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How Breakfast Happens
in the Café
ABSTRACT. In this article I present an ethnographic study of
‘breakfast in the café’, to begin to document the orderly properties of
an emergent timespace. In so doing, the aim is to provide a descrip-
tion of the local production of timespace and a consideration of a
change to the daily rhythm of city life. Harold Garfinkel and David
Sudnow’s study of a chemistry lecture is drawn upon as an exem-
plary study of the collective creation of an event. Attention is drawn
to the centrality of sequentiality as part of the orderly properties of
occasioned places. As part of examining the sequences I chart the
ongoing emergence of features of breakfast time in the café such as
‘the first customer’, ‘crowded’ and ‘quiet’. In closing the article, I
consider how changes in the rhythm of the city are made apprehensi-
ble to its residents. KEY WORDS • breakfast • café • ethnography •
From Timespace to the Daily Rhythms of the City
When we talk of time or space in the social sciences, the temptation to univer-salization, the scientification of social life, is almost irresistible. With thistemptation comes the inevitable capitalization of time into ‘Time’ and space into‘Space’ and the related subordination of duration and place (Casey, 1997). Aless inevitable but still common manoeuvre in the examination of space and timeis the colonization and extraction of concepts of space and time from maths orphysics; concepts which are uprooted and transplanted into the social sciences
Time & Society
copyright 2008 SAGE (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore)
VOL. 17 No. 1 (2008), pp. 119–134 0961-463X DOI: 10.1177/0961463X07086306
where their exotic charms garner considerable attention even as they slowly butsurely wither far from their grammatical home. There are other ways of investi-gating time, space and social worlds, ways which attend to and clarify our com-monsense concepts of time and space (Zerubavel, 1985; McHoul, 1990; Adam,1995). These are investigations in, and of, the ordinary un-noticed features ofeveryday life – singing a song, building a high rise or waiting for a bus.
Investigations that pay the duration and rhythm of these unexceptional practicessurprisingly serious attention. In analysing the timings that begin, pace, measureand end these activities, we can at the same time begin to reformulate perplex-ing abstract problems on the nature of time and space which all too often beginwith general definitions holding constant for all situations.
Thrift and others (Massey, 1994; Glennie and Thrift, 1996; Thrift, 1996) have
put the idea of timespace to work in their studies, abandoning the opposition oftime versus space in favour of considering extensions of specific assemblages ofpractices and materials, each with its own situated timespace. For example,Glennie and Thrift (2002) chart the gradual establishment of an awareness ofclock time through the ringing of church bells which are heard in common inacross towns, villages and nearby land. Thereby, they reveal an orientation tohours of the day that begins long before the assumed advent of industrial time.
In each place they observe that the clock system requires localization, transla-tion and inevitable transformations of both system and locality (May and Thrift,2001). In using the idea of timespace, Thrift and others show the world isordered not through the imposition of a Euclidean grid, but rather through a filamental growth. As timespaces settle they secure patches of never inevitable,often fragile organization requiring constant maintenance and repair (Grahamand Thrift, forthcoming).
Drawing on Lefebvre and Bergson, Crang (2001: 187) also offers ‘a less
stable version of the everyday, and through this a sense of practice as an activity creating time-space’; one that is attuned to urban rhythms and identify-ing pulses of each city. Crang brings out the varied ways in which collectiveevents are played out in beats of minutes, hours and days. These rhythms andevents are exemplified in the repetitions of the rush hour and the quiet spell thatfollows on from it or day-by-day collection of the bins by the rubbish vans. Inthis vision, the city is no longer a fixed collection of buildings and infrastruc-tures; instead it is constantly becoming a little less like it was. Slowly evolvingthrough its circulations, with one thing following another as night follows dayand day follows night (Blum, 2003). As Crang points out, we can thereby exam-ine common rhythms of city life other than those of its much mentioned ongo-ing acceleration. From Lefebvre’s (2004) perspective we can begin to thinkabout the colonization
of breakfast by the equivalencing of a particular mode ofproduction and consumption relations – how through the standardizing efforts ofCaffe Nero, Starbucks, Costa Coffee and others we end up having roughly the
LAURIER: HOW BREAKFAST HAPPENS IN THE CAFÉ
same breakfast experience regardless of where we are. In a sense, as Raffel(2004) puts it, in extending its simulation of the Milanese café, Starbucks doesnot need to know the needs of its customers. In foregrounding the experience oftime, as it has been theorized through phenomenology, Crang (2001: 198) places‘ontological concerns about the shaping of experience’ to the fore. He does notlet go of Lefebvre’s rhythm-analysis; instead he marks out its harmony with theunder-appreciated element of collectivity
in the organization of time that comeswith phenomenology’s concept of shared practice. Although it forms part of theidea of worldly existence, the collectivity of the crowd is usually rejected byphenomenologists such as Heidegger as inauthentic. Alongside bringing out this dismissed public quality of time, Crang goes on to argue for the importanceof expanding cycles and circuits of time in preference to simple ‘lines’ or trajec-tories.
