• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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And Your Horse Naturally Won

I went to Blue State today, a local coffee swillery, to get some reading done. It was packed and I shared a table with a young man who kindly gestured for me to sit when he noticed my stunned where-am-I-going-to-sit-in-the-cafeteria look. Just a page into my manuscript, he asked me if I was reading a manuscript. Yes. Then, politely, he asked if I would tell him what I was writing. I explained that I worked with writers, that the manuscript belonged to a client. He wanted to know what it was about. I told him. I started reading again. He returned to highlighting his own notes in a wide, unlined notebook.

May I disturb you again, he asked. Is there any other purpose to reading beyond  information or entertainment? I think so, I said. Such as, he asked.  Consolation, identification, understanding, I said, for communicating.  Do think there’s anything wrong with playing hundreds of hours of video games, he asked. I said I wasn’t sure. Pinball was my game freshman year. But that’s just reflexes,  he said, these games are whole worlds, and then he said something about an avatar. I thought he was a lonely freshman, but it turns out he was a lonely first year architecture student from Canada.

I remember spending hours in cafes when I was an undergraduate. I don’ think I ever spoke to anyone. I didn’t need to, armed with my notebook, Rimbaud, and Marlboro Lights. What about you? Cafe time? And, just for the hell of it, where do you stand on Starbucks?  We’ve known each other long enough; I want to know what you drink, if you drink, and if you ever wrote anything at a Starbucks worth reading. I’m extremely happy they didn’t exist when I needed to brood full-time.

33 Responses

  1. I wrote, edited, and published a coffee magazine when Starbucks was just a baby. It was the brand spanking new era of coffee. It was called Joe, and it was a local hit—essays and coffee-themed news that was funny, witty, clever, good, interesting—all the things you’d want to read. We tried to get Starbucks to sell it, but after pitching them here and at HQ and plying them with our groovy mugs, they said they wouldn’t sell it at their new stars because it wasn’t Starbucks’ property.

    Then, just when we stopped publishing, they stole it, name and all.

    We settled out of court.

    I don’t patronize Starbucks. I don’t drink their burnt offerings. I like local businesses of every kind. That’s my crusade. (Though I’m a sucker for the Mac & Cheese at Panera.)

    I have never written anything worth writing or reading anywhere but at my own kitchen table or desk. Going to a busy place to write would be an act. I can only write in isolation. Well, with dogs only.

    The best coffee I’ve ever had in your city is at Cafe Mogador. I absolutely love it there and dream about that stuff. I could spend the whole day there and probably write something brilliant if I weren’t ogling the tattooed wait staff.

    • If it’s not obvious already, my drink of choice is high-octane ale. My bad writing is proof I’ve had one and a half cans of Resurrection already. (P.S. That’s brewed right here by a small company.)

  2. last weekend, i was in north carolina with about 3,000 other mostly women walkers to do this huge 39.3 mile walk for breast cancer. I was with a friend and this lady came up to us out of nowhere and said, “don’t get stuck in the middle here. last year i got stuck here and it ended up taking me nine hours to finish the race.” then she walked away and asked two other total strangers if she could take their picture.

    i looked at my friend and said, “hmmm…crazy maybe?”

    maybe she was and maybe she wasn’t, but that’s how i always feel when i’m somewhere alone and start a conversation with a stranger, like i’m the crazy woman who can’t just sit and be with herself.

    later that weekend, i had to leave a day early because my daughter broke her arm and had to have surgery (i was an 8-hour drive away from my house at the time). in the elevator the morning i left, i was with a woman who was obviously on her way to the second-half of the walk while i was on my way home unable to complete the walk. out of nowhere and totally unprompted, i explained what had happened to my daughter and why i was leaving.

    i had turned into the crazy one. and i knew it as soon as i stepped off that elevator.

    as far as where i stand on starbucks…i’ll stand in line anywhere for a coffee, starbucks, dunkin donuts, heine brothers, 7-11. if they’re pushing caffeine, i’m pony-ing up.

    i write my morning pages–one of my regular writing practices–nearly every morning in a coffee shop. right now, i’m writing my column in bed. for some reason, i tend to avoid my at-home office.

