Inside the Atlas Cafe
Just after 4 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, as a dozen people clicked away on their laptops at the Atlas Café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, half of a tree broke off without warning less than a block away. It crashed into the middle of Havemeyer Street, crushing a parked car, setting off alarms and blocking the street. A deafening chorus of horns rose outside Atlas’s window as traffic halted. An 18-wheeler executed a sketchy 10-point turn in the middle of a crowded intersection before a pair of fire trucks made their way through the traffic jam in a blaze of red. Chain saws roared, sawdust flew and the horns built to a peak. It was New York urban pandemonium at its finest.
Inside the warm confines of Atlas, separated from the chaos by only a thin wall of glass, not a soul stirred. A quiet mention was made of the falling tree, a few heads rose for a second, and then, just as quickly, they ducked back down. They all returned to whatever was on the other side of their glowing, partly eaten apples. On a day when the cafe Internet connection had already been down for four hours, and the toilet had been blocked for even longer, I thought I had seen these worker bees pushed to their limit. But I had underestimated them. Nothing could stir these people. They were not in New York; they were citizens of Laptopistan…
I was, admittedly, a profoundly skeptical observer. Though I had been a freelance writer for the last eight years, I had always worked at home, clad in pajamas and brewing my own fuel rather than paying $3 for someone to make pretty designs in my caffeinated foam. Whenever my wife suggested that I get out of the house, maybe take my laptop to a cafe, I shot back: “Real freelancers don’t work in coffee shops. It’s just unemployed hipsters and their unpublished novels, or screenplays, or Facebook stati…”
So what was I doing in Laptopistan? I moved from New York to Toronto in September, but had come back to the city for a week and was sleeping on a friend’s couch. I needed a place to work. Someone suggested Atlas. I swallowed my skepticism and got my passport ready.
Set on the corner of Havemeyer and Grand Streets, and flooded with light from two walls of windows, Atlas Café, which opened in 2003, looks like a combination of worn trattoria and late 1990s Seattle coffeehouse. The name reflects its wall-sized map of the world (there are also a mobile of hanging globes, and flourishes of décor inspired by someone’s travel to the Far East). The soundtrack is a mix of old country and folk (Dylan, Willy, Cohen and Cash), classical, bebop and French ballads…
Laptopistan’s is an entrepreneurial economy, driven by solitary thinkers. Aszure Barton, a choreographer from Alberta, was working with colleagues to prepare for her contemporary dance show called BUSK, which will debut Dec. 17 at the Jerome Robbins Theater. Robert Olinger runs a biotech startup that is getting silkworms to make spider silk at commercial scale, designs online education programs for the New York City Department of Education, and directs theater projects with Russian artists. In just a few days I met architects and event planners, database designers, classical musicians, film editors and app developers, every facet of the creative economy working under one roof, not so much together as in tandem…
RTFA. It’s long, interesting, well-written, sometimes humorous, always introspective. The sort of “notes from our journalist in the field” that keeps much of my weekend online reading stuck into the Observer or the NY Times.
This particular effort reflects a certain portion of my life with telling accuracy. I think much of the style – as observed – fits a close look at intellectuals shoehorned physically if not mentally into an urban shoebox. It still won’t impose restrictions on their curiosity or openness.
And, of course, MacDonald’s can fill the bill as well as many a coffee shop. Or, if you’re in Santa Fe, Java Joe’s.