Snug harbors


Sometimes I don’t have enough of an iron butt to sit at my writing desk. I often want a change of scenery, but that’s more a function of change than of scenery. I got my first notebook computer in the ’80s so I’ve always been a spoiled brat about mobility. Frankly, I could happily do without any of the more recent technology, but an ’80s vintage, DOS-driven notebook computer with a monochrome screen was a revolution in mobility.

Not that mobility is the entire answer. After you, wherever you go, well, there you are. For example, few spaces are less inspiring than the hermetically-sealed interior of a hotel room. These tomb-like confines are great for sleeping, but if you’re trying to push any living thoughts through a conscious mind it’s like grinding gravel with your teeth. A hotel lobby often offers scant improvement; the ergonomics of their chairs and coffee tables are for relaxing, not working.

Of course, a world’s worth of cafes have sprung up to serve the needs of itinerant and local customers alike. They’re a far different proposition than the diner-style coffee shops of old, which were more for eating meals than for lingering over keyboards or paperwork.

In my mainland corporate days there was a sandwich shop that opened on the ground floor of a neighboring office building. It started out as a lunch joint. But outside of the lunch rush it evolved into a snug harbor for executives who wanted a respite from their nearby offices.

The shop’s proprietor knew a good thing when he saw it. He quickly broadened his offerings into cafe-style fare such as pastries, bagels, espresso, and so on. Soon thereafter he improved the interior and made it more comfortable. Smart is one thing. Fast is another. This guy was both.

It was easy to drop $30 there in a single day if you went for late-morning coffee and a bagel, then had lunch there, and then went with a few co-workers to huddle over afternoon coffee away from the prying ears of office politics. You’d eventually gin up a nodding acquaintance with cliques of people from other offices doing the same thing. It was by no means a fraternity party, but the atmosphere wasn’t as gray and leaden as the average corporate scene is.

The shop’s proprietor became something of an introducer. Need an intellectual property attorney? An internal auditor? A marketing wonk? The proprietor probably knew one among his regulars. Within that nexus of three office buildings, he was the guy who knew who was who and what was what. He became, in the parlance of the times, a “contact influential.”

I don’t remember the name of the place. I’m not sure it even had one. But it must have been a gold mine, or, perhaps even better, a regularly-producing copper mine.

I knew a couple of restaurateurs at the time, both of whom had glamorous and popular places, but that shine was a thin layer atop some unglamorous realities. They had large staffing and high turnover to worry about. They had pilferage to worry about. They had alcohol licensing and associated authorities to worry about. They had problems at midnight to worry about. They had drunks to worry about. They had promotions to worry about. They had parking problems to worry about.

Running those places required a full-time manager. They also had the constant threat of new competitors to worry about. After all, the glamour attracted all sorts of players who wanted a slice of the shine and a write-up in the local papers. The smart money was nothing to sneeze at, of course, but the dumb money was even more threatening.

Meanwhile, the humble, don’t-even-know-its-name sandwich shop-turned-cafe chugged along in healthy obscurity. I don’t remember the hours it was open. Probably 9:30am to 4pm or so. It was closed on weekends. It was also closed on major holidays. As for promotions, I doubt the proprietor even paid for a phone-book listing. After all, you could throw a rock and hit the far boundaries of his target market; beyond that distance, nothing mattered. And staffing? He had one family member who seemed to be there sometimes, but, then again, sometimes not. Parking? Not an issue; all his traffic was on the hoof. Drunks? Bad behavior? Midnight intrigues? None.

But what he did have was that most indispensable of things in a mobile society, even if that just means a society that is willing to walk across a parking lot for a quick change of environment: He had a snug harbor.

So here’s to the snug harbors of the world, including those in Saipan. You’ve improved life almost as much as DOS did, and, coming from me, that’s high praise indeed.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.
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