Scenes from a Café

This is #20 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk and hike in my local community. 

Midjourney AI’s take on an unpretentious, small local café, in impasto painting style. My own prompt.

I have been spending a lot of time this month in our local café, which has of late become very popular. What might be called “café* culture” seems to attract a certain demographic that’s really hard to pin down. It’s not specific to gender, age, or ethnicity, so what is it that determines who is inclined to hang out in cafés? Since retiring, it’s seemingly become part of my culture.

But why? I have no idea. Wherever I live, wherever I go, I seem to seek out cozy, relaxing cafés, and I often invite others to meet with me there. So I spend a part of most days just being part of that culture, and observing and being observed by others who are likewise part of that culture. Perhaps I am a bit of a voyeur, or rather, just an amateur cultural anthropologist. Perhaps it’s just about finding places to belong, in our anonymous, atomized modern world.

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The anthropologists’ consensus is that we humans split from our closest cousins, the bonobos and chimps, about 6 million years ago, and that much of our separate evolution from them since that time was the result of a combination of drastic climate change (forcing us into very different ecological niches) and the radically different diets that those moves required.

Two of our evolutionary adaptations were art, which evolved about 100,000 years ago, and abstract language, which may have evolved as recently as 7,000 years ago. So for 99.9% of our species’ time on earth, we lived without the need for spoken language beyond the most immediate and obvious vocalizations. We have expressed ourselves through art ten times longer than we have done so through language.

What would it be like to live without the use of, or need for, language? How much have our other means of communicating with fellow humans become stunted from lack of attention and practice, as we have spent all our time trying to make our vocal cords do almost all the work of making our feelings, ideas and preferences known, despite the horrible imprecision of language?

In some of my recent explorations of the community in which I live, I have been trying to focus my attention on what I am seeing and hearing, rather than trying to ‘make sense’ of it, react to it, or make meaning from it. So in this month’s meanderings, I’ve been doing just that — listening not to the words said (which because of the multiplicity of languages spoken here I often do not understand anyway), but rather the way in which things are said, and the face, hand and body ‘language’ that accompanies the words.

And I’ve been trying to do that without judgement or interpretation — just listening and paying attention, without trying to ‘sleuth’ meaning or cause. Trying to see the world through an artist’s eye, or a child’s eye. Leaving the question “What was that all about?” unanswered, and instead chronicling just what was seen and heard.

This is immensely difficult for me, as someone who has made my living, and pursued many hobbies, based on knowing or figuring out all the whos, whats, whens, wheres, whys and hows. Answering all the questions. So I’m trying my best to just relate what was seen and leave it to others to puzzle out the answers, interpretations, and what it all means for the nature of our species and the future of our world, if they’re inclined to do so.

So here are some of my observations, my amateur cultural ethnography if you will, over the course of the last week, uninterpreted, to the best of my ability, along with the unanswered questions they bring to mind:

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1: Beautiful People: As I look around at the people seated at the tables in our local café, I am suddenly aware of how unusually physically beautiful these people are. Not only that, they are exceptionally well-dressed, down to the smallest details of hair, nails, colour coordination, and especially shoes. I then realize that, over the past few days, I have unconsciously been dressing myself more carefully, and given more attention to my own appearance, than I would ‘normally’ do, before I walk over to the café. What does all this say about our culture, and why would we be doing this?

2: Screen Protector: Consistently, about half the people I see in cafés are sitting alone, and disproportionately they are looking at laptop screens or phone screens. Often I’m the outlier, the only one there by myself without a screen. Does that make me suspicious, reflecting our societies’ nervousness about ‘loiterers’ (=etym. ‘doing little’)? Does the very word ‘screen’ offer a clue?

What’s interesting is that, unlike people on public transport, screen-users in the café seem completely comfortable with their solitude, and oblivious to others. One woman has her phone on a stand, sideways, and is utterly absorbed watching what appears to be a Korean bake-off cooking contest show. Another young woman, cross-legged on a café bench seat, is clearly texting back and forth with someone. She’s obviously not Zooming, because she is not speaking, but her rapid, expressive hand movements and facial expressions are telling a remarkable story about what the text thread is about — she is puzzled, annoyed, incredulous, exasperated. The recipient of her texts is missing the critical emotional content that is being broadcast to anyone in the café looking her way. What does this tell us about the limitations of text messages, and about the ways we instinctively (animalistically?) communicate with more than words? And why have platforms like Zoom not been able to capitalize on what would seem to be their obvious advantage in bridging this communication gap?

