I see them as I’m about to pull in. I wonder if I should punch the gas and move on. After all, there are other cafes in the South Bay.
But this one’s my favorite, my home cafe, where a reclining chair waits by the fireplace and they’ve saved an outlet for my laptop. My cafe is my village. Everyone knows me, everyone expects me. In a moment I’ll look up from my work-in-progress and ask the lieutenant from the LAPD gang unit a detailed question about guns, gangsters or police procedure. I’ll turn to my right and ask the physicist to walk me through a complicated aspect of String Theory. I’ll turn to my left and chat with the screenwriters about story structure and character development. A city councilman will stop by and lend me a book about ATF undercover operations, saying, “I heard you were attending the Citizen’s Academy. I thought you might like this.”
All this and more has occurred in my local cafe.
There are only a few things that burn me up about the place. Two days a week a wild bunch of home schoolers arrive and turn the cafe into the Hell’s Angels version of Cirque du Soleil. I can write through some pretty hairy situations, but these little devils make the armies of Genghis Khan look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Then there are the times when I’m finding my groove and really WRITING, having spent the previous few hours settling into my chair and creating the perfect space from which to work. Then a cafe employee plops a music stand at my side with a sign that reads, “This space is reserved from 6:30 to 10:00 for the South Bay Knitting Club.” I look at my watch and see it’s 6:25. When I look up again I see the knitters staring me down. Every night there seems to be a different group of someone staring at my chair.
But the thing that really gets me is when I drive into the parking lot and see fifty or so touring bikes spilling into my parking spot from the cafe entrance. The place is overrun with mannequin-shaped men and women wearing Dayglo orange and lime-green lycra jerseys and bib shorts and fingerless gloves and polarized glasses in yellow and pink and multi-colored helmets that mold their heads into the shape of H.R. Giger monsters, and there they are, hovering bent and worn in their crippling little shoes with cleats that fit into coyote-trap pedal clamps. They swarm the counter and nest in nooks and crannies and couches and even…my chair.
Maybe what bothers me is that they all seem cut from the same cloth. Indistinguishable. I’ve never seen any of their members wearing a loose, hemp T-shirt and cut-off shorts. I’ve never seen any of them ride anything but state-of-the-art Titanium metal alloy space-age super sonic shit.
As I boil with frustration I wonder what the hell I have against them. I mean, really. I know there’s an individual in there somewhere, it can’t just be hive mentality to the core.
It makes me wonder how I’m perceived in the cafe. Do the bicyclists think, “Oh, there’s a writer. They’re all the same, sitting around looking tortured and pitiful…and pale…and flabby. What they need is some exercise. A ride on a bike. Not with us, however. No, that just wouldn’t do.”
Do the cyclists look at me with those terrible, preconceived stereotypes? Aren’t they capable of seeing who I am?
I don’t know if I fit so neatly into that group of “writers,” as perceived by others who aren’t. I think I look like any other patron at the cafe, actually.
And that gets me wondering how I might be stereotyped, at first glance. Well, I’m Jewish, but you wouldn’t necessarily get that from staring me down. Most people think I’m Italian or Greek or sometimes, oddly, Native American. They know there’s a nose-thing going on, they just don’t know where to place it until I say “Schwartz.”
I have a friend who places me in the category of “bleeding heart liberal hippy.” Which, I think, says more about his character than mine. I qualify for his label for the following reasons: a) I’m a vegetarian, b) I wear my hair longer than a crew-cut, c) I’m a registered Democrat, d) there’s that Jewish thing, e) I’m not a hunter, f) I live in California, g) I’m one of those “Hollywood” types, and h) I voted for Barak Obama. Ray (that’s my friend), lives in Arizona, kills every animal he sees, belongs to the NRA, is a registered Republican, voted against Obama, endlessly listens to Rush Limbaugh, and is fiscally responsible. Whenever we email each other he finishes his message with “How’s that Hope and Change thing working for you?” and I reply, “I’m still hoping you’ll change.”
