The Caffeinated Heart of Community

Set down the bag. Stir the coffee. Open up the laptop.

This is the place.

I’ve came at just the right time to grab a booth in the corner, the perfect spot to zero in on my laptop. Before any work actually gets done, though, I’ll have put up a few posts online about National Suit Up Day, an assortment of Psych memes, and maybe some quick updates meant for no one in particular about my thoughts on ethical clothing.

All the important stuff.

I’ve come ready to be here awhile. In addition to all the memes, I’ve also brought some actual schoolwork to be done, and then a Kazuo Ishiguro novel I hope to dive into if I can get my work done efficiently enough.

As luck would have it, this place also happens to have the best bagels in town, so before I can even think about transitioning to doing some more serious work, my name is called and I respond to the foil-wrapped, freshly toasted egg bagel slowly melting the salmon cream cheese that holds together its two halves. This is the most ordinary of moments, and yet it leads me to believe that everything is in its right place.

Cajé won my heart and my loyalty forever from day one. Literally, as in their first day of business. It only cost them about three bucks, too. I was waiting for class to start in the theatre next door, and they offered us free iced blended lattes. People advise businesses to be cautious when giving stuff out for free, but I think it worked for this shop. Three bucks and I’ve been here dozens and dozens of times since then. I don’t even really think of getting coffee anywhere else.

Of course, I don’t just keep coming back because one time I got a free drink and it was pretty decent. I’m here because, right now, this coffee shop is the closest thing I have to a permanent home base.

I get to look up from my glowing screen to see that I know over half the people at the coffee shop right now.

At one table, two friends of mine are engaged in a deep conversation, with an open Bible and scattered journal pages all across the table. They know I’m here and are not surprised in the least. I see them, but I don’t bother to interrupt the conversations of significance that are happening at that table. We’ll both be here long enough and often enough to say hi to each other before we’re gone.

Tim is here too- entering his mental monastery of intellectual reading and political science. Last time I was here, it was to engage him in a deep, analytical-yet-personal conversation about the role faith plays in each of our outlooks on the world. It was one of the best conversations that I’ve had this month, and I look forward to whenever we get to have a proper follow-up chat.

If that somehow creates the false impression that this is only a venue for spiritual and mystical exploration, philosophical ponerings, and stoic seriousness, that can easily be dispelled by Joel behind the counter, spinning around aluminum cans of the house-made maple whipped cream as he switches from a Passion Pit heavy playlist to his new flavor of the month, The Civil Wars.

I could probably blame Friends, and a dozen other shows like it. Spots like the fictional Central Park created in me a desire for some community-hub, and the mental image that it should probably take the form of a coffee shop.

As long as I could remember, I’ve had the desire to have some sort of place where I could go with no plans, and still reasonably expect to run into a bunch of friends and people I knew. Perhaps from there it leads to some good conversations and further adventures, or maybe we just get our work done in proximity to each other, but that place of connection was always an object of my desire.

When I started to gain my independence, to look into new homes and cities to live, I started thinking of what I wanted out of that sort of life. As Chicago became a city that I started to consider more and more seriously, my ideal image always involved sitting around with a group of friends in some sort of coffee shop, packing up a bag full of books and tossing on a heavy jacket before waving goodbye to the group of friends I would probably see again later that week in the exact same place.

It was a romantic image, even if it was primarily based off off tropes from sitcoms a generation ago. The image may have been cartoonish, but the desire for community was very much real.

I didn’t end up in Chicago. I found myself in Satna Barbara instead. But that desire still came true.

I think that’s why it often surprises me so much to realize that I actually have that. Right now. I’m sitting right in the middle of that desire I’ve held for years. And even though no passive bystander would notice anything significant or outstanding about this scene, it represents something I’ve always wished for but only recently found. A community. One with close friends, and peripheral acquaintances who know each other, and shared values and stories. Oh, and it just so happens that we share a coffee shop where everybody knows your name.

The maple latte is worth it when I feel like having something that’s a little bit extra, but the regular Guatemalan drip coffee is always a pretty safe bet.

Outside, Bre and David are in the middle of some sort of conversation, with David’s laptop, camera, and creative software occupying over 90% of the table. His skateboard stands flipped on the concrete bench beside him.

Before I leave, Joel orchestrates everybody in the shop to bid me goodbye, in unison. It was something right out of a musical, or perhaps straight out of a dream.

Who’s to say that this life I get to live isn’t?

Philippe Lazaro2010