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The Laptop Nomads

They're in every Starbucks and coffee shop; even sometimes in churches. Who are they? What are they typing? Don't they have a job? For the first time, one of these strangers speaks.

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I used to have a real sweet office in Times Square, as sweet and rundown an office as a sweet and run-down guy like me could ever hope to have. The sub-Chandleresque firetrap was located up three flights of creaky, cockeyed stairs. Every day, I would arrive via what was once called the Double R train, nod to Mike the barber ($7 for the standard Grecian flattop) and Carlos the tailor (from Buenos Aires, he had cards for gaucho steakhouses), and trudge up to my ten-by-eight room off the air shaft. I'd close the door, drink a cup of coffee, light up a joint, turn on my Zenith 8680, peer down at the quivery blue letters, and start to type. In my writer's life, it is hard to remember ever being happier.

I was there on and off for almost ten years, from 1988 through early 1997, and never paid more than $200 a month. For months at a time I paid nothing, there being long stretches when no one seemed to own the building and, therefore, no one was around to take the rent. Next to a bathroom that grew only more disgusting after some derelict robbed the plunger, the place had its quirks. For a while, I thought it was haunted by Peter Noone. At oddly regular intervals, subliminal strains of the Herman Hermits song "I'm Into Something Good" filled the room. It wasn't until weeks later, when I saw The Naked Gun, which happened to be playing at the now-shuttered Embassy 47th Street, that I realized the song accompanied the movie's closing credits and I'd been hearing it through who-knew-how-many layers of walls.

The Russian girls enhanced the work environment. There were dozens of them around the corner, at Peepland, where they stood naked behind movable screens, bidding patrons to touch them, "two dollars for zah top, three for zah bottom." It was better than watching Gorbachev eat a slice of pizza at Sbarro's at 47th and Broadway, the area's previous Soviet connection. When their shift was over, the girls who weren't herded into Econoline vans by their vinyl-jacketed Brighton Beach mobster keepers could be found in Spirits, a grotty cave of a bar on the ground floor of my building, a place that maintained a working black-and-white television deep into the nineties. Ludmilla, a fabulous redhead with chalk-white skin and a silver eyebrow ring, was my favorite. Sometimes, I'd buy her a drink or two and listen to how she fed animals during her childhood on the farm collective outside Moscow.

Now it is all gone, except for Mike and Carlos, who must know where the bodies are buried. The fleabag hotel next door is a Quality Inn, Spirits is the Pig and Whistle, and Ludmilla, chased by Rudy, is no doubt slaving away for some escort service in Kew Gardens. As for my little office, there's probably a couple of dot-coms crammed in there. The rent went up to $1,000 -- from nothing to $1,000; is that legal? -- so now I'm gone, too, run out of Times Square with the rest. Officewise, it has never been the same.

I've tried working in several locales. The so-called "home office" sorely lacking in requisite tranquility, I rented a room at the YWCA in downtown Brooklyn, the only hovel I found under $700 suitable to my exceedingly modest needs. But there was a heat hassle, especially when the wind blew through uncaulked windows. I searched the local bulletin boards for space, only to see ads for "room in house, must respect my vegan lifestyle," which sounded like a lot to ask.

Given a denominational choice, I type with the Catholics. The only problem is the plug-in. Most of their really evocative churches predate the electricians union, and for the traveling scribbler, the outlet is the grail.

So I've become mobile, working all over town -- have G3, will travel. I am not alone. These days, it is difficult to enter any place with a milk steamer and magazine rack and not see several typers, laptop covers perpendicular to Formica tables, batting away.

A new kind of nomad has arisen amid the New York real-estate crunch, the keyboarding vagabond, the itinerant lit worker.

Right now I am typing in the back pews of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on 55th Street. For the roving urban scrivener, nothing beats the hallowed expanse of the 42nd Street Library Reading Room, but for those not in the immediate neighborhood, religious buildings suffice. There's plenty of room, plenty of quiet. On the off-chance you're praying, no one hassles you. Once, while I was typing at a synagogue on the West Side, a janitor asked what I was doing there, but I just said, "I'm Jewish -- isn't that enough?" and he went away. Given a denominational choice, however, I type with the Catholics, amid the icons of a place like Saint Francis Xavier on 16th near Sixth. That mysterioso vibe really pumps the old creative juices.