With Crang’s emphasis on the many possible collective experiences of time,
how then to investigate places and durations without falling into the trap ofopposing the warm and human experience of daily rhythms with the cold andinhuman clock (Latour, 1997)? A number of post-phenomenological approachesmaintain an interest in the lived experience of place and duration yet eschewgrounding it in transcendental consciousness, regimes of production or thehuman body (Crang, 2001; Lynch and Bogen, 1996). While not engaged instraightforward theoretical development of the concepts of the public-ness of theexperience of time and its rhythm, a longstanding corpus of work that has lookedat specific practices first, then considered what forms of timespaces they make,and are simultaneously made from, is that of ethnomethodology (Garfinkel,1967, 2002; Sharrock and Button, 1991; Rawls, 2005). Time is dealt with not asa pre-existing measure but rather by how it is experienced, accounted for,marked and put to use in whichever practice’s timing. Always keen to draw onthe richness of ordinary language, Garfinkel deals with timings as always connected to the uses to which they are put, such as ‘fat moments’, ‘a day’swork’ and ‘about plus or five minutes past the hour’ (Hill and Stones Crittenden,1968: 190).
In his writings the example that Garfinkel uses to teach, not so much ‘Time’
is that of a person clapping in time to a metronome. Ethno-methodology, writes Garfinkel, investigates what it is to clap at the same time asthe metronome, a time that has to be made by and in the clapping
. While wemight want to say that it is simply that the person is triggered or responds to themetronome, it is not so. To clap in time, and not afterward, involves clapping ina way that actually masks the sound of the metronome and, if done competently,the hands strike together as the metronome clicks so the metronome cannot havebeen heard yet. In clapping we are keeping the rhythm. The lived work of doingso involves listening at the outset: hearing a first click, a second, and a third andin doing so coming to hear the intervals between, hearing them in their regular-
ity and their rhythm and producing that same rhythm through clapping. Other features of our lived work emerge, such as hearing the metronome becomingaudible again and adjusting our clapping to become faster or slower. Keepingand making rhythms need not be clapping with a metronome of course; it couldbe driving a rally car, buying and selling shares, preparing food in a restaurant.
