The national attention brought to the Third Place by the Home Comfort feature was obviously good for business, especially after such a positive review, but its popularity was already great regardless. Still, we accommodated the heavier crowds as best we could.
Yet something had altered in how people saw the establishment. The novelty of gaining national and international attention at a time when our mid-sized city was down on its luck provided the community a boost, a sense of hope despite the difficult economic times. Even local media picked up on the notoriety, with some even requesting Dad to do an interview. As usual, he turned down most of these requests and chose to concentrate instead on working with his customers.
For years, younger generations had trumpeted their own ideas about innovation, a start-up economy and the need for older institutions to get out of the way for a younger generation better equipped to face future challenges. Their key spokespeople were passionate, eloquent and capable to taking complex problems and explaining them in more simple terms.
But that was the problem: they were complex and no attempt to break them into more readily comprehended elements could change that – the observations were helpful but the problems remained unaltered. An era of job loss, globalization and a deeper separation between those with and without wealth had meant that little could be solved on merely a local scale.
And so, all the credible movement towards more innovation and collaboration effectively stalled over the years as remedies for what ailed our community remained out of reach. Success was stubbornly difficult to achieve when the levers for a larger scale reformation remained somewhere else.
Through it all, though, the Third Place had become what one television report termed, “The Little Engine That Could.” It flourished regardless of economic, social, global or cultural conditions. As a result, it remained outside of the usual criticisms reserved for older establishments – especially when the restaurant was led by someone close to his seventies. Initially this was because of its obvious success, but over time the philosophy of its operation was what came to capture attention.
What the Home Comfort piece had accomplished more than any other attempts at covering the Third Place was introduce our parents (and ourselves to a lesser degree) as ultimately human in an increasingly technological age. It was difficult to see Dad and Mom as older practitioners running a quaint establishment when they were defying those alienating characteristics of our modern era – poverty, identity politics, social media divisions, generational divides and collective alienation. They were doing the very things the younger generation said they pined for: collaborating, innovating, using food as a tool for engagement, and ultimately energizing citizens themselves to become more curious in the process of community. Dad especially became more respected over time simply because he endured through all the changes and fallout that had so challenged everyone.
But the Home Comfort article did more than that. In portraying the restaurant as a hub of thriving civic debate and activity, Alessandra had crafted the piece in such a fashion that it left the reader with the clear sense that democracy was still possible in an era that so many had taken to calling “post-democratic.” For years, decades even, citizenship had proved to be a worn-out concept, where individuals would rather get on with their daily individual lives, leaving the curation of society up to the elites. And now we understood what all that distraction got us: civic dysfunction. In an era of rampant globalization this had seemed of minor import, but we now better understood the cost.
But how to rebuild our community? That was the question that transcended all others, as across the board we had all begun to hear a noise that sounded a lot like a city circling the drain. Everyone had a suggestion, a bromide, that, like everything else, came to nothing. We weren’t together as a population but one had the sense that if we were, new and promising things might be in our future. The problem was that we just couldn’t get there from here.
Around the world things weren’t much different. In nations that used to lead the world in productivity, job losses were significant, most often replaced by part-time precarious work that offered no benefits, no understanding, no future. For years this resulted in a kind of global panic that normally prosperous nations and communities would just have to keep experimenting with new business models that would eventually emerge successful. Yet even those businesses that made such a migration were doing so with less labour, leaving a growing portion of the post-industrialized world unemployed or underemployed. And with less money in their pockets, beleaguered consumers were buying less, leaving communities like ours in the lurch.
Dad once postulated a theory about this trend to Alessandra during a late-evening drink that fortunately included Daisy, Finn, Mom and me. It never made it into her lengthy article, but the author told me the next day that it was one of the most fascinating discussions she had ever been part of, since it considered the origins of capitalism from a totally different perspective.
