Cafés. There are more than 35,000 of them in America, representing a market value of $45 billion. And if I was marketing a café, I’d be tempted to feature the clip that I recently saw; perhaps you did, too.
This clip – with almost three minutes of images, music, and voiceless words – shares a lesson from a retired professor offering coffee to a group of past students who had come to visit him and to discuss the growing dissatisfaction in their lives. He set a pot of coffee in front of them, along with assorted coffee cups made of all different materials. Most opted for the porcelain and finer-looking pieces, prompting a final lesson from the good professor: “Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. What you are all really wanting is the coffee. Life is the coffee.”
As a debut author whose book project was saved by a café (as described below), I’d like to both respectfully disagree with the wise professor and to serve a different pitch for the coffee shop. Life, like the coffee shop, might be less about the coffee than one might realize. It all depends on what you need from that cup of coffee. I don’t want to harass a cup of coffee, but for me, drinking it was most definitely not about the coffee, or the cup for that matter. It was about the café itself.
For those of you who don’t know, coffee shops existed in pre-pandemic times. It was a place where human beings congregated for many reasons, with the observable pleasure of holding a cup of coffee after choosing it from a menu of choices (which constituted a study in its own right). But the café served far more than drink to the many I had seen entering it. It held the shared secrets of unfolding friendships, as well as the committed ambitions of students who pored over their computers, with the occasional textbook, real paper, and note-taking pen at their sides. And many individuals who were in some stage of a business project would claim a suitable space that would allow them to continue, sometimes with others at their side.
I began using my local café like the library. I’d park myself in an unpopulated corner, for hours at a time, with my laptop as my coffee date. After months of doing this work on my desktop at home, I had reached an impasse with the second round of edits on my memoir, now under book contract – threatening to undo the reams of work I had already invested in this book project. The only way around this resistance was to take my laptop out of the house to a place that could offer the perfect blend of focus and distraction. Here, I could sample the flavor of the written words facing me, while stirring my thinking process by occasionally looking outwards at life around me. Looking up and around allowed me to catch rich images of friendship and to overhear, unintentionally, dramatic fragments of their lives. Clearly, coffee dates moved along their lives from day to day, week to week. Most entertaining of all was following the unavoidable conversation around who was paying this time, and who was graciously accepting.
With my order of the most basic, unexciting small decaf coffee with a drop of hazelnut milk, I was ready to engage in this stage of my work. The first phase of book-writing was as breezy as writing can get. It mostly flowed of its own accord, all too happy to show up on the page like nursery children blissfully uninhibited with their banter. Then the real work begins: the arduous, demanding task of understanding what I wanted to communicate and why. And then, to make sense of it for the reader, I have to bend words to my command – a process that could intimidate even the most committed and most experienced of communicators. Unbeknownst to anyone around me, I’d fight mightily to coax out a dialogue between the characters in the story, to expand or narrow an idea as necessary, and to straddle the balance between what was too, or not enough, self-revealing in this deeply personal narrative. All of this process happened right here in the café.
This strenuous effort would bring me to the café four days a week, for at least four hours each day. This new work pattern prompted me to tell people, “I work at the café. If you need to speak to me, come see me at my desk in the back.” The back was the table right near the bathroom, which meant that I was in the perfect position to give the bathroom code to the new crop of café-sitters. Without even looking up, I’d say, “The code is 1245.” And then I’d catch their gratitude on their way out. Just the right amount of human interaction for this emerging author, and anti-socialite.
Incidentally, unlike the library, one is politely expected to buy more than one cup of coffee when taking up that space for so many hours in a café. The going wisdom: order a drink every few hours you are there. Satisfying that informal code of coffee-shop ethics, I would take a stroll to the counter several hours into my workday to order a second cup of boring, calorie-free coffee, and maybe even buy my fruit and nut intake for the day, in the form of a cranberry-pistachio nutrition bar. Enough fuel for the next round of fights.
I want the good professor to know that a cup of coffee can spill over into your life in a few ways. It could caffeinate your day. It would warm you when you are cold, and chill you when you are hot. It could bond you with your friend. (Tangentially, sometimes a lovely-looking cup can yield more pleasure than the coffee itself.) And it could, as in my case, have nothing to do with the coffee itself. It could just be the excuse for showing up at the café to do my work. Because it is just being at the café that serves the onerous task of making my writing more fluid and being able to swallow yet another half hour of edits.
As the world opens up, you know where to find me as I begin work on my second book. I will be rejoined by fellow human beings who are building their lives in some concrete way, including those studying for college, nurturing their friendships, and progressing with a business project.
Since life, for me, is not in the cup or the coffee, I’d reframe my marketing pitch if I was marketing a café : Wake up and smell the Café. And do savor the 340-page memoir, DARE TO MATTER: Lessons in Living a Large Life.