Cafe Witness

Monday, July 31, 2006

When a Cafe "Works"...

A lot of places are just "establishments." You go in, you get what you need and you leave. A shoe store is no different from a grocery store is no different from a pet store.

Restaurants always claim to be more, offering an "immersive experience," but in reality the "experience" is really just a pre-fabricated set of interactions with the wait staff and accoutrements designed to lure you into believing you've had a one-of-a-kind experience. Sure, there's a personable wait staff, and sure, the food you order influences the time you have, but in the end you're just walking out with the same general time that everyone else in the place just had -- unless you're a regular and got your drink and dessert comped for free.

A cafe is essentially the same thing, but with a twist. A cafe is a "place to eat and buy things," but it also has the distinction of being a neighborhood gathering place, more like a bar than a restaurant. The big difference is the lack of a subconscious ticking clock; more like a European restaurant, you're encouraged to stay as long as you'd like and just... enjoy the experience.

Granted, not every cafe is like this. High-volume cafes feel more like pit stops than cozy corner hideaways, and the cafes in a bookstore or other mall environment are certainly more function-based than the stand-alone kind. But at most cafes I've truly enjoyed, the intangible that springs to mind is "community."

Whether it's a the type of people who come there (students, professionals, dating couples, families, solo adventurers) or the mix thereof, the unhurried atmosphere mixed with the variety of the interpersonal vibe AND the recurrence of regulars lends itself to more of an "I'm part of the 'in' crowd" feeling. After awhile, the place starts to feel "off" if certain people aren't there at the same time every day. The familiar interactions between the staff and their favorite customers, the reassuring looks among the regulars who never actually speak but still recognize one another, and the occasional oddball occurrence that brings a disparate group of people together all has the benefit of making one feel as though this seemingly random assemblage of people is actually jointly involved in sharing one unified moment.

It's not always present. It comes, it goes, and even when it's "on," it doesn't last long. But, as in the best friendships and relationships, it's "on" more often than it is in other places. For me, it's this communal spirit that elevates a cafe from an establishment to a destination; a place to be.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The One-Two Punch of Surprises

Another day, another sudden downpour on the South Side. Crazy Mocha-gopers were sent scrambling indoors, bags over heads and dogs prancing on leashes. One basic human tenet: personal space takes a backseat to staying dry, something we all probably picked up as cavemen.

Among the relocated is a group of 5 young women, all white, all in their early twenties. The mere concept of relocating their tabletop discussion indoors seemed to throw them for a loop, but their ringleader, after discerning that they couldn't take over the TV room because someone in there is watching CNN, decided to commandeer the two tables beside mine up here on the balcony. She even dispatched one of the girls to find herself a chair with the suggestion of, "Why don't you go over there and get one of those chairs for yourself?"

Common sense, you'd think. But evidently this group needs a leader. Moments later, I discovered why.

Having paid no attention to them since they moved indoors, I gradually noticed the leader reading poetry aloud to the others. "Ah," I said to myself, "a writer's group has been forced indoors and is self-conscious about sharing their innermost feelings with the prying ears of strangers around." Fortunately for them, I'm the nearest human being within earshot and I have headphones on, so I can't hear them clearly.

Then I glanced over to see what she was reading from and I noticed I was wrong again.

Their ringleader was reading a psalm from the Bible.

"Ahh," I said to myself again. "Now this makes even more sense."

Having paid a little more attention to them now, I'm struck by the uniform body language: all conservative in their movements, all a little hunched in, all very uncertain of themselves. That, in itself, doesn't surprise me; I would expect it from a pack of virginal women in a Bible study group. In that sense, it's natural.

What surprises me is that a Bible study group exists among women in their 20s in modern Pittsburgh.

The reasons this surprises me are myriad and deeply-seeded in my subconscious, but the easiest summary I can offer is: I wonder what background each of these young women comes from, in an era of limitless potential provided by a global economy, worldwide communications and unheard-of equality in comparison to most recorded history, that they would choose, voluntarily, to utilize an analysis of the Bible as the solution to whatever problems they're facing in their current lives.

I'm sure each of them is intelligent, compassionate, concerned and empathetic. I'm sure they all have dreams and aspirations. And I'm sure they've all been exposed to the multitude of distractions, opportunities and strict logic that comes with being a modern woman in 2006. And yet, despite these various well-traveled roads presented to them, they've chosen to invest a large amount of their time and energy into a discussion of a book that was written over 2000 years ago, a book that -- in my own personal estimation, as well as the estimation of millions of others around the globe -- is, at best, a parable for mankind and at worst a form of sociological control.

