It took me a few years after college to get addicted to coffee, and I am proud to say I am making up for lost time, thank you very much. It happened gradually. A cup every other day, a cup every day. Six cups a day. See? Gradually.
At this point, above and beyond the physical addiction, I am also addicted to coffee shops, and other than Paris, there isn’t a better place to be addicted to coffee and coffee shops than Seattle. It’s not so much the quality but the sheer volume. (For what it’s worth Seattle does not have, per capita, the most coffee shops in the U.S.; the winner there is San Francisco. Or Berkeley. Or Vancouver, WA. Depending on which Web site you use as a source.) The paradox of choice is never more evident than when I ask myself where do I want to write today?
Because I am a coffee snob, the answer, of course, is “Anywhere but Starbucks.” It’s not only that Starbucks is a giant corporation—concerns I could mentally wipe away with a simple “Starbucks is local!”—but that the coffee is, quite simply, terrible. The last time I was in Paris I was astonished not to see a Starbucks in the city but to see the massive crowd both in the shop and in line to get in the shop. If you’re there for the “cultural” experience, go nuts. If you’re looking for a good cup of coffee, go literally anywhere else in Paris.
Similar to my status as an Official Wine Snob, my coffee snobbery means I don’t really know what I like, only what I don’t like, so most of the non-Starbucks shops will work for me. What it comes down to, more often than not, is the kind of buzz I want around me as I write. Normally I will bury myself in headphones, minimising the conversations and music and coffee grinding, but those don’t stay on all the time, and in any event “noise cancelling” does not mean the same thing as “noise eliminating.” If it did, it would mean all those useless thoughts holding their hourly parade in my head would go away, freeing me to write the Great American Novel, or at least The Great Novel, or, at minimum, The Novel.
The real question, actually, is not whether noise cancelling headphones really work but whether or not I want to use them in the first place. If I really wanted to experience the authentic vibe of a given coffee shop, shouldn’t I park the headphones in the backpack? It’s not that I am unable to write without music in my head, that I am lost without it vying with the Random Thought Parades. Mainly it’s that listening in on other people’s conversations can be, well, damn it all, fun, and too interesting to pass up. And one of the unique joys of the coffee shop is that it’s one of the few places (an airport is another great locale) we can eavesdrop and get away with it. At least that is my understanding. Yours might be different, in which case I say go outside if you want to have a private conversation. And don’t forget your phone, please.
For instance the other day the two men sitting next to me were talking about The Simpsons, and I couldn’t help smiling about the anecdote under discussion. One of the men made eye contact with me and I said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to listen.” (Mostly true.) To which he replied, “That’s ok, we are in a coffee shop, after all.” Now ordinarily I am not the “All-I-need-is-one-example-to-validate-my-possibly-messed-up-point-of-view” kinda person, but I am willing to make the occasional exception, such as in this case. The man absolutely spoke the truth. Of course our conversations are inane and meaningless to outsiders 95 percent of the time, and if we were honest about it, they are inane and meaningless even to the people conversing. So most of what I hear is thus the filler of existence.
But oh, the things I have heard from the other five percent—and, for that matter, the things I myself have said! I am sure somewhere there is a book or a blog or a blogbook or a bookblog about “stuff overheard in coffee shops,” and all I can say to that is, as usual, I am miffed I was too late to jump on it myself. It’s ok, though. I am sure my next Great Idea is only a conversation-at-the-next-table away.