Writing in Cafés: A Personal History

I WENT TO MY first café to escape my mother, not yet knowing that she had once done the same thing — escaped her own parents by walking down the rickety stairs to the basement of the Starr Book Shop in Harvard Square, where she established a makeshift coffeehouse. She did this while she was a high school student in Cambridge in the 1950s, when the Square was still academic shabby, still full of beatniks, decades before the place would be cleaned, covered with money, and left in its current condition, an open-air shopping mall with a red-brick-and-ivy theme. In a basement filled with slowly degrading acidic paper between slowly degrading cardboard covers, my mother wrote poetry, met with friends, and drank the thinnest coffee you can imagine. In college at Radcliffe, she moved across the street to the Pamplona, one of the few remaining businesses that’s been in Harvard Square longer than my family’s been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she would, in time, write her own scholarly books there. The coffee at the Pamplona has never been good, but that was never the point of the place. Even with a new coat of paint it still feels grimy enough to think smart thoughts. The Pamplona has a modesty that’s getting harder to find as cafés — and, thankfully, coffee — get better and better. It comes from a time when we asked less of our amenities.

Decades later and just two miles up the street I, 14 years old, walked to a different used bookstore in a basement with a different urn of coffee kept hot enough to burn all flavor away — but not hot enough to damage flesh. An aspiring writer just as my mother had been, I wrote awful poems in a notebook with a green marbled cover that (I thought) recalled the old books in the basement of the Harvard library. Since I still have that notebook, I can now report that it just looks trashy. I had no idea that I was engaged in a form of auto-seduction; that over the next 20 years I would spend as much of my time in cafés as I could, reading, writing, and hovering between those activities — and eventually asking the question: “What are cafés good for?” Cafés took me through high school, college, the itinerant odd-jobs-and-graduate-school wanderings of my 20s, through the opening moves of my career as a historian, and, of course, up to the realization that I had only retraced my mother’s path. Melville’s Ishmael says that whenever it is “a damp, drizzly November” in his soul he “account[s] it high time to get to sea as soon as [he] can.” When I’m down, and when I’m up, I go to a café. I’ve gone to write, to read, to see friends or to get away from friends, to have strong feelings and to escape strong feelings, to pursue a crush or because of loneliness, because of inertia, because of dependency. I’ve gone because I liked people, or because I was trying very hard to like people. And of course, I’ve gone for coffee itself, but it is interesting how quickly that can drop out of the reckoning. I’ve gone to be in public, and I’ve gone to be alone in public. Cafés have formed a through-line in my life, holding me stable across several coast-to-coast moves, protean writing projects, and different visions of who I wanted to become.

Hemingway once reported that in cafés he “was like a charging rhino when he wrote,” noticing nothing but his target. Whether or not this is true, it suggests a familiar kind of authorial self fashioning. For a kid with literary aspirations, to write in cafés is such a cliché that it needs no explanation, but there is the historical question of how the cliché got its stripes, of how the link between cafés and writing became intuitive for us. I didn’t write in cafés just to escape my mother, of course, but out of the belief (not entirely naive, I now understand) that if I were seen writing in public, I’d be that much closer to being a writer. But contra Hemingway, I always noticed what was around me, and it has always helped me focus; without all that noise I could never recognize a signal.

I don’t mean to suggest that the café is somehow a perfect machine for writing. Even if you find the right balance of style, clientele, acoustics, and coffee, the words still might not flow. Not long ago a reclusive artist friend told me he doesn’t understand writing in cafés, that he does more good thinking and writing in transitional spaces like hotel lobbies, train stations, and so on. This rang true to me — I read books for my undergraduate thesis on train platforms in downtown Philadelphia, and I still have all the notebooks I filled with scribbles during my first trips to Europe, on subway platforms in New York City, and on BART trains all over the Bay Area. I thought of the way transitional spaces can set my mind to wandering in just the right way. I tested my friend’s thought by taking a notebook down to LA’s symbol of late-1970s postmodernism, the Bonaventure Hotel. I rode the ornate glass elevators and sat on banquettes, looking at the koi ponds far beneath vaguely Orientalist concrete arches. I tried to let my eyes follow the curves of the space, and I did, in fact, get a few good paragraphs down. These are the kinds of things that, thankfully, the productivity experts will never make into a science — there will be good and bad writing days in hotel lobbies and good and bad days in cafés, but the transitional spaces have the feel of freedom, the mind swept up with the movement of arrivals and departures. Sometimes stillness frees the mind, sometimes kinetic energy.

