Newsletter 84: The Optimism of the Coffee Shop Conundrum

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is a newsletter from December 2017. I know that I am too optimistic for my own good, and I know that optimism is a privilege, but nevertheless: You will never convince me that reasonable optimism somehow is a bad thing for the world.

Every time there’s even a moderate storm in my neighborhood, the power goes out. It’s a residential neighborhood with lots of old trees, so even a relatively sedate wind can knock their branches off and send them into our power lines. It’s incredibly irritating for a family who works at home: No wireless means no work can get done, and no work getting done means, in this house, Very Grumpy People. I’ve asked for a generator for Christmas — unquestionably the least exciting, most old-guy thing I’ve ever asked for as a gift — but until Santa comes through, when a tree falls, I must get thee to a coffee shop.

I haven’t worked in an office on a daily basis since March 2005 — I’ve missed 12 1/2 years of assholes taking out their penises, apparently — so it’s a little awkward for me to work around other people. I’ve gotten so used to sitting alone in a room and typing all day that the act of people watching, or simply having to share a plug-in with some guy with a baffling Excel spreadsheet and plans for future synergistic opportunities, feels like an intrusion. I get so busy working I forget that other people do, in fact, also work. I’m basically a spoiled brat.

Anyway, last time the power went out, I went to the Jittery Joe’s here in Five Points to produce that week’s Grierson & Leitch podcast. I had my headphones in and was cutting and pasting and muting background noise and taking out some of my “ums” and “ahs” when a woman tapped me on the shoulder.

“Sorry to bother you, I’m just going to the bathroom, and I was wondering if you could keep an eye on my computer.”

I told her yes, of course, without thinking about it, and nobody touched her computer, and when she came back I made a joke about fighting off a gaggle of ninjas to protect her laptop. She laughed, and I’m sure neither one of us thought about the incident again until this particular second. I know that the “someone asks you to watch their laptop in a public place” has been a comedic trope for a while now, and it was even the centerpiece of a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode last season. But I still think it’s worth unpacking what it means when someone asks a total stranger to protect something valuable to them, and what it says about us as human beings.

So there are five different types of people on the planet. There are:

  1. You.
  2. People you know personally, whether they’re family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, people you follow on social media, mortal enemies, whatever.
  3. Public figures you would recognize on sight but otherwise have no personal connection with.
  4. Strangers.
  5. People you have just now met, or, as I might put it for the sake of this exercise, Former Strangers.

It is fair to assume that if you are worried about theft of your property in a public place, you are not worried about any of the first three groups of people. You’re not going to steal it; it’s yours. If someone you know stole your laptop, you could say something like, “Hey, Bob, why did you steal my laptop?” You might not like the answer, but you’d certainly known to whom to direct the question. And if, say, actor Michael Stuhlbarg steals your laptop, when you returned from the bathroom, you could reasonably count on someone in the coffee shop saying, “Yo, Michael Stuhlbarg just stole your laptop.”

Thus, when you are in a public place and need to leave your laptop behind to use the restroom, you’re worried about №4. You’re worried that someone hangs around coffee shops for this exact reason: To wait for someone to go poop — because they can’t wait forever; they’re dosing themselves with caffeine, after all — and while they’re in there, grabbing their laptop and taking off. You can’t have any idea who would do such a thing just by scanning a coffee shop. They’re all strangers. Everybody’s a suspect.

So you have to protect yourself. But how? You can’t not poop. (Science.) But you don’t have any friends in the coffee shop, and Michael Stuhlbarg is nowhere to be found. Either you pack up your laptop and all your belongings and bring them in coffee shop with you — which is a pain and will likely cause you to lose your seat — or you decide, essentially, to create a new relationship. You ask someone you do not know to watch it for you. You take someone from Group Four and make them someone from Group Five. You invent a Former Stranger.

Now, there is no way of knowing if the person whom you are asking is not, in fact, the very person who comes to a coffee shop waiting for someone to poop so they can steal their laptop. There is zero reason, in fact, to think the person you are asking is not actually that person. They’re a stranger! Strangers are your only suspects! If anything, you’re actually directing a potential suspect to the crime. Maybe they would have been looking away when you went to the bathroom and wouldn’t have even noticed. But now they know you’re leaving your laptop unattended. Now they know exactly when to strike.

But we do it anyway. And it’s kind of beautiful, no? We make an assumption when we ask someone we don’t know to watch our property that the mere act of meeting them — the actual interaction between two people, the connection of a conversation, however brief, with eye contact and call and response and a collective understanding — is enough to establish some sort of trust. We’ve met them. They’ve looked at us. They are a stranger no longer. We attach, instantly, positive qualities to anyone we have an interaction like this; we believe that by putting our trust in them, we are able to attach the trait of trustworthiness in them.

And the thing is: I think we’re right! I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone asking someone to watch their property when they go to the bathroom and returning to have that very person they asked take off with their stuff. This act of trust works. I actually felt a little responsibility to that woman I’d never met and have never seen since, as if I’d been deputized: I felt helpful. Simply by asking me for a favor, we were bonded. She asked me to do something nice, and I did it, and then we moved on with our lives, neither of us rewarded or punished, just a regular thing that happened during the day and was quickly forgotten.

There is hope in this, I think. The people we are the cruelest to, the ones we dismiss as somehow wrong or terrible because they are different than us or because they disagree with us, they are always strangers. They are over there while we are over here. We attach terrible qualities to them because we don’t know them: We attach horrible qualities to them because we can. But they are just sitting in the same massive coffee shop we are. They’re only strangers right now. We can make them Former Strangers — and us Former Strangers to them — simply by reaching out and turning them into someone we can trust. There is more in common among all of us than any of us realize when we are sitting in our separate corners. We are all in the same coffee shop, whether we want to admit it or not. We’re just one fallen tree away from all being together.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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