#9 – ‘Look At Me, World, I Can Use A Computer!‘
(Originally published 8/27/08.)
I’ve never fully understood why people venture to public places for the sole purpose of using their laptop computers. For about a decade now, and in virtually every coffee house, bookstore, food court and wi-fi compatible strip club, people are meandering out of their houses and surfing the web. “Why aren’t these people at home?” I would always wordlessly mumble as I looked for a seat. After I was assured by the Missus that these people were all business travelers and were doing extremely important and potentially life-saving work on the fly, her argument was almost instantly shot down when I noticed that damn near everyone using the Internet in public was on Facebook. To me, it seemed completely unnecessary in every way; a mere status symbol, and an excuse to hang around a Barnes & Noble without actually having to purchase anything. Silly, really.
If you remember from way back in the CDP archives, I was a bartender for about a year in 1997. Some quick math will also remind you that I was 15 years old at the time, but that story has already been told. Regardless, as a bartender, I was trained to know that non-paying customers were poison, and simply got in the way of the natural flow of business and commerce you’d want in an establishment that exchanges goods for money. If someone had been sitting on a barstool for more than a half hour without buying something, they were asked to move. It’s simple economics, really. If you walked into a gas station and wandered around the aisles for two hours, you’d either raise suspicion or get arrested, and your weird ass would deserve it, too. Why were the public Internet-surfing trolls exempt?
Nowadays, most atriums and Wi-Fi ready locations are loaded with freeloaders; jackasses that buy a small vanilla Latte and camp out for a length of time rivaling that of the entire Korean Conflict. If I were the manager in a place like this, what would be the point in letting these people hang around? Ambiance? Hipster status? Fear of lawsuit? This is one of those seemingly insignificant things that really bothers me when I go out; “What are you doing here? Got sick of playing Scrabulous at home? Needed to feel like you were actually interacting with a non-virtual environment?“
The Missus told me I was being an asshole (I am, and an unreasonable one at that), and reminded me that for a lot of people, they don’t have Internet access at their homes, and if they had to walk down the street to the coffee shop to check their mail and research an important term paper or report, then they should do so. My response to that is Internet access can be obtained in your home for about $10 a month now. Make the phone call, and stop making me wait for a seat at Gloria Jeans so I can enjoy my hot chocolate like a nice, paying customer should. In 2008, a home without Internet access is like a home without a toilet. You’re in my way.
In an attempt to clear my head, I stepped away from my unnecessary rage that consumes me on a minute-by-minute basis and considered the weight of the situation. I wanted to see both sides of the “public web surfing” argument, so I decided to join the unwashed masses and try it out for myself. The Missus was throwing a dinner party one day (the ruthless cult known as Pampered Chef has sunk their potpourri-scented claws in), and I took it upon myself to get as far away from CDP Headquarters as I possibly could for the next five hours. In doing so, I threw my laptop into the Wild Stallion v4.0 and headed off to Borders, where I was to become everything that I’ve ever hated.
I ordered a Latte and a chocolate chip cookie that was about the size of a personal-pan pizza, and took a seat next to four other computer-pecking guys that had clearly been here for awhile. Maybe since the place opened; I don’t know for sure. One guy had ordered nothing, it appeared; a nerdy looking fellow that was probably about 30 years old (nerdier-looking than even I). The guy next to him meant business; a chubby hick sporting a trucker hat with important newspapers and documents strewn across his table. He was sucking on an energy drink that they didn’t sell within the confines of Borders, which meant that he brought it in himself. Christ.
The third guy was tucked in the corner, looking very shifty and strung out. Clearly, he was looking at something that he didn’t want anyone else to see. Corpse Porn*, probably. The fourth guy packed up and left before I even had a chance to set up my computer. Again, he was certainly up to no good.
(*I’ve heard about people that are into the idea of Necrophilia, and to accommodate their curiosities, they have their significant others soak in near-freezing water for a length of time, and remain corpse-like and limp back in the bedroom, essentially simulating a dead person during the intimate act of their choosing. While I’ve never participated in this, no doubt interesting, activity, I will say that if you’re fortunate enough to have a mate that will do that for you, hang onto them for all they’re worth. That’s a man or woman that will go through hell for you later down the road.)
Anyway, I set up my equipment in the last open table and got down to business, beginning to write the essay that you’re reading right now. Almost instantly, I realized how distracting it was to be creative in public. I’m typically so focused on not tripping over things, spilling my drink into my lap and getting robbed that I have no time to worry about writing something worth reading (this essay is potentially Exhibit A). I was constantly looking over my shoulder, people-watching and gently nibbling on my embarrassingly-large pizza cookie; my laptop was an afterthought.