The funny thing is that I only appear as a leftist-commie-pinko-liberal-socialist to Ray because that’s what he wants to see. I’m actually pretty middle of the road politically. I find it hard to put my heart into any particular political agenda without feeling like I’m drinking somebody’s Kool Aid. I like to imagine I lean a little left of center, and I think that has something to do with my love of Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” as well as the heroic tales of Captain Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherds. But in truth I’d rather stand off to the side and observe the machinations of the world. The great thing about writing is that I can study different points of view and write characters who fight and scream and die for the things they believe in. Meanwhile, I’m “sitting here watching the world go round and round.” Geez, a John Lennon reference. Here’s another one – “Imagine there’s no countries, it’s easy if you try…nothing to live or die for…” Hell, Ray’s gotta be right.
As far as Ray is concerned, we’re polar opposites.
But then I imagine how Ray and I are perceived by people outside the U.S. Driving around in our gas-guzzling SUVs, rolling over the land we stole from the Native Americans. Bitching about the euro on our way to the spa. Looking for the next Arab nation to bomb. The Ugly Americans. This is not how Ray sees us, it is not how I see us. But it’s the way many do. People who don’t realize we’re polar opposites.
If they took the time to get to know us maybe they’d find some common ground.
And that gets me thinking. Do I really know the bicyclists? I mean, if I just sat down next to one of them (who, incidentally, happens to be sitting in my chair) and introduced myself I might discover he’s a really cool LAPD officer. Or a String Theory physicist. Or, God forbid, a writer.
Maybe there’s room at the cafe for everyone.
A swarm of lycra is one those things you can't just un-see.
That's a bit to get past.
Cafe etiquette in my experience is nuanced. There is often unsaid jostling for place, the displaced, group belonging and sometimes agreed mutual anonymity. If you're lucky good coffee to boot.
Although in principle yeah a place for everyone is ideal, I shudder at lycra on mass in cafes too.
Aw crap I realise your post has larger themes…I'm tired and shallow.. I can only address my lycra aversion.
Yes, Stephen's post has larger themes, Catherine — but it's also about, I think, quick judgments.
I have a difficult time with Lycra Lads and Lasses.
Also have a difficult time with stereotypes. And, yet, I respond to them in my own thoughts all the time. Sometimes I fight them, others I let them pass if they're not actively harming others or me.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to live in a state of pure social un-bias.
Catherine is right, it's the Lycra. And always that particular shade of blue that I particularly despise.
Okay, I'm still on my first cup of coffee. Actually my problem with the bikers and the runners is that the take over the city for their marathons and you can't get anywhere for a half a day. There are perfectly good unused roads for these people to do their thing on.
All right, I'll stop. But uniforms set people apart. We see it at conventions when we're sharing a hotel with a thousand people in dark suits. Our own pack is just as much of a pack, but we dress differently and are more willing to talk to outsiders simply because we're vampires and they might have information we can use for a character.
You had me up until the kumbaya clincher, big guy.
Politics is the systematic organization of hatreds — Henry Adams (grandson of John).
My head is full of nasty, bigoted, fatuous, baseless crap. I buy in to ideas I have no clue are true, because they conform to my beliefs, wants, and loyalties. I'm kinda ashamed of this, but some of it is inescapable.
I lack the time to read what I need to so I can determine independently the exact limits of Keynesian economic theory, for example. So I go with my gut, based on who I see accepting it and who I see denigrating it, and how and why. We're all acting on limited info, and that means prejudice. It means jumping to conclusions. I have no clue to what exact extent evolution can overcome the flaws and gaps in the fossil record. But I trust scientists more than fundamentalists.
Alex hit something interesting: the varied pack. I went back to my hometown of Columbus Ohio for a recent book tour, and stayed with my brother in what used to be the boonies but is now just the burbs. And I found myself creeped out. It wasn't just because everyone is white — everyone in Marin is white, for f**k's sake — it's that they're white in the same way.
Conformity is unsettling. Writers are a crew of iconoclasts, a herd of cats, we're almost congenitally predisposed to fail in the corporate world. We want to run naked through the cubicles, screaming, "Che lives!" (Wait, maybe that's just me.)
