03 December 2009

Becoming place

There are tables at the coffee shop I think of as mine.

I don't have any special claim to them -- I just use them a lot. There are reasons for this. For example, I like the view they give me of the main door, or of the street, or of the people walking through. Knowing who's here changes the nature of the place, and so being able to watch them come and go -- even if I don't really know them -- makes a difference to the way it feels to be there.

There are other reasons, too. Accessibility is a big one. It's important to have access to an electrical outlet. Even if I'm not working, chances are I'm listening to music, and that requires both internet access and electricity. It's equally important to have access to the counter. True, you always have access to the counter (that's the nature of counters, after all), but being able to jump into the queue when it's short is crucial. Otherwise, you could wait forever for a cup of coffee, and no one wants to wait that long.

But there's something else involved here. It's not enough to say there are structural factors that make some tables desirable over others. Some tables just feel right. They suit me. I've become accustomed to sitting there, and people have become accustomed to seeing me there.

There are tables I associate with others. They don't always sit in these spots, but I know they prefer them for one reason or another. When I walk through the shop, my eyes go directly to those places, in search of the people I identify with them.

This is where it gets interesting.

Having a seat that feels like mine or that is in some way identified with me actually makes me closer to the place. Like everyone else there, I use the space. I move through it, come to rest in certain locations, and interact with others in it. But having a spot (or two) that is tied to my identity is what makes me part of the place. Same goes for anyone else who has their own spot in the shop. They are part of the place by virtue of being identified with specific tables.

The best part about all this is that it isn't ownership. It isn't even stewardship. It's a lasting (if intermittent) identification of person and space, pure and simple. The shop owns the space. The shop is responsible for cleaning and maintaining it. And in reality anyone can sit there. But if people look at that table and think of me (especially when I'm not there), that means I've become part of it, and in becoming part of that table, I've become part of the identity of the coffee shop itself.

We don't often think of people as places, but in a very real sense, we are.

It gets complicated, too. Like when two people who don't normally interact are affiliated with the same space. Suddenly territoriality is no longer purely spatial, but also takes on a temporal element. On Thursday afternoons, the two-top in the far corner belongs to the Undergrad. On Friday mornings it belongs to the Artist. I might borrow it once in a while, but it never really belongs to me.

What happens when you layer all the people who belong to a given spot on that space? Palimpsests of use, of motion, of significance. We are all always there, writing ourselves into places, being written over, and writing over others, waiting to be read.

28 November 2009


I spend most of my work hours in a local coffee shop. The running joke is that it's my first office and my second home. I do have an office -- it's in a square, dated modernist building in which the faculty have massive offices along the outer walls and the graduate students are crammed half a dozen or more into spaces two-thirds that size around the core. This means, of course, grads get no windows. It is a wonder that my little pothos plant manages to continue sprouting new growth in our dim little cave.

Consequently, I'm a regular at the coffee shop. It's not always an easy space to work. It's a popular enough spot with certain crowds that there's no guarantee of finding a table -- and sometimes the noise isn't conducive to reading. I see lots of grad students with their laptops open, flicking between PDFs and Pandora, trying, trying, trying to work.

This shop has three sections of seating: the front of the store (by the counter) has long tables and window seats; the middle of the store is the café floor; and the back section is all bookshop with small tables set in nooks of shelving. Each section has its Regulars. I spend most of my time up front, but once in a while I end up in the café section.

The Regulars all come here under the pretense of doing work, but in reality we're all hoping to be seen by someone (anyone). It's the easiest social scene ever: low-impact, high visibility, community-targeted. Sooner or later you'll have to talk to someone. And really you have no choice but to overhear other people's conversations. But you're a Regular, so it's okay.

It must have been a couple of weeks ago, sitting in the café section, when I heard two women talking about the Regulars. The first had clearly been here before -- maybe she's a Proto-Regular. The second, it seemed, was not quite familiar with the place-culture. Their exchange went like this:
[awkward silence]
First woman: I love the way people dress here.
[short pause]
Second woman: How so?
First woman: Skinny jeans and scarves. Hipsters.
[awkward silence as First woman looks around to determine whether anyone heard her]
Classic. And funny because it's true.

Welcome, and a warning

Let me begin with a warning: I'm going to cheat a bit.

Make yourself comfortable; I'll explain. This is not my only blog. I don't want you to get the idea that I'm a one-blog kind of writer -- I don't want you to feel betrayed come the moment when I double-dip and post the same entry here and elsewhere. I want to be up front about this. No broken hearts here. It's not that I'm fickle, it's just that one blog isn't enough. Each one is a different kind of outlet with a different audience.

Frankly I've been down to one active blog for far too long now. Time to liven things up a bit, stretch out a little, feel anonymous again. I like beginnings. They're exciting, fun, full of hints and innuendos about wonderful things to come. Endings have a habit of disappointing people, but beginnings? Beginnings are like crushes on mysterious strangers: they never fail to stir up hopes you'd thought had long been dashed.

Let's hope this blog serves as one ongoing beginning.

A little about me: I'm a writer, a self-styled flâneur, and a student. The order of these things changes depending on who I'm talking to, but for the purposes of this place, I'm a writer first, a watcher of people second, and a student third. This means I won't be complaining about my work here, but I will be writing about things I see, things that inspire me. Occasionally I'll post some fiction. Maybe I'll post an essay (and there I can't promise to avoid overlap with my scholarly interests, but I can promise that my audience, dear reader, is you and not academia). I won't post too many personal details because, and let's be honest, you really don't want to hear about that shit, and I get sick of thinking about it.

Let's make this an escape for both of us. No obligations, no promises, but one little deal: you keep reading, and I'll keep my eyes open, my gears turning, and my fingers typing.