Perhaps they're debating the merits of the book. Perhaps they're finding modern allegories for the stories. Perhaps they're debunking it from top to bottom, gingerly, one page at a time. Or perhaps they're each in agreement with the spirit of the lessons and are trying to find a mutual language to discuss their opinions and, in doing so, discuss themselves.

Regardless of what they gain from this experience, I find a personal irony in the snapshot I see when I look at them: five young, attractive, middle-class daughters of America, huddled uncertainly in conversation around the Bible while, beyond them, through the dividing glass and into the next room, CNN is showing video and photos from the Holy War taking place between Israel and Lebanon -- and, always, Palestine.

2000 years later and some things never change.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Last Straw


I looked all around the Crazy Mocha service island and couldn't figure out where the straws were.

"We're out," the barista informed me. "Someone forgot to order them."

Who forgets to order straws when you work in a cafe? Isn't that kind of like forgetting to order napkins or sugar? These are the basic building blocks of your business, no?

Resourcefulness was the order of the day, though: we were advised to use two stirrers instead, and the suggestion was right; they worked about as well as a straw would, PLUS you could suck through different parts of your mouth at once.

Boy, I have a feeling that last sentence will have an impact on my Google click-throughs...

For no reason, here's a bizarrely useful (and brief) history of the drinking straw.

Friday, July 28, 2006

This Is the Shift That Never Ends...

I mistakenly overheard one of the baristas at Crazy Mocha telling a friend that she'd be here until one. That was around 3 PM, and I thought, "Who schedules someone for a twelve-hour shift at a coffee shop?" It turns out she said "since one," but it got me thinking...

Who decided that 8 hours was the optimal workday?

Now that lunch hours take up precious time in the middle of the day, 9 hours is the norm, but still... how is the world expected to maintain top-level focus all at once for 8 or 9 hours a day?

When I was a DJ at a college radio station in Erie, I volunteered for three straight 3-hour shifts on Thursdays. I referred to it as my "blood drive." Usually by the end of the gig I was punchy from having to be witty and entertaining, much less playing music and public service announcements on cue (we had none of these fancy automated systems), for 9 straight hours.

That's probably why the average on-air radio shift lasts about 4 hours. Even if a DJ is in the building for 8 or 9 hours, it usually involves recording promotions and commercials and such, so there's a variety of work involved; who can stay fresh on their feet for 9 hours?

Which brings me to... the modern workday. How much work do you get done in the average 24-hour period? How much of that is done at work? How much of that takes place between 8 and 5?

How much better would the world work if everyone worked at their own pace? I understand the Europeans are more productive than we Americans are, and they work fewer hours per week AND take longer vacations.

What are we doing wrong?

(And why have I been sitting in this cafe for 3 hours now with nothing to show for it? Focus, people: that's what's lacking...)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Survival of the Driest

No matter what you were planning on doing today, you probably weren't counting on walking through a torrential downpour at 4:40 on the South Side. Thus, everyone who's currently sitting here in Crazy Mocha has no intention of leaving. Afternoon breaks are prolonged, errands delayed, coffees being drunk (drank?) at a much slower pace.

It almost feels European.

Oddly, despite several folks hurrying past the door beneath the cover of umbrellas (or no cover at all), no one has ducked in to avoid the storm. That's a shame. I was really hoping for a happy couple to dart in, soaking wet and giddy with the joys of being young, happy and at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Instead, there's a grey-haired lady scowling by the doorway as she uses a copy of the City Paper for an umbrella.


It's at this moment that I notice The Ugly Truth About My Fellow Cafegoers: their laptop screens are grotesque. Smudges, smears and general spatterings of... something... are clearly visible on the monitor screens of people around me. The people themselves are sharply dressed, well-groomed and probably would faint if they knew their machines were that obviously grungy. But then, I can see their screens at an angle and they can't.

* Pauses to turn his own screen at an angle *

Yup. A few smudges here, too. Not "Jackson Pollock meets Krispy Kreme"-style smudges, but a few marks all the same.

Thank god we can't see the residue on our keyboards...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I Wasn't There, But...

I was talking to Angelo Ciotti recently, a former instructor at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh who has since retired to focus on his worldwide art projects. We were discussing the differences between Europe in the '60s and '70s and Europe today, and how homogenized things have become around the world compared to the individuality that was once displayed. Then he hit upon an anecdote that, although it has nothing to do with the converstaion at large (or does it?), is endearing nonetheless.

"When I was a student in Rome," he says, "I used to visit the same cafe every day. And every day, at 3 o'clock, Federico Fellini would come in for a drink.