3. Cafe as Performance Space: At a table nearby, a young, impeccably- and strikingly-dressed young Japanese woman is having an animated discussion with another woman, in Japanese. The woman is smiling, and she is moving her hands in a perfectly symmetrical fashion. She’s very expressive with her hands, punctuating her vocalizations, but always symmetrically, and her blouse has wide, embroidered sleeves that come together almost in a heart-shape each time she ends a statement, bringing her hands together. It’s almost as if her hands are dancing, putting on a show. The woman she’s talking with is also speaking animatedly and moving her hands, but in a completely uncoordinated way. I have to stifle a laugh when, at one point, this second woman swipes her hand across the table and accidentally knocks her drink over, rather disastrously.

At the next table over, a woman is looking at her screen and moving her lips and hands, but not making a sound. She does this for several minutes, even when a man comes and sits beside her and opens his laptop. Her facial features are theatrical, and what she is doing, which the guy beside her watches carefully and wordlessly, is a mystery. A rehearsal? And do public places like cafés offer a safe environment to practice performing? And why do we love to perform in public anyway? Self-expression? Recognition? Escapism? To “move” our audience in some unique way we can control?

4: Confessions: The next day, I am listening to a man with a British accent talking quite loudly with another guy about his ‘new’ job — as a “day-trader”. Like most “day-traders”, he confesses, he started doing it because he was laid off from his job. He uses several quasi-legal techniques, he says, to get 10:1 leverage, the ability to ‘invest’ up to ten times the actual capital he owns. Day-trading, he admits, is really not much different from gambling at a casino or race-track, and except during an extended bull market, it’s a zero-sum game or worse. And he also admits that the collapse of crypto has been ‘devastating’. The guy he’s talking with nods but says almost nothing as this guy’s tale of fear and woe comes pouring out.

I, unlike this guy, realize I’m listening to a confession, and that the guy is not giving the confessor what he’s looking for. But what is that? Empathy? Reassurance? An argument? The day after that I hear a woman confessing to her friend that she thinks she’s been a terrible mother. The friend doesn’t say much, either, but she holds her friend’s hand, and looks at her friend with a very sympathetic expression. Still, that didn’t seem to be enough. Or maybe it was. Who am I to say? What makes people want to confess in public places? And what do we owe our friends when they confess to us? Or when they, like stoics, hold it all in? Do we owe them the truths they don’t want to hear? Or the comfort of our uncomfortable lies?

5: Book Signals: Have you ever seen someone reading a book you really like, and found it almost impossible to resist signalling that fact in some way to the reader? I understand that you can buy fake book covers that make it look like you’re reading something profound or interesting, when you’re reading crap, or, vice versa, that get a rise out of strangers by putting a lurid title and cover on an innocuous read. Most people who read books in cafés seem to be coy, keeping the book mostly flat so others can’t see the title. But if they hold it up so it’s clearly visible, it seems almost like wearing a tee shirt with a message. A provocation to respond, to acknowledge, to nod in agreement?

Yesterday in the café, a young man was reading Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No, about how our body does and does not handle stress and trauma. He was underlining passages, holding it up, nodding, shaking his head, talking to it. His body was clearly saying yes! And it’s a really good book by the way. And no, I didn’t go up and talk with him about it, or even point at it and give him the ‘thumbs up’. But I was really tempted.

6: The Thing About Girls on Scooters: When I sit by the window of the café, I get to see what’s happening on the street outside. And it’s an interesting street. Coquitlam has recently started a pilot program offering e-scooters and e-bikes for hourly rental. It’s had great take-up. And there are, from what I have observed, two types of e-scooter users: (1) teenaged girls, and (2) everyone else. What’s noticeable is that the teenaged girls drive faster and more skilfully than everyone else, and that they are obviously having enormous fun riding them. It’s unusual to see teenaged girls smiling in public, but when they are on these e-scooters they are positively beaming. What’s that about? Is it like the 1890s, when the arrival of commercially available ‘safety’ (ie non-penny-farthing) bicycles suddenly liberated a whole generation of young women to go places without parental supervision? Or is it a Cyndi Lauper thing? It’s a joy to watch, anyway.