    • I love it. The crazy one. And I have resigned that I waffle between giving major side eye to the crazy and getting entirely invested in the spontaneous conversation they start up. Eleven hour train ride to New York? Sit me next to the peroxide-dyed coif with the lipstick on her teeth.

      • I hear you. I’ve got this commenter on my blog who … oh, never mind. She might find me here.

        Note to self: Consider Google searches when using post titles like “Schizophrenia.”

        I feel like a literary agent.

    • Don’t worry, glasseye, don’t diagnose. You might have conjured a ghost that needs a lap in which to lay, to hear the story she desperately needs to hear. If you want to be an artist, be an artist. I’ve read your stuff and all I can say is that, of course, ma barker was a good mother, aren’t they all? She explained it, explained it away, how to rob the bank and win the day. But some folks know bullshit when they hear, some lazy way that directs those around them so they can play with their suffering and then tell everyone, look at me!, I made a portrait. A grotesque to say the least. Learn to read, glasseye, learn to read. This isn’t cozy comfort.

  3. I live in rural Alabama. I hate coffee. Ergo, I can’t add much to the conversation exception to add that when I have stepped into a Starbucks with friends, I have been appalled at the prices. Even here in Alabama. I can’t imagine what they’re like in New Yawk. I do start the day with caffeine though, in the form of a good old CoCola.

    Do I write in public places? Yes. I enjoy it. Have I ever written anything good there? Duh. Like everyone else, everything I write is golden. (Coffee induced or not).

    And I have one of those faces that apparently has “talk to me” tattooed on it, because even “the quiet crazies” start conversations with me. *sigh*

  4. Back home I routinely bothered Starbucks baristas for their triple-filtered water. It became a running joke in my family, but I sincerely do love ice water and Starbux is everywhere. *shrug*

    I *have* actually attempted to get work done in Starbucks since I moved to Montreal. About twice, though one of those might have been a Second Cup, and I drank hot chocolate or cider and people-watched instead. One greatly entertaining incident involved my having snagged one of the two club chairs in front of the fireplace. For the entire hour and a half that I was there, couple after couple approached with drink in hand and then stopped in front of me, looking from me to the unoccupied seat to the fireplace and over again as though the scenario just did *not* compute.

    Somehow I always come back to this: people are idiots.

  5. Haven’t done much writing in cafes. Two or three letters, two or three poems. I prefer to write where there is less noise and fewer people. These days I get up at 4:45 so I can have a couple hours in my study to write before the rest of my day needs tending.

    I worked for over five years in a building that had a Starbucks. I found it was a sometimes entertaining way to spend too much money on coffee that gave me headaches and pastries that gave me gas. For a while Starbucks sold a kick-ass hot chocolate drink I couldn’t resist. Thick and so strong, the cocoa burned my throat.

    There have been times in my life when I consumed a great deal of coffee. My first law-office job was manually inserting a third of a million tab stops in a WordPerfect document. It took twenty cups of coffee a day, five days a week for nine weeks, to bring that dogie in.

    Nowadays, I don’t drink much coffee. I have two or three or sometimes four mugs of strong tea a day, and I drink orange juice, soy milk, water and kefir. A few beers over the course of a summer. A small glass of wine with dinner a few times a month. A spot of cognac, sherry, or Irish whisky from time to time in the colder months. Vodka martinis if I go to a club or a party, which I rarely do.

    I may have written a poem once at a Starbucks that was worth reading. I mean, I know I wrote the poem–and I know I read it, on a local radio show–but I don’t know if it was worth reading.

  6. I’m sure I just walked into some bullshit, but never the less I always keep going, sniffing, stepping lightly, fighting back as I need. Starbucks, I learned to write at Poor Richards Kitchen. That kid needs a job. Not that jobs aren’t just a video game anymore. You win some you lose some. Everyone’s hacking and push, push, pushing away. A diagnosis, no doubt. Oh, yeah, sorry Betsy, this is your play ground. I like Starbucks when I want to stay up all night and be driven insane by kids and their half-assed ideas about things. Experience, what a gift. Was that too crazy?

  7. No coffee in my daily drinking regimen. I’m a Diet Coke fiend by day, a beer drinker by night. I never claimed to possess any class.