"Years later, after my wife and I were married, we went to Rome and I took her to that same cafe and I said, 'This is where Fellini used to come every day.'"

"And sure enough, damned if he didn't walk in at 3 o'clock that afternoon."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Press Repeat

Whoops. Ventured into the Politcal Cafe again, not thinking. Walked in on a conversation about how Joe Lieberman is the Democrats' best choice for President. Am now playing iTunes quite loud with my headphones on so I can avoid the conversation that began, "Wasn't the vote to go to war with Iraq 98-0?"

Friday, July 21, 2006

Low-Impact High Speed Chase

All work has been brought to a grinding halt by the high speed chase taking place on CNN right now. A white male in his 50s, suspected of armed robbery of a Houston dry cleaner, has been embroiled in a high speed chase for the past two hours. CNN has been following the event from a news helicopter feed, via KTRK and is featuring commentary from Mike Brooks, a law enforcement expert.

I'm not sitting in the TV room here at Crazy Mocha, but I can see it through the glass on the balcony and have been watching with a bizarre interest for most of the past 45 minutes. So have at least five other people, all of whom have more important things to do but, like me, feel a perverse interest in what happens to this guy in the white truck. It's kind of like the OJ /Al Cowlings white Bronco chase of a dozen years ago (feel old now?), only this one has a more maverick tone to it.

For one, this guy didn't kill anyone (that we know of). For another, he's aggressively (if futilely) trying to escape, hitting other vehicles and trashing a golf course in the process. He may not be much for planning or direction but his technique is impressive.

Most interesting, unlike the OJ chase, I think most of us would be okay if this guy got away. Sure, there's a sense of injustice if that happens, but I could chalk it up to a charming outlaw sticking it to "The Man." Granted, I have no idea if the guy's charming, if he's injured anyone or if he's a child support dodger, but there's always that universal sense of community that accompanies any account of a fugitive from justice -- who among us sides with The Man?

Ooops. There goes one tire...

Now another.

And now the water.

One of the baristas just asked me, "What do you think he's thinking in there?" Surrounded by cops with guns drawn, truck stuck in a huge puddle between freeways, likely to be locked up for the next decade in the Texas penal system?

One word: autobiography.

The Chess Game of Air-Conditioning

I'm sitting at Crazy Mocha in the South Side Works. I'm perched at a table in the balcony area (yes, it's up a flight of three steps so, for descriptive purposes, it's a balcony), where I was also sitting yesterday. Except yesterday I was blissfully comfortable at my table and today I'm mildly agitated, and it's all due to one variable: the placement of air conditioning vents.

Yesterday I was between two vents and had equal air flow on both sides. Today, I have one vent blowing on my left side while my right side wonders why it gets no love. My internal system seems to be conducting a self-temperature check every ten milliseconds, resulting in the hairs on my left arm standing up continually while my right side languishes at room temperature.

This is not unlike my sleeping arrangement, in which the power cord for my oscillating fan is short enough to restrict the fan's trajectory to the left side of my body. If this pattern continues for any lengthy stretch of time, I presume the left side of my body will begin to evolve, growing more dense so as to withstand the perceived arctic imbalance. I may even walk with a limp.

Maybe I should switch tables.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Donkeys Drink Coffee Too

I was sitting in a cafe recently -- no names, since politics are a personal choice and I don't want to add weight to a dicey conversation -- and I realized, having overheard numerous comments made by the owner / manager, that I do not share many of this person's political views. We're all entitled to our own opinion, and as long as your argument holds up to sound reason, I don't really care enough to disabuse you of your notion, nor do I feel the need to defend my own preferences.

But a funny thing happens when I'm subjected to a person's personal, political or, particularly, theological point of view for long enough: I stop wanting to hear it.

Part of that is my belief that those opinions shouldn't factor into my daily coffee-drinking habits, but another part of it is even more telling: I don't enjoy giving my money to people I strongly disagree with.

(This is probably why I cancelled my subscription to Catholicism.)

So I've migrated to a different cafe for the time being. You could say it's because the seats are more comfortable or the air conditioning is less aggressive. Or, you could chalk it up to me preferring to drink my coffee in blissful anonymity, without having to gut-check my political views between sips of decaf.

Friday, July 14, 2006

When Is a Story Not a Story?

I walked into the 61C Cafe a few moments ago and had one question on my mind: what happened to the front window?

The plate glass window that ran along the wider side of the facade had been replaced by particle board. Immediately, I surmised there had been a break-in, followed by the possibility of weather damage during one of the recent rains.

