The front pages are full of disturbing news about terror attacks, the economy, car makers, and dismal holiday sales, among other panic-inducing headlines. But Gregory Rodriguez, the Los Angeles Times columnist, found himself at Starbucks the other day, worrying instead about the death of the cafe (see this New York Times story). We've talked before about the idea of a "third place"... not home, not work, but a place to gather and be yourself. Rodriguez's point: with all the gloomy headlines, we need our third places now more than ever.
I've been hanging out in various "third places" for years, and it has broadened my world. In Berkeley in my undergraduate days, I spent a portion of nearly every evening at the Cafe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue. In the company of older eggheads and the brilliant Italian-born cafe manager, I learned how to negotiate alien views of the world. They'd tease me about my awkward social skills and embarrass me when they could, but night after night they welcomed me in their mini-universe.
When I lived in New York, I ate dinner nearly every night at Veselka, a Ukrainian coffee shop. I worked as a slave in the book publishing industry, and sometimes, a young Polish cook named Woijech would make me half a chicken cutlet sandwich and charge me accordingly. The regulars were a lot more world-weary and cynical than the idealists back in Berkeley, and the clientele fluctuated more often. At Veselka, I really learned to chat with strangers.
Some of the strangers there have become acquaintances, and some acquaintances have become friends. What they confirm for me is that civic life isn't about structure; we don't have to play softball or volunteer for a cause to better engage with our world.
And yes, he points out that no matter how bad things get, "at least we can go for coffee or a glass of wine and learn how everyone else is holding up, or just leave it all behind."