Back to Metroland's Home Page!
 Columns & Opinions
   The Simple Life
   Looking Up
   Myth America
   Rapp On This
 News & Features
   What a Week
   Loose Ends
   This Week's Review
   The Dining Guide
 Cinema & Video
   Weekly Reviews
   The Movie Schedule
   Listen Here
   Art Murmur
   Night & Day
   Event Listings
   View Classified Ads
   Place a Classified Ad
   Online Personals
   Place A Print Ad
 About Metroland
   Where We Are
   Who We Are
   What We Do
   Work For Us
   Place An Ad
photo:Chris Shields

Café, With Interest
By Stephen Leon

A bank, a coffee shop, and a strangely soothing space amid the bustle of Albany’s financial district


Two tall, blonde women in neat business suits, long wool coats, and scarves arranged stylishly around their necks carry coffee cups from the cream-and-sugar stand across the lobby and into the bank, where they sit down in comfy chairs and begin to chat across a low table. They apparently do not work at the bank and have no business to transact there, except perhaps with each other. But if the people who work at the bank and the coffee shop know exactly where Starbucks ends and Citizens Bank begins, no one seems to care.

Around on the Starbucks side, a man paces near the tables alongside the two-story glass windows that afford a panoramic view of Pearl Street. He is on his cell phone, negotiating a deal, becoming more agitated. A woman seated at one of the tables looks up for a moment and then goes back to her laptop.

This is the Citizens Bank branch building at the corner of State and North Pearl streets in downtown Albany, smack in the heart of the city’s downtown business district, surrounded by offices, a hotel, and banks, banks, banks. Of the latter, Citizens is something of an anomaly, cultivating a consumer-friendly image both with its banking policies and its often-unusual hours. This particular branch has, currently, what can only be described as café hours: 5:30 AM to 9 PM Monday through Thursday, till 11 PM Friday and Saturday, and—really!—6:30 to 8 on Sunday.

Who banks that late? Not too many people (mainly, independent businesspeople and contractors finally getting a chance to tally up the day’s receipts)—not enough to keep those hours, which will be cut back starting Feb. 12—say the tellers, who are mostly young, and almost jarringly friendly and chatty. Starbucks employees are trained to be smiley and nice to their customers, even to learn their names. Maybe the Citizens Bank tellers sit in on the same training sessions, or maybe the vibe just keeps flowing in a circle around the elevator bay in the middle of the building, reinforcing the almost hypnotically pleasant vibe. Then again, maybe it’s the soothing Starbucks soundtrack, a satellite-fed mélange ranging from undulating jazz to techno/trance to exotic world music. Occasionally, it’s as recognizable to alt-music fans as the Magnetic Fields or Cocteau Twins. At this moment, however, it’s a Dido clone singing a cool, haunting melody over a popcorn popper of polyrhythmic beats.

Toward the back, at a table overlooking the courtyard next to the building, four people sit down with their coffee cups, empty the contents of their briefcases on the table, and begin a business meeting. Nearby, a woman in her 40s interviews a woman in her 20s for a job. A Starbucks barista, whom we’ll call Amber, says job interviews in the space are common; recently, she recalls, she was amused by the sight of a young man, perhaps on his first job interview, uncomfortable in his suit and intimidated by the polished young woman conducting the interview. “He didn’t know how to do what he was doing,” she laughs.

Amber says she hears “lots of strange and interesting stuff” while at work. “I think coffee shops is where people talk.” In fact, Amber is deep in conversation with a young man at a table when she first spies me scribbling in a notebook. “Were you writing about our conversation?” she asks afterward, a little apprehensively.

Later, Amber makes a more specific point about this scene compared to, say, coffee shops located near colleges or in bohemian neighborhoods. The people who frequent those cafes, she suggests, are more likely to have jobs or school situations in which they can be themselves. In the downtown world of business and finance, she says, people’s jobs typically aren’t at all about themselves, but about “money and deals.” And when they enter the coffee shop for a break, they’re all of a sudden ready to burst out with stuff about their lives.

Businessmen will talk wistfully of their grown children, gone off to college or moved away. If she asks a regular customer what he or she plans to do for an upcoming holiday, she might get a detailed itinerary, or a tirade about in-laws who must be endured for three days, or a lament about how lonely the holidays will be from someone who has no one to share them with.

It’s not always so sad; one day recently a man walked in and exclaimed, “I haven’t seen snow in 20 years, and it snowed two days ago, and it was awesome!” Amber thinks customers find the café to be a “safe” middle ground to express their feelings: Blurt them out at the office, and you might get a reprimand; do the same on the street, and people will think you’re crazy. But it’s OK to talk in the café. (Apparently, many men also think it’s OK to ask their baristas out on dates.)

A young man and woman lean across a table, talking softly, dreamily, their hands clasped together, as their coffee cups sit undisturbed.

“How are you?” Amber asks a customer.

“It’s really nice of you to ask,” he exclaims. Amber is a little taken aback by the intensity of the response, but keeps listening: His morning was really stressful, and he’s thankful to be here now, where people are smiling. Sure, it can get a little weird, but she says she likes making people smile, making them feel welcome—and that that’s common among people who enjoy working in coffee shops. Among the café’s many regulars, there’s a man in line for coffee today who, she says, often brings the staff cookies or cake.

Amber surveys the café; amid the people chatting in line, talking softly at tables or poring over meeting agendas, there is another man in a suit, pacing, talking on his cell phone. “I think the businesspeople are sadder than other people,” she says finally. “They’re just stuck. Stuck on purpose—but stuck.”

Send A Letter to Our Editor
Back Home


promo 120x60
120x60 Up to 25% off
Copyright © 2002 Lou Communications, Inc., 419 Madison Ave., Albany, NY 12210. All rights reserved.