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October 28, 2010

Overheard at the Opium Den

Overheard at the Opium Den

by Diane Chamberlain

 Head in coffee beans         

 It all began years ago when I decided to rent a room in my house to a young couple. They were delightful tenants, but I found it challenging to write when they were around. One evening, I escaped to the only place that was open nearby: Starbucks. I studied the menu board, feeling awkward. I wasn't a coffee drinker, so I wanted to order a small decaf, but the word 'small' was nowhere on the menu. I saw Tall. And Grande. And whPoisonat on earth did Venti mean? A kindly barista gave me a tall decaf that tasted like poison and pointed me in the direction of an inviting red velvet chair, which turned out to be every bit as cushy as it looked. I'm one of those people who actually uses her laptop on her lap, so the chair was perfect for me.

  Di starbucks
 Activity swirled around me. I lived in Northern Virginia at the time, DC right outside Washington, DC, and the evening crowd at the Starbucks consisted of foreign students hunched over textbooks, self-conscious couples on Match.com dates (I was soon to become one of them), young people--pierced, tattooed and adorable--socializing with one another, and a large group of middle-eastern men who sat near the front door. At first, it was hard to concentrate on writing because the people-watching was too seductive, but I gradually tuned out everything around me and lost myself in my work.

Ten o'clock, closing time. The hours had flown by and I'd written fifteen pages! If I worked so efficiently at Starbucks in the evening, why not try it in the morning as well?

My cushy red chair (yes, I'd already come to think of the chair as mine) Red velvet chair was vacant the following morning, but the crowd was entirely different. A laptop on nearly every table. People with phone buds in their ears, sitting alone, talking to the air. Consultants--the DC area is awash with them--meeting with their clients. Flow charts spread out on tabletops. Again, I wrote pages upon pages. This time I had caffeinated coffee. It was morning, after all. When I went back that evening, I decided to try a latte. And a blackbottom cupcake. Already, I was hooked. I quickly dubbed Starbucks "The Opium Den" believing there is an addictive substance in the lining of their cups that is activated by heat. Otherwise, why would I crave coffee that is so bitter and burned tasting that the first time I was served it, I thought there was something wrong with it?

Years later, I am still hooked. Addicted woman  My addiction costs me more than four dollars a day, but for that four dollars I receive far more than a coffee high, breakfast (cinnamon scone), an expanding waistline and an office away from home. The truth is, I've been touched, enlightened and enriched by things I've overheard in the Opium Den.

It's my duty as a novelist to gather stories wherever they can be found, right? Megaphone The first time I eavesdropped in the O.D. was when two men sat down at a table near my chair. It was clear from their conversation that they were discussing theTeen boy   welfare of a teenage boy.  As a former psychotherapist specializing in adolescents, I'm a sucker for teenagers. I'm sure the men thought I was deep in my work, but I was actually glued to their conversation.

The blond truck driver was the boy's father; the dark-haired born-again Christian, his stepfather with whom the boy lived. It was clear the men were meeting to find a way to help the boy cope with social and family issues. Obviously, there'd been some ugliness between the men in the past and I could tell they had very different approaches to child rearing. Yet their love of the boy was deep, transcending those differences as they explored solutions to help him.   When their conversation was over, the men stood and embraced, touching me with their caring and nobility. As they walked out of Starbucks, I reread the scene I'd been working on and knew it lacked the emotional depth I'd just had the honor of witnessing. I deleted the scene and started over again.

That was the first time customers at the Opium Den inspired my writing, but it wasn't to be the last. There was the day two unsuspecting women gave me the gift of an idea for a novel. 

Women in coffee shop 

          "Did you hear about Sharon Smith?" the brunette asked her friend as she sipped her Venti Americano.  "Her ex and that bitch he married were awarded custody of her son!"

        "You're kidding!" responded the redhead with the Grande Latte. "Why would a judge take a child away from his mother?"

        "Her ex and the bitch are both lawyers, that's why. Sharon didn't stand a chance."

        "If that happened to me," said the redhead, "I'd change my name, take my kid, and disappear."

Voila! I had my character and the core of her dilemma. I gave her a used computer filled with information that would allow her to save many lives—if only she would turn herself in to the  authorities--and my novel, The Escape Artist, was born.

Does my eavesdropping sound--I don't know--creepy? I don't go out of my way to listen in, but I'm interested in people and apparently, I have very good hearing. Ears Sometimes, though, my hearing ability doesn't matter.