The metronome, however, is a very simple example which puts in place theimportance of both sequential relations between events that occur one afteranother and the accomplishment of those sequential arrangements. FromGarfinkel’s perspective, sequence provides not simply for the forward progres-sion of time as noted by many phenomenologists (Zerubavel, 1985), it providesfor prospective and retrospective orders (Boden, 1994). By way of contrast withRawls’ (2005) recent article in this journal on Garfinkel’s concept of time, I willpursue my argument through further real-worldly inquiries. I will look at howthe specific features of a timespace, be they typical, peculiar, rhythmic, enjoy-able, excellent, average, slow, fast, coordinated, clumsy and more, are broughtto life in and as part of the course
To provide a little background on the café experience in the UK and USA,
over the last decade there has been amazingly rapid growth in the number andspread of cafés serving espresso-based drinks. On the city high street Starbuckshas replaced McDonald’s as the icon of either globalization (or cosmopoli-tanism depending on which way you look at it; Blum, 2003). WhereMcDonald’s is the icon of fast food, of people in a hurry, with no great desire tolinger, Starbucks and its correlates are about something else. Statistical over-views point towards the growth in what they call linger-time or dwell-time incafés (Allegra Strategies, 2004); simply put, customers spend ever longer overtheir coffees. For those with a concern with work and economies we might wantto see cafés as places illustrating the ‘compulsion of proximity’ (Boden andMolotch, 1994), where they are familiar nodes in the network of gatheringplaces that remain a necessity for the accidental tourists, be they business executives, chefs or mathematicians, who shuttle back and forth stitchingregions together (Laurier, 2001; Brown and O’Hara, 2003). For those with aconcern with urban neighbourhoods we might want see this as about a gradualemergence of a return to a form of convivial collective life that is an alternativeto the more tightly knit collectives such as scouting and sports clubs (Putnam,2000). For us here, with a concern for society and time, we could interpret it as documenting a change in the rhythms of the city, where a slow section isinserted into an otherwise rapid tune: an extension of public life in the city thatis akin to but distinct from the growth or diminishment of nightlife in cities(Blum, 2003). Usually we associate nightlife with the cosmopolitanism of cities; that the beginning of the day might be cosmopolitan is a perhaps under-appreciated aspect of what constitutes the quality of city life. The placement ofa café visit in the sequence of events, be it for breakfast or other occasions, with
LAURIER: HOW BREAKFAST HAPPENS IN THE CAFÉ
which we build each day is thus of consequence.
What I would like to do in this article is offer some preliminary descriptions
of the café-specific work of the first two hours of opening in the morning. Frominterviews with directors of café chains and individual cafés, their staff and customers and ethnographic fieldwork as part of an ESRC project on cafés andcivic life1 we came upon ‘breakfast out’ as an emerging social trend. I will notattempt here to validate or invalidate having breakfast in cafés rather than athome as a social trend, to say whether there will be a wholesale decline in‘breakfast at home’, or try to link this shift with a potential decline of family time together, the commodification of meals or any of the other familiarworries of the social sciences and policymakers. In other words, rather thanjump to treating ‘breakfast out’ for the social problems it creates, extends orindexes, I would like to spend some time making conjectures on what breakfasttime in a café is
and how it is organized
. My rendering of the course of a collec-tive event borrows from Garfinkel and Sudnow’s study of the performance features of lectures and their natural accountability (in Garfinkel, 2002). WhileGarfinkel and Sudnow themselves worry that their study is an inadequateaccount of chemistry, given that neither of them has an adequate grasp of the subject, their account is nevertheless an exact and exacting description of acrowd as a course of action
. It is in that light that the central section of this article finds its purpose.
Café notes 7–10am
I arrive just after 7am, the café is empty and I’m the first customer. Before 9am
there are only a few cafés open, most of which are part of the big chains (i.e.
Costa, Starbucks, Coffee Republic and Caffé Nero). At this café I am a not-
quite-regular, regular. It’s situated across the street from the railway station
where I arrived, having commuted from the south side of the city to the centre.
Offering a small frontage, the café recedes deep into its city block. The service
counter runs along the right wall from the entrance. Sitting at a table, across
from the counter, one barista sits smoking a cigarette while reading the news-
paper; the other gets up as I arrive through the entrance and walks behind the
bar. We greet each other and I order a medium latte.
Staff can be present in the café but without customers the café is [empty].2
What more is there to this easily recognizable state of affairs? There is: how thecustomer recognizes
[empty] which is bound up with the typical interior archi-tectural construction of this café, and many others like it, which allows thoseentering to look around as they enter and note at a glance how busy the café is.
It is bound up also with the expectations of ‘this early hour’ of 7am in this cafe
known for its ‘appearances as usual’ on a weekday at this sort of time (Sacks,1972) or as an ‘environment of expectations’ (Blum, 2003: 142). By contrast, atthe same time of day, an airport or flower market café is likely be full. What the customer makes of [empty] is related to their orientation to the ‘awakening’ ofthe day (Blum, 2003). That is, the reasons for empty-ness are temporally located– it is ‘just opened’. A customer is not put off or curious about this observableempty-ness during the opening time, the way they would be were it to be observ-ably empty at 1pm (‘Why is it empty? Is the food bad? Are the staff rude? Is itexpensive?’)
