs or office swill), and, b) it was a legitimate travel expense I could put on my expense account. So step one in getting over my resistance.
But I really became an addict when personal circumstances forced me to leave my house on Sundays and go hang out somewhere. Now I’m not one to reveal all my personal secrets so we’ll just leave the details of why I’m exiled to non-public discussion. But basically eights hours is long time to just stay out of my house so I needed someplace to go. At first I used to go to a park, later to a rest stop on the interstate (literally in a van down by the river, if you recall Chris Farley’s SNL riff). But this is Omaha where a normal human being can only be outside for a few months a year, so some indoor place with either AC or heat became a matter of survival. And since I can’t last very long without a Net connection that became a mandatory part of my survival (smart move, Starbucks, free WiFi). And since it’s eight hours some sanitary facilities would be nice, a comfy chair is definitely a plus, power plug is essential and occasionally something to drink would be nice. So Starbucks became my Sunday home.
But this is just intro since my point about modern times is still to come, after a tiny bit more intro.
I do this silly but fun recreation called geodashing which involves lots of driving and thus requiring some breaks. geodashing gets me out in the middle of nowhere, but still within the range of that other American hangout, McDonalds. So I’d stop in nowhere and get my refreshments and wanting a change from the driver’s seat I’d actually sit there for a while. And in nowhere I quickly noticed that McD’s has become the meeting place for everyone in nowhere. Now I actually, as a small kid, often went with my Grandad to the literal country store with a literal cracker barrel. He’d find some excuse to hop in the pickup and have to buy something at the store, but really he went there to find some neighbor to chat about the weather, grain prices, and, of course, the stupid gubmint. Rural America needs someplace (esp. in those days for me) to congregate since normally they’re miles from anyone other than their family. So that cliche really existed, but all the country stores have been bankrupted by Walmart so now that somewhere is MickeyD’s.
In my limited experience at Starbucks I knew there was some social element, but it wasn’t until I started hanging out in one for eight hours that I really got the chance to observe it. In my neighborhood Starbucks a wide assortment of people come and mostly go, but a few stay for a while. Mostly they come in groups, stay in their group, and leave as a group, but I began to notice the same old regulars (mostly old-fart men like me) hanging around. Now “my” Starbucks was popular so when I first get there all the good spots are taken. I don’t care so much about the chair I’m using, but a power plug is critical since my exile is longer than my laptop’s battery can last. So I’d take the worst seat, play a little attention to the crowd until a better spot opened up, move, wait some more, and eventually get the good seat with the power plug. Big deal.
But, the “good” seat in my local Starbucks happened to be the corner power seat (power, not in the electrical plug, but the way geometry of space determines pecking order of the people). Which meant that the old-farts who came in to meet their friends had me sitting in between them. Now they could hardly talk back and forth to each other over me without the normal courtesy of at least pleasantly saying hello. A few weeks of this and they’re actually beginning to include me in their conversation at the cracker barrel. At first this was kinda fun as the people were my age and same socio-economic background, despite all being Repugs (this is Nebraska, a really red state). But as I became more familiar to them and they more familiar to me I found myself getting uncomfortable.
The problem was simple, I suck at the usual smalltalk that lubricates “normal” social interaction. I came to Starbucks to bury my nose in my computer and my world and so if I was going to talk with others, naturally (for me) I actually wanted to talk about something, not meaningless chitchat. Now you only see me by verbose posts, it’s not that I want to TALK, I also actually like to listen. I love it when another person tells me something I don’t know or offers a different perspective on something I do know, so I actually can (and like to) listen. But any of their conversation that involved more than four sentences on the same topic was always about people, esp. new grandchildren or hospital visits, that I didn’t know and frankly wouldn’t have cared about even if I knew the whoever they’re talking about.
Even the most important subject in Nebraska, the Huskers (which despite all the university’s sports team going by that label, HUSKERS means football). Now as another thing imposed on me by fate I have season tickets so I made the best of my lack of interest in football (esp. as bigger than life) and actually learned a little about Husker football so I didn’t sound like an ignorant hick (esp. as a male where spots knowledge is obligatory, whether you like or not). But even football talk had no interchange more than four sentences. So one of these people made the mistake, out of courtesy, of asking me what I was doing on my computer – big mistake. I thought he actually wanted to know, since I told him in a multiple paragraph dissertation. But I’ve been chastised enough for being voluble that I did notice the usual signs of eyes glazing over and realized he didn’t actually want to know, or at least more than three sentences worth.
So conversation became awkward. I either obeyed social convention and participated in the conversation obeying the four sentence rule of smalltalk or I appeared rude by ignoring them (hard since I’m sitting in the middle of the group). And these people are old-timers so I don’t even get the break that after a couple of minutes of verbal communications any younger person would be in their own world on their mobile devices chatting with someone else in four sentence conversations and leave me alone.
So one day “my” Starbucks was jammed, not even the cheap seats were available. So I went to the backup site in a more mall setting. Here people mostly come and go, rarely lingering. And since it’s not connected with a neighborhood, everyone is a stranger, and so other than a polite nod no one lingering here expects any conversation. Which means I can retreat back in my world of solitude in the middle of a crowd of strangers.
I assume the old gang is still at my neighborhood Starbucks enjoying their modern-day cracker barrel but now this more anonymous one is my new Elba.