I ride a bike. I wear a goofy helmet and bug-eyed goggles and fingerless gloves — and frumpy sweats. I ride alone. Gee, go figure.
Nice post, you smug crypto-Cherokee pinko elitest. That's my goddamn chair!
Stephen, if you ever make it to Denver I'll take you for a spin on my tandem. Bring your own Lycra.
And next time I stop at a cafe I've pedaled to, I'll be careful not to sit in any writer's chairs. Unless, of course, I'm there to write. 🙂
Oh Stephen, like most everyone else I'm caught up in the Lycra. A cafe I frequent is a pitstop for the Lycra crowd, all those Sunday morning athletes who clomp in with their bulging packages (it's a sick fascination because they aren't exactly attractive, yet…) and healthy glows. They take over the place, they really do. So, yes, I laughed when I read your description.
Stereotyping fascinates me now that I'm aware of being on the receiving end of it. The woman who works in her home all day with her dog and her cat — yep. I must be one of those poor, sad spinster creatures. I get the hippie thing all the time (especially if they know I graduated Berkeley), and also the artsy thing, and the flaky thing. And rolling all of these assumptions together says nothing about who I really am.
On a lighter note: What I love about being a coffeehouse regular is what I call "the Norm factor." Remember "Cheers"? NOORM!! Love that. An author friend of mine once said that real writers don't work in cafes. Screw that. Wherever you can get the writing done, right?
(Sidenote: David — Marin girl here. Visiting M.V. creeps me out in a similar manner. Hard to believe I grew up there; harder still to believe that bunches of my high school classmates never left! The Book Passage conference was the first time I'd stepped onto Marin soil in years.)
Cut to the chase.
You just want your chair. You're still a two-year old in the part of you that takes care of feeding and watering Stephen Schwartz the WRITER and it's just . . . not on . . . for a bunch of healthy, active bike freaks to come in and (omigod, I can barely look) SIT THERE.
Man up, Stephen. Talent is portable.
Great post, Stephen. Weird how people dress in a uniform of sorts usually herd together and talk/look/behave in a group manner in order to express their individuality.
There's a reason for stereotypes, though – it's because enough people conform to them for it to have become a stereotype. When I was motorcycling more regularly, we all hated Volvo drivers. Old joke: Volvo driver turns to passenger and says, "I think we're getting near a built-up area." "How can you tell?" "I'm hitting more pedestrians…" One time I was stopped waiting my turn at a roundabout on my old Suzuki and a damn Volvo driver actually came at me across the grass verge. Man, that's just plain cheating.
Now it's Audi drivers who buy their car with a certificate that says they do, in fact, own the road.
I've been a pedal cyclist, too, and hated dog walkers with those retractable dog leads – you know, the ones you can't see stretched from person walking at one side of the path to their dog nosing around in the hedge at the other side of the path, until you've almost run into them. 'Tripwire' is another name for them.
But the cyclists who take it seriously enough to wear all the gear always seem to be the most arrogant. They ride two abreast on narrow twisty roads, they ride straight through red traffic lights because, obviously they're above obeying such things. And yet if one runs into you (as happened to us a while ago, and I do mean THEY ran into US – came out of an alleyway and T-boned the side of us) it's always the car driver's fault.
One last thought. People who wear lycra are often like those who practice naturism – they do not have bodies I want to be able to see in such detail 🙂
Oh, and if it's causing you such grief, have you ever thought of simply writing at home…?
First of all, I hate bicyclists. They takeover wherever they are in their yellow and blue, and the tendency they have to ignore the rules of the road, and they are so damned virtuous. I also jealous as hell that they are physically fit, and wear clothes that haven't worked for me since I was 35, half a lifetime ago. You do have a right to be annoyed to have your routine interrupted; I get that way too. Yes, we all have some things in common, but make no mistake. People make groups and use them as identifiers, and sadly, use them to prop themselves up. It truly does become us and them-it's just how we are. Sorry to get serious, but I wish John Lennon's dreams were possible.