   Not long ago, I was sitting in my comfy chair at the O.D., typing my manuscript as I sipped my Grande half-caf-with-steamed-milk.  Sharing the leather sofa across from me were three women, and I couldn't take my eyes off them. Legs on couch

My best guess was that they were two middle-aged daughters sitting on either side of their elderly mother. They were speaking a foreign language–-Middle Eastern, I thought, although I couldn't hear them well. The two younger women looked very American, but it was the elderly woman who had caught my attention. Her face was incredibly lined. I’d never seen so many crinkles and wrinkles in one place, and she was absolutely beautiful. She was tiny and she wore a little beige hat that looked hand-knit. On the side of the hat was a small, floppy, coral-colored flower. I was pretty sure she was on to me and my snooping, so I tried to stop staring at her but didn't do a very good job of it. Her face was like a magnet for my eyes. I wanted to get up and hug her.

The younger women, soft mirrors of their mother, had a few lines on their faces too. They clearly loved their mother. They talked non-stop and seemed to be explaining something to the older woman, using their hands to help in their descriptions. Their mother didn't say much. She nodded and said “oh” from time to time, a tiny smile on her face as she sipped from her Starbucks cup–which somehow looked incongruous in her hands. Old lady hands I noticed she wore identical rings on the ring finger of each hand. Each gold ring held a single pearl in a large, round beaded setting, and I wished I knew the significance of those rings.

The younger women were oblivious to me, but the old one was not. I felt her eyes on me and wondered who or what she saw in me. A third daughter? One who was missing? I glanced at her one more time and suddenly understood my attraction to her. In her face, I saw both of my grandmothers, long gone. I saw my mother, who had never looked this old, although she lived to be eighty-eight. I saw all of them in her, and I felt the yearning for people I loved but could no longer talk to or touch. 

It was time to leave. I turned off my laptop and slipped it and my notecards into my carry-all. I got up and walked past the leather sofa, but impulsively turned back and stepped in front of the women.

“I’m sorry I’ve been staring at you,” I said to the elderly woman, not knowing if she understood me or not. “It’s just that I think you’re very beautiful.”

The younger women smiled and translated for their mother, who laughed and said "thank you.” One of the women said, “She’s our mother,” with more pride in her voice than those three little words could possibly hold. I was a little weepy by the time I reached my car. I wished I could take my mom to Starbucks. Mom 4th teeth

I thought of how lucky I am to have my office away from home. Writing is so isolating. I need to be around people even if I'm not directly interacting with them. It all comes back to replenishing the creative well, and there's only so much well water my home office can hold, even though I have a great house. It's over 4000 square feet of space. I can work in my office or in the sunroom or on the screened porch or at the dining room table. But you won't find me in any of those rooms in the mornings. You'll find me in a cushy chair at the Opium Den. I expect that I'll be there for many years to come--or at least for as long as they continue to put that coating on the inside of the cups. 

  How about you? Do you have an office away from the office, and if you do, what draws you there?




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Diane, I love your blog today.
I have a place that I love to go..it is a park.
My husband flies his radio controlled helicopters and I bring my little office with me.
I take out my newspaper, tv guide puzzle, books, knitting and reading and the fun begins.
This has been going on for seven years. I save all my projects for the park. People ask what I am reading and knitting etc.
The time passes very quickly..four or five hours.
I save some reading for the evenings but I catch up on how to books etc at park and have a wonderful time.

This just delighted me, Diane.

One day I'll need to go out and find me an opium den. At the moment, my time alone is so thrilling, I am happy to be isolated. The hours my kids are at school are short and just fly by. It won't always be like this, I know, so I've scouted out the Starbuckses in the 'hood for when Empty Nest Syndrome strikes.

When I was preparing my exams to enter the Paris Bar, I had two small kids who rendered studying at home impossible. So every day for almost two months I was going to an exquisite “salon de thé” near by my place which proposes dozen types of tea and refined pastries (if you’re in Paris, I’ll give you the address) and stayed there for hours. Surprisingly I didn’t get any supplementary kilos then.

It's not a Starbuck's, but a local independent coffee cafe serves the exact same purpose, Diane! It's the place to go to think a bit, meet potential clients, hang with writer friends, or just turn off the Madding Crowd for a bit. The owner and his people are amazing, friendly, and actually care about your satisfaction with your order.

