Dad had to take care of some financial tasks at the bank down the street, but when he returned we journeyed back upstairs to the balcony, which because it was afternoon was no longer bathed in light. A comfortable coolness fell over us. Instead of lemonade, the preferred beverage was now coffee.
“Alright,” Alessandra began, “I want to talk about politics and democracy, if you’re up to it that is. I think I get why the Third Place is so important to you, but I’d like to know what you think of our modern era and why we’re having so much trouble keeping ourselves together. I travel that U.S. more than any other place and I see it everywhere. Do you think that’s what’s drawing people to this place?
“I’m convinced of it,” was all he said.
“Explain,” she urged.
“I don’t think it’s rocket science. Research keeps revealing that modern citizens are actually aliens in their own communities, alone, and that’s a big reason why everyone is so insecure. They have their home, sure, and their places of work, but modern companies aren’t gathering places creating comradery anymore – although there are exceptions – and today’s average family is furiously busy, heading off in numerous directions at the same time. It pulls us apart inside, creating a sense of lostness.”
He stopped at that point and looked out over the street below that was slowly collecting more cars and rush hour neared. She waited for him to go on, but when he didn’t she asked, “That’s an intriguing way of looking at it. I mean the usual picture we have in our heads is that life is hectic and so we retreat to the home for companionship, rest and a sense of place.”
“Is that how your life works, then?” Dad’s question caught her off-guard, but she appreciated what he was driving at.
“No, not at all. I could hardly wait to get out of our home and discover new things and meet new people.”
“You live in Chicago you say, but do you have an apartment there, or a house?” he pressed.
“It’s a condo actually, but I’m hardly ever there.” She looked directly at his face, saying, “And that’s because I find it so solitary, sterile even. I see what you’re getting at, Everton – I’m a victim of it myself obviously.”
Strangely, it was a touching moment. Their roles had switched and somehow Alessandra was the person being interviewed. They both saw it at the same moment, mildly laughing at the sheer irony of it.
“You remember Cheers, right? You know the song, Sometimes you want to go … ?”
“Where everybody knows your name,” she sang, finished Dad’s sentence. “God, I loved that show.”
“Places like Cheers, or this place, become people’s home away from home, even if it’s just down the street. At work or home, they learn to make their accommodations in order to keep the peace or make everyone happy, but at their favourite market, library, bakery, coffee shop, or pub, they can shed such responsibilities, be themselves, and recharge their spirits.
Alessandra looked at him intently, quietly nodding at this subtle, frequently uncomfortable, acknowledgement that ultimately, regardless of their personal situations, people were still individuals and that nurturing that part of them was essential to their ability to deal with all their other circumstances. I looked at him in that moment and wondered if he ever felt such a need for himself and felt a bit ashamed that I had never taken the time to even ask that question before.
They thought of breaking for a bit, but Alessandra prodded for a few more minutes.
“So, people come here to be themselves without all the other accoutrements of modern living. But what does that look like? I mean, what is it that you’re hoping they will see in themselves in the hours they spend here? Or do you never think about that?”
“Every day I wonder how we can design the Third Place to assist them in that search,” Dad began. “Perhaps they will confront their own fears, their doubts, and all those marvelous aspirations for their children. Maybe they’ll feel the prompt to do what’s right, not necessarily what’s convenient or popular, or that they’ll begin to measure their self-worth in connection to the larger community instead of merely their own circumstances.”
“Do you think they know that you hope that for them?” she queried.
“Can’t be sure.”
“I think they do, Ever. It’s not just the Rules of Engagement on the wall downstairs or the attention you get in the media. There’s something fully natural about you and your sentiments. Dealing with you over all these years, it’s likely you’ve become kind of like a mentor to them. You lift their gaze to something higher. Do they ever express that to you personally?”
“What do they say?” she continued, ever prodding.
“Oh, that’s just between me and them,” he answered, staring at the wooden slats on the floor of the balcony. We all understood that he was embarrassed to talk about it.
It seemed like a natural time for a break, but soon enough they were back at it and Alessandra wanted to take things in a new direction.
“Okay, I want to ask you a direct question and I’m hopeful you’ll be as frank in your response,” she said while looking at her notebook. “Do you see the Internet as a curse for this democratic experiment you’re trying to base here in the Third Place?”
He looked up at her, confused. “Why would you ask that?”
“Because it seems to me that what you’re doing here cannot be duplicated in cyber space. And yet millions of people think it can.”
Dad took his time, but in the end his voice was firm. “Huge portions of our population have virtually moved their lives into the digital realm, but in the process, they’ve stopped living in actual communities where they would continue to meet people with a variety of experiences and opinions. Instead, they live online and usually interact only with people of similar viewpoints or political preferences.”
“And what’s wrong with that? Agreement is a good thing.”
“Only when it can be achieved within a real community and with people who hold to different persuasions. Who will care about the homeless woman if the online folks don’t even know her? Or the man seeking to start up a small business and just isn’t cutting it. Who cares about him, or the veteran struggling with PTSD? Real communities – historic communities – know of these stories because their interaction is human and not digital. Good communities care about such individuals even if they don’t know them because, well, they’ve learned to think that way through living with others. They aren’t someone else’s problem, but our own.”
Alessandro was looking keenly at Ever, as though trying to fully grasp what he was saying. “But can’t people learn through the Internet of such situations. It is a remarkable tool.”
“It is that,” Dad replied. “But that’s just it, tools don’t produce humanity – only human interaction does that. Online communities are powerful at creating tribes of similar beliefs but not mosaics of diverse thoughts and beliefs. The value of an expansive character has given way to a focused channel of opinion and angst. Meaning is found by sticking with a viewpoint and expressing anger at those who think differently.” It was a thoughtful response, but he wasn’t done.
“Facebook friends or Twitter followers aren’t going to clean our kitchen here after the day is done, nor are they going to work with me to make sure my daughters get the best education they can. They weren’t consoling me when my mother died and likely won’t be there for our girls when my time comes. And more than anything, they will never hold my wife’s hand as I hold it, or dream of a better future with me the way that Sally does. Those are human possibilities, the stuff dreams are made of – rooted in real people, in real time, and with real outcomes. Nothing tops humanity – nothing. This place wouldn’t be here without it, nor be worth the effort.”
Alessandra was looking down at her notebook and it was only a few second later until I could see a glistening in her eyes. My God, I thought, he moved her. He helped her see what he sees.
Silently she got up from her chair and moved to the stairs, her hand tapping Dad’s shoulder as she walked by. Words weren’t necessary. At their most effective, the great principles of life require no language.
Next chapter – Insight