Or, the pleasures of writing in a cavernous space rife with data streams
Cold, rainy late March Montréal, city of Leonard Cohen, Mordechai Richler, and les Habs. I am working in a bank. Former bank, now the most remarkable café I’ve ever seen. My Vermont painter friend and Montréal habitué Pam directed me here and I am so glad. Crew Collective & Café occupies a spectacular space in an old bank building as a combined coffee shop and shared workspace. On this day it is packed with people, most much younger than me, sipping lattes and making words appear on laptop screens, at least 30 screens on view in the public area alone, more in the rented cubicles and meeting rooms, and everyone with a smart phone, so at least $150,000 of digital tech on display. A casual display of affluence and creative capital that no longer even registers.
Forty-five years ago I worked for a data company whose lone computer filled a room about this size, albeit a room with a much lower ceiling and no coffee. Now my iPhone 13 packs more computational power. I multiply that by 60 or 75 for this one place and picture an exponential curve of digital processing that joggles the mind.
In American coffee shops, there are always a few people writing by hand in notebooks. Not here. Pixels, bytes, and data flowing through the ether. I have read of autistic people who can see every dust particle in the air and find it mesmerizing; I imagine seeing streams of 0s and 1s in the air like numerical contrails. The young woman next to me is on a conference call; the video feeds of nine people fill her laptop screen; I imagine braided streams flowing past my shoulder into her machine. Were I to shrug I'd glitch her meeting. I refrain.
French in my left ear, English from across the table. Anglophone Canada is diligent about both languages appearing on every sign. In Quebec, scant English on display. This is another country and they have declared their linguistic independence. It’s not much of a hindrance and everyone has been gracious about speaking English in social transactions, plus one finds small amusements everywhere, such as “Burger King — La Maison du Whopper.”
I wait at the café counter for a flat white. Someone named Daniel picks up a brace of lattes. Danielle takes away her Americano. The barista working her way through the Ds.
Images of Leonard Cohen everywhere, especially a huge mural on the side of an apartment tower. The extent to which the city reveres a poet and songwriter warms my heart. New York needs a giant mural of Bob Dylan. Baltimore needs a giant mural of Frank Zappa. Chicago owes Saul Bellow. None of it will happen. My late father, who was a sign painter, would have applauded the Cohen wall, then told me how it was done. He used to joke about working 75 feet up on a scaffold: “We never stepped back to admire our work.”
Leonard wrote, “Religion, teachers, women, drugs, the road, fame, money…nothing gets me high and offers relief from the suffering like blackening pages, writing.” Yes. Today, in this cavernous café, there’s no suffering, at least not mine. Just the quiet deep pleasure of taking in coffee and blackening a MacBook screen.
No one jaywalks or crosses against the light here. We must rein in our Baltimore habit of crossing wherever we damn well please. The local way is no doubt safer. Perhaps we will return home more polite, more patient. Some guy in a dirty Orioles cap will watch us at a crosswalk with puzzlement and then say, “You guys just back from Canada or somethin’?” We will reply, “Oui.”