Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Tales from a café: Time wasters and space takers

In four and a half years as a PhD student I've learned the importance of Starbucks in the role of student productivity, as the 'third place': It's not home, it's not school, it's the office! In one particularly studious year I spent almost every evening sitting in one of the comfy chairs in the café near my apartment (I could see it from my bedroom). I was there so often that it became fodder for my Lenten abstention for two consecutive years.

Since I moved back to Toronto the shine has come off Starbucks' buxom siren and her sweet caffeinated song. It's not the dearth of new product that turns me off, it's not the dry pastry in the glass case that gives me pause... it's the time wasters and space takers that have turned me away from the former love of my work life. These are the people who wait in line for minutes and don't think about their order until they reach the counter; these are the people who want to pay for a 'tall mild' with their debit card. Frequently, their debit card doesn't work so they try one card after another until they find one that has some 'room left'; these are the people who, though slim, block an entire condiment stand with their large purse or messenger bag. C'mon lady, for gosh sakes guy, I just want to get my coffee and sit down.


Seating is a problematic situation in any Starbucks café, the pursuit of which should be regarded, by and large, as akin to a bloodsport. Prospective sitters hover if there is even the slightest hope that someone might relinquish their perch to seek sustenance. That's just for a seat; if you want to find a seat with a table you need lots of patience. Worse still, if you want a seat and table near an electrical outlet, you might as well abandon hope early in the process and go enjoy the park. Why does Starbucks promote their 'no time limit' policy, simultaneously reduce café seating during renovation, and make their plugs so hard to find? It's a maddening irony.

At the moment, courtesy of friends' charitable inclination, I'm staying in Toronto's downtown core but within walking distance (one hour or less) of many parts of the city. I can tell you without a doubt that I have scouted out at least two dozen Starbucks cafés at all hours of the day only to find that they are all full, always. Who occupies these spaces? During the day it's a lot of business people and 'portable office' people, after 3pm it's full of students. The closer one gets to the University of Toronto the cafés fill up early with undergrads. These creatures let their books, papers, personal effects, and emotional baggage sprawl to encompass entire tables and more than one chair. Their expectation as to what constitutes personal space is grossly misaligned with the reality of actual available space. I'm loathe to generalize as to their personal background but it's clear they are not used to sharing space.*

I've watched these kids at work and I've concluded that the textbooks, notepads, and word processor on their laptop are a rouse to convince themselves they are hard at work. In actuality, much of the time is spent cruising Facebook or carrying on dialogues via Blackberry Messenger or text messages. Sometimes they alternate between typing notes in their word processor and any number of MSN conversations. I wonder if they're familiar with the recent scholarly literature on multitasking and deleterious effects on productivity. Probably not, they were totally going to read the article but they kind of got distracted by the cute cat meme on Facebook. I'm sure many lulz ensued. Don't these people know that I want a place to work and they are taking my space? Oh gosh, irrational anger rears its ugly head.

I hear you loud and clear, "Anthony, why not just go to another café? Find one of those hip indie places." With a brief rebuttal, it's all the same. Every café is full, full of time wasters and the space takers. Mind you, the demographic in each café category varies: The indie shops are overrun by insufferable hipsters who wax voluminously, at great amplitude, on esoteric French post-structuralist theory; premium chain stores are frequented by BoBos (Bourgeois Bohemians) with the cash for $3 for a medium dark roast; low-end chains (Tim Hortons, Coffee Time, etc.) have cheap coffee but time limits. I've tried this with consistent results - ejection after T-minus fifteen minutes.

The truth is there are very few cafés in Toronto where one can go to work. I really miss having a consistent place to work like my office on campus or my own apartment. Heck, I'd be happy even just having my own desk in a room! Without these things I need to find a familiar and comforting work space.

Starbucks, I love you but it's just not working for me. I trust you, but I can't help but be jealous of all the other people you're seeing. Maybe someday we can be together again. Can we still be friends?


*They also put their feet up on the furniture whether or not they're still sporting their nasty, dirty shoes, boots, sandals, et. al.

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