After two months of working in a café every day, I have come to the conclusion that coffee shops are in fact, a microcosm of society.
To many they may seem commonplace and uninteresting, but after spending a considerable amount of time in my own cosy, caffeinated nook, I’ve come away with some significant observations.
It’s important to note that I’m not talking about all cafes here, because some (no names mentioned) are wholly uninviting and likely invoke very few meaningful interactions. You know the one’s I’m referring to, with their black generic interiors, industrial furniture, copper Edison bulbs and gauche neon signs; the one’s that seem to spring up on every available street corner in an effort to destroy the last remnants of originality left in our society.
But for the most part, coffee shops continue to be unique and special places, offering valuable insight into the human experience.
The understated beauty of a cafe lies in its customers. The eclectic mix of personalities that come in and out of its doors every day, with their strange eccentricities and reassuring similarities, are each a minute expression of the universe, all equally flawed, weird and comfortingly alike.
If you stroll into Sonder café on an average day, you’ll find a number of these personalities going about their business. There’s the social media marketer with his jet-black curtains and trendy spectacles, who carries a pool cue in his backpack and likes to challenge strangers to games of chess. There’s the quiet, ginger-haired girl who sits and reads her dog-eared novel beside a cup of steaming chai and the gangly group of teenage girls, who stroll in on a Saturday afternoon, thrift store bags in hand, who drink flat whites and express their adolescence through giggles and gossip. There’s the sketch artist who adorns his dog in a range of different petticoats, weather dependent, who sits and sketches over a hot cortado. And there’s the friendly, old, man wearing his signature springbok rugby jersey, who eats the same sandwich every day and likes to converse with strangers, when he’s not playing candy crush on his cell phone that is.
You’ll find the table of bookish robotic students sitting hunched over their laptops, an eccentric tattooed couple who rub each another’s back suggestively and the lady from down the road who exudes art teacher energy, who dumps a tattered pile of second – hand books onto the table, who laughs in a way that makes you want to curl up and listen to her read you a bedtime story.
There’s the girl who works at the vintage shop, who has different colour streaks in her unruly hair, and likes to eat a pain au chocolat every Saturday. There’s the first year student who lives in the res upstairs ,who comes in with her dad and is nervous about living away from home for the first time, the sound engineer with the blonde mullet and yappy pug who can’t wait for school to restart because she’s so bored, the dreadlocked muralist who’s painting the theatre down the road and never feels fully content with his work and the guy who owns a record shop who’s had to throw an online virtual concert this year because of the pandemic but is grateful to have something to keep him busy, who’s girlfriend owns the other second hand store down the road, who both come in every morning with their oversized English bulldog, Humphrey.
In this 65 square metre space, with its wooden tables, and airy windows, I watch as these intersecting lives unfurl and rub up against one other, as if they’re all characters in a movie.
Well if life is a movie, then a coffee shop must be the set.
Because, in a world pulled apart by a pandemic, the modern coffee shop in the year 2021, represents a togetherness that feels almost archaic and on the verge of extinction. In this space there is communion, there is recognition of the universal comfort that comes from sitting and reflecting over a cup of roasted beans. For just R25 or so, one is given access to a moments respite from the manic world outside, a space where all of us are allowed to simply sit and be.
Reminiscent of the coffeehouses of England in the 16th and 17th century (which were often referred to as “penny universities”, for their one penny entrance fee, and which became a breeding ground for thinkers, intellects and students), coffee shops continue to be a space for introspection and human reflection.
What working in this space it has shown me, above everything, is that we all have stories. We’re all the main characters of our own lives. We’re all longing for the same things deep down, to be seen, to be heard, to matter. I’ve learned that by showing interest in someone’s life, asking questions, remembering their name and the way they take their coffee, you can easily alter the entire course of someone’s day, perhaps even life.
For a long time, I falsely believed that the juice of life, the excitement, the story was happening somewhere out there. On the road or in the heat of the action. I longed for travel and adventure and fast pace living because I thought that was where I’d find the answers. How wrong I was.
Life not happening to someone else out there, but to me, right here, in the small moments, in the daily interactions and seemingly insignificant moments of connection.
The word Sonder means to realize the complexity of every individual and nothing could highlight that more than a coffee shop. Here it’s obvious to see that every one of us with our idiosyncrasies, mannerisms and quirks is a rich tapestry, a poem slowly unfolding.
The juicy raw beauty of the world is not somewhere out there. No, in fact it is hiding in plain sight, right here, in the strangers that surround us.