I remember the first time I saw somebody using a laptop computer in a cafe. The pretentious S.O.B.! It was the early nineties, at the sandwich shop in Missoula, Montana where I was trying to supplement my grad student teaching-assistant stipend of $6000 a year. (On my last day of work there, I would break a glass I was washing and cut my hand, landing me in the hospital for stitches. I still recall with enormous pleasure the flood of awesome chemicals that my body pumped into my bloodstream in response--it might have been the best mood I was ever in. But that's another story.) Nothing, at that time, seemed more dorkily ostentatious than using a computer in public--the equivalent today might be driving a Segway to work.
Anyway, by now I've used my laptop in public dozens of times, though it still makes me a little uncomfortable. One's computing habits are personal, frankly. I don't want passersby seeing my NASA supernova desktop, complete with the poor untethered drifting astronaut I photoshopped in. I don't want them catching a line or two of an email from my mom.
But reading's a different thing, and so is writing in a notebook. The closest I ever get, while being alone, to the euphoria I felt after I cut my hand at work is probably the feeling of sitting down in a restaurant, ordering an enormous glass of beer, and reading a crime novel while waiting for my companions to arrive (usually Rhian and our kids). I can't read anything more serious than that--there are too many distractions. It's akin to the feeling of pitching a tent in a wilderness, then climbing inside and firing up the Sterno. It makes a private space, a zone of mental pleasure, within the confusion of the outside world. It's getting to be content while knowing that, when you're interrupted, it will be so that somebody can bring you some more pleasure. Like food.
I mentioned a few posts back about writing a second draft of a novel on a manual typewriter. The first draft of that novel was written longhand, on legal pads, in a coffee shop (The Oak, here in Ithaca, now defunct, but whose co-owner went on to start this) and in parks. I still don't know how I managed that--less on my mind in those days, maybe. At any rate, there's no doubt that cafe-scribblers have got their hands on a particular kind of mojo, that portable universe of self that can make a writer feel less like some shlump indulging herself in private, and more like a chronicler of life as it's lived.
And oddly, hardly anyone seems pretentious to me anymore. Everyone seems terribly, painfully earnest, especially the snobs, with their MacBook Pros and elaborate vegan beverages. Type away, hipsters--dig life in the pleasure zone while it lasts. It's rough out here, in Iran-war-anticipation-land, and we're running out of Sterno.