A Cafe Squatter’s Guide to Santa Monica

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 [The following article appeared in the Santa Monica Observer Newspaper on April 27, 2012:]

“I’d like to sell my eggs,” the woman says. She’s young and attractive, wearing tight jeans and sitting in the center of a crowded Starbucks at Lincoln and Marine. She’s talking on her cell phone. Loudly. One leg is crossed over the other and she’s kicking it. Anxiously.

I don’t think she’s referring to her chickens.

I’ve got my laptop open and I’m trying to work on my novel, but this is too good to ignore.

“Yes,” the woman says into the phone. “My eggs. How much money can I get for them?” She’s pretending nobody else is in the room. The twenty-five people around her are pretending they don’t hear her ‑‑ but they’re all listening. Come on. This is too good to ignore.

“Does it hurt?” she wants to know.

She didn’t appear to receive an honest answer to that one because she persists, still eager about the money.

As in most interactions I’ve witnessed in my twenty years of café squatting, I don’t get to hear the upshot. Did she end up selling her genetic material? And did it hurt?

I’ll never know. Those who sit eavesdropping in cafes don’t get it all. We do get a cheap desk, free wi-fi, and sometimes free parking. More than enough, I say.

Chabad members persuade a Jewish cafe-goer to don ritual tefillin.

But even those of us who are getting something for free would like to know where to find the best. Since receiving a Powerbook 100 laptop computer from my brand-new husband in 1992 (there’s a reason we’re still married), I’ve applied myself diligently to the task of finding the most amenable places in Santa Monica to park myself. Here’s my take on where to go sit in this city:

The best chance of scoring a seat

Panera Bread at 5th and Wilshire

Possibly because the coffee is so bad, there is ample seating with nice, spacious tables at Panera Bread, a counter-order style restaurant. The music is classical and the temperature is kept pleasantly warm. They discourage patrons from sitting more than 30 minutes during their lunch rush, which may be a disincentive to a serious squatter. Also, proximity to 4th and Wilshire may mean encounters with some who are a bit less than socially acceptable.

The worst chance of scoring a seat

Starbucks at 26th and Wilshire (most convenient to Franklin Elementary)

I have seen the line at this café extend down the hall past the bathrooms and out the back exit. Even though few of these thirsty customers want a seat, enough do grab one to make your chances of finding a cozy place to roost very slim. Should you be lucky enough to secure a spot, you will soon be shivering. The thermostat in all Starbucks is set and locked, temperature setting determined by corporate headquarters.

Most likely to receive a compliment on your clothes or accessories

Starbucks at 7th and Montana (convenient to Roosevelt Elementary)

I may be prejudiced, because this is MY Starbucks and I breeze through the doors often enough they know me by all of my names (the real ones and the easy-spell cup-marker ones). They know what I want to drink and they notice the jewelry I’m wearing (very important). Okay, they compliment the jewelry I’m wearing (even more important). Despite the temperature chill set by Starbucks headquarters, the manager and baristas at this café create a family-style atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie. Definitely the friendliest café in town.

Surreptitiously stowed dog makes a forbidden entry into a Starbucks

Most likely to see something you never expected (also best parking)

Starbucks at Lincoln and Marine

Maybe it’s the proximity to Venice, but most of my café stories come from this location. There’s the egg lady, but so much more. I’ve heard a knock-down drag-out phone fight between a woman and her soon-to-be ex-husband. They could have taped it, unedited, and aired it in prime time. I’ve also seen three women spring a birthday ‘surprise’ on a female friend. The surprise was the sudden entry into the café of a man dressed in a bee outfit, who sang a syrupy song (not very well) and then sat on her lap. Ouch!

Most likely to overhear a pitch for a TV show

Starbucks at 15th and Montana

All right, I’ve only heard one pitch here, but it was a really good one. A man was proposing a family comedy based on himself, and eagerly pacing through a list of hot young actors, visualizing one or the other portraying him. Needless to say, he was ten years older than any of the actors he was considering, and had a lot less hair.

And a few words regarding the dearly departed

Diedrich’s at Lincoln and Montana

The late, lamented Diedrich’s café that used to inhabit the round corner window space at Lincoln and Montana was the de facto office for a host of gainfully employed and not-so-employed scriptwriters. One of the first cafes to offer free wi-fi, Diedrich’s attracted those who needed some background noise and a cup of coffee in order to pound a keyboard. Weaving among these wannabe moguls, parents and children from the elementary school across the street lent a refreshing note of reality to the scene as they made their way toward a hot cocoa or muffin.

You may tell me I’ve missed the best coffee, or the lightest croissants – but coffee and food are the last things a serious squatter is looking for in a café. Better to ask if the tables are wide enough for a laptop, is the Internet reliable, and if the music is too loud to hear the intriguing interactions you never knew you’d witness if you hadn’t been sitting somewhere other than at home.

Alyssa Kress spends her time at the cafes of Santa Monica writing humorous romance novels that can be found at her website, alyssakress.com, and on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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