Being a writer for many eons — since the November 1983, professionally — I get to know all the “third places” in whatever city or town I’m haunting at the moment.
Third place is a compelling concept. It harkens back to the old world tradition of people (men, exclusively, at first) who gathered together in a public place every day and socialized or simply grooved silently on each other’s company.
The term comes about from the idea that most people spend their days at work and at home. Two places. The old social gathering spots were, ergo, mens’ third place. Wikipedia says third places throughout history have included “churches, cafes, clubs, public libraries, bookstores or parks.”
I remember men of a certain age gathering in parks back in Chicago. They played chess in the Rogers Park neighborhood, for instance, or dominoes in Humboldt Park. Or they simply sat around, recalling their youth, bragging, complaining, or comparing the relative health of their bowel functions. Honest to gosh, that’s what aging men do — I never could figure out why older men were so obsessed with their bowels but now that I’ve become…, well, old I understand why.Wikipedia goes on to say:
On his influential book, The Great Good Place (1989), Ray Oldenburg argues that third places are important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place.
I have this romantic image of French esthetes, German intellectuals, Polish musicians, and Russian novelists sitting in boulevard cafes, day after day after day, sipping demitasses and arguing passionately about the coming revolution or the merits of atonal composition and never coming to any agreement. They’d accuse each other of being dense at the very least or, on particularly emotional days, slipping into psychopathy. Yet, they’d consider their rhetorical rivals their dearest friends, their feelings for each other warmer than those they had for their wives.
My old pal Sophia once told me about moving into a new neighborhood and ducking into a nearby cafe. The place was packed. As she opened the door and stepped in, all conversation stopped and all eyes in the place fixed on her. They were all male eyes. It turned out to be the unofficial gathering place — the third place — of local immigrants from somewhere in Eastern Europe or Greece, I forget which. She immediately felt threatened. Nobody menaced her, no one said anything to her, but a roomful of silent men, staring, would tend to make even the toughest among us jittery. That was 30 or so years ago.
Times, natch, have changed. Now, young moms, buskers, high school kids, graduate students writing their theses, office drones desperate to escape their cubicles, and, yes, aging men and many more make up the clientele of the average urban coffeehouse. The third place in America is rapidly becoming a true, inclusive community center.
In my day, I’ve claimed a number of coffeehouses as my third place. In Chicago, there were the Unicorn in Evanston, Urbus Orbis in Wicker Park, and Bic’s Hardware Cafe in East Pilsen. During my two years in Louisville, I whiled away the hours at Heine Brothers’ coffee. In Bloomington, Indiana I’ve been a fixture at both Soma near the Indiana University campus and Hopscotch on the B-Line Trail.
I also used to spend many of my days at the various public libraries around South Central Indiana, from Indianapolis’s main branch down to New Albany’s a couple of blocks away from the Ohio River. There are, by the way, more Carnegie Libraries in Indiana than any other state. If you don’t know about Carnegie Libraries, go here. It’s a pretty cool phenomenon, the most dramatic example of a rapacious, borderline sociopathic robber baron trying to do something to atone for all the sins he committed against humanity. I’ve gotten out of the library habit since the pandemic shutdown.
I suppose I ought to start getting back to my libraries but now that gasoline prices are sky-high I doubt it’ll be soon.
My coffeehouses and libraries — my third places — afford me space to write and to get ideas about what to write next, as well as to be stimulated both socially and caffein-ally.
So, here I sit in Hopscotch, writing this post. I’ve got pals here: Alex, the cannabis researcher (honest — he runs an IU lab studying the effects of the drug); Pat, the retired state and city government administrator and long-suffering Cubs fan; Emily, the English literature lecturer; Steve, the owner of the The Bishop Bar; and the retired IU couple who’d clunk me on the head if I printed their names here (they’re quite private folk).
This morning, Alex was pounding away on his keyboard, no doubt applying for yet another research grant to keep his lab open. He just got back from a conference in Ireland. We exchanged pleasantries and then he revealed something novel has been happening in his life these days. It seems he’s being contacted by defense attorneys around the country hoping he’ll agree to be an expert witness in their upcoming trials.
The cops, it seems, have been pulling people over when they think they smell marijuana coming from their cars. Prosecutors and the cops claim the smell alone is probable cause for them to stop and search. The fact of the matter, Alex explains, is all cannabis, even the legal, non-drug varieties, of which there are several, can exude that tell-tale odor when smoked. THC, the actual substance that makes pot illegal, he adds, emits no odor. The people being stopped just might be smoking any of the legal varieties of cannabis. Ergo, the defense people say, the cops have no probable cause to pull pot-stinky cars over.
This is the kind of hair-splitting, legalistic, how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin debates I enjoy with Dave, a lawyer who hangs at Soma. Dave, unlike most attorneys, loves to talk about the law with lay people. He grooves on the most minuscule aspects of the countless statutes and ordinances and legal oddities in this holy land and digs hashing them out with non-lawyers. I just might amble on down to Soma to see if I can run into Dave and find out what his take might be on this pot smoke/probable cause business.
See, that’s what I love about my third places. And I got this post out of it.