Coffee and (Other People’s) Conversation

Caffeine and people watching are an exceptional combination. Wallflower Caitlin Boersma admires the idiosyncratic patrons of a 24-hour café in Tacoma.

Lately, I’ve been frequenting a small café called Bertolino’s. After checking out every hip coffee-serving establishment in Tacoma, I thought I’d try the drab one hidden between Target and the UPS Store.

I usually bring homework, but it’s not exactly a study-friendly environment. Bertolino’s is a single room with five large tables, and people just sit wherever there’s an available chair. At first, this really intrigued me. An establishment in America that fosters discussion among strangers seemed a novel concept. Of course, I haven’t actually talked to anyone, but at least it’ll be easy in case I ever want to.

The environment is awful for concentration because everyone else does talk – and loudly. I haven’t quite figured out all the connections yet, but everyone seems to know each other.

“Bobby sent me the cutest text today,” says a girl of twenty-something to her friend. “He called me charming.”

I know who she’s referring to: some middle-aged guy with a lisp. What? How do you know her, Bobby?

I have two hypotheses. Either most of these people work together somewhere else and hang out at Bertolino’s, or they hang out here so much that they all know each other. It’s fascinating because they’re such a diverse group.

But it’s also a little weird.

Another clique of patrons at Bertolino’s plays chess. They’re surprisingly intimidating guys who just hang around until they see another player.

“Want to play a game?” they propose to one another, as if they were soliciting drugs. They play quietly inside or outside while chain-smoking cigarettes.

Once in a while, a game gets heated.

“Hey asshole, you took your hand off. That’s your move.”

“Whatever. Is this going to be about the rules or can we just play fair?”

Sometimes a crowd gathers around one game, awaiting each move with bated breath. Chess is rarely as exciting as it can be at Bertolino’s.

Plenty of students and teenagers also come to hang out. The café offers free wi-fi and it’s open 24 hours. I realize that this is what attracted me to Bertolino’s more than anything. The espresso is good, the drip coffee is decent (two free refills), and I can get it whenever I want. They don’t have IVs of caffeine yet, so this is the next best thing.

In addition to having coffee available at all times, Bertolino’s is conducive to my other favorite pastime: procrastination. Instead of doing my work, I listen to all of the noisy, strange conversations.

Tonight, I’m hearing about a soldier who’s deployed to Iraq that this girl doesn’t want to date anymore – and I even get to see him. I watch two pick-up chess games, creepy Bobby people-watching while he blogs, and a guy who appears to be making business calls in Russian.

It’s this kind of social observation that keeps me coming back to Bertolino’s. Well, that and Americanos at 1 a.m.

Caitlin Boersma is studying political science and English, but spends most of her time analyzing pop culture. Her premise for a new reality TV show, Killing Andy Milonakis, has yet to be picked up by VH1. She is notorious for spending a week’s wages on a ticket to see Morrissey live.