I have written a lot of things in coffee shops. I have written books that have not sold. I have written one book that sold (literally dozens of copies). I have written screenplays that have not sold. I have written the back-of-DVD copy for a Walker, Texas Ranger collection. And, most recently, I have written an article about a falcon who has sex with a man’s hat. I’m even writing this from a Peet’s, in Los Angeles.
So, it’s safe to say I know a few things about working in coffee shops. It’s also safe to say I know a few things about crushing poverty and professional humiliation — but let’s focus on the coffee shop thing for now.
To be clear, this article is not meant for people who use coffee shops for awkward first dates, exhausted parents gathering their resolve while their children use the furniture as playground equipment, travelers taking emergency BMs on long road trips, teenagers hanging out, teenagers engaging in flagrantly inappropriate PDA, teenagers playing Candy Crush at full volume on their cellphones four feet from me as I write this, people occasionally consuming coffee, and your mom buying that smooth jazz CD she heard about on Good Morning America.
I have no quarrel with these people. These people are using coffee shops exactly how they were intended to be used.
Instead, I am addressing the parasites, the ticks that have burrowed into the meaty haunches of the coffee shop to suckle off the WiFi and the ample supply of sanitary paper in the bathrooms. I am addressing the coffee shop freelancer.
I know who you are, because I am a toilet-paper hoarding monster, just like you. I’ve sat in the posture-destroying chairs, watching the disgusting behavior of my fellow coffee shop freelancers over the years, and I think it’s high time we start holding ourselves to a higher standard.
We are the worst part of coffee shops. We are even more annoying than Oprah chai, without any of the social benefits of Oprah chai. But we can be better. We can start following these rules:
Ten Commandments for Writing in a Coffee Shop without Being a Complete Dick
I. Thou Shalt Buy a Scone
Yes, you have already bought a small green tea, and yes, you are technically a paying customer, and yes, you can technically stay in the coffee shop all day, tapping away at your Gandalf meets Magneto slash fic, because *technically* you aren’t loitering.
Being that you’re already occupying valuable real estate, coffee shop owners are going to hate you, regardless. But you can make them hate you just a little bit less by buying another coffee, or a scone, or some other delicious treat. A good rule of thumb is to spend one dollar for every hour you are in a coffee shop.
It’s a great value. Try renting an office for a dollar an hour. Better yet, try doing anything worth doing for a dollar an hour. I guess you could wander around in nature, and I suppose some people think that’s fun, but when has nature given you anything as majestic as an iced cinnamon roll?
II. Thou Shalt Take Your Annoying Phone Calls Outside
Being a freelancer is hard enough already. Being a freelancer with the ordinary distractions of a coffee shop is harder, but I have no complaints, I knew what I was signing up for. But being a freelancer while the guy next to me has a long, loud, and extended cell phone conversation about how the other guys on his improv team “just don’t get me, Mom” is simply impossible.
DO NOT talk on your cell phones in coffee shops. If for no other reason that the fact that every writer in there is listening to every word you say, and we are judging you, and we are lifting each revealing and embarrassing tidbit to use as scathing dialogue in novels that only our mothers will ever read.
III. Thou Shalt Not Covet Resources
All coffee shop creatives are looking for three things:
1. An outlet.
2. A table.
3. Someone who can pass along their Big Bang Theory spec script to a manager because, “It’s good, Paula. I swear, I wouldn’t ask you to do this if it wasn’t super good.”
We all need the same things, so let’s share the resources. If you’re laptop is charged, let someone else use the outlet. If you’re writing with a pen and paper because you’re the complicated, artistic type, then don’t occupy the table by the outlet. If you’re done writing for the day, go home and let someone else have the table. And if you have a friend who can pass along your Big Bang Theory spec script to their manager, then you should totally make her do that for you. This a once in a lifetime career opportunity, and Paula totally won’t mind. She’s super cool about that sort of stuff.
IV. Thou Shalt Not Try to Share a Two-Person Table with a Stranger, You Weirdo
We are not lovers. We are not on our honeymoon. We are not holding hands and staring deeply into one another’s eyes, and feeling, truly and deeply and for the first time ever, completely happy, and safe, and not so alone anymore.
We are strangers. So don’t ask to sit at my two-person table, you weirdo.
“I mean, sure you can sit there, I can’t legally stop you from sitting there, but…”
“You know what? Fine, be my guest.”
