In Austin a coffee shop was expected to be filled with grubby, crazy people. There were the newspaper addicts, with their towering stacks of information as they devoured page after page, their faces growing increasingly furious as they learned how the world was going into the shitter. There were the homeless people hanging out in corners, occasionally letting you know, “I fucked that twister. I fucked it.” There were trustafarians, the dragworms who needed a break from the main street, the ones who usually bummed a cigarette on their way back out into the heat. And the students did all of those things, just with an economics book tucked under one arm. Coffee shops in Austin were celebrations of bizarre, and anything was possible in there. Anything could break out. A chess tournament. A comedy show. A jazz band. Connect Four. Poetry slams. Card games. Readings from the latest manifesto. It had something to do with the fact that my favorite coffee shop was also a tobacco store, and the only coffee shop in an area filled with bars and restaurants. It was always too dark, and always smelled like stale water. But the ceilings were nice and high, there was an ATM inside, and the tobacco store knew me by name.
In Los Angeles, the coffee shop is more of an extension of the office. People take meetings at the Starbucks and go celebrity spotting at The Coffee Bean. Every single coffee shop is packed with people at pretty much all hours, and usually the line is filled with assistants and PA’s who are there to take nineteen different orders (How do they carry all of them? I never understood that). Just like in Los Angeles, real estate is precious, and often you have to hover around a table until it clears. You just have to hope it’s near a power outlet.
A Los Angeles coffee shop tolerates the occasional freak, but usually it’s the same movers and shakers you see in any other part of Hollywood. It’s actors learning lines, writers working on screenplays, managers coaching young actresses on headshots, people giving interviews, people on conference calls with their cell phones, and — if you live near my old Coffee Bean on Sunset — another Young Persian Mafia meeting.
I guess I started getting used to the LA way of coffee shops, so I was overwhelmed with nostalgia when I encountered the Sherman Oaks Galleria Starbucks. By the very name and location it’s clear that this Starbucks doesn’t want to make waves or get noticed. It just wants to serve some coffee to office people and maybe a few shoppers. It wants to blend into its cog in the corporate wheel. But there’s something very different about this Starbucks. The freaks are slowly taking it over. Meet my new boyfriend:
That’s what stee calls him, anyway. I’ve mentioned him before.
He carries all of that stuff in on that cart behind him (which is usually empty and completely unloaded onto the table). He’s got some kind of transmitter, and some important-looking box that reminds me of Doc’s plutonium container from Back to the Future, and he plays two different speed chess games on that laptop, which is often inside a styrofoam packing box. He drinks brownish liquid from a plastic cup and occasionally checks first his Palm Pilot and then his cell phone, as if he’s comparing the time. He is always wearing those headphones.
He has been there every single day I’ve gone to the Starbucks save for one: it was storming, and I think Chessmaster would have suffered equipment damage if he’d braved the weather. I’ve talked to others who have seen him sitting there at noon and again at midnight. I think he spends his entire day at that Starbucks. Does he have a home? I’m not sure. I sat near him one day to eavesdrop on a conversation he was having with another customer who couldn’t help but ask about the man’s spread. By the time I was nosy, they were talking about headphones.
“Do you need a set of headphones?” Chessmaster asked.
“Well, probably not,” said the other man.
“Because I’ve found some on eBay that I’m going to get. I could get you a pair, too, if you wanted. They’re only five hundred dollars.”
“Well, I mostly use headphones when I’m running. I like the kind you put in your ears. I don’t think I need anything that fancy.”
“I can’t wait to get mine.”
Maybe Chessmaster has a home and a wife who can’t take his weirdness anymore, his strange hobby of computers and headphones, and she insists if he’s going to do that he can do it outside. Maybe Starbucks is the only place he feels like himself.
Just when I start embracing Chessmaster, there’s a new kid threatening to swipe his turf. Meet Joey Strummer.
Oh, he looks so innocent right there. That’s because he hasn’t unleashed his torture on the world just yet. You see that bag to the right of him? That’s a guitar. And what you can’t see over there is some kind of amp. And Joey Strummer waits until the velvet chair is empty, the one in the corner. And then he crouches on that chair, puts on his own set of fancy headphones, hooks up to a couple of amps and some kind of guitar-ifier, and Joey Strummer plays his ass off.
I just realized he’s doing it right there. He’s playing the guitar right there, at the table. Do we play our guitars at the table?
Sure we can’t hear the notes because he’s listening to them. But you know what we can hear? Strumming. Playing the guitar isn’t quiet. We’re basically hearing him play the guitar without the benefit of a song. And if I didn’t have my own pair of $2.32 headphones, I’d be in torture. Because Joey Strummer loves strumming his guitar, and doesn’t give a shit what anybody else at the Starbucks thinks.
See, crazies like Chessmaster, sure he takes up a huge table and looks like he might be wearing a bomb under his shirt. But he wants to keep to himself. He just wants a place to play his chess games and check the time. He doesn’t even smell funny, which would be totally in his right to do. In fact, it’d be expected of him to smell funny. But Chessmaster doesn’t want to bother anybody. He just wants to be weird. Joey Strummer, he’s just a rude little punk assface. He puts his feet on the chairs and then strums away, totally oblivious to the fact that some of us are trying to have a meeting!
I’ve threatened to start rehearsing monologues in there, high school style, like I’m at a speech tournament: facing the wall, directing all of my energy to the paint in front of my face. stee says he’s going to bring a drum kit. I think a parade could go through and everyone would just be business as usual.
And that’s when I realize that this homogenous, over-lit, corporate money-sucker is the closest thing to Austin I’ve got right now. So I love it.
But leave me a spot by the power outlet, would you? I’ve only got an hour before I’ve got to get to my night job.
- Henry’s List of Wrongs, by John Scott Shepherd
- Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon, by Chuck Palahniuk
- CD in Heavy Rotation: Hang On, Mike by Candy Butchers