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A man works on his laptop as his iPhone lays beside it at a coffee shop. (L.G. Patterson/AP)
A man works on his laptop as his iPhone lays beside it at a coffee shop. (L.G. Patterson/AP)

Stephen Quinn

Hobo with a laptop Add to ...

If you were to walk in Vancouver, past a certain Commercial Drive restaurant, say on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, you might find me: sitting at a table in the corner by the window, in the semi-darkness, my face lit by the ghostly glow of the screen in front of me, and a single candle.

This is how I write: in public, in a restaurant at night, in the dark with a Strongbow and loud music.

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This does not make me a laptop hobo.

Real laptop hobos you'll find in the windows of coffee shops up the street that offer free WiFi and unprotected electrical outlets.

They are students, hippies and hipsters, they are young, old, male and female. They are not defined by ethnicity or social class.

They're the ones who have the fourth draft of their screenplay spread out over two tables, with a hardcover copy of William Goldman's Adventures In the Screen Trade used as a paperweight. They've also taken over the chair beside them with a laptop bag fashioned from re-purposed Peugeot seat belts. In front of them, you'll find the dregs of a cup of bold coffee purchased five hours earlier. They reek of entitlement (and stale coffee). Sometimes they work together to protect one another's possessions during smoke breaks or when they need to use the bathroom.

I am not one of them.

I buy a drink, maybe two, and I would never take a table away from another paying customer who wanted to sit down.

By definition I can't be a laptop hobo; I don't use a laptop, but rather a more discreet iPad.

I don't need WiFi – and I don't steal the electricity from my gracious hosts.

So when it comes to the war on these laptop hobos, these cafe squatters, I am but a conscientious objector.

Outside of New York City, you may not have heard much about this war. So far it is limited to a handful of Starbucks outlets in Manhattan.

There, the story is centred on a man named JJ, who, like so many others, is convinced that paying for one Grande something or other and a bun buys him a minimum of five hours in a comfortable leather chair with unlimited free Internet access.

According to the website Gawker, JJ overstayed his welcome and was asked by a Starbucks representative (wearing, of all things, a suit) to buy something or leave.

JJ was outraged and humiliated and committed both emotions to a blog post that has become one of the most hilarious pieces of Internet rage in a long time.

What followed were similar stories of outrage – other patrons being encouraged to move along, electrical outlets being blocked – followed by rebuttals from Starbucks employees suggesting that if you have witnessed an entire shift change, you've probably been there too long.

I don't go to Starbucks often. In fact, I generally avoid it because I'm not that keen on the coffee and it's expensive. Also, regardless of what I order, they correct me in the most passive-aggressive way possible.

A large skim milk latte with an extra shot of espresso becomes a “triple-Venti-non-fat latte.” They'll never beat their language in to me.

But even when I get it in my head to, say, take the kids there for a hot chocolate after a rare Vancouver snowfall to perhaps compensate for one of my own unfulfilled childhood wants, there's never anywhere to sit.

And it's because of all of the laptop hobos.

Starbucks confirms that in some of its New York City stores, electrical outlets have been covered, presumably to encourage the laptop squatters to move on once their batteries have been drained.

Starbucks spokesperson Alan Hilowitz told Reuters that customers have been asking for it, since there is often nowhere to sit after they purchase their coffee and pastry.

Mr. Hilowitz says as far as he knows this is only being done in New York City, and that the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. “If this is what the store needs to do to support the business, then they're allowed to make the decision to do that,” he says.

Here's hoping Mr. Hilowitz's words are somehow heard across the border and ring out above the djembes and spoken-word poetry and dangerously capoed guitars of my neighbourhood.

Let them land on the ears of every cafe and restaurant owner beset by these cheap and inconsiderate squatters.

Except for my guy at the place I go.

Even though I’m not one of them.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

 

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