It’s an early Saturday afternoon inside the cozy basement café at Politics & Prose bookstore on Connecticut Avenue NW. I’ve been here awhile – a good long while.
I arrive with my laptop and a yellow legal pad before 10 a.m. and install myself at one of the little tables along the wall that leads to the stacks. After ordering a cappuccino, I fire up my computer and get right to work. When the battery wanes, I fish around behind a pedestal holding a lamp and find an electrical outlet to plug into. There is even an extension cord handy – what convenience!
All the while, I nurse the same cappuccino. Eventually, what was lacey white foam has congealed into a dingy crust around the porcelain cup.
Every now and then, I catch the gaze of one of the baristas – a woman with long brown hair and tattoos, who keeps up an incessant banter with the other barista, while the patrons come and go with their coffee drinks, bagels, soup of the day.
There she goes again. She’s giving me the eye, the sign that the coffee shop staff has made you – that you are bagged, spotted, scoped, identified as a Wi-Fi loafer, one of those Internet-surfing freeloaders who arrives early, orders little, and stays all day.
Sometimes referred to as “digital nomads,” the café vagabonds have inspired countless features and were even toasted in the Washington Post as harbingers of a future business culture, in which we will all one day be untethered from bland cubicles and dreary office parks.
No sooner has digital nomad culture been feted as trendsetting, however, than it has become apparent that not everyone is so happy with the Wi-Fi wanderers who move between establishments such as the Big Bear in Bloomingdale, Tryst in Adams Morgan and Mid-City Caffé in Columbia Heights.
One could assume that coffee shops lose money on these one-cuppa customers who spread out across tabletops from breakfast through teatime. There are signs that this has been the case. Some popular establishments like Tryst have turned off the Wi-Fi on weekends, while others contract with Internet providers that allow them to dole out the online access an hour or two at a time and only to paying customers.
And the issue has sparked heated debate among customers as well. Just check out the eruption on Prince of Petworth earlier this month when one local nomad expressed “shock” upon hearing that Sticky Fingers Bakery had banished Internet service on Saturdays.
While people voice strong views online, where they remain comfortably anonymous, the same issues are rarely aired in real time and face-to-face.
Take my experience at Politics & Prose’s café. Despite my suspicions about the eye, I’m left to my online reverie as the morning coffee and pastry crowd comes and goes – many without even sitting down – followed by some gatherings of mommies with baby strollers in tow, the dads with young kids who are stopping in after Saturday morning sports practice, and a few other laptop luggers like myself. They eventually are joined by late-rising American University students, here to rehash the night before and plot the one ahead. The students are holding fast to their table too but sans computers.
My crusty coffee cup forgotten at the corner of my screen, I’m open season for the Upper Northwest matrons who just popped in. They’ve come for lunch but, by now, all the tables are taken. So one of the women sidles up to mine and asks: “Are you going to be staying long?”
Her companion looks slightly mortified by her friend’s nerve. My inquisitor rolls her eyes, as if to acknowledge the breaking of a social code. But her look says she is more displeased by my audacity at hogging a scarce patch of coffee shop real estate more than her own cheek at trying to nudge my computer and me toward the door.
This is the first real challenge I’ve had in several weeks of Internet loafing. My first reaction: shame. I am taken aback by the woman’s righteous indignation. After all, it cannot be denied that I am hogging table space from customers who are willing to plunk down lots more money than the two bucks and change I spent on a cappuccino several hours ago.
I mumble faintly: “Yes, yes, I’m planning to stay.”
The barista looks over and gives me the eye again. Or is she? At some point it becomes hard to distinguish whether you’re getting the eye or simply projecting – “They’re thinking I’m a Wi-Fi loafer! Right now, they are thinking, ‘what a deadbeat!’”
Then, I snap out of it, remembering I’m not just some Wi-Fi loafer, I am a Wi-Fi loafer on assignment. Confessions of a Wi-Fi Loafer—-that’s the title of this series.
I have not resorted to such guerrilla reporting tactics lightly. I tried the standard interviewing techniques. But café owners are understandably reluctant to publicly dis their customers – even the Wi-Fi moocher variety. And, who in their right mind – especially in this status-oriented city – is going to allow a reporter to identify them on the record as an Internet café idler, an exploiter of bandwidth and table space?
Ever the dedicated public service journalist, and with few other avenues open to me, I have taken it upon myself to become the ultimate Wi-Fi loafer. I’m your faithful correspondent on the frontlines of cafes in every corner of the city wherever Internet connections and electrical outlets beckon and coffee is sold. Please feel free to share your own Internet loafing experiences or your feelings – either for or against the loafers you have encountered. You can post them here or email me at email@example.com.