Why Coffee Shops Are My Personal Freelance Writing Hell

Check your email, down buckets of coffee, spew pitches, repeat.

Wayward freelancers of the world know their only job security is their hustle. It’s creative feast or famine. And the central haven for the pinch-hitting content creators out there is none other than your friendly neighborhood coffee shop.

This makes sense only because freelancing makes a person insane. By any logical metric, coffee shops are terrible surrogates for actual offices.

Thankfully, Inverse has its own office, complete with coffee maker. But in a spirit of masochistic fun I decided to post up on a recent afternoon at the West, a Brooklyn coffeehouse that has to be the freelanciest nook in all of New York, even as it brings to mind the dark, woody belowdecks of an old frigate. It is not, to put it lightly, my cup of tea. The porthole windows leave only a dim pall in the space’s hand-me-down decor, even at noon. The menu, chalked in an indifferent scrawl, stands above the bank of hissing chrome behind a long wooden counter. Homeless-chic baristas reluctantly take orders from customers making themselves at home among what look like faux vintage fold-out chairs and stainless steel tables.

And MacBooks (not Acers or Lenovos or affordable PCs) are everywhere. Once you get a drink, you become a de facto co-worker in a dulcet chorus of fingers hitting keys. I remember now why I rarely come to cafes when I want to be productive.

Before I worked my way into an office job, I spent days guzzling java and noshing day-old pastries in joints just like this. Getting out of my apartment for a dollop of human contact and some sunshine made the trips almost mandatory, and it was a routine most work-from-home types will recognize. Pack up the laptop, pay $5 for a coffee/admission, plant yourself in a corner and pretend you’re not an internet-hermit. But to me, it was always impossible to accomplish the one thing I set out to do: get anything done.

Thinking here is brutal. Depending on which barista is working a given day, you’ll need earbuds to block out Putumayo mixes, classic Enya, or boot-to-the-head industrial rock. Completing a coherent sentence becomes a slog. Normal subject/verb agreement seems impossible as the cheerily jobless natter at the next table over. And then there’s the matter of mainlining coffee all day. That shit makes your fingers move quickly but your mind bounces around like a golf ball in a dryer.

But for a couple of bucks, realistically, you can mooch wifi for as long as you want. How in the hell do these places manage to stay open? Subsisting on the pittance of freelancers constantly digging in their dirty pockets each day doesn’t seem like a growth industry. Then again, we scribes have to order lunch at some point, which was always my biggest fear. I never wanted to feel the wrath of the barista who caught me sneaking in my homemade PB & J. My stay at the West mercifully wound down before I had to fork over $8 for avocado toast.

One limiting factor here that is a total non-issue at home or in an office: the tensile strength of your bladder. I remember this when the diuretic I’ve been drinking all afternoon kicks in. Do you deputize a friendly looking stranger to protect your thousand-dollar computer? Or do you live in the real world? So you lug your Apple to the john and possibly lose your spot, or you grit your teeth, undo your belt, and don’t think of waterfalls.

Then there’s the problem of finding a structurally solid chair next to a free electrical outlet, which is a necessary measure for working remotely and something akin to finding the holy grail if you manage to get a good spot. An electrical plug lets you live forever. Of course, I wasn’t one of the first 20 people to eagerly show up and line the tables at 7 a.m., so I failed in that quest. Instead, I sat leaning over one rickety stool sans socket before I found a more moderately stable one. My ass was killing me as I battled the waning juice in my computer to file this story.

Superficially, coffee shops are supremely chill places that supposedly foster your equally chill creative tendencies. To me, they’re rife with distractions. One was me: When I asked other patrons why they liked coming to West, I got stink-eyed from these presumed fans of social working. The nervous plaid-shirted guy sitting next to me shrugged: “I don’t know man, I kind of just get it done” before taking a swig of his sweet iced coffee nectar. He was in the zone.

How are these people able to compartmentalize? Do they have an inner freelance Zen or is it a savant-like insanity masked by clean copy? Can it all be just a caffeinated ruse?

By the time this sentence was written, I was gone. It was all too much. I craved the serene togetherness of the Inverse office. So I finished up and kicked this to my editor. I don’t know this, because he’s the one writing this final sentence, but he edited this whole thing on a Mac, while enjoying a big cup of coffee.

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