Writers in their natural habitat: A field study of the urban coffee shop

Instant Writing: Just Add Coffee

If you enjoy writing as much as I do, you probably know the feeling of being so engrossed in your work that you look out the window and see that day has become night and Monday is now Wednesday. A rational person would go straight to bed, but the fear of taking a break and facing writer’s block is all the motivation I need to keep going.

On these days, I zombie walk to the coffee shop, beating the morning rush of suits ordering from baristas while talking on Bluetooth headsets and joggers shooting the breeze after their crack of dawn lap around the block.

I station myself the same way every time, like my own personal Groundhog Day. If my space feels organized, my thoughts will be too, and it’s the only thing I can think of to combat a short attention span. Realistically speaking, though, I can only take so much of the coffee shop’s staple of indie-folk music before I tune it out and start observing the people around me. There isn’t a day at the coffee shop where my curiosity doesn’t get the best of me, and while I promise myself I’ll only take a two-minute break, it always turns into twenty, and my eyes peer over my laptop screen, and I let my imagination run riot on my fellow coffee shop writers.

The Social Media Expert
Gender: Female
Age: 23-33
Coffee order: Venti sized, coffee order complete with whipped cream, caramel and sprinkles of stuff I never knew could go on coffee. She snapchats a picture of her coffee cup every time the barista spells her name wrong.

She bobs her head to the music she’s listening to on her gigantic Bose headphones connected to her phone while typing on a Frankenstein-like laptop on its last breath. It has, at last count, two repair stickers from the Geek Squad. My guess is the stickers came with her new screen (the only thing in pristine condition compared to the dents and scratches on the surface) or an infected hard drive from all the torrents she’s downloading. My gut tells me it’s the latter since she takes breaks to watch an episode of New Girl after a ding so loud it causes all the patrons, including myself, to turn and know it finished downloading.

Always on-the-go, her laptop needs charging and her phone, which is a few generations behind from dropping them so often she is forced to use the backup to her backup, is charging through her laptop. A seat next to an outlet isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.

Organizing might not be her forte, but multitasking definitely is. Every two minutes her music is interrupted by texts from potential clients she’s forced to respond to while simultaneously clicking around browser windows filled with Google Analytics metrics and website editors. It’s done with such efficiency that I can’t help but think about the vast amount of work she can accomplish with her Doctor Octopus arms.
She wears cardigans, pashminas and shawls, and will correct you when you call them sweaters, scarves or ponchos. She consistently arrives at the coffee shop late for her appointments not because she forgot, but wants to give the impression her services are in high demand and her previous meeting ran over.

Before packing up, she musters up enough energy to blog on her WordPress account about life in Toronto and her ongoing journey to get her name on the coffee cup spelled correctly.

The Playwright
Gender: Male
Age: 28-35
Coffee Order: A Small caffè latte nursed throughout the day.

His MacBook Air and its ubiquitous glowing apple is barely recognizable through the band stickers smeared all over it. I’ve never seen him go a week without wearing plaid at least twice, thick black-rimmed Ray-Bans glasses with no lenses and an oversized black toque.

He chats with women around him and brags that he’s in the fashion industry, reluctantly admitting he works part-time at a clothing store only after a few follow-up questions.

As the afternoon rolls on, he checks his phone more and more often as he has to catch an independent film at a festival and write a review. He doesn’t write for a publication but does it because he’s passionate about movies and feels he’s the voice of the film community. He types confidently with a giant grin on his face and all you hear is the loud clacking on his keyboard without pausing, as opposed to the rapid hammering of the delete key coming from the other coffee-shop writers as they rewrite their ideas. It makes sense since he’s writing informal reviews, more of a long-winded rant, and the need to edit or filter himself is unnecessary.

Sometimes he writes screenplays, coming-of-age-stories. He’s done his research and knows he needs a clever title like Maid in Manhattan, Summer Catch, No Reservations, Picture Perfect, Fool’s Gold. My guess is he is writing his take on a heart-broken woman working as a postal worker entitled Fragile.

Technical Writer
Gender: Male
Age 40-50
Coffee Order: No order. Brings a giant thermos of coffee but buys a piece of coffee cake.

He takes his giant Acer laptop out of his everything-proof Swiss Army briefcase. It has a barcode on the corner indicating it is the property of his employer, and he unravels a track-ball mouse. He must be doing some serious work because the red dot of the trackpad just won’t cut it.

He unpacks his lunch bag and sighs as all that’s in there is a zip-lock bag of veggie sticks his wife kindly prepared for him to stay healthy, compensating for his lack of physical activity. He debates having some, but will save them for the subway ride home to mask his breath from the guilty-pleasure coffee cake he ordered.

He frequently stares up at the ceiling trying to visualize the steps in his head and moves his hands up and down like an inebriated music conductor slotting in the tasks, the user- goals, the procedural order. His body movements are precise, and he hesitates before doing the simplest things, like taking a sip from his thermos, anything to verify that that is what he wants to do. I suspect he suffers from a form of technical writing PTSD, and I can only imagine how his day starts off:

1. Take spoon from the drawer.
2. Take the small bowl from the upper cabinet.
3. Open fridge and take out milk. Note: Smell milk before using as kids tend to leave it on the counter for extended periods of time.
4. Avoid Trix cereal because Trix are for kids. Grab All-Bran Buds from lower cabinet.
5. Pour a small amount of the cereal and pause to sigh that you can’t eat the Trix.
6. Realize you’re eating healthy so your family can have you around for a long time and fill the bowl.
7. Go to McDonald’s and grab an Egg McMuffin.
8. Feel like you’re living on the edge.

Judging by the keycard with a faded picture of him with sideburns and a youthful smile, he’s worked at the same job for over fifteen years. The wireframe glasses match the ones he’s wearing in his picture – they still work, why get new ones? He ironically sports the latest smartphone, though, the one I can only view on eBay and drool over.

He finishes his work and puts his laptop away and takes out his iPad. He opens up Candy Crush and plays a round before leaving. He can only play it in private because he constantly tells his kids to stop spending so much time playing it. But when he tried it to see what all the fuss was about, he got addicted himself and doesn’t want to be a hypocrite. From here, he’ll go home to make them dinner, following the steps of a cookbook to a T.

Trying to guess what exactly these writers are writing based on their drink order or their type of computer is fun but not exact. What I know for sure is that whatever they were writing about, just like me, they’re all proud of what they were writing.

Header image by Jordan Whitt.

One thought on “Writers in their natural habitat: A field study of the urban coffee shop

  • Hi Jordan,
    Interesting post! I liked the structure and flow of the blog content. It was fun to read about all the different writers you describe from start to finish. Definitely makes me rethink my next trip to Starbucks, I will be in “observation mode” while waiting for my java!
    Erica Goggins

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