Catherine – that's the best, tightest description of cafe etiquette I've ever seen. And it captures it.
And, despite the larger themes, the blog can be taken as an anti Lycra rant if it pleases.
Pari – I agree. I don't think it's possible to live entirely without social bias. I've done some research on social engineering and body language and the research indicates that, on a purely physical level, we seek out "sameness" in order to protect ourselves and our "pack." Being part of a group means protection from the predators that exist beyond our immediate circle. We might fight this intellectually, but an element of it is imprinted in our DNA.
Alex – I like that comment, "Uniforms set people apart." There's so much behind that statement. There's peer pressure, loneliness, the need to be liked and/or protected, the desire for community. Then again, there's always the factor of speed and wind resistance. You'll be the last in the race if you're wearing a hemp T-shirt.
David – about that Kumbaya moment…I was really going to give those cyclists a real Bukowski-style thrashing in the end, but then I realized that all my recent book sales were coming from the Lycra crowd. I sometimes feel like a "fake" for not passionately fighting for my ideals, for not finding the Abbie Hoffman inside me. But I realized a while ago that, as you said, I don't have time to study every position to determine the truth of the thing. And I won't jump in half-cocked. I definitely side with the scientists over the fundamentalists, but it's interesting how the fundamentalists will pull some scientists into their side and then it becomes scientist vs scientist. Ultimately, like you, I stick with my gut. And that puts me against all the other guys who stick with their gut and come up with a completely different result.
One reason I'm looking forward to reading this book you're working on is that it seems to be coming together against all the odds. So I'm betting it'll be the best thing you've ever written. Another, is that when I'm reading it I'll remember some of your posts at the time you were writing. Those fish that kept staring at you. And now this mob of happy-go-lucky cyclists, on a day's outing from Stepford.
Writers, I'd guess, by their solitary nature feel like the perpetual outsider. They don't run with the pack. Especially when the pack is decked out in Dayglo. So you're irritated by the invasions of your space, your routine. And maybe if I were a fly on the wall of your coffee shop I'd glance your way, curious for a moment about this intense guy with a frown huddled over his laptop. I think that's the price you pay for making your office in a public place. You can't control the ebb and flow around you. But then, you wouldn't have it any other way, would you?
Great post, Stephen.
I get the "I want to be in the middle of it," especially when you talk to the local cop, or whoever and glean information. I just was never a regular at a cafe. A bar, yes, and have done plenty of writing in bars everywhere and know a lot of bartenders. Maybe that's why you publish books and I just talk about it (ok ok). Or my only free time is at night. I like stereotypes because it gives me a chance to be surprised when people break out of it and it's a starting point if you recognize that it can be really off. Of course the bicyclist is a person, but he's a person who wears Lycra! I'm a lawyer (say it with inflection) and just saying it makes it a stereotype. But people who know me say, you're not like a lawyer. That's nice. So, I don't worry too much about sterotypes in that respect, it's just a starting point, not an end.
But the trade off with writing in a public space is that it's a public space and you have to share it. Writing is a lonely vocation and it can be offset by the cafe crowd but they encroach. Life is a trade off — those of us who can't write all day also know that. I'd much prefer to be irritated with Lycra than opposing counsel right now. Wait until your Barrista changes and the new girl puts vanilla in your latte by mistake.
Lisa: I have four cats, why I have to get out of the house.
Hey David? Che Lives!!!!
To Allison: Oh yes, I understand. Toddlers in fur coats! Thankfully, we can leave them alone without hiring a sitter.
Twist – I'll take that tandem ride with you any day!
Lisa – I gotta admit, I do love the Norm Factor. Makes me feel like I'm part of a motorcycle club or something. Though I often have to look for out-of-the-way cafes where I don't know anyone or else I'll never meet my deadlines.
Tim – Talent is portable but luxury is not.
Zoe – I was thinking "tripwire" even before you got to the punchline. And writing at home just isn't an option – a tiny two bedroom apartment with kids, wife and a dog. Besides, writing is such a lonely, solitary experience that I'll die if I don't do it in the company of others.
lil – wishing right along with you about John Lennon's dreams…
Richard – you've got my number; I wouldn't have it any other way. I love that my fish blog has stayed with you. It cracks me up every time I look at those pictures. (And I still avoid that cafe!)