No one else arrives in the café while I’m standing at the counter. I reckon I’mthe first customer and that that’s a special status. The relationship between whatis first, what is next and what after that, in an emerging sequence, allows members to confer and organize expectations, rights, rules and more(Livingston, 1987). ‘First customer’ is a sequential feature of the ordering ofcustomers in time, a feature which cannot be collapsed on to clock time since itfollows a different temporal logic. There is more that can be made of this feature. Being the first customer regularly you can easily become one of thecafé’s known
customers, their regulars where the thing that identifies you, asagainst other occupants of the category ‘regular’, is that ‘Oh yeah, he’s the firstthrough the door in the morning’. Would the staff ever be able to say they knewwho their regular 37th customer was? Equally, a customer is aware of when theyare the first customer of the day, and unaware of their being 37th. There are thefirst customers that form the earliest arrivals, all of whom may have some degreeof rapid recognizability if they are early every day but this is a little differentfrom the first customer.
Being the first customer carries with it an ordinary inquiry that being a later
arrivals does not. With only staff present in the building the first customer cannot be sure the café is actually open yet. Even if its doors are unlocked it maystill only be taking deliveries. It may be past the hour it advertises opening butthe staff are not ready yet. In the same way that the café cannot close properlyuntil all its customers are out of the doors, it is not open properly and unques-tionably until a customer enters its door and the staff serves them. And for thosenext customers, the presence of the first customer visibly present in the café, asa customer, provides confirmation for the inquiries of the next arrivals as towhether the café is open. In other words, arriving at breakfast time, when thecity is still starting up, you look inside a café window and you see someone sitting at a table drinking their coffee, and you enter without checking the opening hour or asking the staff as you first enter, ‘Are you open yet?’ It onlytakes one customer to remove the questionable ‘empty’ status of the café and it
LAURIER: HOW BREAKFAST HAPPENS IN THE CAFÉ
is the work of whoever is the first customer to establish whether the empty caféis open yet.
In the hour from 7 until 8am the café stays relatively quiet. I jot down notes andstretch out my coffee. There is still a sense, at this time of day, of each customer’s coming and going, of looking at customers and seeing them one-at-a-time
; Seeing them this way because there are no queues or similar collectionsof customers. Under the observable, accountable state of [quiet] there are expectations from staff and customers in terms of how they will handle oneanother. Perhaps some small talk, extra politeness and care, and a lack of hurry.
The staff do prep work for the day and other cycles of maintenance: newspapersare folded into holders, shelves wiped, sandwiches stacked in the fridges anddeliveries received. The staff catch up with what happened at work the daybefore and what they were up to last night. Sitting writing at this time, I feel amild camaraderie with the staff as a third party to these conversations about lastnight. There is a particular intimacy to this quiet beginning of the day before thereal business begins, even if customers like me are only party to and not party of.
‘The couple take their usual table’. There are, during this period of quiet, a
collection of individual
customers. Looking around, there are only a few tablestaken: a guy in a suit going over some figures, a couple talking intimately, theirheads bowed together, another guy in a suit reading the newspaper and a womansitting sipping her coffee staring out the window. The couple I recognize, theyare here more often than I am. Regulars, they make small talk with the staff atthe counter while they order their coffee. They almost always sit at the sametable tucked away in a nook. Some days they push the table out of the way sothat they can sit with their knees together. I find myself wondering about theirlives since they seem so unexpectedly romantic over breakfast. A teenage couple’s intimacy. Perhaps like teenagers, they are not living together. Or arethey? Wouldn’t that be a lovely appropriation of an occasion which, if anything,has become associated with yet another work meeting possibility. ‘The powerbreakfast – predictable, the romantic breakfast – surprising’.
