By Kenneth Justice
~I recently returned from Pittsburgh and the latest stop on my Drinking in the Culture Tour (I’m visiting 100 coffee shops around the Western World; connecting with readers, fellow bloggers, and everyone else in-between).
With trips to Chicago, Atlanta, Costa Rica, and now Pittsburgh in my rear view mirror, one of the trends I’m noticing on my coffee house trips is how many strangers strike up conversations with me. The young woman in the picture is the most recent example.
On Saturday afternoon I was hanging out in South Side, Pittsburgh (one of the city’s trendy café, restaurant, and bar spots) taking pictures when the young woman in my photo tapped me on the shoulder,
“Hey, why are you taking pictures?” she asked
After I explained to her a little bit about my coffee house tour she instantly began smiling, “Take a picture of me!” she demanded. Once I obliged her request she began giving me a bunch of information about Pittsburgh,
“I’m originally from New York and I’ll be straight with you Kenneth; New York is where it’s happening, but Pittsburgh is a great city to live in if you want to raise a family” she said
The four friends that she had been walking with looked annoyed; they wanted to keep heading to whatever destination had been their goal but she wanted to stop and talk to a total stranger; it was a good metaphor for so much of what is going on in the Western World. More and more people want to be left alone and stay disconnected from strangers and from the world around them…..but there are still a handful of people (like the young woman in the photo) who have a thirst within them to connect with people from outside their social groups.
At coffee the first evening I arrived, I wrote about a young woman who’s goal was to graduate Art School and then to pursue a career as a chalk artist. What I left out of the article the other day was in the midst of my discussion with the chalk artist, a late 30ish young woman sitting three tables away from us was quietly listening to every word of our conversation. And half-way through the conversation with the chalk artist, this other young lady began talking to me about coffee; it turns out this woman was a coffee fanatic. She’d been to every single coffee shop, café, and tea house in the entire greater metropolitan Pittsburgh area and was a wealth of information.
“Go to Beehive Coffee” she said, “It’s a strange little bohemian place that shares the building with a dance club. The people aren’t always the friendliest, but you’re almost sure to run into philosophy majors, artists and musicians” she said. And for the better part of an hour she wrote down names of coffee houses, directions on how to get to them, and her take on the culture atmosphere. She even had a travelers map of Pittsburgh which she gave to me (I never did ask her why she carries travelers maps of Pittsburgh in her purse, perhaps she is a tour guide).
At that same coffee shop a couple hours earlier I struck up a simple conversation with the Barista,
“So is this coffee shop a good central place in the heart of Pittsburgh?” I asked, and with that simple question he began giving me suggestions on where to visit over the weekend and he even invited me to the bar with him and his friends later in the evening (I didn’t make it because I was too tired from my traveling).
We often talk about ‘other’ countries where the strangers are friendlier and the people are more open to community and conversation; and in many instances I agree that the United States has become much less connected in this regard.
However, there are still pockets of hope; there are still people who aren’t afraid to connect with a weary traveler and share a cup of coffee and a little conversation. Perhaps it has something to do with the setting; would people be as apt to talk to me if I was sitting at a restaurant, a mall, or a fast food place?
As each weekend comes and goes during my coffee house tour, I can’t help but think that there is something unique to the coffee house experience. A simple drink that was discovered in Ethiopia more than 500 years ago and has been a staple of conversation and community for countless generations.
Alcohol of course has a similar effect; bars can often be a great place to connect with people. Unfortunately, while the more coffee you drink increases your alertness…..the more alcohol your drink tends to have the opposite effect. And in my case, the more alcohol I drink the sleepier I tend to become.
Philadelphia is less than a week away and while I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I will get to meet a couple of my fellow bloggers; I’m also looking forward to the opportunity to connect with strangers and enjoying those spontaneous conversations that can’t be recreated with rehearsal no matter how hard you try.
Just a few thoughts as I sipped my coffee this morning
Categories: Culture & Society