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Cappuccino photo by Jazzbobrown, Creative Commons Attribution License

If you are just tuning to this new WCP series on Internet cafes around the District, let me introduce myself: I am the Wi-Fi loafer on assignment, your faithful correspondent on wired café culture.

Since this is a confessional column I figure you might want to know how I became a Wi-Fi loafer, a café idler and usurper of table space.

Until recently, I was more of what you might call a Wi-Fi café dilettante, not the harden loafer I’ve become. I might have spent an hour comfortably ensconced in one of those faux living room setups at Busboys & Poets or checked the movie listings on a lazy Sunday in the afterwords part of Kramer Books. For getting any real work done, though, I pretty much stuck to my apartment/office, where it’s easy to do phone interviews and the coffee is free, plentiful and always fresh.

My loafing days began last summer when we had a lot of visitors. DC is a great place to live. It certainly makes you popular with friends and family; the same folks who would never visit you when you live in Des Moines or Columbus with a REAL need of outside stimulus. Nope. Those folks don’t make the trek to places like Des Moines. But move to DC and you’d better be ready for a steady onslaught.

While it’s nice of them to visit, those of you who work from home know as well as I do that having your in-laws in town for two weeks can put a real cramp in your productivity. I took to sneaking away to Internet cafes.

That’s when I discovered that despite the friendly service Wi-Fi cafe owners really don’t like it when you stay all day. And, while they may offer free refills, they consider it rather rude when you replenish your coffee cup – like 15 times – during the hours you toil there, books and papers sprawled across an entire table. While many proprietors go out of their way to make you feel at home, they don’t want you to get THAT comfortable.

But four hours can go by fast when you are actually trying to meet a deadline and not just checking the movie listings or obsessing over email.

Still, nobody’s going to come over and evict you as long as you’ve made some minimum purchase. (At least, I have yet to be asked to leave, though there have been a few cases around the country where Wi-Fi scofflaws have been led away in handcuffs for pirating shop connections without buying as much as a teabag. I’m not making this stuff up, check out this story.)  The baristas may not toss out a paying customer but you don’t have to have extrasensory perception to pick up on the disapproving vibes.

And, sometimes it goes beyond vibes. At least one DC coffeehouse has started covering up the electrical outlets, following an example set by New York City shop owners who pulled the plug on loafers months ago. The Modern Times Coffeehouse inside Politics & Prose bookstore that was featured in Tuesday’s Confessions column has covered  some of its electric outlets, according to a post on its blog.

The Internet has apparently been an ongoing source of tension at the upper Connecticut Avenue NW coffeehouse for sometime now. The café managers sent me an email this morning with a link to an online discussion they started about a week ago that brought out some strong feelings on both sides. Here’s an excerpt:

“It’s a shame that some folks feel that they are being pushed out by a new technology – one, that, honestly, I’m still coming to terms with myself. I understand that this sentiment is partly derived from a slight fear of the new and perhaps a manifestation of an increasing generational gap, but, nonetheless, it is a valid concern that creates conflict, worry, much argument and division. I must also note that many laptop users – writers, students, those working from “home”- here are aware of our spatial (and economic) limitations and try their best to share tables and purchase something every hour or so.

“I guess the spectrum of possibilities range from not offering wireless at all, limiting it to certain times of the day or days of the week, limiting it to certain tables, charging an hourly fee (!), plugging up all the electrical outlets and have people rely on their batteries, to not changing anything at all. I don’t want you – laptop users – to feel that we are waging a war against you, but want you to understand this ongoing concern of ours and that we want you to be part of shaping our new policy in this ever-changing landscape and environment.”