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.