7: Every Artist is a Magician: Last week there was a guy sitting in the far corner of the café with a large spiral-bound notebook on a clipboard. He would write something for a minute or so, and then he would unclip the notebook, turn the page, and start writing something else. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing, so I went to “get some extra sugar” for my latte and peeked over. He was sketching the room, for one minute per page. They were lovely sketches, from what I could see, with bold spare lines and images, more like ‘impressions’, of people, just a few essential swirls for each, and then the minute was up and he’d turn the page and start over, turning his gaze to something else. It was mesmerizing, but he was being totally discreet about it. Just as well, or everyone in the room would be looking over his shoulder. What was this all about? Is this like the parable of the potters who won the contest not by painstakingly making a few carefully-constructed pots but by making hundreds and learning quickly from their mistakes? Or is it like the street portrait painter, churning out quick caricatures of strangers while others look on breathlessly? No wonder art has been around ten times longer than language! It is magic, after all.

8: Café Rituals: Every space, public or private, has its rituals, from the mundane to the spectacular. Most rituals are learned and practiced (like latte art), but the ones I admire are the ones that are spontaneous and often cross-cultural. And cafés have some of these. The one I’ve seen most requires that the establishment have those large (usually white) 20oz round-belly cappuccino/latte mugs. They’re too big to lift comfortably with the handle, and so it’s instinctive to cradle them in both hands and lift them to your lips. You’re almost compelled to make a ritual of this two-handed gesture, especially on a cold day when the mug warms your hands and your tummy at the same time. I’ve seen it done by all ages, genders and ethnicities, and almost always with a smile. Something ancient coming out in us?

9: Multitasking Messages: Yesterday there was a threesome in the café, two young women and a young man, all fetchingly dressed and extremely attractive, who were talking tech (something about e-wallet security) like business colleagues. But something else was going on. The two women were both leaning in towards the guy, and it was not noisy, so it wasn’t to hear better. There was a lot of brushing back of hair, crossing and uncrossing of legs, and stroking their coffee/tea mugs that bordered on fondling. If you’ve ever studied body language the messages were clear. But the guy either wasn’t getting them, or didn’t want to ‘hear’ them: He was biting his lip, blinking a lot, and his whole body was squirming a bit. This communication was going on entirely independently of the oral conversation, and it was absolutely hilarious. I was really trying just to observe, and not make meaning of what I was seeing, but sometimes that’s just impossible.

10: Things Are Never As They Seem: This happened Thursday on the way back to my favourite café from a trip to the city, on the SkyTrain. I boarded at the second station of the line, when the train was mostly empty, and a significant number of people boarded at the same time I did. Generally speaking I expect people in that situation to scatter roughly evenly into the empty seats in the train car, kinda like the human equivalent of the Ideal Gas Law we learned in high school. But on this occasion, eight of us entered and all went to the foremost eight seats of the car. That just didn’t feel right. A random group of people all unnecessarily clumped up together like that? I almost bailed to a more isolated seat, but at the next station a bunch more people came in and soon it was pretty crowded everywhere.

I looked at the seven people around me, trying to make sense of this strange behaviour: Two rather elderly Japanese women. A middle-aged blonde woman muttering to herself in what sounded like Italian. Two of the most astonishingly beautiful children I’ve ever set eyes on — flawless, golden-brown complexions and large almond eyes with almost other-worldly long eyelashes. And a harried-looking middle-aged couple wearing oversized sunglasses talking quietly to each other. Surely these people had nothing in common. And then the blonde woman said something in her ersatz Italian accent — and the other six all burst out laughing! I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. And then the whole group of seven started chatting to each other, but the language(s) they were speaking didn’t sound like any language I’d ever heard. Finally my curiosity got the better of me and I asked one of the Japanese women if she could tell me what language they were speaking. (Have you guessed?) “Oh”, she told me, “it’s Portuguese. We’re visiting from Rio de Janeiro”.

