Saturday, January 30, 2010

the owl

This guy’s head has been swinging around so much in the last 20 minutes, I swear it’s going to fall off. Seriously, WHAT are you looking at. Really. Stop it, why don't you, and look at your own damn screen.

OK, relax, Dave. Perhaps some background information is in order. The guy sitting next to me at Caffe Strada has been sitting at the table next to me for like the last 30 minutes. Has his computer open, touch phone on the table charging from his computer, and occasionally types something. I haven’t done the little surreptitious glance over to the side to see what’s on his screen. You could call it manners, and that may be partly true. But partly it’s because he’s constantly looking over this way, and looking over at him would be pretty darn obvious.

So while I was writing that paragraph he was actually somewhat focused, or at least it looked that way. Hadn’t looked up for at least 45 seconds until a group of Korean-speaking friends sat down talking at the table across from us. He straightens up, looking across my front, scanning...looking for someone? Waiting for friends? Scoping the scene? Animated by an other-worldly power as he ponders what to peck into his computer next?

He looks back down at his computer, types a furious burst for about 5 seconds, and then looks straight ahead. To the right. Cocks his head and looks back straight. Rolls up his sleeves and then does a 150-degree swivel to look back over his left shoulder. Then back at his computer for 3 seconds and it starts again.

Really, is this the physical embodiment of all of our attention spans these days? The wired and multi-channeled populace of digital beings, living at least as much through our devices than we do in the physical places where our bodies are placed? Reading my friend Juliette Wade’s recent post on the effects of technology, I’m reminded of how much we have had to adapt ourselves to the digital tools of our daily lives, as much as they have become “smart” and adapted to us. Really, is it necessary for me to have 6 tabs of Firefox open right now?

He leans back and in one smooth motion pulls his laptop off the edge of the table and onto his stomach, and checks his messages on his phone with his left hand. Looks like nothing’s come in. Still. Meanwhile, as he pulls his hood up and looks left, straight, left, straight again, I instinctively downsize the MS Word document I’m typing this blog post into from 125% to 100%. Like he’s looking. Like he cares. But somehow I, with my multiple tabs open and my attention span that is splintered in 10 directions but all within the screen, am unnerved by this guy’s constant shifting of attention on screen, in the cafe [scan left], on screen, in the cafe [scan right], on the phone, in the cafe [straight ahead].

I look at what I’ve written now, this post-to-be, about 500 words in just 5 minutes, that flowed out without my checking email even once.

Wow, what just happened?

[Scan left]

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

internet and potatoes

Sitting this morning for an hour and a half in Bel Forno, one of my haunts a few years ago until, I don't know, something about the stuffiness of the back room on the warm days we were having then pushed me further down Shattuck. It's definitely outside the orbit of the majority of the student population...

As I sat down with my coffee, I was struck by a conversation going on between a early 20s-ish guy stooped a bit over his white Macbook and an early 50s-looking woman who had just settled in next to him, both on the booth-style chairs that line the countertop along the side wall of the cafe's interior. Kind of half underground, with the sidewalk slanting down in front of your very eyes, eyes at knee-level of those walking by.

She was asking how his computer worked when it wasn't plugged in. And what was the Internet, anyway? In one breath, he tried to explain how it was that the battery powered the battery, AND it was connected to the internet, which was, this thing, kind of like a network, and you don't need a cable to use it, see, 'cuz, well, it's kind of like a radio station and your computer has this little antenna inside it, and it lets you keep in touch wi--

But surely this wasn't news? Hasn't everyone heard of the internet? Do these kinds of conversations still happen in 2010? In an "internet cafe" in Berkeley, California?

They were getting near what was to be the end of their conversation (little did I know at that time but...)
Man on computer: "You gotta make balance happen in your life, I think. It's good to interact with other human beings."
Woman eating breakfast: (jokingly) "Are you a humanoid? Me too!!" (jokingly)
Man: "Yeah..."
And then the conversation dies down and the woman goes back to eating her potatoes. Quietly, the ketchup dispenser suddenly standing out as it stood right next to her plate, unused, untouched. Munching the croissant with one hand, taking regular bites, she looked out the large window at a fairly nondescript grey morning outside. The parking lot of the CVS pharmacy--the old Longs Drugs, until they went out of business. Someone walks by with a dog, and she doesn't seem to notice.

The guy coughs, leans back, and then back closer to the screen. In the meantime, he's been doing whatever he's doing on the computer. Whatever it is that we do on computers.

Time passes.

Classical music playing, the shuffle of newspapers behind me, and a few muted conversations. 10 minutes later, the woman has finished her breakfast, and continues gazing outside.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

moving impressions

Wheels buzzing over concrete see

green light, go, passing en-boxed engines and their drivers

passing films and the glow of neon

casting light on walking shadows

who take shape as they enter houses

of windows and beans

...The allure of the cafe at night
cappuccinos and electricity for this post provided by Local 123 and Caffe Strada

Monday, January 11, 2010

a short indiscretion

Today's Facebook status update:
Pecan roll from Cheeseboard, cappuccino from Guerilla, and banana, chair, table, wifi, electricity, view and ambience courtesy of Caffe Strada. Sorry Strada, I promise I'll make it up to you next time!
I wouldn't recommend this on occasions other than the extraordinary, though...along with the obvious indiscretion involved, it's pretty dicey to bike while carrying a hot coffee drink.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

enter the screen

Going in to Fertile Grounds for the first time in a several weeks, I noticed something different right away. Sure, there were the usual tunes, the same warm hues, people shifting, talking, typing, and the cafe's long narrow space giving the place its cozy and familiar feel. But what was that movement?

