Friday, May 13, 2011

Gypsy Writer

I've written so many novels in Starbucks that, as my stack of unpublished work has grown, I’ve moved from including them in the acknowledgements in a sophisticated, light-hearted way (Gracias Baristas) to dedicating my work to them with the kind of passionate gratitude usually reserved for lovers. Lately, I’ve been looking for poems about coffee that I might use for an epigraph.

Picasso au lait
Hemingway had the cafes of Paris. I have Starbucks. Maybe that’s the problem. There is a regular at one of my Starbucks who is a pretty good artist (he paints watercolor portraits with coffee). And we have our share of intense revolutionaries, although it is the social network, rather than the social order, they plot to overturn. The Google campus is our Gertrude Stein salon.

Going to Starbucks is like going to work. It gets me up and out the door. I commute by bike, so it’s a bit of exercise as well. Mainly, it’s a place with a lot of people coming and going. Home should be a perfect place to write---quiet, spacious, my own coffee maker---but it’s not for me. When Meg is working, she can’t be my playmate, so I spend a lot of time with my nose pressed up against the window glass.

There can be annoying distractions in a public place, true, someone talking too loudly on a cell phone, that sort of thing. And sometimes it’s hard to get a table, since as near as I can tell everyone at the coffee shop is doing the same thing I am: using the place as their office. Starbucks is a laptop farm. Sometimes I worry that we are being unfair to our benevolent host. I have a friend in the restaurant business who used to tell me about the importance of table turn. I don’t think the table turnover rate is very good at Starbucks.

When I settle into just the right table, maybe in a corner, where I can see the people passing in the coffee line and hear the coffee orders called out, I can feel something change in me, almost as if I had been transported to a place where I am completely unknown, a visitor from another time. The white noise is a river down which my imagination drifts. I watch the people come and go without watching. I listen to conversations without hearing (except for tuning in the occasional bit of salacious gossip or tech insider talk). My mind wanders free as scenes and characters float by, inviting me to visit.

So I’m dedicating my book to Starbucks. At this point, they can have their choice of several. Maybe I’ll even give them a sliver of the royalties to make up for only buying small coffees and not venti frappuccinos. My acknowledgments will mention Maria and Jose and DJ, who were friendly and gave me stories to go with the coffee. Some of them asked me what I was doing, pounding away on the keyboard. I would tell them a little about what I was writing, but it’s awkward talking about your own work, and it's fiction after all, whereas their stories were their lives.

Over the years, I’ve seen complete staff turnovers in several Starbucks. Sometimes I wonder where those people are now. Did Sophie make it into nursing? Did Carla find a good school for her son? Did Juan get his car back? One thing I learned from them is that your story doesn’t have to be published to be real. It can be moving and uplifting even if you are the only one who knows it.

Still, I want my story to be like the Good Samaritan, the quiet man who no one knows until he performs some act of extraordinary kindness or heroism that is an inspiration to all the world. Finding the way to tell that story is the tricky part. I told a little of it to Maria. A little to Jose. We shared our stories. That’s how it begins.

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