They were a family. Of course I welcomed them, and we chatted about local events and attractions, and the Women’s World Cup. I listened enough to discern how Brasilian Portuguese sounds with a slight Japanese accent. And appreciated the remarkable mix of genes and cultures that had produced these startling-beautiful girls. And learned how to say boa viagem. I’ll be damned. I’d never have guessed.

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Asking questions in a blog article is often a provocation to entice the reader to supply answers to them; often the questions are disingenuous, and the writer is actually manipulating the reader into answering the way the writer wants them to.

I don’t think I’m doing that, at least not in this post. As I posed the questions above, I realized these are the questions that I would normally try to answer for myself after making these observations — that’s my predilection for trying to make sense of, and meaning from, everything. And I realized as well that these questions don’t need answers (and any answers would just be opinions and theories anyway).

Sometimes, it’s enough just to observe, and to pay attention. Just doing that brings its own joys and delights. And it might teach us to hold the world more tentatively, more lightly, and more equanimously. Less opinion, less judgement, less certainty, less reactivity, less expectation, less ‘making sense’ of what often makes no sense. Which might serve us well in the decades ahead.

* I define a café as a place that serves mainly coffees and teas, at a relaxed pace, along with pastries and sandwiches — enough perhaps for lunch but not for dinner. With comfy chairs such that it can serve as a ‘third place‘. Starbucks and similar in-and-out fast-food beverage establishments frequented mostly by teenagers and commuters are not, IMO, cafés, and they have entirely different (and to me unfathomable) cultures.

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6 Responses to Scenes from a Café

  1. FamousDrScanlon says:

    It seems like you’ve made the best of your transition from the cozy little island to the Lower Mainland sprawl.

    Since you like to observe humans in various signalling situations, you should check out a for profit fitness center like Club16. Everybody is watching everybody (often via mirrors) while pretending not to. The most fit & handsome/pretty ones spend a lot of time watch themselves & preening. When they do look at others it’s to see if they are being watched. I have not been to one since the early 2000’s, but thanks to youtub, I have seen how smart phones are now part of the mix. Some folks record themselves working out & upload it to social media. You can never have too many admirers.

    I mentioned to you before that I once lived near your building, in a 1980’s era, 3 story apartment [Glen dr & Pacific]. Not far from there {west} on the corner of Lansdowne & Guildford is a great little Donair place [Sultan’s Donair] in a little strip mall [Eagle Ridge Plaza]. We’ve been going there for years. My sister told me there is now a little, real French style bakery there [Pourquoi Pas Patisserie] that’s “to die for”. It’s only open 2 days a week & it’s pricey, but I only eat pastries a few times a year now (fatty liver) so I don’t mind. Plus I like to support small, local business if I can. If you make it there before me lemme know.

    I’m something of a people watcher too.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Dr S. I spend a fair bit of time in the apartment gym here and took a selfie of it: but it’s not really like the public places you describe with all the preening and posturing. Lots of mirrors though.

    I’m walking over to the mall you refer to next week (medical testing lab is there) so I’ll check out the donair place (I usually go to one a bit closer for my monthly falafel fix). I’ve looked in at the patisserie, but seeing the prices and being a vegan I haven’t bought anything there yet.

    I do like to support the local small businesses when I can. Especially the cafés. Cheers!

  3. Michael Campi says:

    This comment is not related to the above post but I am wondering why you stopped including Covid-19 info in your Links of the Month columns

  4. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Your lack of a screen in the cafe reminded me of one of my favourite jokes from the golden era of Twitter: “A guy came into the coffee shop today, bought a coffee, sat down at a table and just sat there drinking it, like a psychopath.”

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Michael: Got tired of saying the same thing over and over. There will be some new stuff in Augu links of the month.

    Ivor: Sitting in the Cafe as I read your comment. Looking at my phone so I don’t come across as psychopathic. All 10 of the other tables occupied by groups speaking Chinese or Japanese. Could be a Cafe anywhere in the world.

  6. Reto says:

    Your observations made me smile more than ones. Thanks for this text, Dave!

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