I approached the two baristas, ordered my decaf and then asked "The question of the day: What happened to the window?"

They laughed.

"Nothing happened. It just... fell."

"Inward or outward?"

"Kind of all over."

And that was it.

We agreed it was a pretty sad payoff to a provocative permutation.

Some other employees had been fabricating stories to try and sex up the situation, including a bird having flown through the glass and an ornate funeral being thrown in its honor. Personally, I don't think you need to invent fiction in order to sex up a story: you just need to sex up the facts.

Stories are in the telling. Inherently, some will have more fuel for powerful storytelling than others -- suspense, intrigue, high drama or absurdist humor -- but every action is a story that can be told in a captivating manner. The problem is, the average person underestimates the importance of, and their ability to tell, a good story.

Thus, apropos of nothing, here are my Five Underestimated Rules of Good Storytelling:

1. Facts are overrated. This does not mean I encourage lying. It means people think that the facts of their story are enough to craft a satisfying tale for a listener. Facts are hardly ever enough on their own. Why do you pay more for steak at Ruth's Chris than you do at Denny's? Preparation, ambience, delivery.

2. Tantra applies. Just as facts are not enough to tell a good story, neither is an immediate payoff. If there's no buildup, the audience can't possibly have an emotional response to your tale because you haven't given them anything to care about. Mistaking the drama or elation in your life as a universal drama or elation that everyone can relate to without context is a storykiller. Or, in picturesque terms, the response to "Anything new?" is not "My mom died."

3. Know when to be vague. Not every aspect of your story matters in the telling. Unless certain details are pertinent to the eventual payoff, your listener will not care whether your car broke down on Tuesday night at 7:10 or 7:35; all they care about is that your car broke down. Don't bog yourself down in minutae if it kills the forward momentum of the narrative.

4. Don't starve an audience. There's a difference between "keeping them wanting more" and "pissing them off." If you don't provide enough meat for your audience to hook into, they won't stick around long enough to ride your undulating wave of suspense. Cliffhangers and pregnant pauses are golden, but like any ingredient, if overused they can have a negative effect. (Think soap operas.)

5. The end is the end for a reason. If you've managed to provide an entertaining ride for your audience, you need to sum things up the only way they could possibly be summarized. If your tale requires a lengthy denoument, allow it to unfold. If it's best served by a hammer strike instead of a marching band, then keep it short. But regardless, don't deflate the effectiveness of your story by continuing beyond the endpoint unless an epilogue is absolutely necessary. Countless tales have been neutered by two needless words: "And then..."

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Should the "Lottery Ticket Payout" Apply?

I've noticed a handful of people in the cafes I frequent playing online poker. I find it interesting that someone would prefer to gamble in public, surrounded by distractions, than to gamble at home, but I suppose they could say the same about me whenever I write or edit video here.

More interesting: I wonder if the cafe should be entitled to a percentage of the payout from any winnings? After all, if you buy a lottery ticket from a 7-11 and that ticket wins, are you not encouraged (or legally required) to pay out a percentage of that total to the store you bought the ticket from? I've never played, much less won, so I'm not sure of the specifics, but it seems to me that a roomful of people using a cafe's free wireless in exchange for a $2 cup of coffee could stand to make that cafe a LOT more if they were required to pay out 5% of their winnings...

Come to think of it, maybe your local cafe should be employing such a gambler full-time. It would certainly help offset the costs of unsold biscotti...

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Further Peril of Weekend Cafe-ing

Crazy Mocha in the South Side Works is near enough to the street that vehicular passersby can shout whatever they'd like as they speed past. This usually amounts to arbitrary screaming or extended "whoooOOOOOOOoooo"s as the cars approach and recede. But on the weekend, close proximity to the dozens of bars in the South Side can lead to more provocative fare.

Just overheard, from a (likely) inebriated male hanging out the passenger's side of an SUV: "Quit drinking tea and get a beer! Faggots!"

One for the thumb, baby...

I Wouldn't Say You Should Panic...

... but when an Emergency Medical Services ambulance is speeding down East Carson Street, sirens blaring and lights spinning, and COMES TO A STOP OUTSIDE CRAZY MOCHA BECAUSE ITS ENGINE STALLED, I'd say you might have cause for concern.

"Hi, Mrs. Jablonski? It's Pete, your friendly neighborhood EMS provider. Listen, about your husband. You know how the coroner estimated his time of death at exactly seven seconds before we pulled into the ER? Funny story..."

Perhaps they should stop running the defibrillator through the cigarette lighter...