I saw a centipede at Starbucks today. It freaked me out. I hate centipedes—I’m not adverse to insects in general, but centipedes send me running. Oddly enough, I like the word. It’s kind of a beautiful word, or at least interesting. It has a certain Latinate vibe to it—root vocabulary, chipped from the fossils of language. It’s a word that says what it means.
I’m actually hesitant to write this article, because Thought Catalog will probably insert a picture of a centipede, and I won’t be able to look at it.
Anyway, I hate centipedes, and I saw one at Starbucks today, and I split. I’d been planning on staying at least another hour to get some work done, but instead I folded up my laptop, grabbed my two-thirds empty cup of coffee, and drove home. I’d been sitting right by the entrance, so I’m imagining the centipede must’ve skittered in from the outside. It wasn’t big, maybe two inches, and it scampered around on the little wooden ledge that ran along the base of the windows, probably searching for a crack to fit in. It had a strange coloration—white, almost clear, and its legs feathered in ripples. I ought to have found it beautiful. Centipedes move gracefully, so there’s beauty in that. I suppose it’s the quality of suddenly being there that I dislike; the way you notice the motion first, a disturbance in a static tableau, and then the thing itself.
(I was talking to my neighbor the other day, and she mentioned her house was “full” of centipedes, and not just in the basement. I had to stare at her, amazed, and thought, “I don’t know how you live your life.” I grilled her on it and got her to admit that at least the centipedes rarely made their way up to the second floor, which made me feel a little better. Centipedes are one of those topics for me, like plane crashes, that I have a hard time backing off on once I get started. It’s a way of combating the fear, by talking it to death.)
So I was disappointed I had to leave the Starbucks so soon, because I’d been counting on that time to work. I have a home office, but there are distractions there as well, and I find it helpful to insert myself in a public place where I can’t do weird things like wander around the house talking to myself. Having other people nearby (and not family members, because they quite rightly expect some engagement from me, but rather strangers who want nothing more than to be left alone) forces me into my head, where the work gets done. I have to ignore their conversations, and therefore I pay closer attention to my own thoughts. Things get accomplished five times faster at Starbucks than at home.
I’ve never agreed with the idea voiced in numerous “books on writing” that writing is best achieved in a quiet, comfortable place. Sleep is best achieved in a quiet, comfortable place. I don’t need any particular conditions to write, but I prefer working near people and their noise.
The only things that distract me at Starbucks are centipedes and when they fucking play Billie Holiday.
It’s not just Starbucks. Panera’s good too, except when they put time limits on their Wi-Fi. Starbucks recently upgraded their Wi-Fi, which makes them the best choice for now. But I’ll go anywhere. I once wrote a whole novella at a Bruegger’s Bagels. At Starbucks I’ll buy a Venti coffee and nurse it down for two, three hours. At Panera it’s a coffee and a chicken soup. I guess I prefer chains to smaller, mom-and-pop places. I don’t want it to be an authentic experience. I want faux, sterile, stain-repellent. Experiential white noise. It’s the same reason I like hotel bars.
Over the years I’ve noticed—and this is hardly breaking news—that a lot of people use Starbucks as their mobile office. I’ve witnessed easily dozens of job interviews at Starbucks, usually for companies that seem a bit dubious—telemarketing jobs that promise high five-figure salaries, that sort of thing. Business transactions, too: I myself have sold three used iPods on three separate occasions at Starbucks. It seems that hardly anyone comes to Starbucks just to sit and drink coffee. People will pop open their laptops and spread their paperwork across the chipped wooden tables, and they’ll spend half the day there. I like it. I like being around other people who are also working. Along with the helpful distractions, it’s their industriousness that feeds my own energy. My fantasy is that they’re all writing novels, too. I’ve always had this strange, admittedly flawed sense of creative writing as a form of manual labor, and that writers should be like construction workers, standing shoulder to shoulder and stooped at their task. I even get disappointed when I allow the fantasy to build up that the person sitting next to me is also months deep into a novel-in-progress, only to sneak a peak at their screen to find pie charts and columns of statistics. (Though you can have a pie chart in a novel, can’t you?)
I can get sentimental about it, particularly when the person sitting next to me is a woman. There’s a muted, erotic thrill in working near someone, each of you embedded in your own separate task. It’s not sexual exactly, though that’s in there somewhere. I like being in the proximity of a woman’s mentation—her concern, her concentration, the way her eyes narrow at the screen, her chiseled scrutiny, maybe even her boredom. Again, it’s sort of sexual but sort of not. I don’t feel it as much with other guys, though. There’s a collaborative element to it—sex is collaborative too, so maybe that’s where that comes from. Our shared typing creates a harmony, an intertwining that feels intimate. It keeps me on task: I think, “Well, if she’s working, I should be working too.” It’s more pronounced if the woman is doing what I would consider creative work. Making something. Creative, procreative, making words, making love. Whatever. I get paid to over-think these things. What’s strange is that it’s a feeling one has toward a stranger that contains sexual overtones and is gender specific but has nothing to do with physical appearance.
I haven’t been back to that particular Starbucks since the centipede incident, but I will. I don’t hold it against them. You can’t always control what comes through your front door. Besides, I need my office back.