Sitting with Strangers

Posted On: 02.15.12

You pack your bag. Fill it with the things you will need: your skinny little computer, its plug, your wallet, your phone. You head out.

You head out and you walk. You walk away. Away from home, that safe place, that happy haven. You walk city streets. You look down, at your feet, shuffling along. You study the cracks in the concrete, the way they zig and zag and whisper gritty wisdom. You look up, at the sky, a brazen blue canopy marred by branches and birds. You look around, at the people lugging things – pasts, presents, packages.

You open the door, and walk in. It is warm in there. And you wait with a cluster of others. You study the pastries you might try one day. You scan the lists of fancy coffees you might sip one day. You say hello. And you order your usual. And moments later, it comes, steaming hot and familiar.

And you sit. You sit at a table or in the window. You settle in, and scatter your things. You log in. Plug in. You stare at it, the blank screen, a menacing white, the place you will go. The place you will go while you sit here amid a sea of strangers, souls just like you who have a story to tell and a need to be seen. When you get stuck or stalled, oh and you do often – this is an important part of it all – you look around at the faces that frame you, eyes full of focus and frenzy and hope, brows lined with sleeplessness and struggle and soul. You don’t know them, these strangers. And yet you do.

You know they are here, there, sipping and seeking. That their eyes are empty and then full, remembering, reflecting, revering. You know that they are looking for something, something at the bottom of their paper cups, something at the bottom of who they’ve become. They sit and they stand, stirring in sugar, waiting for the bathroom, waiting for inspiration, waiting. They write words and stories. Words and stories that are pieces of who they once were, and are now, and might become. Words and stories that might never be read.

You know they are there, thinking. Thinking about whether they are happy, what it means to be happy, whether happy is fiction. They are thinking about big things, and small. Life. Love. The little grains that float ominously on the black surface into which they stare.

When you are lucky, one of these strangers says something, speaking to you, you, snapping you from your pod of quasi-solitude. Are you writing a novel too? Do you mind plugging this in? Have you been able to get online? They are small bits, small strings of nothing, small strings of everything, and they come at you and you are thankful to hear voices, questions, something other than the soundtrack of silence you so often choose.

They are strangers, yes.

But they are also you.

Do you like to immerse yourselves in a sea of strangers like I do? Do you like to imagine the stories people are telling, and living? Do you agree that there is material everywhere, and particularly in a bustling coffee shop?

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6 Comments for: "Sitting with Strangers"
  1. I absolutely adore working in coffee shops. I wrote my master’s thesis in a funky little small-town coffee shop. I have a desk job these days, but yesterday, I had the rare opportunity to grab a cup and sit with my computer in a suburban coffee shop near my home. Like you, I love to be in a sea of strangers (nice way of putting it).

  2. Oh Aidan…how different our worlds are. To me, this sounds like a movie, not a place I could go. I live in the small town in which I was raised, a place so small there is not one single traffic light in the county. Stopping to have coffee in a little diner (we don’t have coffee shops as you know them!) would not be a stream of bustling solitude, but rather questions from neighbors and friends on how my mother is doing, what my siblings are up to, how our farm is going, if the animals are keeping warm, if the bridge near us is closed due to weather. Because nearly everyone who would come through the door would know my family, my farm, where I live.

    In college was the first time I experienced being totally alone among a crowd. It was at once incredibly freeing and completely depressing to me. (It’s really no surprise I ended up back here.)

  3. This is such a beautiful metaphor. Might I take it further? These people often think differently, look differently, act differently, yet each of them have something to contribute. And, yes, each of them are also you and all your unique differences.

  4. J

    I think if I lived in an anonymous city like New York, or where I used to live in San Francisco, this might work. When I was a student, it would have worked. But right now, in my suburban life, it’s more go in, get my stuff, and leave. But I work from home, my daughter is almost 16, so I’m home alone most of the day.

    I do think a place like that might be a great place to look for material. Any part of life can be that. So much of that.

  5. jody

    I am happy there are so many types of coffee shops available. I am recently separated from my husband, and find it comforting to have somewhere to go to read or eat without feeling awkward. Restaurants and their employees look at me weird when I request a table for one. My mom and I often enjoy having coffee if we have free time together. My dad, on the other hand, hates to linger and would rather take his coffee to drink at home or in the car. I think this is pointless and antisocial. I can make coffee at home but I enjoy the smells, the crowds, the regulars. Coffee shops and cafes must want people to feel this way too because many of them offer free refills, reusable cups and frequent-points options.

  6. Having just moved back to Savannah, where I spent 5 years getting my degree, I find myself in a familiar place with different circumstances. The coffee shop is no longer where I go to study for school, it’s where I go to write and figure out my life. And having been here over a month already I will admit I haven’t gotten to the coffee shop nearly enough. I know there is a table or chair just waiting for me to be ready to come back. There always was, and there always will be.

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