The startup life has lots of peaks and valleys. As an entrepreneur, we spend a lot of time during our valleys at coffee shops. We become roaming nomads, following a blockchain ledger from one shop to the next. Even if we have permanent office space, we seek out something new that will help us get over a hurdle. Whenever I’m there, my eyes reopen to the esoteric world of coffee shop mania, which begs the question, “Why does the guy at the next table trust me?”
The other day, I realized there is this certain type of trust among coffee shop road warriors, and I wondered why. It couldn’t be just because we drink coffee and work on laptops, could it? There must be some deeper bond in there somewhere.
Then, I listened to a TED radio hour interview with Simon Sinek explaining how an American in Paris trusts the knowledge of another American in Paris more than the knowledge of a Parisian in Paris. This was confirmation to me that people working in coffee shops look at each other as part of a trusted clan. Our secret handshake comes in the way we look at each other. Our eyes meet and connect in a special way. We know the other is ok to be trusted because we have a special bond. We have the same DNA.
Or do we?
Yesterday, I was at a coworking coffee shop, typing away on my laptop, not paying attention to anything around me, when the guy at the other table stood up, leaned over and spoke to me.
“Can you watch my stuff?” he asked.
I looked up and stared blankly at him, my mind still in the document I was writing on my laptop. As he waited for my response, he fidgeted and made a little pee-pee dance. I got the hint.
“Sure,” I said and then bent my head back down into my document.
As soon as he disappeared, I thought, “Why is he trusting me? He doesn’t know who I am. I could be Dr. Klepto or Mr. Hackerman. I looked over at his stuff and noticed a laptop, a soft briefcase, a coat (Was it Canada Goose?), a smartphone, and a paper coffee cup. Not a bad booty if that were my intention.
I continued to type, but his stuff was calling me. I looked up again.
What if I took something from his bag? Would he know? What if I took his laptop and walked out of the store? I could put on that Canada Goose, and no one would be the wiser. Even easier would be to pocket his smartphone. I wouldn’t even have to leave! I could say someone grabbed it and ran out the door before I could stop him. These fleeting thoughts dissipated as I dove deeper into my work.
I had been engulfed in my laptop for a while and needed a quick break. I stood up, stretched and looked over to my new friend’s table. Something seemed wrong. I tilted my head. Laptop, soft briefcase, Canada Goose coat, smartphone… paper coffee cup? The coffee cup was missing! But why? It didn’t make sense, and yet, that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I had been charged to oversee a fellow road warrior’s stuff, and I had shirked my duty.
Turning around, I noticed someone walking in the other direction with cup in hand. As she passed near the trash can, she let it drop quietly in, but it was not quiet enough. The heavy sound revealed that there was still coffee inside. With feelings of guilt, I sat down.
“How stupid!” I thought. “Why would anyone steal a cup of coffee and then throw it away? And why did he charge me with watching his stuff? Clearly, I couldn’t have said no.” I tried to continue typing, but only gibberish came out.
Moments later, my new friend returned. I looked up at him, nodded and pointed my head toward his stuff with a smile to indicate that it was still there. “Thanks!” he said with a nod of his own.
As I continued to type, I kept an eye on my friend to see whether he would notice. I wasn’t sure what to do but watched him. His movements were almost choreographed, and I could hear the music in my head… “I’m… gonna swing… from the chandeli-ear, the chandeli-ear…”.
He sat down. Adjusted his seat. Put on his headphones. Put his hands on the keyboard. Flickered his fingers a few times. (Did a few rolls, jumps and lunges, in my head.)
His next move was the telltale move… He reached for the cup of coffee.
What happened next was beyond my expectations, beyond my belief. How could this be?
His hand… closed… around… the cup. His arm brought the cup to his lips. And he took… a… sip. The joy brought a smile to his lips, while a look of confusion took hold of my own countenance.
How could this be? The cup had been taken and dropped in the trash. It had not been there a minute ago. I had only shifted my eyes away for a few moments. I swear it was gone.
I turned around to look at all the other road warriors spread throughout the cafe, but no one took notice. No one had seen what had transpired. They were all working calmly to themselves or in pairs. They were to be no part of this.
“Oh, I’m just holding on for tonight… on for tonight… on for tonight…” rang in my ears. As the song faded out, I imagined hearing the screeching violins from the shower scene in “Psycho”.
A slight laugh, then I stood up again. Judy, the cafe coach, walked over to my friend. What was she up to, I wondered.
“I noticed your coffee was getting cold, so I brought you another. Dark roast with milk, no sugar, right?”
The Canada Goose boy nodded. Smiled. Thanked her. She walked away. I sat down again.
“Hmph,” I laughed. This was interesting. I had just approached the edge of trust and had almost fallen over. I pondered the situation and played it back several times in my mind. An atmosphere of camaraderie clearly ran through the cafe, and although I had felt a disruption in the karma, Judy had created a new karma — one of giving — which brought us all together even more.
Perhaps, there is a special bond between people finding a corner of the world to work in, alone but side-by-side with others. It had nothing to do with skin color, gender, age or any other bias. It had everything to do with our similarities: working on intellectual activities, in the same coffee shop, together. These similarities brought the perception of understanding and a special bond of trust. I became trustworthy, because he trusted me to help him, and because I agreed.
An outsider might have grabbed the smartphone and made a run for it or refused to help the guy at the next table, but I chose to watch the stuff of a fellow warrior, and that has made all the difference.
(This article is based on true facts, fake facts and alternate facts. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, as well as the imaginary. But the points are real, and your thoughts about it are real.)