Sunday, April 24, 2011

My Third Places

“The Towertown 3 Movie Theater, in the Sterling Towncenter Shopping Mall of Sterling, Virginia.  Right at the intersection of Route 7 and Dranesville Road.  That was my Lapin Agile.  My Factory.  My Elaine’s.  My CBGB.  My Studio 54.” — Patton Oswalt

No, people, despite what the title may lead you to believe, I’m not about to regale you with tales of how I got the regional bronze medal for shot put in high school, or would have won the third-grade spelling bee if it weren’t for those tall-ass Croatian twins whose hyper-intense parents drilled them on the difference between ‘complacence’ and ‘complaisance’ every night. It’s of the ‘third place’ in the sociological sense that I sing.  Ray Oldenburg is the high priest of the cult of the third place, and his book The Great Good Place is the sacred text.  It’s here that he tells us of a fundamental social need for a space that is neither the home nor the workplace, but instead a place where people gather for gathering’s sake.  A bar, a coffeehouse, a diner, some corner of a park — the particular location isn’t terribly important, really.  There has to be a where, but it’s the who, the why, and the how of the gathering that matters, and that makes for a true third place.

If you check out the Wikipedia entry for “third place,” as I did just now when I was feeling too lazy to head out to my secret backyard writing dojo and pull Oldenburg’s book off the shelf, you’ll see that the characteristics of the third place include: that it be “free or inexpensive”; that “food and drink, while not essential, are important”; that the place should be “highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)”; that it should “involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there”; and that it should be “welcoming and comfortable.”  All that’s true, but it misses the real core of the third place, so I’m going to have to pry myself out of this chair and fetch the book from the dojo after all.  Hang on.

Okay! I’m back.  So.  The essential thing about the third place, the thing missing from the Wikipedia entry, is that you can drop in there, unscheduled, and expect to meet some people you know.  It’s a hang-out, a joint with regulars, but it’s important that these regulars don’t just arrive there when they’ve scheduled a meeting of some kind..  It’s only really a third place if you’re likely to run into some of your peeps without having planned to so do.  As Oldenburg puts it, there must be “lack of scheduling and organization, looseness of structure, and fluidity in the composition of those in attendance at the third place.  A resulting uncertainty surrounds each visit.”

Another important thing about the third place is that it’s a venue where the entertainment is provided by attendees themselves. “That entertainment has deteriorated almost entirely in the United States is a great pity,” says Oldenburg.  “We take it passively, we take it in isolation, and we frequently find it boring.” But in the third place, “the sustaining activity is conversation which is variously passionate and light-hearted, serious and witty, informative and silly.  And in the course of it, acquaintances become personalities…” It’s true, too.  When we think of any of the great third places, we think of the great conversations.  We think of the café culture of France circa 1911, when the cramped living space of Paris made a welcoming set of public spaces (gardens, markets, cafés) necessary, and out of that necessity came a deluge of chatter, and the blooming of a hundred political movements, a thousand literary, art, and philosophy movements, and high tolerance for surly waiters.  All this is passing from France, sadly, as the place starts to look a bit more like America circa 2011 — a time and place of private luxury and public dearth, including a dearth of genuine third places.

There are political and psychological consequences to the dearth of third places.  The relative heterogeneity of the crowd in third places, as compared to home or work, makes for an importance place to meet and talk to people unlike ourselves.  “As the third place constituency is more varied,” says Oldenburg, “so also is its agenda of conversational topics.”  And the removal from contexts like home and work, where one has responsibilities, matters.  Third places are places of play, and such places, according to Johan Huizinga (whom Oldenburg quotes) are “forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain.”  This removal from the rules and responsibilities of the home and workplace allows for a certain liberation and catharsis: “the timidity which the workplace imposes upon those with families to support does not extend to the third place,” says Oldenburg, “here one may bellow like a street preacher or wail like a new widow, boast with gusto or assume the authoritarian pomp of a high court judge.”  I have to think back to a pre-tenure existence to feel the truth of that statement, but it’s a real condition Oldenburg describes.

While some environments are richer in them than others, third places seem to exist in some form almost everywhere: from the Roman forum to the café rich culture of France in the early 20th century to neighborhood barbershops to the bench in the mall where the retired guys meet first thing in the morning, people find a way to hang out.  And when they don’t, people tend to feel the lack of such a place and such a community, though some don’t know that the root of their quiet desperation is the lack of a place to hang. 

