My biggest problem with this coronavirus home-stay is missing Starbucks. So far I’ve avoided getting sick (fingers crossed), but the self-seclusion has drawbacks. Sure, like most writers I’m comfortable with time alone; we even prefer it. Life before the coronavirus was rather isolated already. But this is different.
Writing is a solitary life. We dig deep into physical and virtual resources for background information and facts. I’m primarily a nonfiction writer, which means spending hours researching a topic that might be one sentence in the final book. Writing sessions have to be done in chunks long enough to get into a rhythm and flow. Distractions must be minimized, which is hard enough to do in this connected world and exacerbated by the pull of coronavirus updates.
In short, writers spend a lot of time alone. Mostly we like it, but even the most introverted writer needs to be around people occasionally.
Which is why Starbucks is so important.
Before I go on, let me clarify that when I say Starbucks I am including the Barnes and Noble coffeeshop, Panera, the mall, and a variety of other venues that are within walking distance from my home. I generally vary the destination when I go out because, well, going to one place every day can get as boring as staying within the four walls of my house. But despite this variety, Starbucks is special.
Oh, I should mention that I don’t drink coffee.
Yeah, I know. Starbucks. Coffee Company. Their entire raison d’être is convincing customers to pay more than $5 for a revved-up cup of coffee when they could get a basic coffee for free in their home or office. But I don’t drink coffee. I never acquired a taste for the bitterness or the heat. Give me a cup of coffee or tea and I spend my time calculating the narrow three-minute window of drinkability when it is neither too hot nor too cold. Not my cup of tea, so to speak.*
What I usually order is a mocha Frappuccino. Starbucks mochas taste more like chocolate than they do coffee. When I get a Frappuccino (or its New England cousin, the frappe) from a non-Starbucks coffee house I’m disappointed because they taste like coffee, with at best a hint of cocoa. The Frappuccino is also mostly crushed ice, again unlike versions at other places that put ice cubes in the too-coffee mochas. Like the hot vs cold, the crushed vs block ice is a very Goldilocks “just right” at Starbucks.
In any case, I’m not there for the coffee, or even the mocha. I’m there for the people. It’s not that I talk to the other people in the store. It’s more about the activity. People are coming in, ordering, waiting for their coffee (or Frappuccino or latte or whatever), or taking up four spaces at a table with their laptop open. The regular baristas offer both stability and variety. There is a human busyness that contrasts with the solitude of the writer’s desk. And there are stories. Some are real – the person with the extra-high heels struggling to stay upright; others are imagined – an entire life history created out of how someone looks or acts while waiting for their drink. It’s a people-watchers dream. And writers are all people watchers. The key is that I’m there for the humanity and not for the coffee.
COVID-19 has put a stop to that. My local Starbucks is closed for the duration of the outbreak. There are two with drive-thru windows that remain open for desperate coffee-drinkers, but windows are useless since I don’t go to Starbucks for the coffee. I did visit the local Barnes and Noble once since this started. They too have a Starbucks coffee shop inside, but they too have eliminated in-store seating and are only accessible to buy and go. [The bookstore itself only allows 10 customers at a time, which hardly seems worth it.] This misses the entire point of the trip. It isn’t the coffee, it’s the ability to sit and be among people.
I admit that I’m a bit discombobulated without these periodic visits to Starbucks et al. This forced seclusion isn’t that much different (minus the Starbucks) than my usual lifestyle, so it should be a great time to focus on writing. Alas, I’ve been stuck on a chapter for some time now. But I’m determined to push through the pain much like a marathoner must push through that cramping calf at mile 22, even though my progress often seems more like around mile 2.2 of this book marathon. Still, I must.
Focus. Write. Repeat.
*Ironically, I loved coffee ice cream growing up and gobbled down a ton of chocolate covered coffee beans at a coffee plantation in Costa Rica. Go figure.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.