[WARNING: this is the most pathetically passive-aggressive post i've written since the "i was going to break up with you anyway" disclaimer of April, 2003]
As soon as I walked into the coffee shop, before even ordering, I staked out a seat. This coffee shop is small, and crowded at all hours. When it first opened and mostly a quiet haven for recovering substance-abusers who enjoy a strong cup of coffee just as they enjoy a strong dose of everything, I had no difficulty finding a place to stretch out. However, since its introduction of free wi-fi service with the purchase of coffee, the shop has come to resemble something like N.O.R.A.D. with nice haircuts. Laptop screens are flipped up at the three long, modular tables – each table is actually composed of three smaller tables, with a chair on either side, pressed against each other; the arrangement in the shop is kind of like cafeteria seating, holding 18 proper seats – and, with the number of young, self-employed creative professionals migrating to my neighbohood, finding a comfortable seat can prove difficult these days.
Additionally, an unspoken etiquette requires that you obey men's room urinal rules for seating. Therefore, knowing that each picnic table is composed of three smaller units, the seating usually works like this:
F E D
_ _ _
A B C
[here, the dashes represent the tables and the letters represent the seats.]
If there someone is seated in the "A" position, and the rest of the seats are empty, you've two natural choices if you want to join the table: positions "C" or "E". That's it. If, however, A, C, and E are filled, "D" is the next natural choice because it is open to the aisle and allows more freedom of movement. Beyond this, it's up for grabs.
One guideline that exists for practical reasons, though not necessarily polite ones is this: if anyone in the "A" through "C" positions (or "D" through "F" positions) is using a laptop, you should avoid sitting opposite that person at all costs. Simply put, you don't want your laptops to kiss because that's kind of gay.
I like rules like this because they don't need to be written on the walls of an establishment. They're just common sense when you factor in a demographic with a shared cultural sense of personal space and civility. We naturally fall into these A+C+E patterns without being instructed to do so. It's nice. And that's why I was quietly horrified to walk into the coffee shop today and see the following arrangement at the only picnic table with available seating space:
_ _ _
That might seem like no big deal to you, but you have to understand something. "B" faces the street, which is nice, and all those empty seats on the opposing side? Well, they face the roaster and, beyond that, the bathroom. They are highly undesirable, as they mean you've got your back to everyone else in the entire coffee shop. Like an ogre, unfit to be viewed. It's a form of subjugation, really.
I thought it was pure balls for this guy to take up position "B" when positions "A" and "C" were clearly open. Slide down, citizen! Make this right.
But he had no intention of making it right, and showed no remorse for making it wrong. In fact, like salt in a wound and a wound in a glass of gin, he committed two other space-crimes. First, he had his laptop pushed far from the edge of the table and screen propped opened at an angle exceeding 95 degrees. Effectively, this rendered position "E" completely useless, unless the person seated there wished to hold his coffee in his lap.
Then, he was stretched out, subway-jerk style, with his right arm crooked at such an angle that it covered the entire southwest corner of position C. Please understand that position C was the only respectable seat open. I've made my case against positions D-F, and position A was against the wall – bascially, between a jerk and a hard place.
I sat down in C, depressed. I rustled my laptop out of my bag and made sure to bump his elbow with it. I –
OK, this is getting extremely sad, even for me. As I'm typing this, he's long gone. He never acknowledged my presence and I never had the nerve to make him, with even an "excuse me - your elbow." That's only because it seemed a ridiculous thing to do, since it's absolutely his right to have an errrant elbow and my displeasure with it is the irrational product of living in a cramped city, with people anonymously piled on top of your head everywhere you go. You try to control the most minute details because you are too overwhelmed to reverse the cogs of your larger environment. And sometimes you can't even control those details so, as your greatest and only revenge, you write about them. While they're sitting right next to you. Elbow asshole! (look! a real tear!)*
*This reminds me of a story my friend Dave once told me. He was on a subway, during rush hour, and at one stop this guy just sort of stood in the doorway of the car, talking to a friend of his on the platform. The conducter repeatedly made the announcement to let go of the doors but he ignored it. Everyone on the car was visibly – but not vocally – angry at this guy, especially since they were desperate to get home, or at least as far away from their day jobs as possible. Dave was angry, too, and decided he would take action and be declared a hero. So, without saying a word, Dave got up and shoved the guy out of the car. Just like that. A simple problem with a clear solution.
The doors closed, leaving the guy on the platform, bewildered then irate. Dave turned around to face the train full of commuters, expecting to be embraced as their savior. Instead, everyone looked at him like he was completely insane, and many people spent the rest of their train ride trying to avoid eye contact with him, or move their seats away from his. I love that story so very much.