There’s no better way to describe it: the restaurant just took off. Dad had judged the public’s mood correctly and they flocked to the grand old house in the village, not to escape but to engage. I never saw any analysis of this, but from what others said, conversation in the Third Place centered more on politics, citizenship, community responsibility and proper journalism than any other similar establishment. I believe now, after the passing of a number of years, that father’s intention for establishing the restaurant had more to do with his view of integral community life than anything to do with just starting his own business. There was a design to it from the outset, though I was too young at the time to spot such subtleties.
What I do recall from those early days was all the great food that found its way upstairs as the evening wore on. Daisy and I would take our pizza, or garlic bread, or flavourful quiche, along with some milk or water, and make our way to Wonderland behind the attic wall and devour it as we played games or did some colouring. Once we did a take-off on Sleeping Beauty (Daisy), where instead of the dashing prince (my part) giving her that legendary kiss, he brought her the most delicious plate of ravioli in the kingdom. It was all great fun.
Within that first year, the Third Place was packed every lunch and dinner. Dad didn’t do breakfasts back then, which allowed him to help Mom get us ready for school and to take on whatever other chores were required around the home. But by lunchtime we would come home from school, sneaking up the back stairs because there were just so many people everywhere on the ground floor.
One time a journalist from the Toronto Globe and Mail passed through on his way to another destination. So impressed was he about the operation that he asked if he could interview Dad. I knew he would decline, so when he agreed I was shocked.
“It’s our chance to tell others about why we do things instead of just what we do,” he said in explanation. I never understood at the time what he meant but it helped me to see Dad in a bit of a different light.
The Globe and Mail story, when it came out a couple of weeks later, received a national audience – something Dad and Mom had never dreamed of but which only added to the allure of the Third Place. The journalist was a seasoned writer who had emerged from a rural context and enthralled his readers with his down home, community-oriented writing style. It was his firm belief that Canada’s greatest strength was in the quiet fortitude of its people and I think he saw in Dad the epitome of that. Some highlights from his column:
As we sat in his fabulous kitchen, Everton Overly – “Ever” to his customers – seemed uncomfortable with talking about himself, embarrassed even. Getting personal information was akin to getting a stubborn horse out of a corral. That all changes when he describes what the Third Place represents, however. “It’s a home away from home,” he begins. “Our neighbourhoods used to be full of them, but when fast food places emerged and families rushed to the suburbs, citizens became increasingly separated from one another. Public interaction now is more about agendas and haste than it is congeniality and reflection.”
Listening to these words, I found myself inwardly thinking: Is this guy for real? But of course he was, and the longer he answered my questions, the more assured I became that he was setting the table, metaphorically speaking, for Canada’s promise of coming together. A land so vast simply can’t be held together by governments, travel amenities, or commerce. It takes a people who want to connect to keep it together and Everton Overly might just be showing the way.
That Globe and Mail article ushered in many more from various media sources – each more interested in the purpose of the restaurant as opposed to its menu. I think that it was this approach of Dad’s that drew people to the establishment. They instinctively understood that he thought more of the sentiments of his customers than other places that wanted to rush them through and build the bottom line in the process. One radio station noted that the Third Place was something like a town hall meeting with lots of hungry people but no particular agenda.
Neither Daisy nor I had ever seen our father like this before. He was always just Dad – quiet, reliable, trustworthy. Suddenly he was viewed as a community champion without portfolio. Mom delighted in the success and energy of it all, but we as their children only understood that life had taken a new turn.
But as we grew older, especially in our high school years, it was becoming clearer to us that with all the big box stores, endless suburbs, countless cars and complexity on a grand scale, the Third Place didn’t so much cause people to hearken to the good old days of the past as it prompted them to start thinking of a different way of living the future. Dad felt that the growing isolation people were feeling needed to be counteracted by opportunities to gather without recrimination or overt politicization. Whatever the reason, or reasons, the restaurant became that kind of place. That he was eloquent as to its purpose in the city provided numerous opportunities for media coverage. More intriguingly, it raised interest by grassroots democracy voices, along with a number of researchers eager to explore how cities were changing and what they were required to offer local citizens to counteract their growing sense of alienation.
For all of these, including Daisy and me as we grew older, Dad offered common sense answers to what had become deep and complex interactions within modern society. He was on the road to becoming a kind of folk hero for his ability to say simply what so many experts took great pains to make complicated. He and his restaurant were becoming one and the same in the public mind.
Next chapter: Rules of Engagement