Under one roof, we were happily fueled by the coffee but also by each other.
I know what you’re thinking. There is a special place in hell for people who take up space in coffee shops and turn them into their offices. Like, what kind of person thinks it’s okay to sip on the same latte for six hours, spread their laptop all over the place, hog the spot near the outlet, and use up the free Wi-Fi?! Okay, but hear me out.
My coffee shop office was this magical hub for independent creatives, aka fellow regulars. We didn’t want office structure and we didn’t like office politics or rules*. We were a motley crew of educators, unapologetic humans just figuring shit out, activists, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, creatives, lawyers, finance guys, parents, grandparents, lovers — and the list could basically be this entire article, so I’ll spare you. Under one roof, we were happily fueled by the coffee but also by each other. I have gone on to help build communities and I can say that there is nothing as freeing and connective as working in a coffee shop alongside fellow regulars who were also bucking traditional office life for a small table and an outlet. The grinding of the coffee, the music, the conversations you’d overhear — it helped ease the anxiety-inducing silence I was met with while working alone in my Brooklyn apartment.
Before I go on any further, let me just make it very clear – coffee-shop office life is only for people who are not trash. You must tip. You must unplug your charger when you’ve reached full battery. You must politely decline a free drink once and still tip the full amount when you accept it (because duh, you will accept it)! *THOSE ARE THE COFFEE SHOP OFFICE RULES.
I was 23 and while my friends were landing their first office jobs, I had dropped out of college for the third time and moved into my mother’s Brooklyn apartment where I could properly spiral. My mother is a second-generation Haitian American – so she was totally cool with me becoming a writer, but if I was going to drop out and live that “Carrie Bradshaw fantasy,” I was going to do it with a “real” job.
Cut to my frantic job search. While searching for retail gigs, I stumbled across a street style and culture site called Swagger New York. Sian-Pierre Regis was the founder and spotlighted young, urban millennials roaming the streets of New York City. It was the Blacker/queerer/cooler downtown version of Bill Cunningham’s iconic photos. I knew I had to work there, but also… I was terrified to work there.
My email to Sian-Pierre sat in my drafts for about 2 weeks until a friend who had posed for Swagger convinced me that if I didn’t apply, some transplant from the Midwest would ultimately end writing about New York City style. And fuck that.
Swagger HQ set up shop at Everyman Espresso’s flagship East Village location. That public, unpretentious environment took the edge off during my first interview. Also, Lauryn Hill was playing. So, the vibe was right. I got the position at Swagger, and just like that my office became the coffee shop.
The community I suddenly became part of wasn’t this homogenous group of people brought together by HR. There was something special about striking a conversation with a journalist who asks you to watch their stuff while they went to the bathroom. As a Black woman I worked hard to find spaces where I feel seen and championed – at Everyman I didn’t have to work for it, I just was.
The strangers around me were doing things they wanted to do, not forced to do by company standards. The freedom in that act is (ugh, hate to say this) inspiring. It gave me permission to stick to a career path that was untraditional and would ebb and flow. The baristas and customers in the coffee shop taught me that I could be okay with that.
We had this silent pact to protect each other. One time a Racist Tourist ™ was being vile to an Asian woman working behind the counter until a regular (a hedge fund guy I had written off as a finance bro) defended her and read this racist the riot act. When a guy attempted to steal a woman’s bag another regular promptly shut that shit down. C’mon allies!!
When Swagger got its first celebrity placement, we celebrated with our coffee shop colleagues who saw us grind day in and out and knew our struggle as a Black owned media site competing with the big-name outlets. Strangers quickly become weird sorta kinda friends. One regular, The Aging (but still hot) Rockstar, whose poster once lived in my teen bedroom, brought a group of us to his concert and then backstage. That night, teen me died, resurrected, and lived everlasting.
That’s not to say I didn’t lose my charger at least every 6 months because someone accidentally (or purposely) swiped it. There were times polite chatter turned into a full conversation in the middle of a deadline. You forgot your card at home and had to turn back because you can’t not pay (the rules!). Seating was a game of musical chairs on busy days. When there were Wi-Fi problems, there was no IT guy to side-eye.
But there is something special about having a place in Manhattan where you belong. In a world of transactional coffee shops, including the one that rhymes with “barbucks” (which would absolutely kick you out after that last sip), it is nice to share insider banal pop culture references with your barista friend and a random former club kid. And sorry, I’m going to be corny now, there is nothing more magical than having a coffee shop where everyone knows your name. It really thaws the frozen New York heart. THERE I SAID IT.
I entered adulthood uncertain of who I was, what I should be doing in life and where to go next. That sounds like the typical early 20s existential crisis, but when you’re living it, it feels like a weight threatening to keep you down for life. Then you find yourself surrounded by people who refuse to color inside the lines and suddenly it becomes clear that you’re actually meant to do that same thing. And this coffee shop office becomes deeper than just a free spot for Wi-Fi; it’s like a healing salve for the creative’s soul.
Cass Alcide is a screenwriter and podcast host based in Los Angeles. Originally from Brooklyn, she still carries a MetroCard in her wallet but has sworn off east coast winters forever. Cass was the associate producer on Duty Free (at the IFC from April 30th- May 13th) and writer assistant on HBO Max’s Generation. When she’s not writing, she’s unpacking notorious grifts on her podcast Scam City. Cass just started drinking oat milk in her coffee and she’s conflicted about it. Follow her on Instagram here and stream Scam City if podcasts are your thing.