Part of the thrill of being in public spaces lies in chance and openness, in giving up perfect control over one’s surroundings. That said, “anything” probably won’t happen. There probably won’t be a robbery. Divorce proceedings are also unlikely, and so are adoption ceremonies, rain dances — and once you work your way down a list of events from the unlikely to the likely, you realize that café behavior is fairly predictable, that this encounter with chance is a constrained one. In Los Angeles (which could use a rain dance or two), I avoid Intelligentsia in Silver Lake after about 10 a.m., for fear of the beautiful people and their very small, very beautiful dogs, and I go almost daily to Fix, in my own neighborhood of Echo Park, to write and be around other people who write. I know that I’m expected, and it’s hardly the first shop where I’ve built this pattern. At the Diesel Cafe in Somerville, Massachusetts (right next to Cambridge), I was a regular from 2000 to 2002, and that was where I wrote the first magazine stories I ever sold; I wrote my doctoral dissertation at Pizzaiolo in North Oakland (a restaurant with a morning coffee service), between 2007 and 2009, sitting there for two to four hours each morning. When I lived in the Village, I showed up at Third Rail three to four days a week, and I couldn’t write there because the tables were too small, but it meant something that an Americano appeared not long after I did, without any fuss. I realize, more and more, that I started to go to cafés in a game of aspirational adolescent dress-up, and I kept going to them as an adult because of my desire to belong. Even though I like solitude, I’m afraid to be alone.

If after two decades of this I am still a little confused about what cafés are about, I am in good company. The history of the European coffeehouse, if we somewhat prejudicially chart it from a starting point in 17th-century London, is full of debates about the communities that can spring up in these spaces, and full of worries about whether or not they are good for us. Coffee and the coffeehouse came to London from the Ottoman Empire, where the tradition of drinking coffee was centuries old but the institution of the coffeehouse was relatively new. George Sandys, an Englishman who traveled to Constantinople around 1610, observed the parallels between English pubs and the Turkish coffeehouses — although Sandys also speculated that it was not the coffee that drew the crowds so much as the young boys, who provided conversation, musical entertainment, and, as prostitutes, sex. In London, the coffeehouse offered the threat not of male homosexuality but rather of a different kind of dangerous male-on-male behavior, namely “wasting time.” Coffee itself was often thought to be disgusting — a few of the names used by detractors were “syrup of soot,” “a foreign fart,” “a sister of the common sewer,” “resembling the river Styx,” “Pluto’s diet-drink,” “horsepond liquor” — but even for those who thought coffee led to medical problems, especially impotence, it was not as threatening as the spaces where it was drunk. Some perceived the coffeehouse as pure waste, a corrupting influence on London society, while others celebrated it with a strange enthusiasm.

It might be tempting to think of our coffeehouses and those of 17th-century London in parallel, but 17th-century ideas about work, leisure, and social connection were not like ours — revolutions in technology, urbanization, population growth, and social change create a formidable psychic gulf. We enjoy both more time and a more urgent impulse to measure it. In our world, clocks keep track of a commodity. To grasp the immensity of historical change, start by imagining a London with only 500,000 people in it, rather than over eight million. While the early coffeehouses sometimes hosted what were called “improving activities,” including scientific lectures — the scientist Robert Hooke, a member of the Royal Society, was a prominent coffeehouse lecturer, and in one particularly bizarre case, a porpoise was brought to a coffeehouse and dissected in front of an audience, in the name of natural philosophy — the culture of “improvement” did little to assuage the sense that these places were black holes for the productive days of men in their best working years. Indeed, one way to understand the coffeehouses of this period is to look at criticisms of them, as in one example, a work of satire called “The Picture of a Coffee-House, or, the Humour of the Stock-Jobbers,” published in 1700.