I’m used to my own private room, mood lighting and ambiance; this was like an exercise in futility. The constant screeching of the barista’s blender, the hopeless, brittle, Tupperware party-throwing bitches at the table next to me rambling on about how much better the planet would be if they were the President (“No more Olympics cutting into my Soap Operas; Haw-haw!“) and the lingering thought that a bunch of my Wife’s friends were simultaneously touring my home and pawing my breakables with Mojito-sticky hands was almost too much for me to handle. I figured that if everything around me was succeeding in hindering my creativity, I’d do the same thing for the sake of my own entertainment. I almost instantly started talking to the fellow web-surfers around me.
“Hey, what’cha working on?” I asked to the weiner-looking guy to the left of me.
“Resume.” He replied kindly, kneading his forehead with his fingertips in a feeble attempt to calm the hell down after digesting approximately eighteen gallons of coffee. It appeared that he really was working on something important, although I still wondered why he would work on something so important in a place so capable of breaking concentration. I didn’t ask a follow-up.
On my right, I got the attention of the large, trucker-hat guy with all the papers and documents.
“Hey man, what’cha working on?“
“Online exam.” As fate would have it, he was working on one of the many State Examinations that I worked with the Wisconsin Board to help create. Poor guy; those things suck. He then surprised me when he turned the tables and asked me what I was working on.
“Well…um, I’m writing an essay.”
“Cool. What about?“
I stammered and thought of anything besides the truth. “I’m writing about how much I think I hate guys like you” seemed to be a little counterproductive and practically begging for a boot to the sack.
“I…am working on…um…book. A book, I mean. I’m working on a book.” Technically, I was sort of telling the truth.
“Wow, a book, huh? Good for you, man.”
“Hey, thanks. The answer to Number 23 is ‘Connective Tissue,’ by the way.“
“Awesome, thanks, buddy.”
This research conflicted me, as these guys were legitimately there for business. Regardless of how I felt about it, they had every right to do so. Hey, maybe the annoying buzz of the downtown Borders was still a more tranquil and peaceful location than their home. This is almost certainly true of a household containing any more than zero children.
(NOTE: Borders charged $6.95 for a Wi-Fi subscription, so the argument that people go to these places for free Internet is not always true. That, to me, almost completely negated the purpose altogether.)
After nearly an hour had passed and my coffee and pizza cookie were gone (both delicious, if you were wondering), I was entering uncharted territory I had forced myself to venture towards. Just how guilty was I going to feel sitting here without buying anything else? I mean, how much longer did a seat in a coffee house belong to me once I was done enjoying their delicious, sugary products? In any case, I had at least another hour to kill before the dinner party started to wind down, so I dug in and went for it.
Suddenly, an unexpected thing happened. The latte, a caffeinated drink that I seldom suck back except for cases of extreme loneliness (much like brandy Manhattans), began to take its toll on my colon in a dangerous and, quite frankly, unpredictable way. I had to use the bathroom, and fast. But what was I going to do about my computer? My saved seat? This was something that I never thought of. What if someone takes my notebook? What if someone takes my spot? Do I take all of my stuff into the stall with me? Should I just stake my claim and mess my pants? What was I going to do?
I deliberated for a few minutes until I reached critical mass in my small intestine. A decision had to be made, and quickly. In lieu of asking the guy next to me what he happens to do in these situations, I decided to leave everything where it was and make a beeline for the can. I didn’t want to, and I can assure you that I took the fastest poop of my life, but it was something that needed to be experienced for the good of my vital research. And so far, the theory of using a computer in public wasn’t worth the trouble; resume, exam or otherwise. I missed my office, I missed my bathroom and I couldn’t ignore the fact that, for a place that’s supposed to be hip and ambient, these places tend to destroy your will to concentrate. It felt like I was trying to recite a Shakespeare play from memory while running through the ‘Slopsticle Course’ on Double Dare.
“Good,” I thought to myself; “This is telling me exactly what I need to know. Public web surfing is bad for your brain.”
About a minute later, the Missus called me up and told me that the dinner party was over. Like a shot, I gathered my things and made a beeline for the door. On the car ride home, I tried to come to some sort of finality or official word on how I felt about public web surfing, but surprisingly, couldn’t. While I still stand firm that owners of these places have no reason to let web surfers hang around without making regular purchases, I have no question that a coffee shop or bookstore can sometimes offer something that your home cannot (coffee and books, for one). In one way, it made me happy to know I have such a tranquil home life, but in another way, made me feel like my research still isn’t over.
That night, as I was soaking in freezing cold water while the Missus blared the Funeral March from the master bedroom and put on her favorite black dress, I still couldn’t understand why people are so damn weird.