The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

The Third Place (Chapter 8) – Finn

Posted on August 8, 2018

How it all worked out was almost as if by design.  It turned out the Finn was an ardent student of how humanity interacted with food.  At the talk that first evening, Dad was so impressed by the young man’s curiosity that he asked if he would be willing to take over the entire breakfast operation – subject to Dad’s oversight naturally.  At a loss for next steps in his life, Finn hesitantly agreed but then approached the challenge with relish.  He looked over at his grandmother seeking her approval.  All Mrs. Dawson did was smile before offering to come in during the morning meal time to help out until he gained some confidence.

Confidence was hardly something Finn lacked. He was in the next morning, enjoying the training Dad offered, patiently following the advice offered by his grandmother, and filling in wherever a bit of youthful energy was required.  I was in class while all this was going on, but Mom filled me in, saying just how quick in thought Finn was and how capable he seemed to be working the tables and joking with the two cooks.

“You know what else, hon,” Mom added, “I think Dad has really taken to him.  He seemed more energized and he told me this afternoon that he was looking forward to getting back to our relaxing morning routine in a few weeks.  I think he worried if he would have the strength to continue on at this pace for the next few years, but with Finn’s energy and presence, Dad seems to have relaxed somewhat.”

When Dad came upstairs to the family quarters following an evening shift I could see what she meant.  Despite a long day, he appeared more relaxed, even choosing to have a scotch and plant himself in front of the television.  Only a few days on the job and Finn had altered things already, bringing a delicate shift to the ambiance of the Third Place.  Along with my sister and me, he brought a more youthful vigor to the operation, but Finn’s was more intuitive, more insightful as to the potential of the restaurant and its effect in the larger community.

That proved even more so as one week moved into another.  In only a matter of days Mrs. Dawson and her grandson had the breakfast sessions running like a machine.  I came down one Saturday morning to see Finn seated at a table with a number of retired auto workers debating the merits of a living wage over a minimum wage.  He held his own no problem.  I listened in fascination as he took them on.

Between shuffling back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen, I caught glimpses of Finn continuing the dialogue with the auto workers.  He was animated but open to other points of view in a way that was refreshing.  Instead of putting on an air of condescension, he squarely took them on, pressing his points with a kind of rustic eloquence and in a fashion that pulled the others forward into the discussion.  It was a fascinating thing to observe.

And then he did something totally unexpected.  I was helping him clean up the tables on a Saturday morning when I told him about the university paper’s review of the restaurant.

“Can I see it?” he asked.

I fished it out of my desk upstairs and brought it back down to read.  I watched as his gaze flashed some brilliant bits of anger and waited as he went back over it a second time.

“Did this guy actually come here personally?” asked Finn.  “I mean, this doesn’t bear any resemblance to what goes on here.”

“He was sitting right there with Dad,” I answered, “and it seemed to go well enough.  I don’t think anyone thought much about it at the time – at least until that article came out,” I added, pointing to the paper Finn held.

“And this was online?”

“Yes, but it also made it into the university’s paper edition as well.  I think Dad felt bad about it all because he couldn’t understand what the problem was.”

“Do you . . . understand it I mean?”

The question was delivered so directly that it threw me for a minute.  Finn just stood there, a determined look on his face, as he waited for my reply.

“I’m not fully sure I do,” I said, a bit at a loss.  “I just chalked it up to some editor trying to make a name for himself by dissing something more traditional.  Maybe that’s not right.”

“That’s exactly what it is,” he replied.  But instead of anger in his eyes I detected more of a look of determination.

Following that he said nothing for the rest of the morning.  And when the time came to end the breakfast shift he simply grabbed his coat and was out the front door.  He was impossible to read at that moment and something about that intrigued me.


Next chapter – Rebuttal

The Third Place (Chapter 7) – Disruption

Posted on August 7, 2018

In my final year of college, a new presence introduced itself into our community life that threatened not only the restaurant but the great social experiment that Dad especially had been undertaking.

At first it was almost imperceptible, lost in the new wave of digital technologies, a global Internet, and powerful tech companies determined to force the world into a new way of communicating and learning.

The Third Place responded to this bold new presence by adapting its business model – just as everyone else was doing.  The problem was that it was viewed with suspicion by a new generation bristling with energy and often anger at the old order.  They were a new generation that had watched jobs disappear, were frequently employed in precarious or vulnerable jobs with few benefits, and more often than not couldn’t afford a house.  I suppose they viewed themselves as something of a cursed generation, given that they were the first in a long time, if ever, who couldn’t acquire a prosperity greater than the generation that had preceded them.

