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
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
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
are you?” Amber asks a customer.
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