Hell of a Town: Cafes, by Catherine Northington

This was going to be a piece about pigeons. Oh, God, this was going to be a piece about pigeons—and I sat down here, in Vineapple Cafe, to write about pigeons. But Fate intervened.

Vineapple has typically provided respite from the more rough-and-tumble spots jammed with passive-aggressive, laptop-spreading hipsters. That is, until today. Today is different.

I sat down here a few hours ago, in my usual spot at the far right end of a three-cushion couch. A woman was reading, nibbling her pencil on the far left cushion. I worked, undisturbed, on the far right. We had a buffer between us; it was fine, it was great. I took it for granted.

A few minutes ago a man came in and thrust his mug of tea down on the coffee table. No, I thought in disbelief. He’s just putting it there while he readjusts his backpack and walks to one of the many, many open seats at the tables around us. That’s what he’s doing. He won’t sit here— there’s no room!

Can you imagine my horror, my recoiling, my anger, my grief, my shock, my vengefulness, my dismay, my et cetera, when he pushed through the two of us—me and my neighbor-woman—without asking and sank his ass onto the middle cushion, mere inches away?

Look: I’m not taking this cafe for granted. I’ve run the gamut—from Brooklyn Heights to the Lower East Side to the West Village to Morningside Heights, all the way back down to Park Slope—and I know that cafes in this city offer up bountiful opportunities to disappoint and distract. Loud conversationalists, too few seats, bad coffee, wrong temperature, no food, poor WiFi, stupid music, loud music, no music. These all create problems for me, as I’m constantly seeking reasons not to get my work done (or, as some of the worst serial procrastinators like to put it: I just work best close to deadline!).

Finding a comfortable workspace in New York is a disillusioning, Goldilockish experience. And while this place isn’t perfect—people talk on their phones from time to time, sometimes the Spotify playlist is so far up Morrissey’s butthole I can’t focus on anything else— it’s as close as I’ve come to perfection.

Unfortunately, Vineapple’s overall goodness makes moments of frustration stand out all the more starkly. When I experience them—as I am right now—I like sit back on my red couch, breathe in the smell of coffee, and envision the cafe of my dreams.

It would be a land of quiet people—people who don’t talk to each other, but who do hold doors for each other. People who smile and nod. I dream of a cafe with sandwiches and snacks that don’t make me crap six hundred times a morning—something besides granola? Anything with less cheese? And a bathroom with a trustworthy lock, the kind that you can see latch into place when you turn it. Some quiet, melodic music. The sporadic grinding of fresh beans. And maybe, just maybe, a cheap dark roast.

Patrons of a coffee shop are themselves the most integral piece of the puzzle. A single annoying cafe-sitter can—and in fact does, right now, in this moment—obliterate the careful, respectful equilibrium that other cafe-dwellers have established.

Folks, you don’t use the middle cushion when there are other open seats. The offender is currently close enough to look at my screen, to graze my elbow at every sip of his coffee (sorry, his tea). You don’t get in someone’s space like that. You simply don’t get in my space like that. Nobody is exempt from this campaign: For the best of us all, don’t sit on the middle cushion.

Our precious, pint-sized ecosystem. Shattered. And if you’re wondering how I’m writing this when he’s sitting right there (or, um, here): I waited. I shifted, coiled snakefully in my seat. I’ve had to do everything in my power to type this out—here, NOW—to prevent myself from sucker-punching him in his Patagonia vest (extra points if you were already picturing him wearing that).

I am shaking.

I was still in recovery from the last time this happened here, late last summer. A man—why is it always a man? Do women do this too? I don’t want to make it a gendered thing, but… ???—sat uncomfortably close to me then, too.

That guy really pissed me off: He epitomized the tall, skinny-scruffy look cultivated by pretty much every guy in this borough. He wore the Brooklyn Cafe Uniform: i.e., a snug gray shirt and slim slacks with sneakers—vest optional. (For those wondering, the Manhattan Cafe Uniform is a sneer and a suit.)

If you want to know what borough you’re in, look at people’s feet. As the adage goes:

If ye spye a sneaker, yer far from Bleecker

If ye spye a loafer, that’s Lorne Michaels’ gofer!

That guy last summer was Brooklyn through and through, writing with a fountain pen on papyrus or some pretentious shit. He stared at me relentlessly, ink pen pressed against his lip like I was the problematic one. His gaze felt weirdest when I was eating a banana.

And here I am, months later, embroiled in a game of chicken. I don’t know if Patagonia Vest knows he’s in it with me, but he is. He must know, right? I want to leave—God, I’m uncomfortable—but it’s a matter of principle at this point. I can’t bear the thought of him sliding comfortably into my spot upon my departure. I will not reward him for this behavior, even if it means inflicting punishment on myself. I will stay put until this place closes or until a barista drags me out screaming.

Patagonia, can you see what I’m typing now? Take a sip of tea if you do. He’s taking a sip but I don’t know if it’s a coincidence. Do I care? Yes, I do.

About 20 minutes have elapsed since he came here to ruin my day. Really, the day is a wash at this point. I’m too angry to do anything productive. In some ways, Patagonia has already won. But I refuse to let him know that. If he feels me quivering with rage next to him—if he sees me typing this—then so be it.

But he will not get my seat. Are you reading this, sir?

Read on: You will not get my seat.

When a person does something invasive like this, something that rubs me the wrong way—walks slowly in the exact middle of a sidewalk, has a loud chat in a quiet workspace, whatever— I weave together an elaborate narrative about their life. If their New Balance edges a little too close to my Dr. Scholl (I have flat feet, AMA), suddenly they’re a bad father, friend, sister, aunt, son, daughter, cousin, human.

I won’t say anything to the offender. I’ll curl up in a repressed, furious ball like I’m doing right now. But I will go to a kickboxing class later and duke it out with my heavy bag, picturing their face there—no no, their knees, their socked feet in my sector, elbows in my quadrant— until my fists are battered and red.

Some of you might be thinking that I am the problem here. That for me to get work done, I essentially need to be locked in a hyperbaric isolation chamber set to 69 degrees Fahrenheit with a fan lightly blowing on me for white noise and a scientifically-perfect playlist at a not-too-soft, not-too-loud volume.

I agree, and I think this with regularity. New York is a big, weird place and I’m spending all my time here circling ever closer to the conclusion that I am the problem.

Still, I maintain that I am doing cafes right, and these close-sitters aren’t. I can’t kick them out of the establishment myself—but I can call attention to their behavior, and maybe, just maybe, shame the invasive species into submission. And so I will sit here until it gets dark out today, wasting time and energy and battery charge, if only for the good of our people— definitely not for the good of myself.

Sometimes I feel like New York was designed specifically to spite me. Like scientists engineered me to be the polar opposite of everything this city embodies—its glitz and glam (Frasier-watching on a futon is my natural habitat; when I do leave the house, I dress like a child en route to a soccer scrimmage); panting, heaving crowds (human stampedes are my Number One Fear); disturbing loudness (I can barely handle clatter of silverware being loaded into a dishwasher).

Why do I live in New York?

I’m writing this column to regale you with the ways I’ve fucked up here, the ways it’s messed with my head, and the ways it’s made me better. The ways it’s begun making some perverse sort of sense for me to be here.

Catherine Northington is a nonfiction writer from Philadelphia. She likes Forensic Files, bad sports teams, and Paul McCartney’s eyelashes.

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