Search This Blog

I love cafes, and it's not about the coffee

Dec 3, 2017

It's chilly today. But outside the Silver Moon Bakery on Broadway uptown there's some sun.  In a down jacket with a cup of hot coffee you can sit at one of the little tables outside without feeling cold. And you can type on your laptop keyboard, and write about being outside the Silver Moon Bakery on a chilly day.

I was at the Hungarian Pastry Shop for breakfast this morning and saw a friend sitting at a table near the entrance. We talked about what makes one coffee place feel friendly and sociable, while another's cold and impersonal.

The Hungarian is friendly.  Often you share a table with a stranger because there are too many customers for everyone to sit at one of the fifteen tables alone. Most of the tables seat six, so you still have some personal space. But sometimes people start up conversations, say good morning, or just smile when they leave.  I almost always see a few people I know.  Not close friends, but people I can kid around with for a few minutes before we start to read or work.  In the mornings, I often have my coffee and croissant with guys I've come to know over the years. We talk about things we're reading about, thinking about, things we find funny or interesting, like "What makes the Hungarian so much friendlier than other cafes we've known?".

There's a Starbucks one avenue west of the Hungarian.  It's the same neighborhood, but hard to imagine ever having a conversation with anyone there.  At the Starbucks, I keep to myself  like most everyone else. The solitary norm doesn't just come from their small, individual tables. There's a large table too, but that's a last resort. It's where you sit when there are no other tables available. When you find yourself stuck there, you keep your eyes right in front of you, and don't shift your gaze to others.  Sometimes it makes me sad.  I'm surrounded by people seated nearby, and a part of my brain subconsciously expects a feeling of social connection.  But no.

At the Hungarian, when you order at the counter, they ask you your name, and when your order's ready, a waitress finds your table by shouting out "Jon?" Can you imagine someone at Starbucks bringing your coffee to your table? It would be a big change, and probably not the kind of change Starbucks is looking for. 

The Hungarian is much livelier than Starbucks, but it has no music.  At the Hungarian, the only sound is of people talking, laughing, a waitress shouting "Jon?", "Julliet?", two women at the table in front of me speaking French, the sound of the milk steamer, more talk and laughter,  "Bob?".  A minute later, again "Julliet?".  Julliet's at one of the tables outside.  The waitress carrying the almond croissant and cappuccino will find her.

But that was hours ago.  At the Silver Moon, where I'm now sitting outside in the cold and typing, there's no social interaction at all.  It's a take-out bakery with a few small outdoor tables. Anonymity, but just what I need right now to type this post.  As much as I enjoy feeling connected to others, it's nice to be able to titrate social interactions -- not too much not too little.  I'm adjusting my dose.

Humans aren't the only animals to titrate their rewards.  Rats will enthusiastically press a lever to receive intravenous cocaine, but they don't press as fast as they can to get as much cocaine as they can. Instead, they press for some cocaine, and wait until they're ready for their next dose before pressing again. Say a rat receives an injection of 1 milligram of cocaine each time it presses the lever, and presses the lever once each minute.  If the experimenter now delivers only half as much cocaine for each lever press, the rat will press the lever twice as often.  It adjusts its behavior to maintain its preferred level of cocaine. It likes cocaine. But it wants the amount it wants at the time it wants it.

Pleasure seeking doesn't have to mean identifying the rewards you like best, and gorging on them. 
Ideally you consume the amount you want at the time you want.

Right now, I don't need a high dose of social interaction. I'm glad to be alone, anonymous, sitting outside, typing this blog post.  And the truth is that, as I type, I imagine you reading this, an imagined 'you', and that does give me a feeling of social connection. It doesn't matter that you're not outside this bakery with me sitting in the cold, or inside the warm Hungarian Pastry Shop waiting for the waitress to bring us coffee.  It's still a friendly connection with another mind.  Maybe you feel a hint of the connection too, wherever you are.


  1. Leaves me smiling. :)

    I am right there in both settings - the aromas, the sounds, the air, the soloness and togetherness.

    I recently mentioned to my husband, "I miss Borders." There was a table in the back of the store, in the travel section. I think it seated six. I was a regular there, along with a few others. We never planned to meet, we would just happen to land there at the same time.

    You surprised me when you went into the pleasure seeking topic. Enjoyed that too!

    If/when I ever get back to NYC, I'll have to visit the Hungarian Pastry Shop.

    1. ... "We never planned to meet, we would just happen to land there at the same time." ... There's something fun about that kind of interaction. No question of being 'late' for the get together, or leaving too 'early'.

    2. ... and I've had the 'I miss Borders' thought too.