I know no more about the couple than any other regular could work out. The
fact that this couple have become what Milgram (1977) called ‘familiarstrangers’ is not incidental. They are also regulars. That I have the time to watchthem, to speculate on their lives, is part and parcel of the slow pace of this quiettime and, of course, that I have an ethnographer’s licence to hang around in thiscafé. Customers, according to the timings of their dwelling in the café, have differential access to the characters of other customers. Regulars who come atthe quiet times can build up a certain kind of awareness of the lives of other regulars. This awareness, while not friendship nor loving intimacy, is more than
a tolerance of others. It is an enjoyment of being among strangers familiar andunfamiliar that is part of the value of urban community (Blum, 2003). A formoften dismissed as too loose, too bloodless and minimally moral (Baumgartner,1988; Sennett, 1994) and yet it is a form that Habermas (1989) and Jacobs(1961) find essential to the rise of civility, recognition and public-mindedness inthe city. With one comes the other, of course; cafés are one of the central placeswhere we come upon communal problems, intolerance, incivility and snubs(Blum, 2003; Thrift, 2005).
I write down, ‘It’s getting busier. Customers arriving in ones and twos and queuing now’. When does the café become busy?3 Certainly it’s not ‘57 minutesand 13 seconds after it opens’ or some similar measure. It’s ‘about 8 o’clock’where ‘about’ serves a purpose, being a sweep of time rather than a punctum (asin a point pierced in a punch-card) – a sweep that allows for how this café’s cus-tomers work as a collective. They do not turn up on the dot; their arrivalsincrease in frequency gradually.
[Getting busier] is a recognizable part of the potential and projected emer-
gence of [busy]. Recognizable in a queue forming at the counter, customers continuing to arrive, tables filling up more and more. Its recognizability is notwithout consequence, given that on noticing it the staff retreat from their banterwith customers at tables, unpacking sandwiches and so on, to stay at the counter.
They are anticipating the rush that is, to all appearances, and is seen in theseappearances, as emerging.
It’s after 8am. Outside the café in the street there are more and more pedes-
trians walking by, office workers in suits, shop workers in their varied uniformsand students with shoulder bags. There are early mornings that stay quiet –Saturdays and Sundays of course, mostly free of early morning city commutersseeking coffee. One more temporal expectation of today’s breakfast is that it isa weekday
breakfast, with its weekday population and fitted in with the projectsof those weekdays.
At around 8.30 it is
busy. From [empty] to [an observable collection of indi-vidual customers] the arrivals have gradually become a [crowd]. There is nosteady flow of customers arriving; they come in irregular pulses refilling thenow constant queue. Reorganizing themselves in relation to the queue’s uninter-rupted duration, the staff remain behind the counter. More specifically, theyswitch to an assembly line production to accelerate the rate of serving. One orthe other is always operating either the cash till, picking up food, or making
LAURIER: HOW BREAKFAST HAPPENS IN THE CAFÉ
drinks at the espresso machine. What the customers are doing at the counterchanges during this busy period. From their position in the queue, customersscan the interior of the café for vacant tables. Groups split so that one or morethem of them can grab a table while the other(s) queue to make their order(Laurier et al., 2001).
Another note to myself: ‘The place is buzzing’. The café becomes audibly
busy. There’s the steady thump of the coffee grounds being knocked out the handle, the jet engine whine which ends with the extended steam train chuff ofmilk frothing. People order their drinks and pastries in raised voices above thedin of the till and the big black coffee machine. The front door swings open andshut, letting in blasts of traffic roar from the rush hour on the street outside. AsGarfinkel and Sudnow (2002) say of the lecture audience, it’s a ‘noisy assem-blage’. The buzz of the café does not have sequential properties of the lecture audience; this is not a pre-lecture shuffling and chatter that will quietwhen the lecture begins. It is not a noise of pens, paper and coats that will rise aspart of marking a lecture coming to an end. Like the ecology of the seating, it isundirected. This café’s breakfast buzz can be heard by those entering the door byway of contrast to walking into a quiet café. It is not entirely unreactive; there isthe possibility that the buzz would die down when certain persons entered.
