As cafes cease being hangouts for friends—and Friends, even—and turn into bean boutiques and bankers' hours "coffices" filled with solitary laptop loafers, Southeast Grind endures as a well-worn hub for weary souls who want nothing more than a busted La-Z-Boy and a goddamn cup of coffee. A place that never closes attracts—or maybe even creates—a special kind of addled wraith. To understand them, I figured it would be best to join them. Armed with a laptop, some books and a mountain of overdue writing assignments, I spent 24 (almost) uninterrupted hours descending into a caffeinated fugue state in search of the heart of Southeast Grind.
The Southeast Grind Project
11:15 am: Order a 20-ounce coffee and get settled at a window seat. Only two other people are in the entire place at midmorning—the polar opposite of any other coffee shop in town. No yoga moms with strollers, and no old ladies acting catatonic when the quiche is gone. I could get used to this!
12:30 pm: The barista asks a guy at the counter to knock it off with the speakerphone turned up to 11, and he politely complies. Unprecedented!
1:05 pm: A woman arrives with a preschool-aged child. They start to play a board game with all sorts of loud, ratchety sound effects. Inevitable. A young hippy couple that appears to be stranded makes a few anguished phone calls that sound like responses to a Craiglist housing scenario. I put out an open call to friends on Facebook asking for company. No one seems to know where this place is.
1:30 pm: The young mom tells her son it's time to go because "the game is too loud." Time for more coffee.
2:15 pm: Coffee refill. Again. I'm jacked already, but I feel bad sitting here without buying anything. I'm up to 40 ounces and starting to wonder how much longer I'll be able to keep this up. The girl behind the counter says it's weird to see a regular who stopped by in the daytime. The music has been a pleasing mix of post-rock and mellow ambient electronic—lots of the Album Leaf, Calla, and Signal Hill. All in all, this place is downright pleasant when the sun is up.
4:10 pm: I order a Fab Tab sandwich (turkey, bacon, avocado, provolone), the first thing I've eaten all day besides a protein bar at my apartment this morning. Thank God this place has decent food.
5:22 pm: A small crew of doofy middle-aged guys has assembled in the middle of the room. One of them is hacking away at some game on his smartphone that sounds like the Foley track from an episode of Tim and Eric. Come to think of it, these guys could easily be extras on the show. More coffee! (60 ounces.)
7:30 pm: The girl behind the counter asks if I was getting a lot done, which may be a clever way of asking how long I plan to loiter. I told her I was attempting to set the record for hanging out the longest. She said, to her knowledge, two days was the longest.
8:15 pm: A friend suggests via text that I line up Tinder dates. "Would you go on a Tinder date here?" I ask. "Ha-ha-ha, no!" she replies. I look around suspiciously for awkward Internet dates and spot what looks like one directly behind me: a pair of goth kids sipping hot cocoa.
9:40 pm: Shift change for the customers, as the place fills up. A klatch of college students with blue hair take over the couch to speak what sounds like programming language. Never mind—they're actually speaking another human language. A gang of crust-funders assembles at the table behind me. My mind is shooting back and forth like a pinball. When did Jimmy John's bike delivery guy become the default job for militant straight-edge vegan kids? I should buy more coffee, but I can't even hold a pen steady.
11:15 pm: Halfway there. Tally so far: at least two weird Internet dates, one homeless person, countless middle-aged men, and one stripper. A tame night. I've heard "Untitled" by the XX three times, and "Always Familiar" by Pretty Lights at least that many times. I hope someone here is writing code for a better version of Pandora, because this one is terrible.
12:45 am: I'm up to 100 ounces of coffee and drinking it just to have something to do with my hands while I plow through ESPN documentaries. I order a hummus plate, which is probably a bad move because I'm not as comfortable passing gas in public as the guy sleeping on the couch.
2:15 am: I've been drinking two cups of coffee a day for five years, and have finally hit the event horizon. Time slows down. Music sounds slower than it actually is. Time for an Americano to maintain velocity.
3:56 am: A small clique of gamers discusses failed campaigns and a planned insurrection against its game master. Should I alert the authorities?
4:31 am: I wake up with my head on the table and look around to see if anyone noticed that I'm now the passed-out guy at the coffee shop. Oddly, the scene is now like a daytime coffice. I can't tell who just got up and who's still awake.
5:13 am: Blue-collar workers with fresh Carhartts and wet hair pass through for mochas and Americanos. It's comforting to know there's a non-Starbucks option for the everyman open in the nether hours. I log on to Netflix and watch my 10th episode of Bob's Burgers. I have six hours left to transcribe this 30-minute interview—what's the rush?
6:45 am: It's now starting to feel like "tomorrow." I order another Americano, splash water on my face in the restroom, and scan The New York Times website to trick myself into thinking I'm a citizen of the world.
7:20 am: I wake up and realize I pulled my hat over my eyes and dozed off again. A friend texts me asking if I'm still chasing this absurd delusion. I ask him to save me and head out to my van to grab my toothbrush and contemplate taking a nap. Snap out of it, man! Can you not follow through on even one thing in your life?
10:05 am: My friend Keith briefly joins me. Besides my brief exchanges with the barista, I realize I have not interacted with a human being in almost a day. Here I am, surrounded by people in a coffee shop, and yet I feel lost in a private world. I must have refreshed my Facebook feed 30 times. No wonder friends who post 20 updates a day seem more deranged than the ones who've had the same profile picture since college. They are trapped in the prison of self.
11:15 am: No victory has felt more hollow than this one: 140 ounces of coffee, no friends, and less than two hours of actual work completed. A derelict talking to himself and nodding off in the corner is guaranteed to break nearly anyone's resolve, but after a mere 80 ounces of coffee, I was on the verge of being that person. Nothing short of peeing your pants or throwing things at the barista would get you kicked out of this place. After 24 hours, I have finally learned the secret of Southeast Grind: It is forever, and eternity will drive anyone crazy.