Today I’m in dentist mode, with a full appointment book. I’ve stationed myself at the Xando Café at the corner of 76th and Broadway, and I’m awaiting my 12:30 with Liz. I’m not sure what Liz looks like since I’ve never met her, never seen her, never even talked to her on the phone. At 2, Christine will replace her. I’ve never met, talked to, or seen Christine either. This is how I spend my days. With my wife’s approval and my publisher’s money, I have intimate encounters with strangers in public places.
Since last fall, I’ve been traveling the country interviewing legions of Americans who work solo. And if there’s one place where these solo workers–these free agents–feel comfortable, it’s a high-end coffee shop like the one where I’m now sitting. Starbucks and its cousins are a crucial component of the free-agent infrastructure–as essential as Kinko’s, Mail Boxes Etc., and Federal Express for getting our work done. (My latest evidence in that regard: I’m about to drain my laptop battery, because every electrical outlet here is being used by some other Powerbook-toting infonaut.) From the outside, these coffeehouses may look like retail beverage establishments, but they’re really in the commercial real estate business. Many are quietly morphing into full-service free-agent business centers with data ports, large conference tables, and dedicated Internet terminals. Starbucks barristas in Minneapolis, lower Manhattan, Glenview, Ill., and Foster City, Calif., have even taken phone messages for me during my interview tour. There’s one more benefit to these locations: Since I tape-record my interviews, and since music invariably plays in the background at every location, I now have the world’s largest collection of bootleg Starbucks CDs.
When I meet free agents at a place like Xando, the conversations are surprisingly intimate. Most people I find one or two degrees of separation from somebody else I know. Others subscribe to my electronic newsletter. And that rather loose bond somehow liberates them to divulge much about their lives. I’ve had people tell me about divorces, illnesses, corporate corruption, affairs, childhood tragedies. One woman in Evanston, Ill., said, “This is better than therapy.”
The one thing people don’t seem to talk about is race. So that we can find each other, my interviewees and I often trade e-mail descriptions of ourselves. And I’ve got a standard self-identification: “I’ll be the white guy in his mid-30s with dark hair, rimless glasses, and a tape recorder.” But practically no one else mentions race. They tell me they have a “big smile,” or are “fair bit overweight,” but ignore their most obvious outward feature. Even people who aren’t white usually encode that information in earlier e-mails or phone conversations but never in their actual physical descriptions. Strange.
Tomorrow morning I’ll shift to traveling-salesman mode. I’ll motor our maroon Saturn through Connecticut to meet with three people in three separate towns. First stop: Fairfield. At 9 o’clock, I’ll look for another stranger–in the parking lot across the street from Coffee Island. I should have no problem finding her. She will be, she e-mailed, the one standing next to a blue Mitsubishi.