    I do enjoy a Starbucks caffe mocha from time to time, but the cup seldom warrants the calories. And I can’t write there with all those people chatting around me. So many characters, so many stories, that I tend to neglect my own.

    • Haven’t had a sip of wine or a ‘hard drink’ in over thirty years…..that shit gives me a headache and a hangover. But I drink beer. I love beer. I drink it loaded with ice (yes, during the day). I also smoke. I also gamble and swear like a sailor. So I’m sure some would say you have a lot more class than the likes of me. And never had a Starbucks coffee of any kind; before I start my beer, I drink Walmart’s special home-brewed from which I get heartburn. No wonder I love beer…

  8. I can’t write without reaching for a cigarette every hour or so. They frown on cigarettes at Starbucks. And elsewhere. So I write at my desk, with headphones, Dunkin Donuts Original Blend and my trusty smokes. I quit for almost 2 years, wrote crap and was insanely depressed, so I’ve pretty much decided I’m going to die younger than older, but at least it’ll be from cancer or a heart attack and not suicide.

    The only thing I like at Starbucks is cappuccino, because it’s the only game in this one-horse town and I can’t make one myself. Their plain old regular joe coffee is too strong, too arrogant, and too expensive. I use the drive-thru and try to avoid going inside the store because I’m Judgy McJudgypants and think everyone in there with a laptop is a faux pensive writer, sipping a soy latte and feeling just a leetle superior about it all. Where’s the pain in that? Go home and slowly kill yourself for your art.

    • If you need to conjure pain, drink coffee. It’s silly at best for some but they sure as fuck waste their life away, drinking coffee, waiting for that blink. Sleep. That’s the picture in this deep, wild, wayfaring need. Sleep to dream, and when the dreams awake you, don’t feel bad, that’s life, comin’ onto to you at a creep. Oye, the burglars and the ferryman, what a laughing bunch. What a gift, these nights with them. And then again, driven to sleep.

  9. Caffeine is my liquid writing friend until evening comes and then I switch to Ginger Beer or herbal tea. I’ve made notes of meaningful fragments while in diners, coffee shops and cafes, but have never sunk into the kind of reverie I need to write anything I’d call readable.

  10. I used to write in cafés all the time. I blame Natalie Goldberg for that. I’ve written in bars too, on stacks of bar napkins with a pen borrowed from the bartender, until last call and beyond, as the room is swept and the last glasses washed. The bartender would either call me a cab or walk me to my car, depending on how much I’d had, or maybe I’d go home with him (as memorably enunciated by one barkeep during last call: “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here—unless you’re sleeping with the one of the staff”) .

    I never write anything not worth reading, if only to myself. If all I want is to be read, I’ve discovered there will always be someone who likes my work. I’m not at the stage where money is a consideration.

    I don’t write so much in cafés because I stopped consuming caffeine, and four bucks is a lot of money to spend on something with no buzz-inducing qualities. I’ve noticed lately that I’m always the oldest person in any coffee shop I sit down in, and it makes me wonder if I have the right to, as if I’m taking up prime real estate for literary wool-gathering, as if my timeshare on a café chair has run out, as if it’s something better suited to a youngster that would look way better on a dust jacket than I.

    • Rights? What an honest fool, god bless you. But I think you think too much of these fools, gathered to gather wool, or is the word sheer a phrase for another day when they are sitting and sipping that poison they drink? Slapping the wink, I think, or did I get that wrong. But never the less slapping something is my guess. Now, always one to take his own advise, sleep to dream, perchance to take a peak, when gravity is weak. Man, you girls rock the fucking cradle. I’m outta here. I’m about to be knocked out, anyway. Computers, go figure.

  11. Everyone loves to trash Starbucks – it’s so damned easy ! Like a big fat fish in a little barrel. Huge, successful, ubiquitous, pretentious concept, even more pretentious clientele, ridiculously expensive. But let’s face it, it’s elevated the whole coffee culture, alot of the little guys exist first because of Starbucks paving the way and second as an antidote to them. They’re way too corporate to have anything resembling a soul, but they make a decent cup of Joe, aside from the Pikes Place swill they keep trying to sling.

