We have officially entered our third consecutive pandemic summer. Offices are closed, antiwork sentiment is at an apogee, and all of us are moldering under the societal pressures of bright sunny days. I live in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, the media capital of the world, which means that an infinite tableau of identical coffee shops emanate from my block. One of the perks of this anarchic period in American history is the idea that, in lieu of our daily commutes, we can set up shop on the streetside furniture outside of cafes called like "Bad Mother" — where we may blog under the warmth of God.
Covid-19 has provoked innumerable lifestyle reorientations, and working outside is probably the most basic and essential. I totally bought into the hype. Every Wednesday, usually around 2 p.m., my girlfriend announces that she is taking her computer down the street, as fresh air is supposed to nullify whoever is currently being annoying in your emails. I'm always inclined to join, because we only have so many days on this planet, and wearing sunglasses while working should feel a lot like living.
An hour later, when I'm squinting at my screen to parse through the glare, I realize that I've been duped yet again. Where do you even start, man. Why is every cafe outfitted with the worst chairs in the United States? You know, these ones. Why is the WiFi completely sundered when more than three Macbooks connect to it? I've probably spent entire days of my life watching Google Docs attempt to load while "Songbird_Guest" heaves and chugs. Isn't it cool how every time you press the spacebar your latte wobbles perilously on the table? These factors are consistent across every one of my attempts to work outside since Covid made landfall, and I completely forget about them until the very moment I'm baking in the sun, smashing the refresh button, wondering how I keep falling for it. We've finally uncovered an employment experience more dehumanizing than the average office, and it can be found in the coffee shop grottoes across the country. Big Cafe has been ripping off the American workforce for far too long, and I will no longer be ashamed to admit that the humble living room absolutely wipes the floor with the accursed sidewalk table. How is this even a debate?
My partner, my friends, and the editors of this very website are horrified by this take and are actively fearing for my safety now that I'm airing it out. Yes, there is like 50 years of scientific data and cultural mythology claiming that fresh air is good for our brains. In 2018, Slate reported that working in nature "improves memory and focus, reduces mental fatigue, and increases creativity," probably because we are neolithic creatures at our core and would all be much happier if we spent our days foraging berries and dying in our 40s. However! That Slate article betrays itself with a header image that features a man grinding away on his laptop while sitting on a leafy park bench, ostensibly in some sort of utopian fantasy dimension where American taxpayer money is spent to equip the Appalachian Trail with WiFi instead of buying rocket launchers for police. Yes, working outside is nice if you happen to have a pool, or a private backyard, or a nation state with a functioning public infrastructure. But I don't have any of those things man. That leaves me with the cafes, and they have us by the balls.
Isn't it cool how every time you press the spacebar your latte wobbles perilously on the table?
I am open to the idea that this is primarily a New York City problem; there is a good chance that working outside in, say, Kansas City, is generally very peaceful and accommodating. It conjures up images of long, sturdy tables, replete with open outlets, and perhaps a few cushions on the chairs. You know, a space that's actually capable of creating a functional outdoor office habitat, rather than the chaos prisons of Brooklyn. There is a backyard my girlfriend likes to work at that is entirely composed of poured concrete. Whenever I accompany her I'm immediately reminded that I have a couch at home. If Eric Adams runs on a reelection platform based around retrofitting the furniture in every coffee shop in the city, I'm convinced he'd get 90 percent of the vote.
Everyone has spent a lot of time thinking about how to fix work over the last few years. The proposed solutions usually center around employee happiness; higher wages, a four-day week, a less depressing office. All of these are excellent ideas. I genuinely think that a more energized employee is a more efficient employee, but after two years of the work-from-home revolution, there is no doubt in my mind that a "cafe-like environment" should be reserved for exactly one occupational contingency, which is when you don't actually want to get that much work done. This is, of course, a vital regimen for workers of all stripes.
I absolutely relish the chance to wander over to a coffee shop, (or let's be real, a bar,) in the dying embers of a Thursday or the dulcet rhythms of a Friday, knowing full well that everyone else in my orbit has subconsciously agreed that the rest of our shifts are unsalvageable. You bring your laptop as plausible deniability, send exactly one email — ideally containing a single sentence or less — and spend the rest of the field trip doing crossword puzzles and sipping beer. The fuzzy netherspace between labor and leisure is perfectly tuned for the cafe, because cafes are designed to gently sever your vocational brainwaves. Suddenly, all of the things I complained about, (the spotty WiFi, the presence of other people, the angry sun itself,) greatly add to the ambiance. We stop working, we start texting our friends, and it all comes together.
I think this is why nobody works at a coffee shop before noon. When it is time to bear down and actually make some money, you can't be negotiating the limited elbow space between your computer and your chicken pesto wrap in the bleary humidity. (This exact set of circumstances has caused me to write some of the worst paragraphs of my life. I wrote most of this post outside, so you get what I'm saying.) No, the trips down the street are most euphoric when all of the primary assignments are completed, and future work is speculative, ethereal, and can mostly be completed on your phone. If there is a hell, it will take the form of a tiny alcove on a crowded patio, staring down a fastly encroaching deadline and a flickering broadband signal.
Mind you, this piece is also written by a man who pinned cut-up garbage bags to his windows in college in order to erase the glare from his computer screen during one of the darkest nadirs of their lifelong World of Warcraft habit. It's all subjective. There is a chance you're most inspired while raw to the elements; I'm not going to be able to convince you to feel otherwise. My brother, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, tells me he's written the best scripts of his life at a Zankou Chicken, which honestly explains a lot. So long as we can admit — in the midst of our current revolutionary ferment — that there are certain things that the office did get right. Kill all bosses, raise all wages, but let me work inside where it is cool and quiet and I can get a snack if I want. Please do not make me sit on those chairs anymore. I'm begging you. Anything but the chairs.
Luke Winkie is a writer in Brooklyn.