Hiding My Addiction: The Secret Life of a Writer

My supervisor at a college where I once taught said to me one day as I was freewriting in my journal, “Ah, the life of a writer. Sitting along the bank of a river, leaning against a tree, feeling the breeze in his hair as he writes.”

Well, maybe that was his ideal writer’s space. (I was actually sitting at my desk in a cramped office at the time.) It’s not mine, as idyllic as it sounds.

I’m a restaurant addict. There, I’ve said it. Oh, it feels so much better, like a weight has been lifted. If I were in Europe I could gather with others like me and face no social stigma because we are everywhere and celebrated. In the fast-paced United States, where we are frowned upon by the hurried many who want their seating and want it now, we are more often shunned, especially during rush hour when regular people come and go in a 45-minute span that must include time waiting for their seats, waiting for their food to come (or the opposite order if they’re at cafeterias), and eating, plus travelling to the restaurant from their jobs and then back to their jobs.

So thank you, David Gershman  of the Ann Arbor News  (“Coffee shops become the office: Free customer wi-fi lures students to study,” Saturday May 16, 2009), for making public that serious condition that is suffered by an undocumented number of people like me, who go by many names to cover our condition, most common of which are “students” and “writers.”

We’re the ones who seek refuge in restaurants and other food establishments—with or without Internet access—for hours at a time ostensibly working on our prose and poetry, studying for finals if we’re in school, perusing the Internet and catching up on our emails if we have access, or just reading. Sometimes we even talk to each other but more often than not we merely acknowledge each other in passing during visits to and from the restroom. (What do you think happens when you’re drinking coffee all day?) We can always spot our own kind.

But please know, hostile public, that we are sensitive to your frustration. The more advanced and sensitive among us observe rules of etiquette and teach them to our progeny.

Here are a few rules that we follow:

* Avoid writer-unfriendly restaurants where waitstaff rely on tips to supplement their less-than-minimum-wage hourly pay rates because they need constant turnover at all of their tables. Self-serve restaurants, on the other hand, are havens.

* Choose restaurants with lots of tables, where even at rush hour there are likely to be vacancies.

* If the restaurant does get filled, share your space with customers—don’t let concentration on your project of the day be an excuse to ignore customers who are walking around with trays in their hands and eyes gazing desperately for open space. For one hour, you can consolidate your books and papers that are scattered across two tables or a full-length booth and let a stranger sit with you.

* Patronize the establishment that is giving you your space. Good grief, don’t bring in food from the outside. I know times are tight but you’re already getting unlimited space and free Internet access. Buy at least coffee; and if you’re there during a packed rush hour, spring for a full meal occasionally.

I call those forced dining experiences “guilt lunches” because I only buy them out of guilt. For years, I saved all of my restaurant receipts and then at tax time told my accountant they were business expenses that I made because the restaurant was like my office, which made my food purchases the equivalent of rent for office space. He said, “You’re just eating a meal, like everyone else.” I countered, “But I only ate to preserve my space; I wouldn’t have eaten otherwise.” But he didn’t buy it. He said the owner would have to give me a rent receipt for me to call it rent, and then the owner would have to record my payments as rental income. And that was that.

Now I have to, well, eat the bill. If any accountants out there can give me a counter argument for my accountant, let’s get together. We can meet at the restaurant of your choice.