The story of my own third places begins, like yours, with a pre-history of tree houses, “forts,” and alleys behind 7-11s where a miscellany of kids would meet between school and home to mess around with skateboards, yo-yos, and slurpees before moving on to the more hard-core world of games like ‘truth or dare,’ ‘spin the bottle’ and ‘hey I stole this one beer from dad, let’s share it and convince ourselves we’re totally drunk.’  But I suppose the story really begins in the mid-80s, my high school years, with a bar called Clancy’s.  This was in Canada, where the legal drinking age was 18, so you could start working your way into bars with a fake ID at 16.  I maintained then, and maintain now with even greater certainty, that the Canadian system is superior system to the American model and its puritanically lunatic drinking age of 21.  Like much of the stupidity in America, the high drinking age seems to be predicated on the assumption that if you ban, repress, and deny something, it won’t become a problem — a system that has failed in every field to which it has been applied (abstinence-only sex education, alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, you name it).  Of course these prohibitions create the very kind of problems they’re designed to suppress: gay bashing in the ranks, unprotected teen sex, death from alcohol poisoning, and the creation of environments where weed can become a gateway drug, simply because it involves exposure to people who can push harder things your way.  And in the case of the drinking age, you get a college culture of moronic binge drinking: the forbidden fruit becomes glamorous, and the partaking takes place in unregulated environments where no bartender, watchful of his license, can cut off a drunken imbecile.

But I digress.  I was about to talk about Clancy’s, a bar whose very characterless, suburban strip-mall vibe proves that a viable third place need not be remotely cool or interesting to function exactly as Oldenburg describes.  I could drop in there at lunch, between classes, or after school, with or without my reprobate friends in tow, and expect to see a mix of other fake-ID-having young idiots, work-dodging city workers, and guys who spent a lot of time customizing their Mustangs.  The music seemed designed for this last constituency, consisting almost exclusively of Booker T and the MG’s “Green Onions,” Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” and the occasional Deep Purple track.  There, by the dart board and the neon of the Foster’s Lager sign, we talked our way through all the necessary banalities of high school life, downed our drafts, and felt like big swaggering men of the world, since we operated without the scrutiny of parents or teachers.  We more or less kept to our own peers, though, since encounters with the other, older, mid-day drinkers had a hard-to-define discomfort to them, a discomfort I think I can now see as our aversion from the whiff of failure that kind of hovered around the older regulars like a sad grey haze.  I mean, we were young, drunk, and acting stupid in a soulless suburban strip-mall bar, but we were bourgeois enough to know that if we were still doing this when we were their age, we’d have let down all the teachers and parents from whom we were hiding, and let them down pretty badly.  And I don’t think, spiky hair and Sex Pistols tee-shirts notwithstanding, any of us really wanted that.  If any of us ever got a tattoo expressing our true sentiments, I don’t think it would have said anything like “Death Before Dishonor.”  “Hoping for a Good Internship” or a big heart with “Merit Scholarship” written in gothic script would have been more our speed.

If I had to grade Clancy’s as a third place, I’d say this was about right:

Unscheduled Encounters.  A.  You could always walk in and find people with whom to hang.
Conversation.  B-.  I mean, there’s only so much you can do with high school angst and teen male braggadocio. 
Varied Constituency. B-.  Those older guys were more like a haunting presence of possible failure than people we knew.  And we were a pretty homogenous bunch of white and Asian suburban kids from the same university-centered suburb.

Thanks to the aforementioned superiority of Canadian drinking laws, I’d more or less had it with drunkenness by the time I started university, and the nature of my third place changed accordingly.  The vast, provincial university I attended had all sorts of designated hang-outs: nicely kitted out lounges for all the different faculties, coffee shops, restaurants, parks with river views, talk-friendly study areas, the student union bar.  But none of that could compete with the charms of a bunker-like windowless concrete cube of a room lit only by a single bare bulb in a little wire cage.  This was the retreat, the redoubt, the Alamo, for a small group of regulars hiding out from the world.  Of all the third places I have known, this one most resembled Huizinga’s “forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain.”

