Unemployed and exiled from the local cafe

Can't work here, as much as I'd like to.

Can't work here either, as much as I'd like to. Maybe I could smuggle coffee into the library.

Jackson Heights is gentrifying, at least it was until the economy got all spooked and pulled the covers over its head. As part of the minority here, my wife and I have limited places to hang out. The varied ethnic restaurants are great, but don’t lend themselves to leisurely meals. The bars don’t cater to straight, English speakers. The bakeries, many of which have excellent coffee and scrumptious South American baked goods, are bright, loud and uncomfortable. And no place has wireless internet and electrical outlets for customer use. The lack of money thing is a tad problematic too.

A couple years ago, a cafe called Espresso 77 opened up just off the main drag, likely replacing one of the neighborhood’s 14,326 hair, nail and eyebrow salons. The place only has five or six tables. But they serve great coffee and invite people to stay with a light atmosphere and amenities like newspapers, magazines and, you guessed it, wireless and outlets. The cafe has become part of the community, offering story time for kids, bringing in musicians and staging exhibits from local artists. Starbucks – the neighborhood’s first – moved in a couple months later and a couple blocks away. But Espresso 77 has stood its own, cultivating a loyal customer base with a quality product.

Maybe once a week I pack up my laptop and notepad and head down there. The change of scenery helps to break up unemployment’s monotony and endless repetition. I’m still looking for a job (and distractions from looking for a job) while listening to music on headphones, but I’m doing it in a public place with people around. It’s social interaction through osmosis, and makes me feel like slightly less of a loser. Espresso 77 is pretty quiet in the middle of the afternoon – a couple people working and a couple more sitting around. I can nurse a strong cup of coffee, nibble a couple of chocolate chip cookies (by which I mean inhale like Cookie Monster on a bender) and do some work. After a few hours, I head off to the grocery store to pick up dinner stuff and then home.

This past Friday I took my show on the road, as it were. But waiting for me at my home office away from home office was quite a shock – little plastic covers on the electrical outlets, secured with little padlocks. The cafe was unemployed Norm-proofed, and I was devastated. They might just as well have kicked me in the crotch and pushed my hunched-over body into traffic.

Blocking off outlets creates a sort of time limit that isn’t that limiting, except for me. My four-year-old computer with its four-year-old battery lasts about 45 seconds if fully charged. I worked that day for less than the length of an album, and then left. My battery was dead. And my afternoons at the local coffee shop were over.

My guess is that people were abusing the cafe’s generosity and starting to cost them money. The plastic covers force out these computer users (once their batteries run out), without making staff act as bouncers. They save electricity and open up tables for more valuable customers – people who spend more money and leave more quickly. There’s a difference between use and abuse. And abuse hurts business. I get it. Customers who come in intending to sit down for lunch may end up leaving with a snack (or nothing) upon seeing no empty tables. Customers who walk by and think to stop in may not. Both may just go to Starbucks next time, where they’ll more likely get a seat.

The funny thing is I used to be one of the abusers, sipping a two-dollar cup of coffee in a to-go cup for hours until it was cold. My attitude was, “screw you, business owner, I’m following the rules you set up.” But I realized early on in my current stint of unemployment that this was not the spirit of the arrangement. I started spending more money during my visits and giving up my table when the place filled up.

Thinking about the matter later only depressed me more. Little plastic outlet covers had eliminated one of the few places I go regularly. A new computer or a new battery would solve the problem if I had the money. But I don’t. Now I have to ride the subway to go to a cafe with my computer, and that adds four dollars to the price of coffee and baked goods. Just how small and ridiculous has unemployment made my world that I even care about little plastic things and four dollars?

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  1. david wrote:

    a damn shame, man.

    the old Norm would have slipped the cover off and dared them to call you out on it. of course the old norm loved “Play Deep” so there’s that.

    really, though, this is unfortunate.

    Sunday, March 15, 2009 at 10:08 pm | Permalink
  2. FiredForNow wrote:

    My battery’s shot too Norm — I don’t even get 10 minutes before it powers down, without notice. So, I completely understand what bad news this is. To have a place of solace ripped out from under you feet, just another small insult to everything else. So sorry.

    Sunday, March 15, 2009 at 11:07 pm | Permalink
  3. I go to Cafe 77 and wish it was more of an Internet Cafe. Too small for that I guess.

    But your comment that “Jackson Heights is gentrifying” and the Cafe 77 complaint fired off a few neurons, not enough to arrive at a conclusion, but perhaps worth mentioning.

    I’m reading New York for Sale by Tom Angotti (MIT Press) and he posits that gentrification is a somewhat vicious process for clearing out the less well off. Somewhat like plugging the electric sockets to those with old batteries. (Mine lasts for 22 minutes.)



    Monday, March 16, 2009 at 12:40 am | Permalink
  4. Norm wrote:

    Gentrification does have the result of clearing out the less well off. But it also makes some less well off people a fair bit of money. The people who move into a neighborhood and spend more money on a home may very well be buying that home from a long-time resident who paid very little for it.

    Monday, March 16, 2009 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  5. Courtney wrote:

    Why not choose to do offline things when at the cafe? It’s not a mandatory rule that you have to use your computer, although I understand it was convenient habit. You’re not exiled from the cafe; you just can’t plug in. Print things out, use it to read or research. It might even be good to clear your head from the interwebs for a bit.

    Barring that, is there no library in Jackson Heights?

    Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  6. Norm wrote:

    There’s a library a few blocks away, but it’s always really crowded. And I’d have the same plugging in problem. And I’ve never had much luck working from there anyway.

    Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  7. Ron wrote:

    Hey Norm – a bright spot in your day here. You could (like me) be pushing hard on 64, recently laid off, and living in a rural town of 25,000 that’s 100 miles from the nearest city. Panhandling is discouraged here – even as a 401K supplement. There’s already a stack of resumes on Wal-Mart’s greeter position table.
    Just thought I’d make your day! 😉

    Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 12:18 am | Permalink
  8. Norm wrote:

    I’m sorry to hear that, Ron. But your story does make me feel fortunate for living in the big city. At least you can see the stars at night… I’m tired, and that’s the best I can come up with. Good luck.

    Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  9. anita wrote:

    Just getting acquainted with this blog (having just got laid off 3 weeks ago); nice writting Norm! Alas, the same thing happened to me yest. I went to 360Primo in Austin, which I used to love for their free wifi and chai lattes – to my dismay, they had put plastic covers over all the outlets – my hp battery probably lasts 30 mins, that’s about how long it takes to fire up IE…

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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