School’s out, the sky is blue, and that summer sloth will be cured by just one thing—caffeine, and lots of it. Thus coffee shops are still the hangout du jour in the summertime, a place to chit-chat over chai or grab an ice-blended en route. But as the ceaseless summer populace buzzes in and out, people rarely notice a handful of solitary freaks in their midst: holed up in corners, avoiding eye contact, downing espresso by the gallon, these lone losers posses secret, special powers…
But their gift is also a curse, for it has made them outcasts.
These freaks are writers.
I’ve heard people say they despise writers in coffee shops because “they’re just trying to look cool,” but that’s an obvious fallacy. If I wanted to look cool, I could do better than stare into an iced Americano, noting that my reflections on the ice cubes all have the same “lost at sea” look on their ice-faces, a thousand little screenwriters adrift in a black abyss. There are few things less cool than staring at a blank white page on your laptop in public. In truth, writers work at coffee shops because they’d never leave the house otherwise, and because it is somewhat less likely that they will burst into tears, start screaming obscenities, or begin smearing their own feces on the wall in frustration if they’re in a public place. Cool? Hardly. “Writers” is on a short list of groups I’d rather not be associated with, a list that also includes Food Addicts Anonymous, My Super Sweet 16 fans, and Opus Dei.
But in the process of writing this very column at my neighborhood Starbucks, a man looked at me, grinned, and said, “Writer’s block!” on his way out the door. It wasn’t a question. Clearly he recognized my forlorn, vacuous stare into computer screen oblivion, the same way a birdwatcher would identify a familiar call echoing across the pond and proudly announce: “The common loon!”
He had me pegged. I smiled, thankful to have a kind stranger fleetingly acknowledge my eternal suffering. But as he walked on, I had to wonder… is it really that obvious?
Do I really look like a writer?
I’ve been called many things. Some ask if I’m an actor. Those craving a favor may ask if I’m a model. There was a period when every time I’d shop at Abercrombie & Fitch, customers would ask me to open fitting rooms for them. Last week a drunk guy who passed out in front of my garage swore he’d seen me on MTV. I’ve also been mistaken for a cocaine dealer, a prostitute, and someone trashy enough to buy chronic off a guy at a bus stop — all on the same street corner during my summer internship in fabulous Hollywood, California.
Yet none of these mistakes disturbed me quite so much as being called out as a writer.
I’ve always considered myself more of an “honorable mention” in the lineup of head cases and would-be carnies one typically associates with writing professionally — not a full-fledged member. I’m sure lots of flourishing writers come across as well-adjusted individuals by day, but the road to success is paved with Xanax, and without clocking at least a little field time in Crazytown, they’d pursue more sensible, reliable careers… such as barista. I admit to a certain degree of eccentricity, sure, but I also consider myself a fully functional member of society… not just an observer, a participant. So if I’m not even a prosperous writer at this tender young age, why carry the funny farm stigma now? I’ll have plenty of time to be freakish and socially awkward when I’m older.
I closed my laptop, left the coffee shop, and immediately set about making concerted efforts to differentiate myself from the writing community. This summer, I would boldly go where few writers had gone before. First stop? The beach!
A pallid, never-seen-the-light-of-day skin tone might earn a writer authenticity points, but it also puts him on automatic suicide watch, which isn’t very summery. A healthy, sun-kissed glow, however, seemed just the thing to help me blend in with those folks we writers call “normals,” and though I did succeed in bronzing away that “indoors” look, I did it at the expense of my poor, poor skin, which has mostly peeled away… for the Cause.
Next I decided to take up running — no longer would typing and frowning be the extent of my cardio. But this proved an even greater challenge than tanning, since it involved much less laying down. In the movies, an upbeat song would play and thirty seconds, six outfits, and as many close-ups of my “this is difficult” face later, I would reach my goal and high-five a grumpy yet paternal mentor. As it turns out, however, this only happens in the movies. Actual running involves your full body (no fitter-than-you stunt double), one sole outfit, and at least half an hour, and when you finish, you look all red and blotchy and no one cheers for you. My running remained montage-and-Miyagi-free, which needless to say was disappointing. Worst of all, I didn’t instantaneously feel like I was ready to take on any bullies or national championships or other third act obstacles, unless my big climactic moment involved tackling a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. (I earned it, okay?)
Finally, I decided social interaction was the key to ridding myself of writerly weirdness. A summer job seemed the perfect way to fraternize with new people — and pull in some extra cash to boot! Unfortunately, getting a mindless part-time gig was harder than expected. Employers somehow felt the need to ask why I wanted the job, as if I might be a secret millionaire whose inner satisfaction comes from spending summer afternoons helping bitchy tourists find pants that fit. I assumed “For the money, duh!” was a tacky response, so I went with the painful truth: “I’m a writer looking for a job that will leave me enough time to work on my scripts too…”
Well! I guess it’s too bad I didn’t get my BFA. in The Art of Retail, since nobody hired me. All that time perfecting my “I’m not overqualified for this job” face for naught.
After such rejection, I returned to my local Starucks for a venti self-pity party and considered giving up the quest to transcend my writer’s roots. I don’t tan, running is exhausting, and I had an easier time getting a job without a college degree. Perhaps my fate was already sealed. I pulled out my laptop and weighed my options, staring at that blank screen. It was then that an old man passed by and asked, “Why do you think so hard?”
I looked up and wondered if he’d been sent via divine intervention to convince me not to surrender. But then he went on: “She’s coming for you, and she’s going to give you BJ!” Then he hobbled away.
And while no such female appeared to do anything of that nature, something clicked. I looked around Starbucks at the batty old people, the twittering gossip queens, the ADD kids with their OCD parents and, yes, the writers, and I thought, “It’s not just us. Everybody in this place is crazy!”
Maybe it’s the heat plus caffeine, or maybe we’ve been mad all along, but suddenly those lone freaks holed up in the corners didn’t look so freakish; they looked one step ahead of me, as if they’d figured this out already. I decided not to give up on my summer plan, but rather to make it a three-pronged attack: Look good. Feel good. Write good.
Err… write well.
Then I promptly got to work, figuring: if we’re all crazy anyhow, there’s no shame in putting it to good use.
Though it may be time to find a new coffee shop.
(Throwback Thursday: This piece was first published in INsite Boston in 2006.)