Due to the positively Siberian conditions of winters in western Canada, all of the university’s buildings were linked by an elaborate network of underground corridors, which ranged in character from shop-and-café lined underground streets that could have been mistaken for shopping malls, to dank, water-stained cement hallways lit by flickering neon — the kind of spaces that made Brutalist architects blanche and tremble.  As the son of a professor, I’d been spelunking down these corridors for years before I became a student, and knew all the secrets, the service hallways and air ducts and cubbyholes.  So one day, when a girl in a many-zippered leather jacket and one of those asymmetrical 80s New Wave haircuts approached me after class, saying, “I need to get high – know where we can spark this jay?” I knew exactly where to go.  Off one of the lesser-traveled tunnels under some of the science buildings was a grey door leading to a long, empty, dark cement corridor, at the end of which was another door.  Behind that door was a flight of stairs that led to the little concrete bunker with the one light bulb in its wire cage.  Other than the bulb and the stairs leading up to the room, the only feature was a pair of heavy steel doors leading outside, to a concrete pad where, presumably, some mighty dean had once hoped to see another laboratory building constructed.  The building was never built, though, so the corridor was a kind of campus road-to-nowhere, forgotten by the administration, ignored by the students.  But it was ideal for our purposes, me and the asymmetrically coiffed joint-bearer.  The doors to the outside world opened from within, but were locked from the outside, so the only approach was through the long, echoing corridor leading to the stairs.  You could perform whatever illicit acts you wanted to in the bunker, safe in the knowledge that you’d hear anyone coming long in advance of their arrival, and you had an immediate escape into the outer world through the steel doors if you needed it.  And so was born a new third place: as word traveled through the campus grapevine, the bunker became a little autonomous hang-out zone, complete with graffiti, milk-carton furniture, and an ambience of perpetual ditch-weed haze.  When you’d march down the corridor, you’d shout out “it’s cool, it’s cool,” to alert the out-hangers that you weren’t there to bust them, and drop in on a grim, dark, industrial looking cube of a room that was so incredibly foreboding it might have passed for a high-end New York nightclub of the era, the sort of place you where you might find Brett Easton Ellis snorting coke out of Grace Jones’ belly button.  It was great.

Grades for the bunker:

Unscheduled Encounters.  A-.  Sometimes the place was empty, which was a bit lame.  But generally there’d be some kind of deviant wacko to talk to, even if you showed up alone.
Conversation.  A+/C.  We felt alternately like we were the wittiest banterers since the heyday of the Algonquin Round Table, or like we were carrying out dialogue worthy of My Dinner with Andre.  But I’m pretty sure that, were I to hear a recording of our conversations without the benefit of chemical enhancement, I’d cringe at the giggling and drooling jibber-jabber of it all.
Varied Constituency. A-.  I met a lot of grad students this way, especially anthropologists.  And a ton of pre-meds from India. 

When I left Canada for grad school, I ended up with two new third places, the first being the coffee shop in Notre Dame’s O’Shaughnessey Hall.  You can see it in the unbelievably shitty movie Rudy: a little rectangle of a place with high-backed wooden booths, huge chunks of Irish soda bread for a buck, and no pressure whatsoever to get the hell out in a timely manner.  I don’t have much to report about the place, except that it’s where I first met the philosopher Alistair McIntyre, and it’s where I had a blood-pressure-spike-inducing argument with one of the cretinous crypto-fascist loons from the Opus Dei hierarchy.  It was also a place where, if you were meeting someone for the first time, you’d invariably ask, “so, what department are you with?”  I felt terrible about asking this once, when a fellow grad student brought a townie guy she was seeing in with her — he was self-conscious already, and I think in the movie that was playing in his brain I must have seemed like the stuffy bastard in the blazer with a crest on it who snorted at seeing someone “not our sort” in the ivory tower.

The second new third place was one of two businesses located across from the big old rundown house I rented: a used book joint in a similarly big old rundown house called Pandora’s Books (the other business, also in a rundown Victorian, was a crack house, with the quietest, most midwesternly-polite crackheads you could ever hope to meet).  Pandora’s was the best.  One of the clerks was a grad student at Notre Dame who’d go on to work for Oprah, the other was a kind of 300-watt downstate redneck genius bohemian who seemed always to be somehow turned all the way up on the ontological dial, his very being set off the scale, past the maximum level of 10 to a Spinal Tap level of 11.  I later learned he’d been a bounty hunter for a few years before studying theater.  I’d shuffle over to the place, bagel in hand, when I woke up around 10:30, and commence hanging out for two or three hours every day.  There was a crowd of regulars and irregulars: a mad biologist from Mississippi who soon moved into my house, a historian of Sumeria, a crackpot libertarian gravedigger who could quote Genet’s plays and gave me hell for not reading Hölderlin, a radical African-America woman working for the some Catholic charity, a guitar-playing junkie with whom I never got along, and a liquor store owner consumed with conspiracy theories that sounded a lot like the plot of John Grisham’s The Firm.  And all this in a place whose magazine rack included both Hustler and The Paris Review.  It was great, and I’m still friends with both of the clerks.  But I can’t stand the fact that the place has been knocked down and replaced with a non-insect infested, glass-walled building where they seem to actually sell the occasional book.