Drew's Rules....:)

As far as coffee goes, I offer this clip. Someone sent it to me a while back:


From 0:18 to 0:25, it has been suggested Gibbs learned from me; personally, I don't buy that, but whatever.....

I worked at Starbucks for two years in college and I have to say that they would be extremely proud to know that they successfully created a 'third place' for you. I am currently working on my Master's in Early Childhood education and being as I work 40 + hours a week teaching now, I am doing it entirely online so I too spend hours sitting at Starbucks working. I would rather go to my local coffeehouse but they aren't open long enough or on weekends for it to work. So I trudge the extra blocks to Starbucks and get my work done. My favorite interaction so far was between a grandmother (maybe 50, not old), her daughter (VERY pregnant), and her grandson (maybe 3...) They were making snakes out of straw wrappers, something I had completely forgotten about. The boy wanted more after they had used up their wrappers so I kindly leaned over and gave them my wrapper as well. It was just I wish I knew the right word... but it was perfect...

Marie, I felt some envy when I read your comment. That sounds so delightful and RELAXING and "puttery." I don't know if I'll ever get to have putter time again. Enjoy every minute!

Harley, you're saving money by not having an office away from homw.

Paulina, did you have to dress for the salon de the? That would ruin it for me, although being in Paris would make up for it.

William, I wish I had an Indie coffee shop near my house! I know what you mean about hanging with writer friends. The only drawback to my local O.D. is that I now know way too many people there and chat time chews into work time, but it's so much fun. I couldn't get your clip to work. Will try again later.

Elizabeth, yes your little exchange with the straw snake people is exactly perfect.

Paulina, it wasn't Mariage Freres, was it? That is an utterly lovely salon de thé. It would be truly fantastic to spend your days in such a place.

One of the best pieces of writing I ever did, a chapter in my first book, was written at a kids' pizza/fun place called Discover, while my two youngest children crawled through the endless pipe mazes. I knew they were not able to leave without me (it was owned and run by McDonalds, and had stringent security measures), so I could relax and just get 'er done.

I've been scoping out local coffeeshops, looking for the right place for a daily morning NaNoWriMo session. May have to use multiple locations.

Karen! You're NaNoWriMo-ing? Me too! William too! Wanna be my buddy?

What a a lovely blog, Diane! I have just switched to working at home and, for now at least, am totally in love with what passes for my home office (a big desk and shelves in our front room downstairs). We'll see what happens as the grandbaby becomes ambulatory :)

Sure, Harley. I need one, I admit!

kmaslowski at fuse dot net

Lovely blog, Diane. My hangout is Seasons 52, where the food is fresh and under 475 calories. I go there for lunch after a long day of writing. I listen to the hip young waiters, the business people and the tourists. Yesterday, I heard a waiter tell three women how to negotiate for the best price on a Volvo by using as price finder phone ap.

I like to write in this little coffee shop that hangs local artwork on the walls. The conversation and the art seem to fuel my creative mind. At least I hope they will for NaNoWriMo!

OH, you made me feel as if I were there with you! And I wish I were. But then, neither of us would get anything done.

I can only write in my office at home--so far--but I agree there's some lure of doing it at Starbucks, and I'd adore to. I am hooked, I tell you, hooked, on triple venti nonfat lattes, at 4.25 a pop, and everytime I get one, I think--too expensive! This'll be the last. And it NEVER is.
So you're clearly right about the opium thing.

A favorite overheard discussion--in the airport:
Mother: Don't even think about lying to me.
Teenage daughter: About what?
Mother: About whatever it is you're thinking about lying to me about.

A Panera Bread close to my house in Vegas--booth number two has my name on it. I plug in my computer--somedays I confine my world to my i-tunes library and the story in my head. Other days, I watch and listen, absorbing the stories and emotions that swirl in through the front door. The staff members have become familiar comforts and true delights...friends and supporters. Inspiration.

I prefer the silence of my house, but when the housekeeper comes, I dash off to Panera Bread. (Hi, Deborah!) I find I do great plotting there, but not much actual writing--maybe because I use a lot of dialogue and I'm distracted by the real thing? But there's often an evangelist there who loudly "counsels" parishoners by cell phone. Sometimes he drives me away with his "advice."

Great blog, Diane!

Maybe we need to form a TLC subgroup for the November novelists?

I signed up last week for NaNoWrimo.
50,000 words..that's not so bad, is it?

Nancy, a subgroup sounds good..bring on the coffee!!

