The Grim Reality Of Working At A Coffee Shop

Oh, to work in a coffee shop—the wellspring of ideas. Didn’t Jobs conceive of Apple at a Starbucks? Or was it a garage? Bad acid trip? Whatever.

Working at a coffee shop sounds focused, cozy, and encouraging. Leaving home, you slide your laptop into that shoulder bag, sandwiched between a crisp pad of lined paper and your refillable S’well bottle. Don’t forget that Macbook charger—if you start cookin’, you mustn’t be beholden to the lifespan of that radioactive rectangle! Spritz those nostrils with Flonase to clear the chimney for the chocolatey aromas of ground Arabica or the steamy, sour-sweet scents of espresso. And off you go, to the most productive day you’ll ever have.

Reality: I stroll in and all the seats are taken. Babies wail from strollers as mothers absent-mindedly push and pull while holding forth with nanny applicants who no longer want the job. Glamorous homeless people (aka new poor—like new money, resented by the established, generational poor) wait for the bathroom. Writers lay down a paragraph, then scroll Instagram for an hour, then check nanny-hiring websites. Entrepreneurs receive bad news from lawyers through ear buds: “trust me, they’ll come after you for Rebook… especially since you’re making sneakers. Why don’t you pivot to a canceled flight aggregator?” Graphic designers are spread out as though saving seats on a train. Poets economize with tea and study a radiator for their next haiku.

I buy my coffee and the barista flips that new-age screen around, brimming with judgement as I pretend to tap the 20% tip button with my pointer while subtly grazing no tip with my thumb like a broke Spiderman. But she knows. She’ll check the recent purchases in a spare moment. Then she’ll spread the word to the rest of the team, and from this day forward my coffee-to-ice ratio will be so lopsided as to render the top third of my cup completely diluted, the bottom two-thirds pure but room temperature for a layered, inconsistent cold brew experience that wasn’t worth the $1.14 I saved on gratuity.

Cup in hand, the hunt for a seat begins. The chairs with backs went first, leaving only stools that send my lumbar vertebrae barking before my first bowel movement. I settle upon a stool, fold my legs beneath me, and open my computer.

“Hi, sorry, what’s the Wifi password?” I ask the woman to my left.


“The Wifi? Password?”

She points to the laminated cover of the napkin holder. DailyBlend012. I connect and flash the gatekeeper a thumbs-up, but she’s back to reading or bettering herself somehow. On to work!

Except I can’t just dive in; I need to stretch the mind first, to invigorate the creative muscles through a dynamic warmup of Lionel Messi highlights, Onion headlines, and a detailed study of my ex’s newest boyfriend. He’s got me on teeth but I have him on height. Not to worry. If he tries to bite me, I will punch his teeth with my reach advantage.

Across the reclaimed wood table, ringed from the circles of wet cups like age spots on the faces of over-lived humans, a frizzy-haired youth slumbers in the interior angle formed by his underwhelming bicep and forearm. He’s in deep too, as Sam Smith croons a lullaby through a budget speaker overhead. Why the fuck is he so tired? We’re at a coffee shop. Get a cup and perk up, bud. We’re here to work.

At some point, an employee comes to our table to bus away the picked-clean bones (muffin wrapper, dirty mug, chewed-up straw) of my slumbering neighbor. She/he/they glare(s) at me with disdain, for my cup runneth dry. How long since my last purchase, two hours? I slink to the counter for a refill even though this violates my 150-mg daily dosage of caffeine. This one I try to nurse, but it’s cold brew and my tiny ice cubes are disappearing in some metaphor for global warming. They should chalk a quippy pun about that on the blackboard easel outside. It would play to their clientele while instilling a sense of urgency. Get in, get buzzed, get out.

Time to shit! It came on quickly, like thunderclouds at sea rolling from my stomach into my rectum. The men’s is occupied. I wait, shifting from one foot to the other as the cramps crawl in. Perhaps a gentle knock, to let the occupant know I’m here?

I knock. Silence. I try the handle. Definitely locked.

Minutes pass…

Must be heroin.

The women’s is open. I look around. The coast is clear. If anyone raises an issue, I’ll scold them for assigning me a gender. Nobody wants that smoke here.

Inside, the cleanest, most pristine bathroom in all the land. The toilet seat is warm and clean; the courtesy Tampon bowl stocked symmetrically. Still, I mustn’t dawdle. Fortunately, it slides right out and I probably don’t even need to wipe but I do because I’m in the women’s bathroom. Their turf, their rules, back-to-front.

I wash my hands. With soap.

Finally settled, emptied, and comfortable, I begin:

Oh, to work in a coffee shop—the wellspring of ideas…