Crazy, I know. But largely, that’s what I do.
I often work at the many grand coffee shops of Reykjavík: Kaktus, Kaffihús Vesturbæjar, Ida, Reykjavík Roasters. My latest love is Coocoo’s Nest, a short eight-minute walk from my house. It has a perfect atmosphere, great food, fancy tea, wonderful staff, good whisky, and long opening hours (in corona times, it’s blessedly quiet!).
I’m not the only one. Wherever I go, many people use coffee houses like ambulating offices, in a wonderful throw-back to London’s 18th century stock markets — a historical episode that I have studied a bit. Unlike them, but very much like people in my position (writers, photo editors, business managers, university students), we’re usually alone, pounding away at our computers. What unites most of us is that we’re usually sitting there occupying a table for two accompanied by nothing more than our elaborate combinations of laptops, gadgets, beverages, and perhaps a snack.
When I’m there, I usually consume some stuff. After an hour or two, most people who do need to visit the bathroom. How mundane: tea and coffee going in inevitably means that something else is going out.
A prudent person, distrustful of strangers and working along in a coffee shop would pack up their belongings and bring them into the restroom. Thieves can be anywhere, right, and let’s not make it easy for them.
But I don’t.
Instead, I usually just pop into the restroom for the 45 seconds it takes to do my business and then come back out again — and alas, my things are untouched! But someone could steal them, I hear you object, and I hear my mother’s shrill voice howling the exact same thing.
Yes. It’s a risk — a microscopic risk. Crime rates are very low in Iceland; I’m in civilised places with a lot of other people exposed to the same risks and in very similar situations to me. Mutually so: I watch your stuff and you’ll watch mine. How likely is it that a thief with intent to steal valuables would a) be in the café while I am there, b) be in a position to snatch my stuff, and c) be that in the exact 45 seconds I visit the bathroom?
Microscopic. Then again, as I learned from Jared Diamond way back when, microscopic risks repeated over and over through your life add up. And the damage should somebody nick my computer is very large. So why do I do it?
Well, to some extent it’s just pure laziness: it’s too much of a hassle to pack my computer and drag my bag into the restroom for the few moments I spend there.
Deeper than that, I think it’s some kind of public good-signalling: I broadcast, widely and credibly, to my fellow coffee shoppers that I trust them not to rob me of my belongings. That creates the kind of social environment I want: a trustful, safe one, where leaving your belongings in the open isn’t a big deal.
Moreover, the more I become a regular customer, the less concerned I am, as the baristas know me and keep a lookout for my stuff. There’s no express agreement, and there’s no guaranteeing that they’d actually step in to prevent a prospective thief mid-crime — but the fact that baristas are around (and that they know me) should deter most thieves from attempting something that reckless and risky.
In a low-crime, harmless place like Iceland, I go to the bathroom with next-to-no-qualms. Truly, nothing is going to happen. In the busy central café of downtown Malmö, Sweden, that I sometimes frequent, I am much more hesitant. It’s much larger, with two floors, and has a much wider clientele — and my sister once had her computer stolen in exactly that place. That experience is often present in my head: at some point, this might happen to me, too.
In somewhat-higher-crime Costa Rica, I was always much more vigilant and suspicious. Naturally. For the first few weeks at wonderful Café Nórdico in Tamarindo, I would dutifully pack up my computer and bring it into the restroom. That felt safer; can’t trust these ticos and detached backpackers.
After a while, getting to know most of the staff, I stopped.
Besides, nobody else among the half-dozen or so other nomads working away at their laptops went through with this elaborate minimising of miniscule risks. The responsibility if something happens is still mine, and the loss most certainly mine, but for some reason there’s this implicit agreement between host and patron that the former looks out for the latter. Creating a space that’s calm and safe and inviting is after all how they make their living; our incentives are aligned, if at any rate, asymmetric.
In the wonderful hostel in Montezuma, CR, that was my home for a blissful six weeks, I knew — or knew of — everyone there. Same story: after a while, me and the other girl often working away overlooking that azure-coloured Golfo de Nicoya would trust each other and our fellow hostel stayers.
There was another instance of extreme trust during my stay in good old Proyecto, one that I probably shouldn’t tell my bank or insurance company about. A Canadian girl who I had known for only a few days — friendly, trustworthy, lovely, but still a stranger — had to go to town to get some cash.
In mostly-cash economies, ATMs are annoying gatekeepers: and in Montezuma, you had to go to the next town. I also needed to refill my wallet, but had tons of work that day and wasn’t ready to engage in the three-hour round trip that the endeavour required.
I hesitated for a minute before I decided to trust the girl—and then I gave her my bank card, wrote down the PIN, and how much cash I wanted. I asked if she was comfortable doing it, and she shrugged her shoulders and said “sure, why not?”.
Deciding to overrule the little voice in the back of my head informing me how monumentally stupid this was (“what if she takes all your money? You just got paid — how will you survive for the next month?!”), I went ahead with it. I kept a close look at my phone, which would soothingly alert me the minute my card was used, and waited.
When the notification showed up, it was for the amount I had asked for — not the full account balance. So far, so good.
A few hours later she returned, diligently returned my card and my cash. I had had nothing to worry about. (To be fair, I had some collateral: all her belongings were in the hostel, in the next room from where I was sitting. If she wanted her stuff back, she’d had to return).
I think about this occasion a lot. Complete strangers, from opposite sides of the Atlantic, who do not share family ties, have never seen each other before, and had no reason to believe that we would again. This is what economists call a One-Shot Game; much ink has been spilled over whyever people would trust each other in such games. There’s no gain and no threat of retaliation: just take the stuff and run!
But we don’t. And we choose to trust each other. Most of us humans are pretty decent folk — and most of us cooperate, even with strangers we’ll never see again. Besides, backpacker communities or café-working communities can easily identify with one another: we are in the same boat, metaphorically speaking, and share the same risks and perspectives and routines.
We behave. And we cooperate. That’s truly fascinating — and in no small part a reason why our world is so rich and flourishing. It’s a trait I want to pay forward, a club I want to be part of.
Trusting strangers: scary, counter-intuitive, but oh, so rewarding.