There are two things you dream of finding when you move to the city: your regular bar and your go-to coffee shop. Anyone who moves to New York constructs their personal MacLaren’s and their own Central Perk in their mind well before their U-Haul hits the BQE. Once your security deposit is paid, you begin your quixotic search for the bar and coffee shop of your daydreams. Sadly, some dreams cannot be, and some douchey crowds you cannot weather. That pub with such great potential turns out to be an over-priced tourist haven, and that hip looking coffee shop is little more than a crowded office, just with cooler music and better dressed people. Eventually, you give up.
Though I’ve come to believe that becoming a regular at a bar is just easy shorthand for socially sanctioned alcoholism, I do think we could all find our perfect coffee shop if it wasn’t for our Wi-Fi based economy.
I’ll never forget the first coffee shop I walked into in Williamsburg. I remember the sunken eyes of the beleaguered barista dispensing small coffees and the cheapest pastries in the case to struggling freelancers, desperate to pay the lowest possible admission for their slice of hardwood bench. A muffin bought you two hours of Internet; a large latté was a day pass. The customers were packed shoulder to shoulder, their Macbook Pros almost touching. It was the office of your claustrophobic nightmares, but without the solace of cubicle walls pinned with Dilbert cartoons. The mugs and muffin wrappers served as tokens to let the barista know you had paid the price to be left to work alone in peace.
A coffee shop shouldn't be a place where you're passive-aggressively eyeballed into maintaining the quiet reverence of a library or DMV waiting room.
You can’t blame the bespectacled legions basking in the glow of their Macbook Pros. Like Chris Farley in Wayne’s World 2, they’ve got nowhere else to go. Between obnoxious roommates, endless construction, and the fickle hand of Time Warner, few city dwellers are lucky enough to have Wi-Fi in their homes. Your favorite taco spot doesn’t have Wi-Fi. The park doesn’t have Wi-Fi. The local bookstore no longer exists, and even if it did, it also wouldn't have Wi-Fi. So, if you have any work to do, you crowd the coffee shop with everyone else jockeying for a seat close to the outlet yet far away from the cold breeze whipping through the front door. You hope that it will stay quiet enough that you can concentrate. After all, your noise cancelling headphones aren’t quite as noise cancelling as advertised.
As it stands, the local art and concert fliers on coffee shop walls serve the same purpose as the chintzy Americana on display at T.G.I.Fridays. The décor appeals to your sense of what the place is supposed to be, what you want to feel, but in no way reflects reality. Sadly, a chalkboard and a globe would better symbolize what is going on here. Welcome to adult study hall: please tip your barista/classroom monitor. You moved to New York, to Chicago, to Denver, to Austin, to talk about art and philosophy as you sipped your latté on a beat up couch. Instead, you’re packed like sardines into an exposed brick closet where you're expected to finish your drink in silence, lest you violate the unspoken freelancer’s code. Before you can possibly enjoy your mocha, you have to fight tooth and nail for a seat, a table, and an outlet. There are too many disserations and screenplays being written here for you and your OKCupid date to find a table, so you'll just have to take that fragile social interaction elsewhere.
This isn’t what a coffee shop is supposed to be. At least, it isn’t what sitcoms and indie movies told me a coffee shop is supposed to be. A coffee shop should be a place for the excited and argumentative to throw around ideas for start-ups and graphic novels and Twitter parody accounts. A coffee shop shouldn't be a place where you're passive-aggressively eyeballed into maintaining the quiet reverence of a library or DMV waiting room. If my local coffee shop is little more than a shared office space, why shouldn’t I go to Starbucks? Why not share space with the yoga moms at Panera? At least their bathroom works.
Introducing free citywide public Wi-Fi (as Los Angeles is considering) would release freelancers from the confines of the coffee shop. Writers could cruise Wikipedia on a park bench or on the steps of a museum. Designers could camp out in a taqueria or a burger joint if they so choose. The coffee shop, for its part, would become something closer to what it is meant to be (or at least what culture promised us it was), a place where people talk, pontificate, debate, and flirt. It's a sad state of affairs when the only place to have a real conversation is in a boozy back room at some dive bar between the hours of 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Perhaps free public Wi-Fi won’t change the overcrowded businesslike culture of your local coffee shop. There will still be freelancers perched on wobbly wooden stools, pecking away in dark corners, but they won’t have a right to stare you down if your conversation rises above a whisper. After all, they can always find somewhere else to work where it's a little quieter and there aren't so many people.