A Clean, Well-Lighted (Third) Place

ABOUT A year ago or more, I broke up with my coffeehouse.

There were problems, warning signs, but I chose to ignore them. Sometimes it was too cold in there. Other times, I didn’t quite vibe with the music that was playing. Or how they’d pick up your newspaper before you finished reading it. These things, I figured I could manage, overlook. But there was a larger problem afoot.

When I would order my drink, a drink I’ve been ordering for years, some of the newer baristas would correct me. “Oh, what you should be ordering is this.” Or “Next time you order it, tell them this way.” Time and time again, even with the new instructions, the drink would be wrong — too milky, not hot enough — and quite honestly really too expensive not to ask them to make it again. The last straw was when one of the newer ones, told me that I was “dead wrong.” And so, well, since then, I’ve taken my “dead wrong” $$ elsewhere.

It’s hard to be without a place.

Since the breakup, I’d been trying other places. I’d met new, friendly baristas who have told me about their belly-dancing class, or how they escaped the big fires last summer or the shock of their husband losing his job: “He didn’t even tell me at first. They fired him and instead of coming home he went to look for another job. Well, things are kinda stressful. I’m expecting a baby.”

I liked this group of girls tending bar but the location wasn’t right. It was a little kiosk stuck in the middle of two bigbox stores. The coffee was good, the quick conversation better. There was no place to sit and read and eavesdrop and talk, really. And I knew, for a set-up like this, that that wasn’t the aim.

My reason for starting to go out for coffee, even if it is just one glorious cup, is that writers live such isolated lives. It gets strange in your head. Even if you’re working in a newsroom there is something to the bullpen situation — when you come up for air after deadline there is always a conversation to be found.

This is the beauty of the third space — the place between work and home, a place to connect and share. Not so much to catch up on the headlines in life (as we do in the newsroom) but rather to feel out what those headlines might mean, how they might translate in real life.

About a month or so ago, I was speaking to a pastry chef named Cynthia who works in a cafe nearby. It’s a big, new beautiful cafe — gorgeous light, a community table, fresh- cut flowers everywhere. The pastry chef was telling me that they had made a decision *not* to add Wi-Fi because, she said, “It creates a dead space.”

I carried that around for awhile. Here but not here. Yes, of course.

When I think back to my earliest coffeehouse, where you picked up someone’s hand-me-down newspaper, or sifted through the pile of give-away paperbacks, all that was just one layer of connection to the many folks who had passed through those doors. There were the regulars and the conversations that they would bring in with them. You could join in or choose not to, but everyone who was a regular was remembered. Nodded to. Just recently, I encountered a woman whom I didn’t know. She however said she remembered me from the coffee house — my writing pads, newspapers and pens spread out. — the precise table I always chose (in the window-seat — bench) This is more than ten years on!

I remember one morning, a day or so after the big earthquake, I met my friend Linda, who lived above the coffeehouse. We hoped they’d be open. They were. And even though there wasn’t power, the barista tried to figure out a way to cobble together refreshments for the locals: some sandwiches and pastries, as she recapped the first few hours after the temblor, “One thing I learned, people’s privates become public,” she said with a smile, looking ceiling-ward, toward the apartments above. “Now, I don’t have to guess anymore. They all tumbled out of bed and onto the street. I know exactly who is partnered up with whom!”

I think that’s true of a true third space — the idea that something that can’t be uttered at work or at home can be shared in the safe middle space of a third space.

As author Robert Oldenburg pointed out in his book “The Great Good Place” the third place isn’t simply about the food, what makes it significant to those who congregate is that sense of connection. It should feel like an extension of yourself a place to find new friends and encounter older ones. It should be welcoming. It should feel comfortable.

About three weeks ago, I ran into two very old friends at a newish coffeehouse, I’d been trying out — to write and read and think in. I was surprised to see them both — even though, they both live five minutes from me and probably only ten from the cafe, it made sense. Why wouldn’t I see them here. Really amazing coffee, nice morning vibe.

On Christmas Eve, I went in for a cappuccino and since I hadn’t been in for a few days, one of the baristas gave me one on the house, “A holiday thank you,” she said.

Just yesterday, I came in for a quick “regular”; sat down at a random table and flipped open the novel I’m reading and tried to get lost in it for a while. Before long a different barista sailed by, gently lifting ceramic demitasse cups and glass decanters from the speckled tables. In his wake, he turned and smiled before speaking:

“Your table is free now.”

I didn’t know he paid that much attention.

I guess it snuck up on me, like the real thing does: I finally found my thrid-place home.

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2 thoughts on “A Clean, Well-Lighted (Third) Place

  1. i had three places in berkeley: the med, roma, and pasqua (until starbucks bought them and used them as a “lab” for introducing food and non-coffee beverages). occasionally strada, but only because of its proximity to the radio station. when i moved to boston i was sad about giving up my workstations but i figured i’d find something.

    i was wrong.

    i don’t drink coffee so i need a place that does my other vices well. iced tea (even in winter), soy hot chcocolate, an occasional nosh. for a metro area that has more colleges and universities per capita than the rest of the US combined you wouldn’t think it was hard. the reality here: chains rule. starbucks is the hang of choice for those that hang, and au bon pain for those looking for something more in the way of a pastry fix, but the working class rules when it comes to coffee and that means a go-cup from dunkin’ donuts.

    a donut shop that can’t even get donuts right.

    i’ve queried other writers and creative types and they all eak out local spots here and there, and everyone says you have to go to neighborhoods around harvard for the coffeehouse feel, but that’s not local, not my hood, not the point.

    uptight boston is trying to shake some of its blueblood stiffness but it always runs up against the traditions of its ethic communities. the irish prefer their blue collar pubs, the russians their secretive tea rooms, the italians their cafes that either cater to tourists or the bocce ball set. you can’t even get into the museum cafes without a paid admission.

    no one here gets it. add it to the very small list of things i miss about the west coast.

  2. i didn’t know you didn’t drink coffee? did i always know that??
    very interesting what you say about the ethnic “third places.” it does exist here, too. when i meet people from different corners of the world that’s when i get to go to the more off-the-grid places that i wouldn’t know about otherwise . community spots. taste of home.
    here, thirty years back there was not much. remember? i would go to venice (the rose, etc.) but it wasn’t until much later i discovered the onyx and onyx sequel … moving to sf spoiled me. and even to this day in north beach, they know my coffee at roma and at trieste. i’ve been going across the street more, but i like wandering in and letting them start making the coffee without me having to utter a word. that’s community (and good business).
    so weird that there is so little there. i would have thought, as you suggest, that even being close to a city that is filled with students seeking light, tables, caffeine that it would be a natural. maybe that’s your side business?

    i miss cafe med! i used to go there at least once a week w/ shelley when i lived up there. it was my big trip — the M-car, to BART and then that long walk…I don’t think I’ve had a latte since then. There’s were the best. Didn’t they do that almond milk? Wait, is that what you used to get?

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