How the cafe at Barnes and Noble is like a really bad television show

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I’m sitting in the café at Barnes and Noble, thinking, “The people here are all trying too hard. Was that me ten years ago?” And then, “All in all, I’d rather be back in Madison.”

A confession

Sometimes I am struck with the desire to get the hell out of my small town. My window seat at The Attic or the coffee shop are just not quite enough. I need to be, I tell myself, in a real coffee shop. A real café. A real city somewhere.

If I were in a real coffee shop, a real café, the writing would come easier, I tell myself. These are, after all, the places where real writers go. I need to observe the diversity of life that a bigger place brings. I need to eavesdrop on new conversations. Maybe I just need someone different to make my cappuccino.

So this week, I finally found a day where there was nothing scheduled. No child on spring break. No committee meeting. No classes to teach. I hit the road.

Choice is not all its cracked up to be

I am a creature of habit. The beautiful thing about Madison is that it’s not as if there are so many places you can go to write that the options become overwhelming. This is, of course, also one of the bad things about Madison. Things work that way sometimes.

In Louisville, the possibilities are endless. Maybe a Starbucks. Maybe Heine Brothers. I’ve thought that the Bank Street Brewery in New Albany might make a lovely space to write; it has the double dose advantages of open air and beer.*

hemingway writing standing up

‘What’s with this picture?” you’re wondering.

I ended up at a Barnes and Noble–perhaps a bad choice born mostly of nostalgia. I wrote a big chunk of my dissertation sitting in a comfy chair at a Borders in Bloomington, so this is something that was once as comforting as anything can possibly be when you’re writing your dissertation. I certainly have fond memories of that Borders, in the way we have fond memories of almost everything that doesn’t actually interfere with our nostalgia by still existing.

So after being paralyzed by the sheer possibility of places in which to write, I ended up at a table in the Barnes and Noble café, wishing I was in the window at Madison Coffee and Tea. That, my friends, is life.

Love the cappuccino you’re with

The truth is that the only cappuccino I really crave is the one made for me by my the guru of caffeinated beverages at the 605 Grille. Most of the time, I’d rather have an iced tea or an Italian soda. The truth is, it’s not even so much about the drink itself as it is about the place where I’m having the drink, and Barnes and Noble is not a particularly great place. So it’s not like the mind-blowing quality of a new cappuccino is enough to make up for a place not being Madison Coffee and Tea.

The people in the café at Barnes and Noble in the middle of a weekday looked very important and busy. Their stuff was spread out all over the tables. Their electronic devices made a great deal of noise.** There is some life drama that happens, to be sure. A baby cries. Someone talks on their cell phone. But it’s anonymous drama. “What do I really care?” I found myself thinking.

When I was younger and unmarried and generally unencumbered, I believed that coffee shops and bookstores were places where something exciting was bound to happen. Maybe that says a lot about how lame I was in my youth. I had the vague sense that I might meet an interesting stranger and strike up a conversation. Or I would find the love of my life. I would begin a tumultuous love affair. Now I just thank god there’s very little chance of any of those things happening from my safe perch in the coffee shop window in Madison.

Even so, it was hard for me to imagine anything interesting happening in the Barnes and Noble. And how would I know if it did? I had no background on the cast of characters, and in fact, there probably was no cast of characters. Many of the interesting things that happen in Madison Coffee and Tea and on the streets outside would be lost on a total stranger who lacks full knowledge of the complex social dynamics of small town life. It was kind of like starting a tv series right in the middle, only even less interesting. Also, you can’t write standing up, which is how Papa Hemingway did it, after all.

So, you know where to find me.

* Had I ended up at the brewery instead of Barnes and Noble, I expect you’d be reading a very different post right now.
** In fact, one of the most noticeable differences between being in Louisville and being in Madison is the preponderance of dings and beeps. We don’t ding and beep as much in Madison, though I do my fair share.

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