Grading wise, I’d say it’s got to be something like this:

O’Shaughnessy Coffee Shop

Unscheduled Encounters: B+.  You’d always find people you knew, but it was almost too predictable who those people would be.
Conversation: I wish I could give a higher grade than a B, but I can’t: the good stuff was too cut-through with our grad student whining. 
Varied Constituency: Tough call. There’s a kind of homosociality to these hyper-academic environments, but then again, there were theologians, Marxist historians, poets, and the occasional scientist: a kind of intellectual diversity.  Let’s go B+.

Pandora’s Books

Unscheduled Encounters: A.  It was a kind of human Sargasso, with all sorts of flotsam and jetsam drifting in.
Conversation: B+.  There was some amazing shuck-and-jive, but when the small town libertarian conspiracy nuts showed up, you kind of wanted to go in the back room and read Philip K. Dick alone for a while.
Varied Constituency: A+.  I mean, come on.

The thing about living in South Bend, Indiana, though, is that you really have to have some stones to hack it.  And stones I did not have, people.  So I split South Bend a couple of years into grad school and moved with the lovely and talented Valerie to Chicago, where we shacked up in a tiny Lakeview apartment overlooking a quiet courtyard while I tapped out my doctoral dissertation on what would now seem a comically archaic laptop computer.  Here my third place was another used book joint, a place called the Aspidistra Bookshop. The name is sort of witty, but only if you’re one of the three people to have read George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying.  I had, which is probably why the owner offered me a job when I came in and commented on the name.  I took the job, which would normally mean the place couldn’t qualify as a third place, away from home and work.  But Aspidistra was by no ordinary definition a place where work was done, not in any way recognizable to the square community.  My job consisted of showing up around 11:00, letting myself in, opening the till and taking out enough money to go down the street and buy two fried chickens and a six pack of Guinness.  I’d have these ready on the counter when the owner, a semi-brilliant, highly educated, pissed-off Vietnam vet, would stumble in, unshaven and with a good two inches of ass showing above his sagging and bedraggled trousers.  He’d turn a tiny black and white television set on to the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, pop open a beer, offer me one, and, between bites of chicken, we’d argue about the novels of Jeanette Winterson, Julian Barnes, and Martin Amis (once, a few drinks into the afternoon, he had me phone Amis’ agent to settle one of our disputes).  But the real conversation would click in when the regulars started to drop in later in the afternoon.  These included the owner’s three sons (the hair-gel one, the hair-down-to-his-hips one, and the one with a real job); his Ron Jeremy-looking lawyer, who had no office and needed to use the store’s fax machine for the owner’s endless legal entanglements; the owner’s partner, a hippie who’d written a master’s thesis on Yeats; and a miscellaneous array of glorious oddballs, like Startouch the Astrologer, with his giant Afro; the septugenarian New Orleans jazz drummer called Snowman; Burkhardt the old beatnik artist; some people from Blacktop records; a guy who’d run as vice president on the existentialist party ticket back in the 60s; and other giants of unregulated awesomeness.  I first met Jean-Luc Garneau when I worked there — later I’d join the faculty at the liberal arts college where he’d been professor of French since the 60s, and we’d translate Belgian Surrealist poetry together (it’s in a bunch of journals now: Drunken Boat, Action Yes, and Poetry, among others).  Part of me wishes my gig down there had never ended, and I’m sure working there was as big a part of my education as grad school itself.  I mean, grad school offered depth, but this place offered breadth.  It’s where I learned about phenomenological literary theory (too out of fashion to be on the grad school syllabus), it’s where I learned about the Cathar heresies, where I learned how Chicago’s city government actually worked, and where I learned about Eddie Harris, one of the greats of Chicago jazz.  Also, I learned that what looked to my sheltered eyes like a constant state of financial, familial, sexual, pharmaceutical, and legal crisis was just a modus vivendi for people less uptight than myself.  It was great.

Grade wise, it pans out as straight A’s. 

Since my move 30 miles up the road from Chicago to the Gatsbyesque world of the North Shore, my third place has shifted back into the world of grubby bars (as it did during my sojourn in Sweden, where I hung out at a pub called The Londoner with a bunch of British ex-pats with names like "Pints" and "Geordie Norman" — straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie, really).  And the grades for these places remain high in all categories.  But I’m keeping the particulars on the lowdown: if I didn’t, I’d be compromising the nature of third places as the “forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain” that Huizinga described.  But if you’re up this way and you find me guffawing with a crowd of idiots over a black & tan, you’ll know you’ve wandered into that hedged-round place.  And unless you're young and callow enough to consider the sight of middle-aged men laughing in a bar a sign of failure, you can pull up a stool and buy the next round.