Coffee House Culture

The Daily Grind

My Rouses Everyday, May/June 2017

Some mornings, as I sip my first cup of coffee and gaze out the window into the dark, I think about how my mama started most of her days.

I think about how she’d rise an hour or so before the sun came up, grab her two newspapers off the porch and make a pot of coffee. The usually bustling house would be freakishly quiet, and she’d settle into the same spot every morning at the kitchen table and soak up a little bit of sweet, quiet solitude.

It was her time to write in her journal, read her papers without interruption and slowly make sense of the world before the rush of kids, work and everyday chaos kicked in.

Mama’s pre-dawn ritual gave her a little precious quiet time — a gift that required little more than a solid alarm clock and a commitment to traditional farmer’s hours.

Years later, I’m sitting at my own version of that chair at the kitchen table, soaking up the subdued clatter of my morning refuge — the neighborhood coffee shop.

When I first moved to New Orleans, I found this particular spot — a window seat on one end of a long room, with extensive views of the shop and the street outside, across from a bus stop. From this seat, I can see the way the shop works from both sides of the bar, and I have spent the past 15 years typing away and looking up between paragraphs, watching café culture unfold in front of me.

My mama picked her seat for a little precious solitude. I picked mine to watch the world go by.

For years, my most productive times have been early mornings — that sliver of time when my mind is clear and my brain is properly caffeinated — especially on deadline days. So, taking a cue from Mama, I arrive at my seat as close to opening time (6 a.m.) as possible.

Early morning work requires an obnoxiously early alarm time (5:35 a.m.), but it brings with it the kind of deep quiet known best by fishermen, duck hunters and older insomniacs. On the drive over, you hear only one set of tires — your own — on the pavement and see deep streetlight shadows.

In my mind, there’s a special place in heaven for opening-shift baristas. They arrive well before the sun comes up, brew a flood tide of life-giving caffeinated elixir, and (if you’re consistent and lucky) will slide your medium-sized, medium-roast mug across the counter as you approach the counter. A few seconds of banter (if appropriate), a quick exchange of money, and it’s off to work.

From my window seat, I watch the Early Shift regulars wander in, and the process repeats itself maybe a dozen times. The large-animal veterinary surgeon takes his place in his traditional leather lounge chair. The budding medical student gets a jump on studying for the board exams. The pre-workout couple in spandex fitness clothes and fluorescent running shoes ruffle newspaper pages. The off-duty police officer (a cousin of the barista) stops by for a quick chat after clocking out for the night.

As a general rule, Early Shift folks might give each other a subtle nod or a low volume “g’mornin’,” but never enough to break the room’s library-like calm. The couple might have a whispered conversation about the day’s plans or the news of the day, but never enough to cause a ripple in the quiet. And it’s a good thing: Quiet allows the first cup of coffee to slowly seep from tongue to bloodstream to brain stem as the sun hits the horizon and the streetlights turn off for the day.

After an hour or so, the Commuters place their orders and loiter around the espresso bar. Dressed for the office but bleary around the eyes, the Commuters just want their dry-foam latte to kick in seven minutes before today’s all-day staff meeting. (“On second thought, make it a double-shot, will ya?”)

As the espresso machine goes through its usual CLUNKclunkWHOOOOSSHHdribbble routine, they retrieve the day’s first batch of emails, roll their eyes and feverishly start thumb-typing on their smartphones. Once the name is called (“Cheryl! Double mocha no-fat latte no foam “Cheryl!”), it’s time to finish up with “best regards,” hit send and hightail it downtown.

The Conversationalists arrive and bring a wave of big-group energy to the room. This group of regulars usually have a set meeting time (“8:45 a.m. sharp every Thursday”); they pull a few table together and proceed to hold good-natured court. Friends stop by and discuss the last Saints game or the Pelicans’ impending draft picks. They kill an hour talking about family or politics with the energy of a TV morning show, then head off to work, waving to the baristas with a smile and an energetic farewell.

By this time in the morning, the daily wave of semi-comatose students has come and gone — phones up, eyes glazed, craving sugary beverages — and the members of the Laptop Brigade take up their positions. A bevy of self-employed folks (writers, traveling salesfolk, financial advisors, wedding planners) scout the room for double-wide tables, easy power-outlet access and the magical WiFi password.

On a busy weekday, the long banquette looks like an entrepreneurial wildlife park, as a row of specialists conduct widely varied business pursuits, separated only by coffee mugs and muffin plates. A management consultant Skypes into the home office for a status update, oblivious to the graphic designer’s client meeting at the next table. The sales manager cranks away on spreadsheets, isolated by the same industrial-strength, noise-canceling headphones as the computer programmer a few tables down.

Sunny days attract a diverse crowd to the semi-shaded sidewalk tables. The Last Surviving Smokers grab a quick cig/joe combo to kick-start the day, as the Dog Folk try to calm their pooches for a second as they run in for their order. The Stroller Ladies busy themselves in the sunshine with various baby duties (applying sunscreen on pudgy legs, adjusting sunbonnets, doling out Cheerios® from plastic snack boxes).

The occasional member of the Laptop Brigade paces the sidewalk on a semi-private business call (after the requisite request of a nearby compatriot: “Watch my stuff for a second?”). They pass the New Wanderers who drag in huge suitcases to a table, so they can write in their journals until their Airbnb opens at noon.

Weekends are a wee bit different, with many of the regulars switching from “office appropriate” attire to “comfort forward” togs — pencil skirts are replaced by yoga pants, T-shirts and shorts pinch-hit for suits and ties. On Sunday mornings, thick newspapers replace the phones for leisurely reading, and couples work through the tough crosswords with no real sense of urgency. Just a perfect place to relax and enjoy the sun on the sidewalk.

By late morning, I’m usually hyper-caffeinated, about done with my desk work and ready to move on for the day. I pack up my laptop and say my goodbyes to the remaining regulars. I bus my table, wave to the busy baristas (now ramping up for the lunch rush) and hit the pavement — happy, energized and with a whole day ahead of me.

As I leave my little window seat, I think about the power of that place and the morning rituals that can start you off on the right foot. My mama needed her silence and I need my clatter, and it’s reassuring that tomorrow morning — well before sunrise — I’ll be back to start another day.