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Confession over Starbucks seat hogging debate: I was a seat hogger too

ST reporter Jalelah Abu Baker, then a student, studying at a McDonald's in 2005. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
ST reporter Jalelah Abu Baker, then a student, studying at a McDonald's in 2005. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - When I first read the reactions to a young student’s complaint on the Starbucks’ Facebook page after her unattended items got cleared, I recoiled in horror. You mean customer is not king?

The post unleashed a wave of anger against us seat hoggers. Yes, I am guilty of having been one.

Flashback to almost a decade ago, and I was a permanent fixture at the Bukit Merah branch of McDonald’s. It was 2005, the year I took my A-Level examinations and the year I decided my brains worked better in the darkness of the night.

Having experienced my mother’s death just months before, home was too still a place, and sometimes too painful as well. It also did not help that my concentration would waver every three seconds, and I would be raiding the fridge, or typing away at my computer, chatting with fellow "sufferers" about studying, instead of actually studying.

I decided I was better off out of the house.

I chose McDonald’s because in the good old days, there were not many air-conditioned options friendly to the student wallet. In the beginning, I would buy the bare minimum- an apple pie, a drink, an ice cream cone. As days passed, and the delivery men became my friends, I stopped all pretence of formality. I would hog the seat shamelessly from about 10pm to 6am, taking the first bus home.

It felt good knowing others, namely the staff, were awake with me, by choice or not. I formed easy friendships with them, as they curiously asked me what I was doing. And then they were more than happy to refill my water bottle. Once in a while, I invited friends, and the fastfood outlet became the best place to discuss questions. Quiet, cold and soaked in the aroma of food.

In a way, I am guilty of doing what student Yap Huixin did. The Millennia Institute student has brewed a storm after her complaint on Oct 26 went viral online. Staff at the Citylink Mall outlet cleared her belongings when she went away for 30 minutes, and threw her coffee away.

I used to slip out of Mcdonald’s to get cheaper coffee at another 24-hour restaurant nearby. I would stay outside for half an hour, even an hour sometimes, assuming that my belongings would be safe. The difference between me and Yap, I guess, is that, my seat was not the stuff of contention. If my seat had competition it'd have only been right to give it up and make way for others. The place was built for business, not studying, after all.

That's why not all days were good for studying even in those wee hours. Distractingly, I saw all sorts of characters visiting the outlet. An avid people-watcher, I drank in the sight of an old man and his bevy of young foreign beauties, women and men with their pyjama-clad children in tow, and young couples staring into each other’s love-crossed eyes. I even had to ward off weirdos trying to talk to me once in a while.

And some days, I was just too tired to study. All those years ago, a Straits Times reporter caught me on one of those days, when I started studying at 8pm, and decided to leave at 12am. I was apparently part of a trend of young people studying out of home.

What can I say? Some things don’t change.