The author of this pamphlet refers to the coffeehouse as the “smoky office” of a “crack-brained crew,” who represented all social types but who, once in the coffeehouse, began to waste both their unrecoverable time and their money by trading stocks, itself a fairly new phenomenon. The largest cluster of 17th-century London coffeehouses was located right next to the original London stock exchange, in “Exchange Alley,” now called “Change Alley.” Stock trading and lingering in coffeehouses, reading newspapers and talking about the news, seemed like threatening activities, and for parallel reasons. Their concrete value was hard to understand, and they seemed to dissipate useful time and energy into thin air. There was some reality behind worries that trading would lead to loss. About 20 years after “Humour of the Stock-Jobbers” was published, the South Sea Bubble developed, an early and really ruinous inflation and then bust of stock prices. It was in coffeehouses that many heard the news that the bubble had popped. Stocks could plummet into the ocean much like the ships that the gentlemen sitting at Lloyd’s Coffee House began to insure — the seeds from which the Lloyd’s of London insurance company would grow.

If the Londoners worried about moral dissipation, about the collapse of masculine prowess in work, and of course about losing time, I share only that last worry — but I add anxieties about my attention span. If that term is modern, if a formal concept of “attention” arguably only emerged in the 19th century — call it the process of focusing consciousness on a point over a duration — it is nevertheless one of those phenomena that feels like a permanent part of the human condition. My attention, like my time, seems always to take wing and fly away, and writing seems like an effort to get both to tarry with me a while.

We already have all the ways to name distraction that we could ever need, from the “wandering mind” to the “wandering eye” to understanding consciousness as a dance or a strange loop, all the way to the “monkey mind” of the yogis, an image I especially love. That image helps me express my distress at realizing the mind can be playful and sweet and vicious and nasty, and all at the same moment, like the animal in question. Distraction is no sin — any more than impatience is a sin — just a part of our nature. But this nature is not always easy to love, and maybe it’s right to call distraction sinful for that reason. Nothing drives this home faster than the sheer difficulty of focusing attention on thought itself. My mind quickly snaps back to the people around me, their colors and shapes, the planes of their faces and the clothes on their backs. I catch the sounds coming from their mouths and from their cups placed gently (or slammed in aggravation) on the table. They give me something to hold on to. Once again, I need noise in the periphery and signal in the foreground.

Part of my adolescent understanding of distraction came, predictably, from my hormones, and my first experiences forcing myself back onto the page — and away from people around me — took place in cafés. I remember one day in particular, forcing my attention from the shaved head of my tablemate (my interest in shaved heads in high school, like the mating dances of the birds of paradise of New Guinea, remains one of nature’s mysteries) and back to Homer’s “catalogue of ships” in the Iliad, in which I was theoretically immersed. Jonathan Crary, one of our best analysts of the historical development of attention as a phenomenon, points out that the roots of the word “attention” “resonate with a sense of ‘tension,’ of being ‘stretched,’ and also of ‘waiting.’” This captures something of teenage sexuality, but also of the libidinal character of waiting for a desired word, image, or idea, as a writer, of the way writing involves lust and hopefully loving as well, with all the shuttling back and forth between the physical and the mental that this implies.[1] If writing in cafés means managing the mind between distraction and attention, it can also remind us that creative energy is on a continuum with other kinds.

The café is a space in which our attention can easily threaten to wander, where perception plays with its negation. This usually turns out to be a refocusing, a quest for a new object, but in that refocusing there is an opportunity for something Freud himself described as the “suspension of perception” or Gleichschwebende Aufmerksamkeit — literally “equally floating attention,” whose opposite might be “deliberate attention.” He was thinking, in his Vienna office, of the problems faced by psychoanalysts who could be exhausted by days spent listening attentively to the complaints and stories and dreams of many patients at a stretch. He recommended that the analyst divide his (and in Vienna around the year 1900 it was his) mind across such a body of information, not getting snagged on or obsessed with any one detail, nor becoming numb to them through “listening fatigue.” Much as the analytic office could serve as a kind of microcosm of the modern world, in which absolutely everyone feels overwhelmed by information flows, the café can serve as a world in miniature, in which the writer has to struggle — hopefully productively — with myriad distractions. To function there we need the wandering mind, but we need it to wander along predictable and constrained paths, so that we can watch distraction and attention bloom out of one another, each originating out of its opposite, something that Friedrich Nietzsche once observed about truth and error.

