As we speak - actually, as I sit and type this - I'm sitting in a coffee shop. It's a completely normal coffee shop, a franchise of a national chain, with a completely normal menu, furnishings, and ambience. Nothing makes it any more exciting than any of the dozens of other coffee shops in my city, but then again there's nothing to make it any less exciting either.
Eric Clapton is jamming away on the guitar solo of Layla. The windows look out on a parking lot, which looks out on a major through street. People who had to work late on a Friday night are bustling past in their cars on the way home. There are eight other customers and two employees behind the bar. There are two college girls studying. One guy sitting by himself, trying to flirt with one of the girls. Another guy in a corner and wearing his heart on his sleeve, and a third doing paperwork and talking on a cell phone. Three middle-aged ladies are clustered together, talking about real estate and home improvements and the gazebo that one had built in her back yard. Then there's me.
Why am I here? Why did I choose to leave my warm comfy house, get in my car, and drive to this totally ordinary spot? I might ask the same question of you, if you are in fact reading this in a coffee shop, as I suspect you might be.
An easy answer for me is that a coffee shop gives me a place to escape from the same four walls. My wife and son are out of town this weekend, and sitting alone in my house just really didn't appeal to me tonight. We go through the same routines, day after day, week after week. Sleep, shower, eat, work, TV, eat, sleep, repeat. Same cubicle at the office, same chair at the dinner table, same restaurant, same grocery store, same car, same life. Routine isn't necessarily bad, but sometimes we just need to get out. Maybe a coffee shop is the place to do it.
Another easy answer is, of course, the coffee. Sure, we can make and drink coffee at home. But how many people have you heard say, "I don't know what you guys do differently, but your coffee is just better here"? And not many people whose houses I've been to can make a halfway decent cappuccino with the little plastic thing on their counter that they call an 'espresso machine', much less an actual espresso. Not to mention the ever-popular caramel turtle mocha latte (whatever the heck that is). So maybe I'm here for the coffee.
But maybe not.
How out am I at this coffee shop? I'm actually looking at the same computer screen that I see at work all day. Except for a little lighthearted interaction with the barista, I haven't spoken to or even made eye contact with anyone yet. They're probably looking at me and wondering, "What's up with the guy with the laptop? What a weirdo." And honestly, the coffee isn't all that fabulous. Good, yes, but not worth a ten minute drive and three bucks. I have a real espresso machine at home, and (if I do say so myself) if I made the barista a real cappuccino, she wouldn't know what hit her.
Maybe I've just written myself into a corner. Why am I at this coffee shop? Are coffee shops just another one of life's little siren songs, enticing enough on the surface but wispy and insubstantial underneath, unable to stand up under any sort of direct scrutiny? Is this whole thing we call 'coffee culture' just a passing fad, the latest and greatest in a long line of trendy fashions, so people can fuel the fires of their hipper-than-thou attitude with a half-caf soy milk coffee-like drink in a paper cup?
Well, if P.T. Barnum was right and there really is a sucker born every minute, then there are more than enough suckers in this world to stock every coffee shop in suburbia with eight customers and two employees and a weirdo with a laptop every Friday night until the end of the world.
But I think there's more to it than that. We haven't fallen for a cleverly invented Madison Avenue advertising campaign when we gravitate towards coffee shops, where we can sit alone with other people and enjoy an evening and a cup of java and two hours of joint solitude. I think the existence of coffee shops, and the natural affinity we have for sitting in them, comes from deep within, from an unfulfilled longing that points us to a need we never knew we had.
Just as the feeling of hunger is a strong clue that something like food might exist, just as the sensation of thirst tells us there must be water to quench it, and just as our continual human quest for transcendence gives us a hint that there is something like a God who is above and beyond this world, so also the desire we have to share experiences, to simply be together, seems to tell us that people are supposed to be with other people and enjoy time in each other's company. We weren't meant to sequester ourselves behind tinted glass and soundproof modular office dividers and the high brick walls of planned communities.
Neither are we built to hide our feelings behind fake-happy facades or build impregnable fortresses around our hearts. Human beings are social creatures. The five minutes we stand in line at Wal-Mart doesn't count as spending time together. Shouting at the drive-thru speaker at McDonald's doesn't count as communication.
We were made for better things than these. We were meant for more fulfilling contacts, more intimate interaction, and deeper understandings. Our desire to sit together in coffee shops, our longing for deep connections and meaningful relationships, points to the reality that such relationships are possible, that such connections can be made, and such togetherness is our shared destiny as humans together on Earth.
I've been sitting here for over an hour now. I still haven't spoken to anyone. My cappuccino is only a bit of foam clinging to the side of the cup. The gazebo ladies are gone, and another couple has taken their place, oblivious to the conversation that preceded theirs. The guy doing paperwork is still here, but of the original eight customers, only one of the studying girls is left. A woman is crocheting a scarf. A girl is reading a book by herself. A young couple is sharing a single cup of coffee. The workers behind the counter are starting to eye the clock, hoping the customer who just walked in will take his coffee to go.
But he doesn't. He has come here for the same reason that all of us have, the same reason you are going to sit down and enjoy your coffee at a table for a few minutes instead of taking it back to your car. He stays and takes a seat because he knows, just as we do, that we were all somehow meant to be together.
NB: the images for this story are from Flickr, and are used under the Creative Commons license applied to these photos. The photos come from ChrisB in SEA and dcJohn.