Friday, November 25, 2011

Don't Be a Hog and Other Rules for Coffeehouse Writers

True story. The other day I went to my out-of-home “office”, the neighborhood coffeehouse (henceforth known as Coffeehouse). Usually I come mid-morning, when there are plenty of free spots — Coffeehouse serves pastries and sandwiches, so at lunch time it can get pretty crowded. This day I was a bit late, so I was happy to get the last free table next to an electrical outlet, by the Coffeehouse fireplace. I put my stuff down, my jacket, research materials, mango smoothie, bagel, and laptop… and reached to plug in my laptop cord. Only to discover that the person at the neighboring table had taken both sockets, top and bottom.

I live in the Twin Cities, so trust me when I say that people usually go out of their way to be nice and act un-hoglike (when grocery checkers ask, “Morning, how are you?”, they really want to know.)  The socket-taker had a laptop and an e-reader — hence the two cords — and also a long-drained cup of coffee and a thick anatomy textbook. A pre-med student? She must have noticed me arrive, I think, but didn’t look up from the textbook or offer to unplug one of her devices. My battery was low, so what could I do? Uncomfortably (as I kinda try to be, as much as I can, one of those nice and un-hoglike people) I interrupted her studying and mumbled a polite inquiry as to whether she really needed both things plugged in. She proceeded to unplug one of the cables, grudgingly, and I was able to get some work done.

The incident (yes, in Minnesota, this counts as an incident) got me thinking about how there should be a set of guidelines for writers and others using public spaces as offices on a regular basis. So this is what I’ve come up with:

A Coffeehouse Writer’s Guidelines:

1. Don’t take a 4-person table if there are 2-person tables available. Yes, you need room for your laptop, e-reader and/or books, cellphone, coffee mug, etc., but the coffeehouse has to stay in business (see Rule 2). It’s enough that you’re using their physical space, their electricity, and their Wi-Fi.

2. Help keep the coffeehouse in business. Don’t assume the staff is okay with you buying a lone cup of coffee and staying for four hours. Buy a pastry, a fruit salad, lunch. Don’t sneak in your own food. Really.

3. Don’t be a hog. Electrical outlets are there for everyone to share. Don’t take more than one socket. Invest in a dual outlet adapter. Don’t block outlets with your backpack or briefcase or winter coat.

4. Invest in a pair of headphones. It’s a coffeehouse, not an office or a library. Don’t throw mean looks at the loud party chit-chatting about holiday travel plans or the stay-at-home dad who came in with the boisterous toddler just to get out of the house. They have as much right to be there as you do.

5. Be nice. By now the staff probably knows you by sight, so get to know their names. Ami, the manager of Coffeehouse, took the trouble to learn how to pronounce my name, and the rest of the staff, Carol 1, Carol 2, and Tracey always ask me how I’m doing. This is their workplace. You are, after all, a guest.

6. Don’t base characters in your screenplay or novel on the people who work at the coffeehouse. It just seems rude for some reason. Also, if you ever hit it big, they might recognize themselves. Customers, on the other hand, are okay to use for inspiration. Some of them are probably doing it to you in return.

7. Know when to leave. If the coffeehouse gets really busy and your latte or cappuccino is long gone except for a thin, cold puddle on the bottom of the cup, it’s time to pack up your stuff and leave. Again, you’re a guest. Guests should know when to leave.

8. Finally, the miscellaneous stuff: Don’t leave a mess behind, Don’t talk loudly on your cellphone, and No, the coffeehouse might not be the best place to play that violent video game you’re addicted to. These seem like common sense (though you’d be surprised).

One more thing. Though the above guidelines are meant for writers, most apply to other coffeehouse regulars — like students, website designers, etc. As to the premed student so wrapped up in her studying that she was oblivious to the needs of others? Well, who can blame her? I’ll be the first to admit that the rules can be hard to stick to. Lunchtime crowds and empty coffee cups be damned, who wants to pack up and leave if their creative/academic/entrepreneurial juices are flowing? Been there myself.