I posted the item below from an Ann Arbor coffeehouse, wi-fi-ing from my Apple PowerBook. I was interrupted in the midst of putting it together by a call on my cell phone. A man glanced my way as I talked, and I know he was thinking what I was thinking:
God, are you insufferable.
And God, was I ever. But I can’t help it. I overstayed the time necessary to eat a piece of stale crumb cake and drink an overpriced cup of coffee. It wasn’t the wi-fi that held me — it was the atmosphere.
Is it so wrong to like the “third place?” I don’t think so. I’ve been working at home for weeks now, and damn, but it gets lonely there. People are social animals and we need to see other animals to feel we aren’t the only gazelle left on the savannah. Offices are the designated place to work, but the last one I had seemed almost designed to be depressing — windows waaaaay across the other side of the room, dust and grime on everything, a computer that crashed every half-hour, lousy coffee. My sightline was the back of my neighbor’s computer and a wall, with a filing cabinet against it. Above the filing cabinet, an American flag printed on a newspaper page, with “September 11, 2001” printed above. Believe me, if you worked there you’d find any excuse not to.
Hence the Third Place. Alan, in the midst of midwifing a breech-presenting series one year, would print copies of all the stories and take them to a nearby restaurant, where he’d blue-pencil the crap out of them in peace, away from his phone and the thousand stinging ants of the newsroom. Only anyone seeing him there — and perhaps some of his very own supervisors — would have said, “That guy is goofing off,” when in truth he got more done in the third place than he did in the office.
The Ann Arbor third-place scene is vibrant, to say the least. Starbucks and Espresso Royale windows are always full of laptop-open students, what looks like business meetings and other activities only tangentially related to coffee-drinking. Office managers should take note. Windows good. Coffee good. Comfy chairs even better. Third place: Good.