Y ou could walk by the Temescal Cafe a dozen times and never notice it. The neighborhood coffeehouse at 50th and Telegraph is low-profile to the point of invisible, its one small sign mounted high above normal pedestrian sightlines. Even if you knew where to look, there's no guarantee you'd get in. The cafe is blessed and cursed with heavy, ten-foot-tall sliding glass doors. The doors make up the Temescal's entire west wall, infusing the space with the sun-dappled ambience of a sidewalk cafe.
The portals are beautiful, but require a certain amount of dexterity to breach. Newcomers usually try to shove the big doors inward on nonexistent hinges. Cafe regulars sitting near the entry have evolved a pantomime for just this situation. It's an ungainly dance -- one that looks like someone playing a particularly recalcitrant accordion. After a few moments, though, the dance works its instructive magic, the doors slide apart, and an embarrassed newcomer has taken his or her first step toward becoming a Temescal veteran.
The trial-by-door is part of the cafe's welcoming charm. Once you're in, you're in. And as East Bay cafes go, there are few better places to be "in" than the Temescal Cafe. The space is large and tables plentiful. Light pools in the clay-colored floors, and Dinah Washington drifts softly from the speakers. Patrons -- white and black, Asian and Latino, office types and blue-collar workers -- lounge at the bar, chat at one of the large tables near the door, or leaf through newspapers from a comfortable wing chair in the back of the cafe.
This unhurried, neighborhood vibe makes the Temescal Cafe an unlikely home to a booming business subculture. The solid glass entryway has become the door of opportunity for a group of self-employed East Bay residents who come here every day to set up shop. The signs of their existence are mostly electronic -- laptops clustered on tables by the cafe's outlets, noise-cutting headphones with their coiled black cords, Palm Pilots resting next to half-eaten bagels, cell phones with the ringers set on low.
These clues reveal the presence of office squatters, a dedicated group of workers who rent their workplaces one latte at a time. They are a disparate lot, composed of everyone from MBA-wielding entrepreneurial types, plotting their empires over cranberry scones, to recently downsized 9-to-5'ers, hustling contract work to cover the next mortgage payment.
For this small group, the Temescal Cafe is both cubicle and cafeteria, break room and boardroom. Workers may get their mail at home, but they do almost everything else in the cafe -- from returning phone calls to launching Web sites. Like the early adopters of cell phones, office squatters are raising questions about etiquette and technology faster than culture can answer them. Two things are clear, however. Their numbers are on the rise, and cafe culture will never be the same.
With his shaved head, blond goatee, and pierced ear tragus, Todd Spitzer, 35, looks more like an angsty artist than a young professional. But his Macintosh G3 laptop, Palm Pilot, and cell phone -- not to mention the sheer number of hours he logs in the cafe -- give him away. Office squatters are as likely to use their laptops to design miniature golf courses as they are to perform the more predictable chores of novel writing or proofreading. No one offers better evidence of this diversity than Spitzer: From his table at the Temescal Cafe, he is running a church.
The church he runs, Regeneration, is located three blocks up the street at iMusicast, a space normally rented out for promotional Internet Webcasts of rock bands. Regeneration started in 1999 as Bible study for people who don't like church. As the group has grown, Spitzer and his nonconformist congregation have made short shrift of the more staid rituals of institutional Christianity. Quiet hymns have been trashed in favor of rock or electronic performances. Spitzer's preaching (he calls it "teaching" to get away from preaching's sanctimonious connotations) is informal and exploratory. And instead of watered-down juice and stale coffee, Spitzer makes sure everyone is adequately wired on Peet's rocket fuel before the ceremonies commence.
Spitzer's unconventional church has been a hit -- Regeneration started with eight people and has grown to 175 members. And what once required a few hours of preparation has become a full-time job for Spitzer. His laptop, loaded with bookkeeping software, an encyclopedia of biblical places and figures, and a Web-design program, allows him to run the church from his Temescal neighborhood home. But home, he's found, isn't such an easy place to get things done.
"I get too ADD at home," Spitzer explains, a boyish grin spreading across his face. "I'll be sitting there working, and I'll see something sitting on a table and I'll start getting involved with that. I'd get distracted. But here, even though there's more going on, it's easier to tune out and focus on what I'm doing."
It's an oft-heard refrain from office squatters, and a lesson Spitzer first learned two years ago while helping his wife launch a home-based PR company. Cooped up at home, the two experimented with doing some of their work at the nearby Temescal Cafe. The tumult of the cafe kept them energized enough to stay focused on the work at hand. The arsenal of stimulants available didn't hurt either. And office squatting enhances more than just productivity, as Spitzer has discovered running Regeneration. For small East Bay businesses shell-shocked by the current state of rents, an informal, bagel-by-bagel lease also is a tremendous boon to the company's bottom line.
"We're totally funded by donations," Spitzer says of his church. "I think it's important to spend that money responsibly. Why spend $1,500 a month on office space when that's money we could use for the community?"
Having such a public office fits in well with Regeneration's goal of being out among the people they're trying to serve. For the gregarious Spitzer, it's also a chance to introduce the Regeneration concept to potential church members.
"If I sit home, it's just me and my books," he says. "I'm not paying attention to reality. Out here you get the pulse of the community. You see where people are at -- how they think and how they feel. You get really good conversations."
As Spitzer talks, his words are drowned out by the spitting wheeze of the espresso machine and the sound of the cafe doors opening and closing. From two tables down, a laptop boots up with an electronic burble. After a year of working in the cafe, Spitzer hears it all, but registers none of it.
From that laptop, two tables down, office squatter Jeremy Frankel is just starting his workday.
Frankel hasn't worked a 9-to-5 office job in the thirteen years he's lived in the United States. An American citizen born and raised in Britain, he is too independent to work well within the confines of an office. A mapmaker by training, Frankel has spent many of his 48 years developing an eye for detail and a passion for geographic minutiae. Canals are his greatest love -- he's spent a vast amount of time on waterways throughout Britain and upstate New York, floating at a snail's pace, working on mapping, restoration, and educational projects for nonprofits and a local boat touring company.
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