The New Cubicle

The many perks and perils of working from an Austin coffee shop

The many perks and perils of working from an Austin coffee shop

Typing at a laptop computer
In a gig economy, coffee shops are the new cubicles. Photo by PeopleImages

The hip café, replete with eclectic and edgy clientele, Aeropress coffee, and various other contraptions that look like a hamster should be running around inside them, is becoming the office setting for increasing numbers of us in the gig economy.

I say us because though I am not at all hip, I like coffee, and having thought there was great romance in the English writer Robert Grave’s proclamation, “Somehow I must live by writing,” coupled with an unforeseen UT journalism graduate degree, I now spend an inordinate amount of time at my laptop at North Loop’s Epoch Coffee.  

Initially, I resisted the urge, opting instead for a shared office space. But the expense weighed on my mind, especially after a week of editor rebuttals combined with my avocado addiction (what’s with those prices, Austin!). So I decided to try the café version of office sharing, and I’ve not looked back.

I won’t deny it’s taken some getting used to (coffee shop office culture wasn’t covered in journalism school). Table selection, I have realized, is paramount. Get a table too close to the counter and you will be utterly distracted by good looking people eddying around you all day, with the right word so nearly within your grasp utterly evaporating as a lithe, tattooed leg crosses your line of sight.

Also, when heading to the restroom or elsewhere, always walk slowly with eyes monitoring the ground — similar to military patrols — to avoid tripping over the likes of power adapter cords snaking like booby traps.

With such skills developed, I’ve found myself willingly growing into the ad-hoc community eddying around Epoch. Getting to know the staff is an obvious part of it, and I like how they don’t do the bartender thing of looking at you like you are an insult simply by being a customer. And I appreciate how their far more advanced music knowledge has opened my ears to the likes of hardcore hip-hop (it’s surprisingly catchy, misogynist lyrics notwithstanding).

Then there is the same transient fellow who shuffles in most times I am there to get his morale-raising coffee. Like me, at least he has some sort of refuge, and as time goes on, you recognize him and others, and their presence becomes integral to the place and experience.

Meanwhile, my inner anthropologist is fascinated by the etiquette and culture on display. I can’t talk on my phone in close proximity to others (I’m British, and hence have to go outside every time). So I both envy and am horrified by Americans in this regard. How do you do it? Talking so loudly on your phones, not giving a fig, even when it sounds so personal, like a job interview, a family crisis, or arranging major surgery.

Most intriguing is the phenomenon of “stinky poo-poo face” (my scientific terminology), which is the intense expression you often see on faces as they are hard at it over their laptops. As they say where I come from: “Mate, you’re just tapping at your laptop. It can’t be that important, get over yourself.”

Then you have those — a minority — who clearly think they are way too cool for school. Back in March, while sitting in Epoch, my eye was caught by a chap in his twenties, regularly dressed, but barefoot. This struck me as an even odder choice given it was overcast and drizzling outside. Then, the lady sitting with him placed her feet up against the wall at a ludicrous height. Not only did it look painful, I was bewildered by such posturing; as with the bare feet, what rationale did it serve — what did it all mean?

Overall, though, I’ve found most people aren’t taking themselves as seriously as they might look, and respond with good humor to unsolicited banter or chitchat, which I think illustrates one reason coffee shops are such magnets for gig economy freelancers — it’s really lonely sat at your desk in an empty room, day after day. People want and need to be around others.

That’s certainly one reason I head (read: retreat) to Epoch, though a shadow of existential unease hangs over all of this, illustrated by the following. My best friend recently sent me The Worst Journey in the World, a book about the 1912 expedition to the South Pole, which at the time was the equivalent of space exploration without technology. (For example, the zipper had not been invented then so these guys did it with buttons and pullovers.) Every time I depart for my Epoch office, looking like an overgrown high school student, my rucksack packed with laptop, notepads, and pencil case, that book catches my eye, and I am humbled, utterly.

Its author and one of the exploration team, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, lamented the grubby superficiality of Britain back then and how its people had become “a nation of shopkeepers.” Sitting comfortably in Epoch, surrounded by everyone, like me, existing on laptops, I can't help wonder if America has become a nation of typists in hip cafes.   

And I think of the barefoot guy and his feet-on-the-wall companion. What are we becoming? What would Cherry-Garrard make of it all? Finally, I can’t help wondering about how much work I actually manage to get done, and if there might not be more meaningful and productive things I could be doing instead.

Is that just me?