“So much about modern capitalism carries a triumphant air,” Dad said casually. “The belief is that it was destined to win out over every other economic framework. The truth is, of course, that it did. But that ascendency came at a brutal cost that leaves blood on capitalism’s hands even into the modern era.”
“Wait a minute,” Alessandra interjected. “You’re saying that our modern form of globalization is violent?”
“It’s in its DNA.”
“How’s that?” asked Finn.
“Well, think about it,” Dad continued. “It’s no secret that capitalism’s practice, even before the Industrial Revolution, was one of dominance. It allied itself with forces of wealth, armed control, privacy, insurrection, and a winner-take-all kind of rationale. Kings and queens used such techniques, as did the early barons and colonial masters. It resulted in entire communities closing down, slavery, penury, and the kind of dark and foreboding world that Dickens wrote about.”
“But it did a lot of good as well, no?” Finn pressed.
“It did, even in those early times, but especially following the Second World War. That’s when the middle-class emerged in such remarkable numbers. Yet it came after the most violent and wide-ranging conflict in history – an era where the wealthy made a fortune over the appalling suffering of others. In the U.S. and Canada, successive governments made plans for healthcare funding, built universities and colleges, and established national pension plans – all with the partnership of both citizens and companies. In those days before globalization, firms big and small invested back into their own communities and agreed to putting more of their vast wealth into the pockets of their workers.”
Dad paused for a moment, grabbed a sip of his Scotch, and smiled a bit ashamedly.
“Sorry everyone. I’ve lived through all of this, as has Sally here, and it’s been difficult to watch how it’s all become unraveled in the last few decades,” he said sadly.
Alessandra pulled her chair forward and with a sense of intensity asked, “But the violent bit. I understand what you’re saying that capitalism was born in dark times and practiced the dark arts of human and economic control, yet you seem to be saying, Everton, that it’s as bad as ever. Explain that, will you?”
He peered into his glass, swirling the ice in it. He looked up at Alessandra and rattled of a series of terms that left an unmistakable impression. “Raping of the planet. Child labour. Controlling the levers of government through significant financial donations. Climate change. Growing gap between rich and the rest. Insecure work conditions. Growing unemployment. The deteriorating conditions of both the elderly and children.” He stopped in frustration. “It could go on and on.”
“And you’re saying it’s purposeful?” Alessandra pressed.
“Well, how else could you put it.” This came from Finn and we all turned to face him. “The science of climate change is irrefutable, as is the pillaging of the world’s resources. And the decline of work conditions in the West has been reported on, with tons of research, for years. The leaders of the global financial systems – the folks who control the levers of economies – must know this.”
“And it’s violent?” Alessandra inquired.
“It’s violent in that it hurts people, disenfranchises them, places them in vulnerable conditions – all while those benefitting from such conditions grow increasingly richer. It is no accident and it is entirely preventable, if only governments and citizens took more of an active role in the place of the worker in all this wealth. What we have instead is growing inequality and exploitation,” Dad concluded.
A few minutes later everyone filed to their respective rooms in silence. It had been a bleak discussion, but no one doubted Dad’s rationale – it was there for everyone to see, including in our own home town. I said goodnight to Daisy but found myself wondering just how fortunate we were that the Third Place has proved such a success. It had paid all our bills, provided security and a pleasurable place to live, and had kept our family together. What if it hadn’t existed, or had failed? We wouldn’t be just talking about hard times and insecurity but actually living through it, living on the harsh extremities of a system controlled by a few but devastating to billions.
Staring up a ceiling that had provided security for me for my entire life, I found myself wondering what was to become of our own city that seemed destined to always be pushing the boulder uphill. How much longer might it tolerate the burden of economic decline before losing faith altogether? Were there, indeed, no solutions to our collective ailments, our sense of loss of destiny? Could we recover, and how might that be accomplished?
We were about to discover the answer to such questions in ways totally unexpected and through the graces of our father and the serendipitous intervention an important visitor.
Next chapter – Late-night Visitor