Noah Brier | February 11, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Public/Private Edition

On New York City, coffee shops, and blurred boundaries

Noah here. When my oldest daughter was around a year old, we spent a lot of time in our local coffee shop. Each morning she would wake up around 5:30, and by 6:00, I was itching to occupy any space other than our living room. At 6:30, when the closest coffee shop opened, we would head down and hang out there drinking coffee (me), waving at the patrons stopping in for their morning fix (her), babbling to the barista (both of us), and generally doing the same things we would be doing in our apartment, but in a space that wasn’t ours.

This, to me, is one of the magical things about New York (and any city really). While the living quarters are notoriously small, there is an abundance of public space you can occupy (though most of it comes with a cost—a fact which is troubling for cities around the world). New York has somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 coffee shops, that’s right around one coffee shop for every 2,500 people. That would put NYC number seven on the list of most coffee shops per capita in the US, right behind Salt Lake City, which has around 8.4 million fewer people.

Why is this interesting? 

The result of this strange brew can be fascinating. I was reminded of the topic recently while reading WITI contributor’s Edith Zimmerman’s always-excellent Drawing Links. One of the comics last week included a scene from a coffee shop where three women were praying together. This is something I’ve seen several times at my local and always fascinates me. It’s an experience we are used to happening in private places like homes and churches, but in a city where those spaces are fewer and further between, coffee shops work fine.

Beyond that, the space constraints of the city create an interesting culture. While many think of New Yorkers as rude, that’s (mostly) not how those of us who live here experience one another. One reason for this, suggested in a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, might be our looser boundaries between private and public:

People on the bus will say, "I have the same handbag as you. How much did you pay?" If they don't like the way you are treating your children, they will tell you. And should you try to cut in front of somebody in the grocery store checkout line, you will be swiftly corrected. My mother, who lives in California, doesn't like to be kept waiting, so when she goes into the bank, she says to the people in the line, "Oh, I have just one little thing to ask the teller. Do you mind?" Then she scoots to the front of the line, takes the next teller and transacts her business, which is typically no briefer than anyone else's. People let her do this because she is an old lady. In New York, she wouldn't get away with it for a second.

With all this said, I’m not sure how to square it with another idea that has been bouncing around my head since I first heard it a few years ago—that the Greek origins of the word idiot is someone who made their private life public. Writer and literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn explained the etymology on an episode of the New Yorker Out Loud podcast in 2012 (also mentioned in the 6/24 The Ever-Waser Edition):

We now have these technologies that simulate reality or create different realities in very sophisticated and interesting ways. Having these technologies available to us allows us to walk, say, through midtown Manhattan but actually to be inhabiting our private reality as we do so: We’re on the phone or we’re looking at our smartphone, gazing lovingly into our iPhones. And this is the way the world is going, there’s no point complaining about it. But where my classics come in is I am amused by the fact our word idiot comes from the Greek word idiotes, which means a private person. It’s from the word idios, which means private as opposed to public. So the Athenians, or the Greeks in general who had such a highly developed sense of the radical distinction between what went on in public and what went on in private, thought that a person that brought his private life into public spaces, who confused public and private was an idiote, was an idiot. Of course, now everybody does this. We are in a culture of idiots in the Greek sense.

I suspect this is why many find big cities like New York so stressful. If this separation is important to you, it makes no sense to watch people go to pick up a breakfast sandwich in their pajamas or organize their life at a coffee shop table (nevermind the crowds of people on the sidewalk and subway). As the rest of the world moves more towards the blurring of lines between private and public at the behest of technology, it may turn out that living in a dense urban environment was good training for our new reality. (NRB)

Recommendation of the Day:

Speaking of coffee, I’m a year-round iced coffee drinker. I just prefer cold coffee to the hot stuff. Over the years, I’ve tried various methods for making my cold coffee (Aeropress on ice, vats of cold brew, buying bottles of Grady’s). For Christmas, I got a Hario Cold Brew Bottle. It’s got a fine filter that drops right into the bottle, and the whole thing is dishwasher safe. I just bought a second so I can easily rotate. It’s the easiest setup/cleanup cold brew method I’ve found. (NRB)

Quick Links:

  • Varo is about to become the first fintech startup to be given a “de novo national bank charter.” Per Felix Salmon at Axios, “Up until now, all digital banks have had to piggyback on older, more established banks for their banking operations. (Or else, like Goldman Sach’s Marcus and BBVA’s Simple, they’re subsidiaries of bigger banks.)” (NRB)

  • Latest Front in Food Delivery: Kitchens in Empty Malls. “Retail developer Simon Property Group and hotelier Accor SA said Sunday that they are working with hospitality company SBE Entertainment Group to develop some 200 commissary kitchens to cook up restaurant-quality food for customers at malls and hotels as well as delivery for people nearby. The first of those are planned for New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami, said Sam Nazarian, chief executive of SBE.” (NRB)

  • Over the weekend, I was profiled in Superorganizers, an excellent newsletter about how people work from Dan Shipper. As part of the newsletter, Dan builds tools and templates that he makes available to subscribers. He was kind enough to offer a 25% discount to WITI readers. (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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