Excellent blog today. I guess I have an advantage. My office is behind an unmarked door. Most people don't know where to find me. My second job, the pizza guy, means my office is my car. The switch from princess carrier to pizza carrier is pretty painless. On a good night, I spend 80% of my time in the car, on the road with the music cranked. Kathy, a few from your Halloween list are in the car right now.

I try to be very careful what I talk about in public, because of what I hear when I am out. And I never use names.

oh, Diane, I just love this piece!

Diane, thank you. This was a delightful read.

I recently finished MAKING ROUNDS WITH OSCAR. David Dosa, MD, says that his pediatrician parents were mystified when he decided to specialize in gerontology. He explained that babies have their lives in front of them, the aged have the stories.

Nancy, yes, that's a wonderful idea. Sign me up, if you create such a subgroup. I'm grateful for whatever!

Hank, that's so funny. Sounds like something my mother would have said. :-)

When I was in NYC a couple years ago I had lunch at the Met's cafe, sitting in a corner of a very busy room. These two ladies sitting this close >< to me were having an intense conversation about the one woman's ungrateful daughter. I doubt she realized I was so intent on listening, or that what she said was so revealing about her as what can only be described as an unfeeling parent. Her son could do no wrong, but that daughter had no business expecting her mother to love her. It was shocking, especially since the other woman, who clearly was trying to give her good advice, could barely get a word in edgewise. Later on I tried as best I could to write it all down, it was too good to waste.

Alan, I bet you have plenty of stories to tell about your pizza customers. what an intriguing job.

"The aged have the atories." I love that, Holly!

Karen, i would be dying to know what made that mother the way she is. And that's another fascinating thing about listening in on conversations-- the nonstop talker. You just KNOW the talkee is dying to get away. it's almost painful to listen to. Also, here in the south, you here a lot of prosthelltizing (sp?) and griping about our radical leftist government. Shudder! Have to tune those folks out.

When my daughter and I go to lunch we sit outside a coffee shop and yak it up. We are both so animated that I wonder what people think of us.
At times it's difficult to figure out who is the mother and who is the child.
Catching up with my daughter lets me indulge in telling her about the books I'm reading and the latest gossip.
I love to meet up with her because she makes me feel young and I can pretend that I know all about the newest pop culture.

Beautiful, Diane, beautiful.
My quiet time is at a local cafe, Thyme & Aagin, that I eat at every day I am off. I order my usual, Asain Chicken Salad and tea, and open my book. Blessed escape. Essie, my waitress, refills my tea a couple of times before I leave.
I'm embarrassed to say I am pretty much oblivious to others during this time, but I have heard myself referred to as 'the reader'.

Sweet stories, Diane. Living out in the country means no Starbucks and I doubt if Stephenson's Barbecue is wired for the internet.

Diane, you don’t have to dress up for a salon de thé (even if it’s a luxury one).

Karen, Mariage Frères is a wonderful place. I have one close to my work. But the one I was talking about is this one http://www.le-valentin.fr/index.html

I used to "escape" the condo often, and The Crooked Tree Coffee House and Miss Aimee B's were my favorite spots . . . the house is more cosy and quiet, so I find myself here more of the time, unless joining friends for treats. I do go to Starbucks after my Apple lessons, and get reading done whenever and wherever I have wait time. I have started taking the laptop on trips -- never would have done THAT with the iMac. (Apple creative showed me a photo of the fish tank her boyfriend made of her old iMac).

I'm still debating the NaNo concept -- I don't have a topic I'm burning to develop, and I've become less accepting of "musts."

My day job is driving for a courier service, so, like Alan, a car is my "office". If the car has satellite radio, I listen to Old Time Radio on Sirius XM. If not, I listen to NPR or rock & roll.

During all of that time, my 24/7 imagination is rolling and I think about all manner of things. Some of these end up on my Live Journal where I'm 70 days into "365 People, Places & Things". Other ideas get tossed out on Facebook or get put into the word processing meat grinder.

As for what beverages I consume while driving around and thinking, it runs the gamut from water to tea to horchata.

Actually, Margaret, public Wi-Fi is a scary thing, and I rarely use it. Besides, if you're there to write, what do you need access to the Internet for?

By the way, I'm almost finished reading your Up Jumps the Devil. Love it! The rural life depicted reminds me so much of the area and the people around our farm, including the derelict garage like the one across the road from our place!

Oh, my, Paulina. That place would certainly not be good for my waistline! But it looks warm and inviting.

