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Coffee Shop*

written Tuesday, 7/31/2007

Ahh, my last journal entry of the summer before returning to school next Monday (with students returning a week later). I had promised myself that I would start preparing material for my classes yesterday. Who am I kidding now? That’s not gonna happen until Friday, at the earliest. The assumption that I’ll be teaching 5 sections of Algebra 2, which I taught last year, has probably made me complacent. As for that Calculus section I’m going to teach, I still haven’t cracked open the book. I also blew off the week-long seminar that was strongly recommended for teachers of AP subjects. I expect that this year will comprise another big learning experience for me, and for however many years I teach Calculus, I’ll only get better every year. Another way to look at that: This year, I’m gonna suck as a Calculus teacher more than I will ever suck again. Good thing I’m a badass mathematical gangsta with mad freestyle skillz in tha classroom.

For the very first time, I’m writing a journal entry “on location.” Yes indeed, I’ve succumbed for a brief (?) moment to the modern coffee shop. I’ve resisted them for so long, yet over the last couple weeks I’ve spent an average of 5 hours every day at various Uptown coffee shops – mostly Community Coffee (aka CC’s) at Magazine Commons. At least I still have the fortitude to avoid Starbucks.

The coffee shops I’ve visited pretty much fit the modern stereotype that I assumed, but I still wonder: Were coffee shops always like this?

I used to get the impression that coffee shops were inviting places for relaxing, meeting friends, or making new ones. In fact, it’s all that socializing that kept me away in the first place.

In my recent experience, I acknowledge that the physical environment of these establishments is cozy enough. They’re relaxing enough too, I guess. I’m sure an abundance of research went into determining the perfect combination and arrangement of tables, chairs, benches, plush seats and cutesy decor to make them appear “homey.” However, the mood is so quiet and sterile. There’s no friendly buzz or inviting ambiance. Silence is the norm, and intrusion upon that silence is implicitly discouraged. Most patrons come alone. Most of the talking that takes place is uttered into cell phones. Ubiquitous laptops and earbuds declare, “Don’t talk to me.” Everyone’s intently working on his or her respective life mission that will undoubtedly make the world a better place.

Can a brotha just get some friendly eye contact up in here?

This is the mostly 20-something crowd for whom the majority of friendships reside in myspace or facebook, and most of these “friends” have never been met in person.

I used to deny that a day would ever come when I’d cattily gripe about the wayward next generation, but I believe I’ve officially joined the ranks of old fogeys. I’m sure these youngsters will turn out fine though, except that they will (or already do) require even more antidepressants than my generation. To the modern electronically-gifted coffee shop crowd, this bizarre existence probably all seems so normal.

Everyone is so damn task-oriented. I admit that I sought out a local coffee shop for the specific purpose of reading, but at least for the first week I refused to bring a laptop or iPod. By now, I’ve given up though. Today I type away by myself with earbuds to shut out the world.

This is exactly the familiarity that sucks me in. The detachment and cultural bleakness of the modern coffee shop reminds me of what I hoped to leave behind in Silicon Valley. I theorize that most of these people have the material resources to do their work at home, but this is their sorry excuse for “getting out.” It’s a compromising way of showing your face in public, proving you exist, without having to be social. Or maybe that’s just me. In years past I would have felt completely within my element here, but now it just feels cold. In the last couple of places I lived in Silicon Valley, I could tally on one hand the number of neighbors whose first names I knew. The modern coffee shop gives off that same vibe of isolation.

Med and Law students, presumably from nearby Tulane and Loyola Universities, make up much of the local modern coffee shop populace. Many of them appear as much as a decade younger than me, yet they look so focused and on-track to future greatness. Meanwhile, I’m still not even sure what I want to do when I grow up. I’m jealous of their determination. I still mourn my lost love affair with math that drew to a bitter end some 15 years ago (upon entering college). That was going to be my ticket to advanced degrees – the quantifiable proof of one’s smartness and success. Instead, having completed the requirements for teacher certification, I’m struggling to convince myself to even figure out how many more classes I’d need for an M.A. in Education (a load of B.S. seems the more appropriate designation). Geez, this coffee shop scene sure fuels my insecurities. Why am I still hangin’ around here?

I guess what attracted me to this particular CC’s is the pleasant outdoor courtyard which adds a little character. The A/C inside just makes it feel like I never left the Bay Area, while the balmy sweat I feel trickling down the inside of my shirt while seated outside reminds me that I’m in New Orleans trying to forge out a distinctly new life. My attention tends to wander amongst the trees, insects, lizards, pigeons, and people walking by, but I don’t get nearly as distracted as I do when trying to work in my apartment. Crap, my possessions at home have more power to command my attention than in-the-flesh people do!

One shame of all this is that New Orleans has such a reputation for open, friendly people. So much of the city does truly live up to that reputation. In fairness to NOLA, I’d bet that most of the coffee shop crowd are not from Louisiana, and don’t share the local customs or feel any particular connection to those around them. Also, the students among them are engrossed in their studies. As a teacher, I suppose I should applaud their diligence.

There are so many other places in this city to socialize and even exchange pleasantries with strangers, whether they be straight-laced suburbanites or down-and-out street folks who occasionally try to leech a dollar out of their newfound acquaintances. I’ve finally learned that my skin tone deems it expected that I acknowledge black men in passing with a nod. This is a friendly custom that I particularly appreciate since black men in urban areas aren’t exactly stereotyped with cordial behavior.

If this summer were a bit longer, I’d seek out a new environment in New Orleans to help break me out of this mold that’s kept me too close to my stagnant past. I’ve spent most of my two years in Louisiana holed up in apartments, and I need to find some new hangouts that challenge my old ways more than the modern coffee shop does.

Thankfully though, overall this has been a rewarding summer of branching out in other ways. The results have been uplifting. I’m especially pleased that I chose to participate in the Greater New Orleans Writing Project instead of trying to recapture a past passion in a math class. I’ve met some great new friends in the last two months, slowly but significantly expanding my social circle.

While I may not be completely endeared by my journey into the modern coffee shop scene, the time I’ve spent at these barren establishments has provided a great opportunity to get some reading done. Reading is something for which I don’t make much time during the school year. In addition to the ultra-unmanly mother/daughter memoir I mentioned in my last entry, I just finished an introductory text on religion (something I would have never predicted would be on my short reading list). Some of my dearest friends out here represent a healthy variety of faiths. They’ve inspired me with good example to see another side of religion other than the corruption by politics and power trips. I’ve been intrigued to explore what motivates, focuses, and guides these friends in life at a time when I’m trying to figure out where I’m going myself.

Don’t tell my students, but maybe books aren’t so bad after all.

The summer vacation is coming to an end. Right on cue, a few days ago I got my first inkling of anxious joy from looking ahead to a new school year. There are plenty of other things I would have liked to accomplish over the summer, but I know that’ll always be the case. I’m excited because I know that the end of vacation doesn’t mean the end of growing. The craft of teaching still lies largely outside my comfort zone, which ensures that there’s still a tremendous amount of opportunity for growth ahead in the coming year. Rather than dread the first day of school, I’m starting to look forward to seeing what lies ahead.

Undercover cell-phone photo of the infamous modern coffee shop
While reading and taking notes on the religion book, I got distracted one day with other matters of great profundity