With only a mouthful of tepid coffee left, I am still writing notes and queries:
‘There’s a table free. At what point and how does this become a pressing concern for customers?’. With this café being busy, ‘free’ becomes pressinglyrelevant to customers standing queueing and so tables are inspected for theirstage in an unfolding course of having coffee. Likely candidates are identified interms of their approaching the possible completion of their breakfast. This closing stage is recognizable in the displayed details of empty cups, last sips,crumbs of croissant, checking of watches, putting on handbags and more. Fromthe queue when actual empty tables are identified, the queuing customer looksto persons standing, and watches their progress to see if they are taking that
tableor leaving one (Sudnow, 1972). Table-seeking customers thank the departingtable occupiers who up their pace in order to vacate their tables, in recognitionof the generosity of that pace; the hasty draining of the coffee cup.
Why take breakfast here? Why this café? Why not have breakfast at home? In
answering these questions we can begin to tease out the extended sequential
geographies of breakfast.4 The breakfast stop-off in this café as in many others
is inserted into commuting as a sequence of actions to be accomplished:
1. Leave the house.
2. Do nearly all of your journey leaving only the last short walking distance to
3. Select café round about here (as we noted there are more than half a dozen
cafés within a short walk of the central railway station).
[Breakfast out] is a block of variable time which we can slot into the repeti-
tive sequences, which we use to build each day as a whole, to absorb the con-tingencies before it. We can use it to turn up at the same, ‘correct’ time every dayat work. Whether one ‘late’ morning we only have 5 minutes to slug our coffeeand bolt our pastry, or one ‘early’ morning we have 20 minutes to chat with ourworkmates, read the newspaper, catch up on some paperwork from last week,we can always arrive at 9. From the rearrangement of the routine we have a newplace we go where we can do a diversity of things, different things than we coulddo in the office, shop-floor or studio. This it not to say that staffrooms could not, do not and have not served the same purpose of synching up the temporalvariabilities of travelling to work with the coordinated start times for work-places. Nor that, equally, there haven’t been groups of people for whom break-fast out has been their expected way of getting breakfast. Though if we think ofexamples of groups for whom it would have been a norm, we think of shift-workers, the crew of trawlers, travelling salespeople and transport workers. As aplace for breakfast, the staffroom remains a place where one has already joinedthe ‘staff’, where breakfast is ‘in’ at the workplace. Cafés claim to be, andOldenberg (1997, 2001) has famously written of them as, third spaces betweenhome and work. What we can add here is that in their daily routines members ofworkplaces put them not spatially as the third of a set; they arrange them in second positions, that is where their origin is the first position and their destina-tion is the third position. As such, breakfast in the café, while not ‘in the work-place’ like the staffroom, is full of prefatory acts to joining the workplace.
Colleagues catch up with other colleagues, plan meetings, pass on warnings andtips and more. Equally, various activities are carried over and completed fromtheir residences, opening the morning mail, reading the newspaper, havingaspirin and last, but not least, having something for breakfast.
Two women at a table never let go of their cups. They keep their coats on. Theircappuccinos go down in steady slugs and they’re gone. Below a huge poster ofan old man playing cards, a student sits reading a novel; from time to time hesips his coffee. His jacket is off. He’s dug into his chair, one of the hard-to-grableather armchairs. In the whirl he is a slow-moving object. During the rush, twocustomers, one after another, sit at his table while he reads steadily on. In thegestalt rhythm of the breakfast crowd some breakfasters are relationally slow, others keep the average pace and a few dash in and out.
As an occasion, here, today, breakfast, like a traffic cohort, has a self-
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displaying and locally available established average pace (Livingston, 1987;Laurier, 2002; Galani and Chalmers, 2004); a pace which could be measured by the clock but isn’t produced by using it. At the heart of it is the rhythmicdrinking of hot and cold liquids (mostly lattes but also black coffees, espressos,teas, fruit drinks). The tempo of drinking can be upped or slowed. It is alsowhere the conventions of British coffee drinking transform, and are transformedby, the introduction of both Italianate cafés and US West Coast cafés (whichwere already an evolving hybrid of Italian and US coffee houses; Schultz andJones Yang, 1997). Halfway through their breakfast, on checking watches andrealizing, ‘Is that the time!’, drinking can be accelerated and, from time to time,cups are abandoned. In fact the drift toward large lattes and away from espres-sos in the UK (Allegra Strategies, 2004) can be understood by the fact that thedrink is an occasion as much as it is sustenance. The British expectation of thebreakfast cup of coffee (or tea) is that it will be longer than 3 minutes of aMilanese espresso during the week, and yet longer still on a Sunday over thenewspaper supplements.