Karen, but the pastries are just sooo tasty...

Thyme & Again. I love that name! I want to go there.

Elizabeth, your posts remind me of happy days writing in Cambridge. My first favorite place was the Coffee Connection in The Garage overlooking Mt. Vernon St. When the Howell's sold it to Starbucks I continued, but it wasn't the same, as they changed the configuration. That's when I applied for a study carrel at the library, where I could keep all my stuff.

In the mean time I discovered the Starbucks at Mass. Ave. and Shepard. I loved it there- not too noisy but lively enough. It took a few years - 7 exactly - to get my study carrel! It was way too quiet and isolated to do any real work there-- felt like I was in one of those isolation-stimulus-prevention water tanks whenever I tried to write!

By the time I realized it was impossible to write in my prized space, my favorite old Starbucks was getting awfully crowded with law students who, while very interesting, took up tons of space.

I headed back down Mass. Ave. and out of desperation commandeered a booth at the now nonexistent Three Aces Pizza. It turned out to be the best writing place ever, and I did all my writing there until I finally left Cambridge. I was very sad to find out that the school had taken their block back and were building on it... wondering what it is like now.

Elizabeth, I can't help but wonder if you write in any of these places!

Diane - I loved your blog today. I'm spoiled (or superstitious) about writing here on my couch but the next time I get stuck or blocked or uninspired, I'm packing up the laptop and heading for Starbucks!

Ah, Diane, are you in my brain? Or, possibly, my chair? Starbucks is my office, too, and in fact that's how I describe the $ I spend there--as the rent I pay, and it's pretty cheap when you think of it that way! When I'm feeling guilty about grandes I slip back down to $2 Americanos, which is *really* cheap office rent.

I also have a favorite indie coffee shop if I need a change of office space.

Mystery writer Sally Goldenbaum has a Starbucks office, as does mystery writer Joel Goldman. When Joel goes in, they have his favorite drink ready for him. He holds his launch parties there. Sally and I prefer the more anonymous way that means the baristas "know" us as regulars in that pleasant way, but not by what we do for a living. I don't want questions!

This was a lovely, lovely post, Diane. Thanks so much.

I love your choice of photos!! Esp. the woman mainlining the coffee and the Doberman with the big ears.

Diane, I found this post very reassuring. I love getting out to write. I was very self conscious about it after I developed so much paralysis and moved to Tucson, but I realised that every time I dared to do my plunk-plunking in Starbucks with people staring and sometimes commenting - sometimes real, sometimes imagined - I started to feel like I was okay and got much better at it. After all it's an old setting. It looks much like every Starbucks I've ever written in. Starbucks in Tucson is like Starbucks in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Starbucks on the High in Oxford. Picking up that setting again is helping me transition, nice word for "adjust." It's great. In fact I'm amazed at how freeing it can be to have to do things differently, and the help of a familiar setting makes it easier.

I'm finding the iPad a real detriment to writing at Starbucks, though, and I'm going to have to get some discipline. Being able to get on line with such ease. . . no good. How do you all deal with the Internet? I used to be far more productive before I was an Internet whore.

I don't open my browser while I'm writing. It works most of the time.

Here's some incentive to stop opening your browser while in public places:


Marie-Reine, you are a wonder.

No, I'm not a wonder, Karen. Diane is a HUGE influence/example for me. Her blog introduced me to the iPad too, and I love that she blogs about writing with physical disability. Thanks though!

I had to look up horchata -- it sounds delicious! and Paulina, those pastries look positively wicked!!! I want to sample them!

Here's my favorite tea room http://www.saucemagazine.com/missaimeeb/

But if I want wi-fi, I have to go to http://www.crookedtreecoffee.com/ (I almost used a link to one in Texas with the same name -- it actually looked nice, too)

I love the tea room a few blocks from my house. http://www.tohonochulpark.org/tea2.html Can't afford to hang out there and write, though!

Karen - that Shankman article is scary - I have only used public wifi once and certainly won't do it again.

It looks lovely!

Just to be fair to wi-fi, it's more a matter of the websites you use- as I understand it, that is.

Marie-Reine, your comment about Starbucks always being the same no matter where it is and finding that reassuring reminded me of the old Ann Tyler book, The Accidental Tourist. It IS reassuring sometimes to know exactly what to expect.

Diane, I think I've felt like Macon sometimes, been like Macon sometimes. I'm just happy now that some of those strategies keep me from popping corn in the bedroom!

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