Greetings from Laptopistan

Every now and then a topic comes along that you’re just helpless but to weblog about. Particularly, in this case, as I was sitting warming myself at The Gate over a free stout dark beer (Brokelyn Beer Book coupon represent!) reading this particular story in Sunday Times Metro section, when the kindly Southern woman I was sharing a table with interrupted me (apologetically) and asked me what my thoughts were on that article, since it had been getting so much buzz online all day long.

“Well,” I said, folding the paper over to remember my place, ” It’s kind of fascinating, because I guess I’m one of these people.”

The story was the section front Sunday lede: “Destination: LAPTOPISTAN,” ostensibly an effort by the Times’ David Sax to immerse himself gonzo style in what has become a much-written about culture of youngins who have colonized coffee shops across Brooklyn, New York and America, hogging power outlets, sucking up broadband and nursing a single cup of coffee all for the sake of (as the trope goes) checking Facebook endlessly and Gchatting how the daylong outage of Tumblr stunted their output for the day without the ability to check the latest Bread Person.  It’s even led to the coining of a particular repellent term —”coffice” — it hurts just to type it — to describe the establishments that are part coffee shop, part shared work space. 

Sax frames the story in a traditional (if not overplayed) anthropologist-in-the-urban-wild format, starting with the indignant “who are these flanneled slackers and their strange culture?” attitude and coming around by the last graf to the “oh God they’re people! Average people! And I’m one of them it burns it burns!” attitude. In truth, the article is a look at one specific iteration of this trend, Atlas Cafe in Williamsburg, surely a neighborhood particularly prone to this kind of behavior, though the same can be said of mostly any coffee shop in Brooklyn, and in any other major city, I’m sure. Sax asks several denizens of “Laptopistan”what causes their behavior, and finds out that (surprise!) most of them are actually doing work and are driven to Atlas for a sense of structure and camaraderie (even if it’s a silent camaraderie).

So, here’s my confession: I spend probably at least three days a week working out of our local coffee shop, The Flying Saucer, often from the opening title music of Brian Lehrer until my MacBook battery runs into critical red territory in the afternoon (not counting the two-hour weekly Brokelyn meetings we often hold there as well).

Mostly I go there for crunch work: writing, researching or blogging — stuff I can do silently after the reporting is over. And my reason for going there so often is simple: I do a lot of freelance writing, which means I’m on my own schedule a lot of times, but it’s a whole lot easier to dick around on the internet while sitting alone in my room. When I’m in the coffee shop, I feel a sense of pressure — with a dozen other laptops clicking away around me, a small business meeting in the corner or even a cute girl sneaking occasional glances from the corner table while sketching away at a graphic design screen, it’s a way to feel part of  larger productive community, one that deserves your attention enough to focus on your work and actually get something done instead of checking The Daily What every 10 minutes looking for the next hilarious mashup to share on Twitter.

At the same time, it’s key to not be an asshole: I recognize the coffee shop is a business, and a business that is notoriously difficult to make profitable to boot. My ass in the seat takes up valuable lunch time real estate, wi-fi bandwith and so forth. So, I make a point to spend money, buy coffees, send friends there (and moved an entire blog’s weekly meeting there too, I might add).

This wasn’t always the case: when I first arrived in Brooklyn, I had my grandpa’s hand-me-down laptop (seriously), a battery that held 45 minutes of juice tops (and lost about 10 percent capacity on a weekly basis, it seemed), enough money for maybe one coffee a day and a sense of some keywords to search on Craigslist and Mediabistro, looking for housing, jobs, internships, anydamnthing. Coffee shops were indispensable to me at that time: I landed my first sublet while perched on a stool at Gorilla Coffee; sent out a dozen resumes while stationed at S’Nice (before their laptop crackdown) and found my second and current apartment during  residency at Vox Pop (RIP).

There’s more to it though: I also really freaking love our coffee shop. It’s warm and cozy, bedecked like a liberal arts college lounge with a spacious backyard, locally sourced bagels, coffee, cupcakes and other food, and a staff who goes out of your way to learn your name when you’re a regular and tells you to come back more often if you’re not (hey, it’s almost like they found a way to do track loyalty without FourSquare!). I see a crowd of familiar faces who are there almost as much as me; Michael Buscemi is one of them. It’s not like we’re at a lack of coffee shops in the neighborhood either: on my .8-mile walk down Atlantic Avenue between my apartment and TJ’s on Court Street, I pass (or walk a within a block of) four coffee shops, each which seem bustling and popular, and none of which are a Starbucks.

It is, in short, the truest sense of what a coffee shop should be: a buzzy hive of creativity, a community meeting place, a place to grab a bite to eat around friendly faces where you know there’s always a cozy corner waiting. In winter, they heat up their own homemade chai and boil up their own soup so the whole place swells with aroma and charm that creates actual frost on the windows (not just the holiday decoration kind), making those brutal winter days I’ve stopped in for a coffee while walking to work a torturous fight against the desire to curl up in the back corner with a stack of books and a steaming glass of anything while the outside world solidifies in ice.

With all that, I get a hell of a lot of work done there. And I live in constant terror that they will go out of business some day, so I never consider my seat there a free ride: a bagel, sandwich or coffee is the very least rent I can pay in what is a perfectly functional freelance work space. I also see the entire staff at various times outside the shop; specifically, at places we all spend money: so I buy a coffee in the morning, then see the staff come into TJ’s to buy groceries, then run into them at The Brazen Head, where we all go to drink, and the next day see the bartender from the Brazen Head at Flying Saucer. We’re all passing around the same pile of money. I think that’s called an “economy,” or something, or maybe socialism. But it seems to be working particularly well.

As Sax notes in his story:

“While the people behind the screens spent a paltry $6 to $10 per day, their true value is as a draw for more profitable takeout customers, Mr. Lorenzetti said. From the moment the door opens at 7 a.m. until it closes at 9 p.m., the place is buzzing, a productive society, visible from the street through wraparound windows. “People come in to buy food and coffee to go, because they see a full crowd,” he said. “They think ‘Hey, this place must be good if I can’t even get a table.’ ”

And:

Laptopistan provides structure, and freelancers, like children, secretly crave structure. You come to work, for two or four or eight hours, and you take comfort in the knowledge that everyone else is there to work as well. There’s a silent social pressure to it all.

Brooklyn has no shortage of writers, creative people and other work-from-laptoppers, all trying to convince themselves that they’re not lost in some delusional solipsistic vision and that they might actually be producing something that matters in the world, that they are part of a larger community of creative people all stuck in the same mode tossing back coffee to spark inspiration.

As if to drive home the point, I was 3/4 through reading this story at The Gate when I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a cheery “Let me say hello, sir.” I turned and saw standing over me was Ivan, the friendly owner of the Flying Saucer, with his hand outstretched in greeting and a smile on his face. Like me, he had ducked into the bar to escape the cold of the day and kill some time on a winter Sunday afternoon.

I told him how funny it was that he saw me at that moment as I was deep into a story about people who lounge about coffee shops with their laptops all day long — people, I admitted, like me. He laughed and said “Oh yeah? I’ll have to hang that one up on the wall.” Then as we said goodbye, he shook my hand again and said “See you soon, yes?”

“You know it, buddy,” I replied.

If this is Laptopistan, the immigration policies are quite liberal indeed.

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