One of my essays “Caffeine Dreams” received an honorable mention for the Rosalie Fleming Memorial Humor prize. The full essay is below:
During the eight years that I spent in the 9-to-5 cubicle world after college, I would often stop for coffee on my way to work and look longingly at the people camped out at the tables around me. I was on my way to work on my carpal tunnel syndrome for the next nine plus hours and these people were doing whatever they wanted. They were on laptops, reading, or just staring into their oversized cups, and having the freedom to do that on any given weekday morning seemed idyllic. I began to fixate on the image of doing the same thing myself one day.
I am no stranger to picturing scenes for myself. When I first moved to New York without a job I had visions of myself sitting at the counter of a diner pouring over the classified ads. Of course, the reality of my job search involved me surfing the web in my pajamas at home.
I had had brief periods of unemployment between jobs in the past, but was never able to complete the coffee shop dream as those times were spent panicking over the fact that I didn’t have a job. To achieve the image I had to actually be able to relax while at said java joint. As luck, or determination, would have it I eventually found myself with a flexible schedule a couple of years ago when I completed grad school and began teaching college writing. For part of the summer I was only teaching an online course, giving me freedom to pretty much do what I wanted with my days. Of course it took me a while to build up to the coffee shop dream – why get up and go out first thing in the morning when you can hang around the house all day?
When I finally motivated to drag myself to a café to work, I chose a hip place with funky unmatched tables and chairs, and a quaint patio. When I got to the counter to order a sign said: “This is not your office. This is a business. You must order a drink to sit at the table and do your ‘work.’ Plan to buy one drink per hour.” I bought my drink and noted the time on my watch. The clock was apparently ticking.
One of the questions I used to ask myself when I was decked out in my Banana Republic business casual clothing ordering lattes was – how were all these people able to just hang out on a weekday? Was it a day off? Were they all “freelance writers”? Looking around my coffee shop it seemed hard to decipher – some appeared to be students with textbook-like reading and others stay-at-home moms with young kids. But a fair percentage of them were nondescript people hiding behind laptops. Since everyone seemed to make a point of facing their screens to the wall it was hard to know what they were doing – writing novels, paying their bills, looking at porn? But the bigger question was, what did they do in life that allows them to do this? I suppose there are other professions that allow for flexible schedules, but when you work an office job you tend to assume the majority of the rest of the world is also confined to the same cage that you are.
When I tired of sizing up the people around me I opened up my laptop to begin some work. It was nice, but also distracting. When people walked behind me I was afraid they were trying to read what was on my screen and when I moved my screen to face the wall I wondered if they thought I was trying to hide something. The music was loud and not my usual taste and I had to go to the bathroom but didn’t want to leave my laptop unattended with all those questionably employed people. As the end of my hour approached I decided I would go home rather than purchase the next required drink.
I still go to coffee shops to work from time to time, but I’m often more productive when I go to my office. There is a certain irony that I now seek out the place I used to dream of escaping, but I’ve found that in most of my imagined idyllic scenes the reality always has some shortcomings.