    I’ve written in Starbucks, Tim’s, McD’s, in bathroom stalls, dark bedrooms, vacant meeting rooms at work, kitchens, backyards, front yards, cobwebby basements, clean basements, hotel rooms, motel rooms, tents … I’m like a crack addict with a laptop. Worthwhile ? Who the hell knows ?

  12. When I moved to small town England 10 years ago, if you went into a teashop and asked for coffee, it was instant. INSTANT?! No thanks. So I went from a daily Starbucks latte to …………tea.

    Progess – we now have Cafe Nero in town -better than Starbucks, but mostly I drink coffee at home, made in my cafetiere. I don’t write in cafes but they are good for thinking and reading and people watching.

    Thanks for talking to the lonely Canadian Betsy. That’s me over here sometimes.

  13. i love my local coffeeshop and write in there three times/week. starbucks is an airport coffee drink for me. sadly, caffeine no longer agrees with me, so i’m a decaf skinny latte woman.

    as for the quality of the writing? i dunno. i just do it and then fix it and then send it off and it seems to be working. fragments of time, fragments of writing, fragments of success.

    could be why i write in fragments.

  14. I used to write at a coffeeshop near a music school. I’d watch the music students with their instruments and elegant coats, and I turned my jealousy into a work ethic. My notebook was my violin and my cashmere and, eventually, my MFA.

    Starbucks is too corporate, but works in a pinch.

  15. I never gravitate towards public spaces to do my writing. I get too distracted people watching to get properly absorbed in my work.

    Really glad I haven’t been in public for these last few days of writing because I’ve been prone to bouts of sobbing. Which I’m hoping is a good sign…

    • I think I do better solitary also, but sometimes you just gotta get out of the house and not have to stop writing. As for the sobbing, isn’t it great when you hit a vein of emotion like that? The trick is that we have to be cold-hearted in our craft so as to make the reader sob, too. I’ve found it easier said than done, but the effort has its own rewards. Have to say, however, that I would love to see you tapping away on your keyboard at the local Java Hut, a full box of Puffs Plus on hand, wadded tissues at your feet, wailing away as if your heart would break. If the place were full, you’d have at least fifty guaranteed readers for your book when it came out.

  16. I’ve never been able to write in public. When I was a teenager I kept a journal, or rather a pile of loose leaf lined paper crammed with my thoughts. A friend found part of my stash in an album cover and showed it to her mother. She whispered with my mother. And like all things from my childhood, it was swept away into the nether regions of things we don’t talk about. After that, I changed tactics. I’d write for hours when no one was home and then burn the pages. I’ve never gotten over the urge to curl my arm around my words so no one can see.

  17. A Starbucks in Somerville, MA was my best writing place for a long time. It was just down the corner from where I lived and functioned like a second living room. It never felt corporate at all — the employees knew my name and had endless patience for the 10 kazillion cups of milk my two-year old and I managed to spill on their floor (I tipped well, I promise!). Once the manager saw me on the street and came running over to let me know they’d started carrying my favorite kind of cookie again (after it had been discontinued). Then we moved, and the Starbucks where I live now just make me sad.

  18. Favorite cafe is in untrendy part of town, is huge, has high ceilings, big windows, is filled with murals and fountains, lots of wood, a few plants, plenty of twinkly little lights, a smattering of sweatery stripey chairs and bright red sofas. good food and tea.

    Drink: Unsweetened green tea, hot or iced depending on the weather.

    Went to Starbucks years ago before there was drinkable coffee in my neighborhood indies. Still occasionally stop by as it’s near the YMCA and i occasionally drink a dbl espresso before working out.

  19. Also gets points for a tall narrow gilt-framed mirror featuring a smallish fox hunting scene at the top. Hidden behind it is a fuse box, not so secret.

    Usually play jazz, blues, classical.

    Today am being punished by Chicago’s Hits.

  20. I never write in cafes. I drink Starbucks. Large, regular, extra room for cream. Tastes like tar. But makes me feel invincible.

  21. Have written some good stuff in cafes. Write best when in a relaxed cafe listening to low-key (and unbad) music, buoyed also by the musics of multiple conversations swirling around me.

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