“Why are you eating a tuna melt? Starbucks doesn’t even sell those. Did you bring that from home?”
“Yes, I’ll watch your laptop while you go pee.”
V. Thou Shalt Tip the Staff
I have spoken with many baristas about coffee shop freelancers, and the general consensus is they don’t care how long we stay at the tables (especially Starbucks baristas, who don’t care to a staggering degree). In fact, the only thing that gets baristas universally pissed is when people do gross stuff in the bathrooms. And I’m not going to say what the “gross stuff” is exactly, but the image above should give you an approximate idea.
Baristas have to deal with horrors like this on an almost daily basis, and they deserve a little something extra. You should always tip your barista, and this goes triple for coffee shop freelancers. To be clear: I don’t mean dropping a palm full of loose nickels in the tip jar. Leave a dollar; better yet, a fiver.
VI. Thou Shalt Stay Humble
It feels redundant to tell freelancers to stay humble, because life already does such a fine job of grinding humility into us on a daily basis, but this still must be said. In the rare event that two creatives speak with each other at a coffee shop, the conversations usually go one of three ways:
1. Like the video above. Full of “stuff in the pipeline” and “projects in post.”
2. They commiserate about how poorly they are doing professionally. Which, for many very unflattering, very human reasons, is a comfort for all fellow freelancers within eavesdropping distance.
Or, very occasionally:
3. They brag about how well they are doing professionally. Which, for even more unflattering and human reasons, is devastating for all freelancers within eavesdropping distance.
Nobody wants to hear about your book sale, or your script sale, or the five dollars you found on the sidewalk when you were dropping off your self-published graphic novel in the Little Free Library by your house for “viral marketing.” We should want to hear about it. We should be thrilled for you. But we aren’t, and that fundamental contradiction leads to even more self-loathing than usual.
And if you’re writing in a coffee shop, you shouldn’t brag about your literary accomplishments. Because — and this is important — you’re still writing in a coffee shop. You aren’t in there just because the coffee shop inspires you. You are in there because you can’t afford an office, or, maybe you can afford an office, but don’t trust yourself to manage the ever-present temptation of masturbation.
So don’t brag. We writers are all humble craftsman. Though, not quite humble enough to get a real job.
VII. Thou Shalt Not be Creepy
This should be obvious for all adults, but sadly, coffee shop freelancers need to be reminded of this basic rule of human decency. If you are working in a coffee shop, DO NOT be creepy to the other customers and, more importantly, DO NOT be creepy to the staff. Specifically, DO NOT be creepy in a sexual way.
This rule is difficult, because sex is a biological need, and because coffee shop freelancers use the coffee shop as their workplace, workplace crushes are sometimes inevitable. But just like workplace crushes, coffee shop crushes are best left safely tucked away in the imagination. Because professional romances can get pretty weird and occasionally drive-across-the-country-in-a-diaper-for-murder weird.
So, go ahead and try to chat up the cute barista, but do so at your own peril (and back off when she mentions her awesome surfer boyfriend). Better to hop on Tinder or try to pick up someone at a bar, where the “creative visionary” thing will work much better for you. Freelancing is hard enough without injecting any more crippling awkwardness into the equation.
VIII. Thou Shalt Rotate the Stock
As a coffee shop freelancer, you are a burden to the American coffee shop industry. So, it is your moral duty to spread that burden across as many coffee shops as possible. As a rule, I try to spend no more than two days at any coffee shop during the week. This schedule keeps me from becoming a “regular” at a coffee shop (and nothing kills productivity liked forced chit-chat with the staff and other regulars), without depleting the “magic” of any location too quickly.
That’s right, I believe all coffee shops contain a certain amount of creativity-stoking “magic” that is depleted with each subsequent visit to that coffee shop. And yes, I am highly embarrassed that I just admitted that.
IX. Thou Shalt be a Scout
That means you will…
Leave your table cleaner than you found it.
Do nothing overtly gross in the bathroom.
Have patience and kindness for the homeless people taking sink baths.
Guard the laptops of your fellow freelancers during bathroom and phone call breaks when asked.
Say “please” and “thank you.”
And, in general, actively try to avoid being annoying.
And the last, and most important rule of all…
X. Thou Shalt Not be This Guy
Don’t be that guy. Don’t ever be that guy.