And for some reason much of the anger of these new activists centred on the Baby Boomers – those who arrived after World War Two and who never paid such a collective sacrifice, and before the Generation Xers and the Millennials.  Dad had been one of the first Boomers, born in 1948, yet despite his proximity to the end of the Second World War and his own peacekeeping military service, he somehow got lumped in with those of later years who were more categorized as materialistic and wasters.

Perhaps what made the Third Place a subject of scorn among the newer generations was its success.  It really had no true competitors.  Sure, there were other successful eating establishments, but none that really built their operation on the idea of enlightened citizenship.  Such places were built on business models emphasizing service and the bottom line.  The Third Place rose out of a sense of civic responsibility and an ideology.  It was not only unique, but a proven success.

It took us a bit of time but eventually we persuaded Dad to invest in a website that would provide an online menu, prices, and a Google map to point out the restaurant’s location.  We even flirted with some online postings regarding specials, but he never took to it. The way he saw it, word of mouth was the most important form of advertising and who could argue?  Eventually we just settled on the website that both Daisy and I kept up to date, giving it a splash of renewal every year or so.

One day Dad was visited by an online newspaper editor from the local university. No one thought anything of it.  We watched as he met at a corner table with the journalist, engaged in quiet but intense conversation as the rest of us served customers at the various tables.

My first clue that something had gone wrong came when a college friend asked if I had read the column on my Dad that had come out that morning.  “Don’t think you’ll like it,” she said cautiously. “Personally, I think it’s crap.”

I linked to the story on my phone as I sat in class waiting for the professor to arrive. I found my spirit on edge as I pored over the review.

In what can only be described as a throwback to a more nostalgic era that really didn’t exist, I watched as customers dug into the standard fare of food choices and wondered how the old house we were in had such a loyal following.  Then I interviewed the owner, Everton Overly, and it quickly became clear.  Overly, possessed with an abundance of grey hair talks, of how he started the restaurant up years earlier and based on the premise that citizens would engage in the kind of conversations that dealt with community problems and opportunities.

“That’s why I’m here,” I said, “to see how you accomplish it.”

What was clear during our discussion was that Overly at no point had any plans to engage the online community.  He mumbled something about a website, but that was it.

“But what about students?” I asked.  “They access all their information through the various apps.  How will they hear about your business or even what you serve?”

“Well, they’ll just have come and see for themselves like everyone else does.  We believe here that it’s face-to-face encounters that develop a stronger citizenry, not trying to accomplish the same thing on the Internet.  Democracy was established by personal encounters where debates were all part of the process but people got to speak directly to one another and hammer out their ideals.  That will never change.”

The remainder of the article reflected the author’s incredulity that such an establishment could survive in the modern era.  All those small start-up food eateries who struggle every day to pay the bills and which are run by younger managers would do well not to emulate the Third Place, he noted.

But the thrust of his negativity was aimed at Dad for his unwillingness to engage with the younger generation through the venues they preferred.  The writer saw him as a kind of dinosaur who had somehow survived into the modern era.  It was disconcerting to read.

This was often the nature of online commentary – negative, often crude, and willing to find fault where possible.  It was especially difficult reading the closing paragraph, where the editor hinted that it might be best if younger patrons kept away from the Third Place and support smaller and younger establishments instead.

Dad’s reaction to the article was a mixture of mild confusion and a sense of determination. “We’ve had a successful operation here,” he noted.  “Why would they take such a negative stand when about twenty percent of our clientele are students?”  It was an important point, and true, but it validated what I had been learning from many of my student friends: success wasn’t the issue, but innovation and disruption were.  And the Third Place, to them at least, was anything but these things.

Which was strikingly odd to me.  My mind began to push back at the article’s logic, not just because the subject was about Mom and Dad’s efforts, but because how could Dad’s reasoning that the logic behind the operation was about concrete civic engagement be anything but innovative?  In a way, it helped open my eyes to much of the shallowness endemic in my own generation. They were turning it into a battle between generations when, in reality, it was more about a few voices dumping on something they didn’t like.   By experience, I knew that the vast majority of younger minds that I encountered regularly weren’t party to such an outlook but were just attempting to get on with their lives.

