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L.A. coffee shops were about more than coffee. I miss the human connection

California coffee
California is reopening but when it comes to coffee shops, will anyone ever feel comfortable ordering their drink to stay and lingering for a while in the presence of others?
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

It’s strange to long for something so small when the pandemic’s losses are so big, but I’m just going to say it: I miss coffee shops.

I’m not just talking about picking up an iced latte on my way to the park — although, after months of drinking burned pour-over in the confines of my studio apartment, I’d be down for that too. What I can’t stop thinking about, as I and the rest of the city experience loneliness in isolation, is the quiet thrill of sitting at an L.A. coffee shop — wait for it — alongside other people.

Before citywide shutdowns in March forced restaurants and cafes to switch to takeout service, coffee shops were filled with opportunities for spontaneous human connection. As someone who has lived alone in L.A. for years, I came to rely on these places for my sanity.

On Saturday mornings before coronavirus (or B.C., as clever folks on the internet have coined it), I’d show up at whichever coffee shop was in my rotation that month. I would people watch from behind dark sunglasses, do a little eavesdropping and sometimes have meaningful conversations with strangers. Mornings would turn into afternoons as dozens of people cycled through, and before long, my craving for both caffeine and community was satisfied.

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I have this theory, mostly informed by my experience, that no one feels as alone as the person who lives alone in Los Angeles.

In her videos, Tabitha Brown lifts your spirits, offers a virtual hug and helps fill your tummy during these challenging COVID-19 times.

Friends can sometimes live hours away, turning a casual weekday hangout into an intense commitment. The intoxicating humanity you may soak up from the streets of New York or San Francisco isn’t as present when people spend most of their time in cars. Tack on that pair of tunnel-vision goggles we can’t seem to take off, and you’ve got a recipe for loneliness.

I love L.A. in spite of all of these things but damn if the daily grind doesn’t make it feel nearly impossible to find genuine connection with real human beings.

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The coffee shop was my answer to that.

It should be said that its symbolism in L.A. is complicated. The glossy, out-of-touch ones are sometimes painful markers of gentrification and erasure, but at its core and in concept, the coffee shop was a gathering place where people stopped for a while.

It held out a romantic, maybe even unrealistic notion that your next connection — big or small, platonic or not — could be sparked when you reached for the Oatly at the same time as someone else and bonded over a shared interest in obscure electronic music.

Now, there’s no such outlet when we need it most and virtual hangouts aren’t cutting it.

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In one April study, 47% of Americans reported feeling lonelier than usual since stay-at-home orders were implemented; women, singles, people who live alone and those without children (hi!) cited increased instances of loneliness.

One weekend a few months ago, I met actor-writer-producer Farah Merani at Cafecito Organico in Silver Lake while we were both reading our horoscope, cut out from this very newspaper, posted on the cafe wall. She’s an outgoing Gemini who asked me about my sign (Aries) and sat with me in the cafe’s back patio.

Fueled by espresso, our conversation was brief but dense, ranging from our overlapping childhood experiences to our respective passions. It was the type of whirlwind exchange Merani had on a regular basis during her weekly trips to Cafecito Organico before the cafe was forced to switch to window service like countless others in L.A.

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“The surprise interactions are something I really thrive off of and I really value because I am that kind of person,” said Merani, who runs a Toronto-based organization called Women on Screen and in normal times works mostly from home or at coffee shops. “It was a change of scenery.”

We both can’t help but wonder if this dynamic will change once coffee shops begin to reopen, with some in California counties already doing so with restrictions.

“I think it’s going to take people a little more time to get close to each other,” she said, “but on the flip side, people are aching for human contact. We have a responsibility to protect ourselves and protect each other, but we also have a need for connection.”

California is in the process of reopening, and people are finding ways to get out of their homes (see Memorial Day weekend). But when it comes to coffee shops, will anyone feel comfortable ordering their drink to stay and lingering for a while in the presence of others?

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For our new collective loneliness’ sake, I hope so.


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