Missing Coffee shops

In the midst of this pandemic shutdown I find myself missing something many people don’t give a second thought. It’s not the kind of thing which those I interact with on a regular basis seem mention. It’s not social gatherings or sporting events. It’s not shopping, a girls-night-out, or eating out. It’s not even the carefree ease with which life was lived before social distancing in the age of the Coronavirus. It’s something far more pedestrian. I’m missing coffee shops as humble as they are.

It’s not the coffee (or tea!) I miss as much as the place itself. The deep leather chairs and hard wooden tables, the aroma borne of countless urns of brewed coffee and kilos of ground espresso beans which pass through each day leave a blank space. I miss the hustle and background hum, the clatter and snippets of conversation that blend into a pleasant white noise which soothes my mind.

I miss the feeling of being on my own in a sea of ebbing and flowing humanity. I miss the calm and comfort I feel of being alone in a crowd. That feeling of being surrounded by people, yet by my self is comforting and calming to some tattered, wounded part of me. In that liminal space between alone and not alone, I somehow feel safe in a way that often eludes me.

I’ve often wondered why I’m this way. Questioned what it is about who I am and the way I came to be in this world makes me so comfortable in such a space. For years I’ve known that I work best in a coffee shop or similar busy place where the world passes by. If I need to get something done, I don’t seek quiet, I go to the closest Starbucks. If I really want to read, the quiet of a library or my couch is not as helpful as a diner (with a hot cup of something and slice of pie) or a coffee shop.

I’ve long judged myself for not being able to focus in ways that others could. Only now and I starting to accept that I can focus, I just need the right environment. But why? that question burns at my mind. After some thought I have a couple of ideas.

To explore the first idea, I need to tell you another story. You should know my son got into racing as a young child. I blame the Pixar movie “Cars.” He loved that movie, but the real impetus for his interest was a Memorial day weekend NASCAR race that happened to be on TV while we were at a Mexican restaurant. The big screen display with the race was impossible to miss from his seat, and the screen drew him in as usual. He watched enraptured as the *red* car (his favorite color) led the race. Later that night he insisted we watch at home, and he was excited she he found unit the next morning that the *red* car (the #9 driven by Kasey Khane) had won the race. He was hooked. At the age of six, he had a favorite NASCAR driver and a race watching habit.

I assumed it would fade after a few months like most childhood infatuations, but not so. As the summer wore on and fall approached his interest didn’t wane. Living in the south, there just happened to be a track within an hour or so drive. It hosted a fall race. Against my instinct, I decided to take him to a race. Not the big “cup” race, as I was sure he would never make it through hours at the track. I picked a shorter (and cheaper)”truck” series race the same weekend and bought 2 tickets fully planning to leave after 5 minutes.

Full of trepidation, we arrived at the track and found a spot we liked -surprisingly there was no assigned seating. He seemed calm through the preliminaries and some practices. I was worried that as soon as the noise began in earnest, he would struggle mightily. My son has some sensory issues, and I was worried the extreme noise would set him off into a full meltdown. I had unnerving visions of having to carry him out to a quiet spot.

I sat practically jittering in my seat as the drivers lined up to start and the flag waved. I missed the start of the race, because I was watching my son, just waiting to bolt with him for the exit. His eyes shined with anticipation as the trucks took off. I looked for any sign of distress, but as the trucks made their first lap I saw something unexpected.

He relaxed. His shoulders slid down a bit, and the tension eased out of his body. He calmed. My normally high-strung, overly sensory sensitive child calmed into a relaxed state. I was stunned. After a while I asked as best I could over the noise how he was doing, and he said “fine.” He seemed as calm as when he sat with his stuffed bunny in my lap on the rocking chair each night reading books before bed. He stayed that way till we left about an hour later (after the first wreck.)

I struggled to understand how this child who was normally sensitive to some of the minutest sensory inputs could calm so dramatically in the face of that overwhelming wall of sound. I pondered for quite a while until later an Occupational Therapist (OT) explained to me that in some people with overly sensitive sensory systems a massive sensory input will actually overload the sensitive part of the nervous system and allow it to function normally. Kind of like how in high school chemistry an experiment showed me that a buffered solution barely changed PH even when sulfuric acid was added to it.

The overload of noise leveled out my son’s sensory response, just like those apocryphal tales parents sometimes tell of colicky children falling asleep moments after the vacuum cleaner is turned on. So… how does this connect to the coffee shop I ache for every day now you might ask?

Well, reflecting on my son’s experience makes me wonder if some part of my nervous system is in its own form of overdrive. I suppose it’s possible that I share some of his sensory issues as 50% of our DNA is in common, but I have an unfortunately more sinister suspicion. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a childhood trauma survivor. The world I lived in for so many years simply wasn’t safe. Danger and awful things could happen any time, with almost no warning. So, early on in my life at some level I became hyper-vigilant with some part of me always on the lookout for danger. In a quiet space, every noise, change in lighting, or even air movement triggered a response to check for danger thus pulling me away from what I was doing. This hyper-vigilance is actually a feature and diagnostic criteria of PTSD.

A coffee shop provides me with a level of input that masks those little noises and changes. It in effect lowers my threshold of awareness for things that would trigger my hyper-vigilance. So I feel calmer, and more able to focus. I think this is why I first started journaling about my childhood experiences in a coffee shop, and why I’m best able to process those experiences in that kind of space. I can often write volumes in my journal at a Starbucks with my headphones on and at home struggle to get down a paragraph. That alone makes sense of why I miss coffee shops.

Yet it leads into the other reason I think I find alone-in-public spaces so comforting – there is little danger for me in a busy public space. Almost all of my traumatic experiences happened in secret – behind closed doors, in the dark, beyond the reach of public view. A busy public space is the anthesis of that. Besides I usually don’t know anybody in these spaces beyond a casual acquaintance with the usual barista or perhaps crossing the path of repeat patrons on occasion. Not only were my worst childhood experiences hidden, but like so many others it was often at the hands of those I knew. It makes sense that a public place full of strangers feels safer to me.

So I spend my days missing coffee shops. I wait anxiously for it to be is time to go back into my safe space again. Until then I do my best to find snippets of safe enough time and space to write wherever I can.