Aware that the rapid movement of wealth around the globe was slowly stripping the fibre of our community from our midst, along with so many other regions that had depended on basic manufacturing for economic survival, an inevitable sense of decline hovered over our city. Gloom was everywhere. It began when a couple of large auto parts suppliers shut down for good but inevitably picked up speed as other businesses first cut down on their services and then closed down altogether. Social services reported record numbers of people seeking help and even our successful local sports teams succumbed to dispiriting losing streaks. It was like some kind of emotional plague had infested the populace.
In such situations, communities can start coming apart or drawing together. In effect, our city underwent a process where both were happening at the same time. It wasn’t a good time to be a political or economic leader. Many citizens got into an ugly mood and opted to lash out at any decision makers that ended up in their sights.
In the midst of all the tumult a civic election was held and most of our local councillors, along with the long-serving mayor, were tossed out, ushering in a new generation of political aspirants who had promised anything to get themselves elected and then stood collectively at a loss when the time came to plot out a strategy for urban renewal.
Nothing seemed to work. We had been sideswiped by a global economy and national recession, and a dearth of leadership at the very time we needed creative and collective decisions to fight our way back. Our college was packed in enrollment as people let go from the workforce signed up for training to qualify for the fewer jobs that were out there. Social assistance rolls swelled, hunger became more manifest, and even minimum wage jobs sagged in decline.
All this is important to grasp when considering how the Third Place became even more popular during these difficult years. Heavy pressure was placed on Dad and Mom to open up a couple of satellite operations in other busy areas of the city, but they both refused. They were moving toward retirement in a few years and I think it was in Dad’s mind to leave the restaurant to his two daughters. We didn’t feel any pressure from that expectation because he kept that dream largely to himself.
The result of all this was that the Third Place had longer lineups than ever. People weren’t merely looking for a gathering place to drown their sorrows, but to plan regarding how to help our community get its groove back.
I frequently came downstairs at closing time to find Dad hard at it in discussions about how to help start-up businesses, to celebrate our history, to press the media to match all its doom and gloom writing with the success stories that were happening in our city, and how could a new kind of partnership be built between citizens and their elected representatives in the midst of such a dismal setting.
But the more I watched Dad’s energetic participation in such debates I came to understand that he was actually attempting to take a leadership role, effectively putting his finger in the dike until better solutions could be found. He was in a sense standing between two different worlds – one a community in decline and the other a better world that was yet to be constructed. He was pressing for patience as the life we knew was slowly giving way to a future we could not yet predict, or even shape.
It was unlike him. Everton Overly had always enjoyed being active, but behind the scenes. Even in the restaurant itself, he would move in and out of various settings, cleaning, sweeping, engaging, but always in a way that left him on the periphery – a kind of playwright watching his ideas play out in front of him but mostly excluded him from the action.
But to see him like this – active, strongly debating, driving for solutions, and occasionally asking someone to leave who personally attacked others – was a wonderful revelation to me. It was my Dad as I hadn’t seen him, and as a young person with ideals for a better world, it was entirely fascinating to witness someone I so deeply loved and respected performing as a citizen at such a high level that he was transforming, briefly at least, from an observer to a leader. Even Mom loved it, I could tell, though at times she worried that such late evenings often left Dad exhausted and noticeably thinner. Yet we all understood he was energized by it all.
In a community feeling that it was always living on the edge of some kind of social and economic crisis, the Third Place took on a reputation of invincibility. It was throbbing with life when much else seemed to be draining of vitality.
Finn and I would talk about the place’s uniqueness occasionally and frequently agreeing that the restaurant’s survivability was perhaps related to its connection to the past. It was much like a Norman Rockwell painting – not as white or as innocent, but a friendly reminder that our country had been built on the good nature of its people, as best expressed in the places that they gathered together. Yes, it reminded people of a simpler time, but an era of steadiness of character, of hard work, fair play, a sense of personal honour and a commitment to the broader world, whether through joining the military in a time of conflict or banding together in a time of civic emergency.
And a growing portion of its clientele were younger people, many of them civic activists, quietly drawn to a public setting where people could converse or debate without spinning out of control, venting their anger, or rooted in their own prejudices. Many were growing older in the midst of a difficult time yet were growing weary of the endless cycles of attack mode that, regardless of intensity, over time inevitably demeaned the human spirit. As with older citizens, they were learning of the comfort and sense of welcome that emanated from a place that accepted people for the better angels of their nature as opposed to their worst.
And so the Third Place entertained its own sense of renaissance while journeying through some of the darkest ages of our community life. It was transforming in its own way, leaving everyone not so much with a sense of euphoria but of a comfortable and enlightening respite in what felt like a global economic world gone mad.
Dad made the offhand comment to Finn one morning that without havens like the Third Place, things get too expensive. Pressed by Finn to explain, he noted, “When citizens don’t have informal places to just be together, it means that those locations where they can just hang out aren’t publicly shared, and soon enough fall into private hands and private interests. Whatever important or beautiful things aren’t publicly shared inevitably fall into the sites of private pursuits.”
“But this place is privately owned – by you,” Finn observed through a smile.
Everton looked a little nonplussed, as if he had never considered the possibility before. “Maybe, maybe,” he responded, “but it’s driven by the public itself, by the good people looking for a place of sanctuary and understanding they have trouble finding at home or the workplace. I mean, sure, we make a living here, but it’s never been about the money or the need to grow. It just is, nestled in the cradle of humanity’s desire for company, insight, understanding.”
Sometimes Dad could be compellingly eloquent, and, in that moment, something kindled in Finn a flame to protect this most precious of democratic treasures – the place where citizens come to be and become. Finn changed only subtly that day, but even his loving grandmother noted that he had quietly become more sensitive and understanding. He had always been bright, but now he was illuminating.
Next chapter – Chemistry