Here’s why. There is a special atmosphere about cafés. They allow you to be in public, amidst other people, yet undisturbed. If you are at home with your family, your room mates, your partner or your children, your guests or hosts, you have a pre-defined relationship with the people around you. You have the responsibility to communicate and interact with them actively. This can be a great hindrance when trying to be alone and engaging in the kind of productivity that suffers from such interventions. So ironically, in the midst of more people, you can be more alone than in the midst of few. The difference is not the number but the relationship.
What, then, is the difference between being truly alone and being alone among others at a café? The café affords the opportunity to connect with the world around you by observing it and nurturing thoughts and emotions towards it you would otherwise be isolated from.
When I was 22, I studied at a Japanese university for a year. I felt extremely lonely. I struggled with the fact that everybody recognized me immediately as an alien. I cursed my mind for being so unresponsive to the Japanese language, so slow at applying it, and so shy to make mistakes, slowing down progress further. I did not want to make mistakes, wanted to study to perfection before I uttered anything, wanted to learn enough to relax in this new linguistic environment. I wanted to communicate fruitfully, reveal myself to others, discover them, and connect with the world around me.
Alas, this was hard. I escaped from my shared dormitory room and sat at Starbucks for hours. I studied. Read. Wrote. And did another thing very characteristic of the reason for my longing to spend time alone at cafés. I observed the people around me. The young male staff working behind the counter were a favorite object of my attention. Their black Beatle length hair, smartly styled, graced delicate facial features and with its stiff, wire-like consistency, never budged. They seemed androgynous. They were slender and wore clothes at times so eccentric, decorative and flowing, that in combination with their almond eyes expressing something between ice and fire, between emptiness and attachment, between superficiality and depth, they looked like heroes taken out of mangas or animés set in feudal pasts and apocalyptic futures. Or maybe they had inspired such works. Japan is a country where both possibilities are equally plausible. I found them beautiful. I admired their hair, their eyes, their smooth pale skin, and the little dimples that formed above their eyebrows as their faces moved with extreme economy. I imagined worlds of wisdom and skill, of gentleness and understanding behind these dimples that led to dreams of getting married and producing beautiful children, half Japanese, half me. Sitting at the café I imagined my union with these unfriendly surroundings to the extreme. In my vast loneliness, there was ample space for such dreams, and others.
I wrote and wrote. TV sit coms based on the Shunkan episode in the Heike Monogatari, limericks reiterating the story of beautiful Gio’s harsh fate, and a Noh play in Elizabethan verse that took place in early spring and that, only slightly stretching the monotonous plot traditions of Noh, described the fearsome journey of a young monk who meets the hungry demons of his own lust as he encounters the ghosts of Narichika and his wife Tora, who teach him attachment to life while he prays for their peaceful entrance into Nirvana. I made relentless efforts to connect with this culture I had so much trouble fitting into because I had even more trouble accepting that I would never be one of them. I would always be a ‘gaijin’ - an ‘outsider’ simply because of my face. I created half Japanese children in whose veins my blood was pumping, living proof of my connection. Works of art overflowing with beautiful hybrids featuring both Japanese and Western themes, forms, and sensibilities.
All this happened at cafés. Mostly at Starbucks, or Café Excelsior, which I liked less because the air was thick with smoke, and the quality of the coffee inferior. Still, these two cafés at Musashisakai Station in Mitaka enabled me to connect with my surroundings while I was lonely and helped me stay sane amid the insanity I felt emanating from my own heart and encroaching upon my mind from the outside - I was never quite sure which side was stronger. Maybe the two simply attracted each other.
Cafés, Unstable Souls of the World, allow you to be connected while alone. To be relieved temporarily of the dangerous flow created by home communications that might cast you against a rock or sweep you down a cliff in wild currents at any second. At a café, albeit in the midst of other human beings, you get to be a rock yourself. You may imagine others crashing on you, or settling on you temporarily or permanently, or disregarding you - whatever you prefer. You are a rock that does not have to justify its presence beyond the purchase of a drink. You get to feel the presence of people while you are granted time and space to find your center, to feel yourself as the center, to gain a sense of stability from your position that might otherwise be in flow, wobble, or disintegrate completely. Sitting in a café, you can be the axis and let the world revolve comfortably around yourself.
Whenever I start to wobble or disintegrate, I run to the nearest café. There, sip by sip, I observe my insides and knit them into a stronger core. I observe others and define their place in my life. I stabilize my own existence so much I finally get to feel like a respectable part of the whole picture. I create myself, my world, and beauty as I understand it - never perfectly, but a little better with each sip of frothy coffee.