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It seems so natural now, the merger of laptop and latte. But once upon a time, in that long-ago era before fresh Arabica was dispensed even at Kentucky strip-malls (by which, of course, I mean the mid-1990s), the comfortable connection was still an intimidating, edgy idea. I should know: I was there from the beginning.
It was a Sunday in December 1995, and I had joined the rest of Manhattan's Upper West Side at the new Starbucks on 86th Street. I immediately hurled my coat over a prime window seat, thus formally calling dibs, and I performed our generation's version of Timothy Leary's mandate: lined up, dropped three bucks, and returned to my seat to plug in.
The voice came from over my left shoulder. "You can't do that," it declared.
I knew without looking from whence the voice came. The coffee-jerk had been eyeing my PowerBook since I'd pulled it out, and I'd hoped that by simply hunching over and banging away I would keep him behind his half-moon station, where he belonged. But he was a man on a mission.
I fixed him with what I hoped was a gimlet eye. "Why?" I snapped.
"You can't—" he stammered, and then he gathered his strength. "You can't just use our electricity."
Ah, that naïve time.
Had I been older, I would have realized it's best not to confront a man on a mission. (It only encourages him.) Had I been quicker-witted, I might have caught him in the treacherous web of superior logic: my two lattes would cover their Con Ed bill several times over. Had I been more argumentative—and, in retrospect, what was I doing on the Upper West Side if I wasn't argumentative?—I would have pointed out that in Starbucks's business model I was paying not only for coffee but for the use of the designed-to-lure-me-in establishment—outlets included. Unfortunately, I was young and slow-witted and un-New Yorkerly docile, and I did the only thing I could think of. I unplugged. Green Apron was smugly pleased. But so what? You know how the story ends: He won that battle, but, ultimately, I—we—won the war.
Today, hordes of writers have colonized nearly every Starbucks—and every similar establishment. It seems easy to understand why. We suddenly realized that we could trade in afternoons in our drab studios for luxurious stints in the Friends-sized comfort of a public living room. Green Apron and his kind were relegated to rationing cinnamon. Within a few short months, I'd reclaimed that window seat, where I'd triumphantly plug in, victorious, and I'd arrogantly bang away in his direction for hours at a time.
All this came rushing back recently, when my now-former boss dispatched our human resources director to inform me that we were having trouble communicating. Without my job, I suspected, it would be frowned upon to continue using my office. So, suddenly, though I'd moved through a decade's worth of jobs and cities since the Starbucks Incident, I was back where I'd begun: doing my work at the corner café.
All these years later—and several stops down the Metroliner—I'm amazed at how little has changed. Piercings and hair dye still abound, as do Salvation Army pants and shoes. Girls seem to be wearing the same shade of lipstick, even, but that may just be because I'm in Baltimore now. Everyone seems a little younger, but I was prepared for that. And, to what I'm sure is ol' Green Apron's everlasting shame, everyone has his or her own glowing screen.
But then something hit me. Why do we come here? What's the siren call of this place? A Friends-sized living room can't really be enough. The couches are ratty, the company is oblivious (does anyone actually talk to anyone at these places?), the baristas (ugh!) are smarmy, and, for chrissakes, the coffee costs a fortune. What gives?
I found my answer while leafing through a stack of abandoned catalogs. In fin-de-siècle Paris, absinthe sent artists to their deaths. In the commerce-de-siecle United States, the artistic sorts are killed by another kind of green stuff: money. But it's not the $4 lattes that are the problem. Ultimately, they're what's saving us.
We were raised with a commonsense calculus. If you wanted a mansion, you forget about having weekends. But if you wanted a creative job with artistic freedom, you forget about the mansion. Crafting your opera or your magnum opus, you'd sit in your crummy apartment, pick up other freelance jobs to pay the rent, and be fine with the idea that you'd never see a 401(k) but would instead see your creations. You'd watch your college friends pay for nannies and slate-bottomed pools, and it would gall you, but only slightly. Your checking-account balance would be shitty, but your work would not. And to you, the work mattered.
But during the elder Bush's presidency, or thereabouts, something unfortunate happened. The people who were supposed to build slate-bottomed pools moved into your shitty apartment. The tie-backed dress and '40s mirror you were supposed to pick up off the street started selling for $500 (plus shipping) at Anthropologie. Living poorly for your creative work was out of the question—you wouldn't be living poorly, you'd just be living like a bum. You didn't want to be a bum, so you back-burnered the novel and got a job. As an editorial assistant, you could barely afford an apartment in Queens. You shared it, and you tried to bring your lunch to work. The job sucked, and you finally quit. You made a friend at Columbia find you a rent-stabilized studio. You networked, you bothered people, you made ends meet. You did your work at the café around the corner.
Times grew rough. It wasn't happening. You went back to school for your master's, in a less-exciting city where you could actually afford a one-bedroom. You had your crappy adjunct jobs and your crappy writing gigs. Sometimes you had health care, and sometimes you didn't. Still, it was worth it. You were getting what you wanted done—albeit more slowly than you expected.
And then you got fired. From the job you didn't even want, that you only had to pay the rent. Which, even in your awful neighborhood, were starting to rise.
So then what were you supposed to do?
Who knows? The bohemian ideal is dead. Writers can't afford the West Village apartments, the wine-soaked salon, the goddamned tie-backed dress. But the café has become our last stand. I'm clinging like a drowning man to my busted laptop. For $4, I have my salon, my smoky intrigues, time for my own writing.
As far as I'm concerned, the coffee's free.
The recently fired Lizzie Skurnick is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.