Allison – the fact that you're a lawyer is proof-positive that stereotypes are misleading. It seems you became a lawyer as a means to prop up your philanthropic nature. You wanted to give of yourself and you didn't want to live a dependent life. You put your sacrifice up front, and that's honorable. What's amazing, also, is the type of law you chose to practice. It ain't divorce law, it ain't about defending corporate greed. And, listen, if I had to practice law eighty hours a week I'd be doing my writing in bars, too.
I see amazing acts of road rage toward groups of cyclists here on the edge of the Orange Curtain. 'Sharing' is not much in the OC lexicon anyway. But I was riding by myself, no lycra, toward the right edge of the right lane when I was hit by a passing truck.
If it wasn't an accident, all I can make of this is that some people really resent seeing other people having fun that isn't readily shared.
At work, many people resent me for being The Writer. I guess they think editing and rewriting internal docs is fun.
So, Stephen, have all the fun you possibly can there at the cafe. Perhaps some of the lycra-clad will come to envy you – if they read your work, they can't miss your enviable gifts.
I still can't get over the fact that you're friends with someone who listens to Rush Limbaugh. That would be a deal breaker for me.
Stephen, I hate when my routine is interrupted by these intrusions of loud colors and loud children with their loud mothers who keep them home from school then take them to the local coffee house for a "normal" social experience. That last bothers me most. I wish it didn't. I don't think I own the space. I just want to. I used to leave when I went in to Starbucks and found they had taken over the wheelchair table. I am a little more assertive now. They pretend they don't see me. When I ask them if they need the wheelchair table, the usual response is, "Yes, there are so many of us!" Or they'll say, "Can't you sit somewhere else? There is only ONE of you." I point out that the table is high and wide to accommodate a wheelchair. "Oh, but it is SO big, and we need a big table for our social experience."
Tom – thanks for the nice words. I can't believe you were hit by a truck while cycling! Did they stop? Were you injured? See, if you were wearing Dayglo pink they would've been too shocked to think of side-swiping you. The image would've burned in their minds and retinas for hours.
Gayle – it pretty much IS the deal breaker. Once I was in Ray's car and I was forced to listen to Rush for a couple hours. Then Ray stopped to get gas. When he came back he realized that I had turned off the radio. "Did you turn off Rush?" he asked. "Yes, Ray. And it's a funny thing, too. I was listening to the man speak and suddenly he had some kind of epiphany. He told his listeners that he just realized that everything he's been saying for the last twenty years is a bunch of meaningless shit. He asked us all to turn off the radio and never speak his name again. Strange, huh?" Ray just looked at me and turned the radio back on.
Reine – that story boggles my mind. I can't possibly understand someone not giving up the wheelchair table when asked. I can't believe you've had to fight for your right to use it. I guess the big thing they're not learning is manners.
But the whole thing about stereotypes is just that — Stephen's Rush Limbaugh listener likes his long haired hippy writer friend who lives in LA…and the Rush Limbaugh listener is probably a good guy. Stereotypes aren't for fencing out, they are for surprises. I have all kinds of friends that don't fit. It's wonderful. Even if they root for Texas.
Well, actually, he is a bit of an asshole. But I like him, nonetheless.
Hah, Stephen – the kids wanted to sit with me! The mothers were the ones who wanted their "social experience" undisturbed. Kind of a missed op.
Loved your post! Sorry I'm late, to the conversation but I had to add my two cents after hearing about all that brightly coloured lycra! I'm fortunate enough to live near the ocean, which is a blessing… However, driving anywhere near the coast on a weekend is a NIGHTMARE – thanks to these lycra clad cyclists! They're everywhere, slowing down traffic and I don't know if they frustrate me because I'm driving and I feel guilty because I really should be excersizing, or if I'm just a little peeved at the sight of that much fluro lycra first thing in the morning!