As I approached the counter to order (double capp almost every time; they must see it coming!), a large rectangle of moving shapes, light, and figures drew my attention to the wall across from the counter, above the small shelves with the lids, twizzlers (is that what those narrow wooden stirring things are really called?) and other drink accouterments. A magnet for the eye in a place that had never been a place before.

Across from the moving image--the bowling alley scene from The Big Lebowski, with Jeff Bridges' character "The Dude" pontificating on some point or other was on at the time--a projector sat on the shelves behind the counter, nestled under the chalkboard menu and among the ubiquitous lineup of Torani syrups for making Italian sodas.

Suddenly, as my eyes followed the images, I realized that there was no sound. I mean, of course, the cafe's music, its human conversations, the occasional blasts of steam from the espresso machine for the latest order, these things continued. Yet, somehow, in the moment of looking at this wall-turned-screen, in the indeterminate space and time of ordering drinks (had I ordered? had I even acknowledged the existence of Ayman, the ever-pleasant and jesting owner of the cafe?), there was now a silence, as I felt I had naturally, inescapably, entered the screen.

After the brief spell had broken (yes, over-dramatized for the purposes of today's post, but bear with me :), Ayman let me know that he'd had this idea for a while, that it had been about a month since he started projecting videos from his computer through the projector and onto the wall, and that he's hoping to organize movie nights and other screenings on the wall. Pretty cool, we said. A lot you can do with a projector. A lot of possibilities for forming and transforming conversation and community (does everyone ask about it? can customers talk about favorite actors and films? can it be used to raise awareness or make statements to the clientele of a sort that would seem too overt, or just be hard to communicate, without the medium of the moving picture?). Anyway, pretty cool for sure that just by projecting an image, you can turn a wall into a screen!

This did make me stop, step back and scratch my head a little though. Look around this cafe--look around almost any cafe within 2 miles of the Berkeley campus--and what do you see? Screen after screen, and the flesh-and-blood screenic prostheses, in the form of latte-sipping computer users bent over their keyboards, maybe even with earbuds plugged in. Probably with iPhone sitting next to the computer, just in case. What does it mean that now the cafe sponsors a screen of its own? Here in cafes, where conversation is at a premium, and under greater and greater threat as computer culture proliferates, says this recent SF Gate article. And this is something Ayman and I talked about too--how hard it is to engage the computer users (like me), especially the minority intent on extracting as much electricity and wireless signal as they possibly can for stretches of hours (at the price of the cheapest drink on the menu, mind you).

How do you create community at a cafe in the wifi age? Is this conversion of the cafe itself into a screen of sorts an intentional approach to play the same game that the computer-users are playing, where screens entertain us, tell us stories, connect us to the world? One that might spark a reflexive thought or two in the screen-viewing cafe denizens, prompting them to (heaven forbid) shut their computers and watch and talk together?

I like The Dude as much as anyone, and I'm excited to see where this goes. But at the same time, I felt a little twinge of sadness, at seeing, watching, being drawn into and compelled to keep watching, yet another screen.

My sincere thanks to Ayman and all at Fertile Grounds for letting me take these pictures and share these views. In the words of our screenic Governator, "I'll be back". :)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The 'other' Caffe Trieste?

While I’m by no means a regular customer here, I’ve been a few times and always marveled at the apparent hipness of the crowd. Lots of grey hair, many books, lots of conversations. Not anything like the grad student-centric vibe at places like Village Grounds, or even the lively undergraduate and international scene at Strada. When I was ordering my cappuccino this morning I happened to look up and see that there’d be a performance here this coming Sunday by Pappa Gianni & North Beach Band. Pappa Gianni, Pappa Gianni, Pappa Gianni...

Huh, I thought, scratching my head. Caffe Trieste. Isn’t that the name of the cafe in North Beach that was featured in the SF Weekly last year, famous for its beat poets and for being one of the last bastions of ‘true’ Italian American culture in North Beach (and now in danger, I seem to remember, of being overrun by tourists and computer-addicted, wi-fi using, outlet-hogging, anti-social nomads like me?). As I asked and looked around the inside of the cafe I realized that, yes, this is the place. Seeing these photos, how could I have not noticed before?

It’s an odd feeling, in the era of rampant Starbucks cookie-cutter chain coffee shops, to suddenly connect this spot on San Pablo with the other location “over there”, when I always imagined that what makes the ‘other’ coffee shops special is that they’re one-of-a-kind. Isn’t tradition supposed to live under just one roof?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

shades of interiority

I was struck by something Charles said the day before about one of the charms of Caffe Strada being that there's an "inside", a "deep inside", a "sort of outside", and "outside". Or something like that -- anyone who's been there knows you can be as protected or as exposed as you'd like to be, sitting in booths inside, ordering drinks at the counter with its wide open doors and big windows, sitting under the covered (and more heated after some new installations in December, I think) patio area, and of course sitting under the canopy of trees in the outside patio, an oasis of sorts on the busy corner of Bancroft and College Avenues.

There'll be a time to write more about shades of interiority, at this cafe and others. For now, I'll just post this series of photos from several hours sitting yesterday. First, looking in through the well-trafficked front door :

And a shot looking inward from the edge of the seating area, along College Ave:

Under the protected patio area. A cool and overcast day, and not many students here on January 2!

Charlie taking a sip, sitting inside and outside.

Peering a bit closer at the window...


And a bit closer still:

And arguably the most important space of the cafe, the space opened up by a full cappuccino.

Thanks again to Gabriel and the other friendly barista and hand models at Strada on this day.