[Work time approaches]
The table of six office workers at the back corner of the café starts to leave. Theydo this in a gradual way, adjusting coats, checking watches, one saying aloud,‘Oh well, can’t put off the inevitable any longer.’ The romantic couple are longgone by now. There’s not a sudden emptying out like a train reaching its desti-nation or a lecture ending. There is a gradual leave taking. Some people have tosay goodbye. The co-workers don’t. The buzz is dying down. The backgroundmusic seems louder. With the queue gone, the staff are roving back and forthfrom the counter laden with crockery and napkins after clearing up tables.
The beginning of the conventional working day has filleted out the office andshop workers leaving behind some students with their textbooks, text messagesand newspapers, a mother and daughter probably on their way to the shops andan old guy also reading a newspaper. The manageress of the café sits down at atable to read her newspaper; she has been here since 6.15 this morning. ‘9.40 am.
Quiet’, I write in my notebook; like the quiet after the phone has been ringing inan otherwise empty room or a seaside town when the summer season ends; aquiet that is heard inescapably as what it is by being after the event. A qualitywhich we lose if we take the quiet out of the sequence, the buzz and the quiet arejoined. In their ending, the public breakfast is over. You can still come in andhave a late breakfast and its lateness is found through it being after the commonevent.
Local Observability and Experimentality with Rhythm
Breakfast in a café and a chemistry lecture in a university might seem an unlikely pair – except that they both involve arrangements of tables, chairs, collective hubbub and crowds, and are repeated day after day. In followingthrough the course of a weekday breakfast time it should have become clear thatthe buzz of breakfast emerges, persists and then passes, providing a communalambience and possibilities for being together. In the lecture there is the buzz thatprecedes
the lecture which is the lecture hall filling and then the buzz that follows, marks
or, every so often, may push for
, a lecture ending. The breakfastbuzz of the café is the persistent background
to each pocket of conversation, ornewspaper reading or daydreaming or whatever, as it dies down, an awarenessof breakfast ending arises. Different events’ buzzes have their distinct uses.
What the owners, staff and customers said to me during my fieldwork is that the
breakfast crowd is a growing crowd and we discuss the possibility of a change inthe way people live in Britain: an adjustment in the rhythm of the communal lifein towns and cities. By what methods of analysis and with what warrants have thecafé staff come to make such a sociological statement? As I noted at the outset, itwas the owners and staff of cafés that had alerted me to the growth in people eating breakfast out in cafés on their way to work. For this to happen at all, caféshad to start opening early enough to provide the possibility of having breakfastthere rather than at home. Echoing their Italian, French and US counterparts, thecurrent espresso chains open early to catch the breakfast crowd. You might ask,are the café chains causing this change in where and with whom breakfast iseaten? And there are answers that could be given to this question; in fact this question lends itself nicely to sceptical arguments over who is causing what andwhat its effects will be. However, the interest here is in how claims of socialchange are not dismissed as implausible or unsubstantiated. This is where wehave to turn to what these daily public occasions make available.
Coulter’s (2001) remarks on the ‘macro-social’ are useful in considering how
we apprehend the public nature of time; he takes the crowd as a nice example ofimmediately observable macro-phenomena in everyday life. While some socialinstitutions such as banks or hospitals are only partially instantiated in theirmaterial structures, the crowd seems satisfyingly ‘there’. No wonder that thecrowd be it in the street or on the beach has been popular in consideration ofmacro-social forces. Yet what is hopefully becoming clear from my descriptionof one café’s breakfast hours unfolding is that, much like the traffic jam, notonly is it staffed by members who ensure its existence: it is also a site of itsmembers’ recognition of each crowd as a typical instance of what it is and bytheir local inquiries into what could be causing it. Inquiries that only exception-ally turn towards our
practices as causing it, and more often turn towards causes elsewhere.