The only problem with Catholic churches is the plug-in. Most of the really evocative ones predate the electricians union, and for the traveling scribbler, the outlet is the grail. An expiring battery is counterproductive to carefully constructed prose. So I transmigrate toward the Presbyterians, although the Episcopalians are also good. They're modern, have done renovations; the wiring is up to code. You can plug in. Plus, on 55th Street today, the organist is practicing, whipping those giant pipes through a Bach chorale, throwing in a funky blue note here and there. It sure beats sitting under fluorescent lights in a soul-killing cubicle.

Churches are certainly preferable to bars, at least the ones I tend to frequent, where it is difficult to get through a paragraph without some rum-pot coming over to chew the fat. For instance, I was trying to get some work done amid the midday gloom and mildew of the Rogers Irish House on Beach and 116th Street in Rockaway when this deeply pickled passel of guzzlers surrounded me, transfixed by my screen as if watching the discovery of fire. Computer-literate they were not. "What's that? What's it say?" they marveled. I changed the font for them, made the letters real big, but they still stood there, coated tongues hanging, like the primates in 2001 regarding the monolith.

That's when I hit the road. Car-typing is especially well suited to setting a sense of place. Instead of putting on a Mingus record to summon the feel of the urban nightmare, you slap a converter into the cigarette lighter and go on location. Noirish scenes jump to life when composed (or decomposed) in the Dickensian shadow of the smokestacks of Schwartz Chemical Company in Long Island City or in the parking lot of Home Depot in Redhook. The thrum of passing trucks on the Gowanus Expressway gives hardboiled dialogue that extra snap. Or simply pull out the laptop when parked beside a hydrant in the middle of the midtown rush hour. Outside is madness, a smear of ambition and anxiety. Yet you, solitary in your Toyota cocoon, are invisible to the passing multitude, are as alone as if with quill pen and parchment deep in Thoreau's wood.

Even the dispossessed litterateur craves stability, though -- a place to call home, however fleetingly. A friend of mine wrote five chapters of a novel in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis Hotel. He would have preferred the Carlyle or the St. Regis, but because he's a science-fiction writer, which is synonymous with slob, he would have blown his cover, something no traveling scrivener can afford. Besides, the hideous bus-station-size eighth-floor Marriott lobby, with its glassed-in elevators gill-stuffed with goggle-eyed tourists, afforded the off-world-colony aura his work needed.

Myself, these days I'm often at the Fall Café on Brooklyn's formerly rundown Smith Street. A frumpy couch oasis of genteel bohemia amid a cookie-cutter sea of caffeine commodification, the Fall welcomes the rootless. Here, the outlets are never taped over like at the electricity-stingy Berry and Bean in Park Slope. I have often sat at the Fall from ten in the morning until sundown, plugged in, papers piled up, and no one has ever found fault with my presence. Ordering a latte every three hours, leaving big tips, and giving up the table if they get busy handles the rent. Plus, they don't play the same Starbucks music as the Milwaukee Starbucks. Ask what's on and someone will say, "the soundtrack from A Rage in Harlem -- is it great or what?"

At the Fall, the sweep of the city's art life unfolds. In the morning, the dreamers are there, young, tense, talking of their movies, their books. By lunch, the stroller brigade arrives, the noisy, cute kids and their sleepy parents alternately thrilled and resentful. By afternoon, the place fills with the slightly battered veterans, house painters and the like, unwinding from day jobs. In such a place, the itinerant lit worker finds solidarity. It was only last week that I began to plug in at the Fall only to find a woman at the next table reaching for the same outlet. There was only one open plug, a lamp stuck into the other slot. Recognizing our common need, we wordlessly agreed to unplug the lamp, throwing half the room into near darkness. No one complained. Officeless vagabonds know desperation when they see it.


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