Learning to swim Part 1: the public office

This is not an ideal way to work. I’m sitting in a McDonald’s having just bought a latte (small) to justify setting up the laptop here. The reason I am here is the Starbucks just across the way doesn’t have Internet access today. The nice girls there don’t know why, it just hasn’t been connected. I told one of them that I would be there a lot if the wireless worked, because I have real work to do plus I like Starbucks a lot. She got kind of a bruised look on her face and said she’d tell the manager. I felt like a put a dent in her day.
So I come over here to the McDonald’s and set up at a four-person table with stationary swivel seats to try to get some work done. Sitting straight across from me are three guys having lunch. They’re wearing cutoff jeans, baseball caps and t-shirts. The one guy has a ginger goatee, a Detroit Tigers cap and a t-shirt that reads “Dublin your Pleasure” with an “Irish Ale 77” logo. I think it must mean Dublin, Michigan, where the Dublin General Store has the famous profusion of jerky.
Anyway these guys must work for KDL Concrete, LLC because that’s on one of their caps and one of their t-shirts. The one guy with the t-shirt half turned around and glanced at me because of the clacking of my keyboard. I don’t have the idea that he particularly likes me doing this. I wouldn’t either if I were on lunch break from a hot dusty concrete job, wearing high-topped boots and cutoffs while this egghead in cargo shorts bangs away on his goddamn computer. Can’t he do that at home? What does he need to come to McDonald’s for? Doesn’t he know he is being annoying? What is so fucking important about what he’s writing anyway?
This is what you come up against when the world is your office. You look for the places with the good connection, decent coffee and a tolerant attitude. My friend Ruth says you need to buy at least $5 an hour of stuff to justify taking up that space. I say if they don’t want me sitting here they shouldn’t have Wi-Fi. They know the financial plusses and minuses of letting me take up this space. For me a cup of coffee and a refill is sufficient rent. I’ll refer my friends here too.
The other day I was at an Urban Mill downtown and the office-less work force was out in full force. I sat on the deck when up comes a guy and sets up his laptop. Pretty soon along comes another one wearing cargo shorts and a Tom Petty concert shirt. “I’m unemployed,” he says cheerfully. “I can dress like this all the time.” You can sound really professional over the phone even in a Tom Petty t-shirt.
Then along came a third guy, yakking on a headset and toting his laptop as he walked from the parking lot. “He owes it to you after yesterday to get a resolution on this,” he said in his most no-nonsense tone. “OK let’s get it done. We’re just futzin’ around.” Then he took up residence with his two coworkers at their outdoor work station. A clear blue sky was our neon ceiling. Not bad considering none of us is making half of what we did when we worked in non-virtual offices.
Inside, three more guys were plugged into laptops: just another day in post-office America.
Do I feel OK about using other people’s coffee shops for my office? I don’t know if I do or not. Sometimes I feel like the good soldier, hammering out my thoughts on important social and religious matters while the college girl nearby dawdles on Facebook and the young dudes play World of Warcraft. Here I am keeping the fire alive any way I can two years after taking the buyout. We reporters can write anywhere, from press boxes, bunkers or rooftops depending on the need. So to come into a cozy coffeeshop with a soft alt-folk audio mix is really a luxury.
But there’s also this sense of living off others’ indulgence. Here at McDonald’s I am on the Web courtesy of AT&T. Does that make me indebted to them as a kind of freelance lacky? Not to mention the valuable McDonald’s customer space I am taking up for a mere $2.22 cup of mediocre latte. That’s essentially borrowed time courtesy of corporate largesse.
Meanwhile, two tow-headed boys at the next table dig into Chicken McNuggets and suck on chocolate milk, while across from me a 20-something guy works on both his laptop and smart phone. I wonder if he is making any money or just killing time. In post-office America, it’s hard to tell the difference.

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2 Responses to Learning to swim Part 1: the public office

  1. Rachel says:

    Thanks for sharing this perspective, Charley. Now I feel inspired to write about life as an underemployed 20-something. 🙂

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