LAURIER: HOW BREAKFAST HAPPENS IN THE CAFÉ
In analysing a conversation between two employees of a department store
about an event that occurred outside their front door, Sacks (1992b) shows howthe crowd that gathers as witnesses, gawpers and investigators assists theemployee in seeing the event as possibly a robbery and as something reportableat a later date. In fact, Sacks is pointing towards that general feature of a crowdof onlookers in cities: if they are gathering, then there is some event occurringwhich will be tell-able at a later date. To have a story to tell with the authority ofan eyewitness is quite a lure to join the crowd and see what they are looking at,since, even if it’s not your business to do something about what it is they arelooking at, it is to have something to tell later of which you were a firsthand witness (see Sacks, 1992a) on ‘entitlements to experience’ and ‘rights to tell astory’). Unlike the onlookers after a robbery, the café crowd is differently produced. It is not a one-off thing, it is there almost every day and is utterly commonplace to the staff and to the regulars. And yet, this is not to say that thestaff have not analysed the crowd several times over for what it is like, who composes it, whether it is growing or declining and what its normal appearancesare, how it compares today to yesterday or a day last week. As inhabitants of thiscity, we are all inquirers into its appearing or disappearing daily rhythms, whichwe check with our friends and colleagues as to whether they see such things aschanging, or whether our encounter with a crowd was a one-off blip. Given thatthere are crowds of people out for breakfast, we are willing to speculate and perhaps become theorists of, and on, whether cappuccinos and lattes for break-fast in some way destroys our sense of being Bostonians, Milanese, Glaswegianor Londoners. We can sip our cappuccino, without great remark from others andfeel cosmopolitan, part of here and now, ‘to welcome the influence of the worldor not’ (Blum, 2003: 128).
What this shift in the morning routine also raises is a question of experi-
mentation with daily urban rhythms, as do the various struggles over night-timein the city (Blum, 2003); an experimentation that is not only about how we orga-nize transporting ourselves from home to workplace as I raised earlier in the fieldwork notes. In that sense we might heed Lefebvre’s warning about thecolonization of the everyday as breakfast time becomes a scheduling device forthe better transportation of the workers, a province of paying for costly Costacoffee while also being better stimulated for economic productivity. The experimenting is about more than colonization, since having our breakfast outoffers an ambiguous
connection between enjoying
life in the city with a freshlybaked pain au chocolat
in a buzzing crowd of others, and those still uncertainrhythms of productivity arriving with the rapid extension of the espresso caféindustry.
Thanks go to Chris Philo, Jon Hindmarsh, Barry Brown, Mike Crang, Robert Hassan and
the anonymous referees who have helped pull an untidy, crumpled paper together; the
UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) who funded the project ‘The
Cappuccino Community: Cafés and Civic Life in the Contemporary City’; and to Monika
Buscher for organizing the British Sociological Association memorial session for Deirdre
Boden to whom this article is dedicated.
1. During a 30-month ESRC-funded study (R000239797) Chris Philo and I carried out
ethnographic fieldwork in a number of different cafés in Edinburgh, Glasgow,
Manchester and London (Laurier and Philo, 2005).
2. Square brackets are used to ‘bracket out’ the assumption that we already know what
we are talking about in mentioning a phenomenon. Their use was originally in
phenomenology to suspend the assumption that we know what a thing is a priori
3. In their study the question that Garfinkel and Sudnow return to several times is ‘has
the lecture begun yet?’ and later [the lecture room is starting to fill up].
4. Alongside the time spent ‘sampling’ café breakfasts in numerous cafés, café staff and
owners were interviewed about their cafés and the place of them in people’s daily
routines as well as the particular crowds that came to their café
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ERIC LAURIER is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of
Geography, University of Edinburgh. Recently he completed a 30-month
project funded by the ESRC ‘The Cappuccino Community: Cafés and Civic
Life in the Contemporary City’. ADDRESS: Institute of Geography,
University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9XP, UK.
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