In 17th-century London, the anxiety was not about the attention span of individual writers but about the open nature of the coffeehouses as public spaces. At the big central tables a tailor could end up sitting next to a banker, next to a day laborer, next to a doctor, and so on. Some scholars have seized upon this openness and claimed that the coffeehouse served as the cradle of what we now call the “public sphere,” as people from different backgrounds discussed issues of public interest in a makeshift political theater. However, this openness was not universally celebrated at the time — some criticized the coffeehouse because of its very lack of restriction — nor were things always so open as it was claimed. The Grecian, for example, was a Royal Society coffeehouse, and it is unclear how welcome nonscientists would have felt at the table. But anxieties about the café’s openness actually exaggerated the degree to which these spaces were cradles of political reform and revolution. When King Charles II, at the end of the century, moved to ban the coffeehouses on the grounds that they were hotbeds of sedition, his own ministers disagreed and helped to keep the ban from being put into effect. Indeed, in their view the coffeehouse encouraged political moderation rather than radicalism.

The patterns we choose for our days are the patterns we choose for our lives, and so early modern London anxieties about wasted time resonate with me because of my own choices. But what if the story of the café wasn’t just about personal time, but about getting sick of what our culture makes of time? The appearance of laziness (if not actual laziness) can serve as resistance to a hyperproductive society. Within the cultural history of the literary slacker, as Tom Lutz describes in his book Doing Nothing, there has been a romance as well as an anxiety about slacking off.[2] I know that when I’m at the café I’m caught up in both. I sit each day in a space associated with both productivity and waste, with focus and dissipation, with community and anomie — good and bad versions of publicness. Lutz describes the paradox of writers, like Walt Whitman, loving to let things go slack just as much as they loved hard work. In fact they often concealed their love of the latter behind a public show of the former. Whitman once said, approvingly, that “Adam was a loafer, and so were all the philosophers.”

Such writers seem caught between desires, feeling the pull of ambition on the one hand and relaxed pleasure on the other — or, more darkly, they seem caught between the desire to create and a resignation toward entropy, between eros and thanatos, as Freud might want us to say. Either way, they want nothing of the world of commodified workdays, somewhere between the implacable refusal of Melville’s Bartleby and a Gen X rebellion so ably expressed by Cameron Crowe’s Lloyd Dobler:

I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.

Dobler, in the 1989 movie Say Anything, loves kickboxing (“a new sport, but I think it’s got a good future”), and he loves his girlfriend-in-potentia Diane Court, and he doesn’t want to become a working stiff — Dobler knows that, as Theodor Adorno put it, “free time is shackled to its opposite.” Of course, the prevailing winds have shifted several times since Generation X was in its first phase of rebellion against work. Now it is a rare privilege for creative types to have stable jobs of any kind, and free time gets dressed up with disturbing neologisms like “funemployment,” a sugar coating that does little to mask bitterness. But Adorno’s point was that in our society free time isn’t really free. It is part of a system of commodified labor, and if it looks like the “fun” part of that system, it is in fact the part that lets the steam escape so that the machine doesn’t explode, so that everyone is well rested enough to get back to work. When we’re at work, we should be attentive. To get attentive, we have to be playfully distracted. The café can, if we’re good observers of ourselves, teach us not only that perfect attention is impossible (something office work already teaches us; indeed, offices teach us that distraction is a form of resistance against the ridiculous demand that we sit there) — the café can teach us that distraction isn’t the enemy of attention but rather its constant companion. To banish distraction would cost us the very productivity that many wish to maximize.

The café could never make me into a writer on its own, any more than it made my mother into one. (An anthropologist, she became a scholar of Japanese coffeehouse culture, and of much more besides.) On reflection, I might have found ways to be worried, fretful, ambitious, delighted, and lazy in the library almost as easily. But cafés are more open to intention. To write in them, to embrace the play of attention and distraction, is to travel at modernity’s pace while making very few physical movements, and to contemplate a quintessentially modern struggle over the meaning of our time, our experience. It means hoping that attention, either toward our writing, toward our neighbors, or toward ourselves, might thicken time and slow it for us. And it means contemplating all this not alone, not in silence, but in a social space full of constrained chaos, full of all kinds of desires, including the desire to write our days.


[1] See Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Perception and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

[2] See Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s articles, essays, and writings on food culture have appeared in History and Theory, Modern Intellectual History, Gastronomica, Meatpaper, and other publications, and several books are in the works.