Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reading And Writing In Restaurants

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.


5 Red Pandas said...

If you think using a laptop in a cafe is pretentious, imagine watching someone break out their laptop on the subway. It doesn't happen too often, but when it does I can't help shaking my head. That person's just begging to be mugged.

I have to say, I love my laptop in a way that probably isn't normal. I don't feel any nostalgia for my old typewriter and the click-clack-chug-chug of the return key.

I can read pretty much anywhere, at anytime because I used to read at my babysitter's house. It was always full of loud people with a game show or Telemundo on the TV in the background. If you can concentrate under those conditions, you can concentrate almost anywhere.

The people who amaze me are the ones who can read the New York Times while standing up in a packed subway car during rush hour, while sipping a cup of coffee. That takes skill.

rmellis said...

I can't do anything in a coffee shop or restaurant except eat and maybe eavesdrop.

There's a Lydia Davis story in which a woman stuffs her ears with tissue and wraps her head in a scarf in order to concentrate -- I'm like that.

Anonymous said... listen to music on your iPod while you write!!! How can you do that?!? The main reason I have trouble writing in cafes is the music. Loud conversation I can ignore; music I can't.

zoe said...

There's a certain pitch of voice from some women in cafes that completely invades my head. I can read in classrooms full of kids or when my own children are literally jumping on me, but some middle class women completely defeat my mental sound proofing. Worse still, they're never talking about anything interesting...

rmellis said...

It has to be music I know really well, and then it turns into wallpaper and blocks everything else out.