It wouldn’t be an overestimation to state that this was something of a revelation to me. And it also made clear that my own father was in fact a champion of innovation and novelty, despite his age and his prevalent belief that the methods of civic engagement in democracy’s past weren’t all bad but contained strong elements of credibility and success.

In my talks with him about the article’s negativity, Dad more or less shrugged it off. But he was hurt, I could tell. His belief that human interaction, face-to-face encounters, were the essence of civilization’s progress also applied to the young, was strongly held.  He had meant no offense to any other generation, he told me, and he was sorry that they had taken to his efforts in such a fashion.

Except that wasn’t it, I knew.  The writer of the piece, along with many of his peers, were just naturally offended at anything that preceded them and Dad was just the latest of a cast of characters that they took their umbrage out on.  Soon enough they would move on to some other focus for their discontent, but for right now it was my father they were ganging up on and it hurt me as well.

It didn’t let up.  Facebook and Twitter posts took their lead from the article, reiterating repeatedly that new ways must be found to support those smaller local operations that didn’t have the benefit of place or history like the Third Place possessed.  Instead of appealing to consumer desire for standard food offerings, the time had come to experiment and collaborate with various food sources, exploit locally grown food, establish food incubators and cater more to the citizens of tomorrow.

This was the same approach my generation took towards politics, business, music and the arts, the environment and housing.  It was a needed breath of fresh air in our tiring and aging community, but it possessed little nuance, opting to see anything more than twenty years old as archaic.

Yet through all that onslaught of negativity the Third Place continued to grow, especially with the addition of breakfast offerings.  A great addition was the arrival of Mrs. Dawson’s grandson, Finn.  He had dropped out of an American college in his sophomore year, choosing to wander and take on odd jobs, mostly in restaurants and cafes along the West Coast, with an added summer of working in Banff during the tourist season.  However, it occurred, Finn had taken to food – how it appealed to others and how it was prepared.

Mrs. Dawson brought him in one day for dinner just prior to the social media onslaught and Finn grew fascinated with the ambiance and how Dad had focused on those meals from various places that people enjoyed the best.

Daisy and I went upstairs after closing while Finn and his grandmother remained at Mom’s request for a late evening drink.  What came from those two hours together would have profound effects on all of us and the restaurant we loved and nourished.


Next chapter – Finn

The Third Place (Chapter 6) – A New Concept

Posted on August 6, 2018

Subtle changes were taking place in the restaurant – a remarkably steady clientele, becoming an anchor establishment in a quaint village that drew from all portions of the city, and an evident kind of reverence for Mom and Dad.

Business had been so good for our parents that they had to institute the reservation system to curtail long lineups – something Dad never wanted to do.  I suppose it was inevitable they would give into the pressure and open up for breakfast every weekday.

It was a family decision, though we looked to Dad to provide a good reason for the move. Ever said that the whole idea was something he never entertained, confessing that he loved the mornings having coffee with Mom and poring over a favourite book.

“Well, then, just keep it the way it is hon,” Mom offered.  “I love our coffees, too, and the work seems to take it out on you – and me.”

She had raised a sensitive point.  They were both aging gracefully enough, but they weren’t as strong and spry as in previous years.  To take on an increased workload seemed counterintuitive to this stage of their shared life.

It was then that Dad finally unfolded a dream he had cherished for years but which he didn’t wish to impose on any of us.

“Daisy … Annie,” he began.  “It has always been my hope that one of you might grow interested in taking over the Third Place once Mom and I were set to retire.  You’re younger.  You know the inside and outside, not only of this building, but the restaurant business and you both have a natural talent for it.”

He paused for a moment, looked up at Mom, and asked, “I don’t wish to make any decisions about the future until I know if you have any interest.  This is not meant to pressure you in any way; it’s just something that must involve all of us.”

And so there it was – something we had suspected all along but were reticent to talk about.  The truth was that Daisy and I had talked about frequently over the years.  But we were young girls and then women, with lives full of studies, boys and the desire to explore a larger world.

But with college almost concluded, I had found myself taking more of an interest in the technicalities of running a business and how to promote it.  Yet the thought of taking it on seemed too ominous to consider.  When Daisy said nothing, I simply stated, “It’s too early for us, Dad.  We’re still young and not sure what our future will be. Sorry.”

If Ever was disappointed it didn’t show.  It was then that he stood up, looking out the front window to the street level below and reflected.

“I don’t think I’m being totally transparent with you,” he said at last, his voice husky and considerate.  “It’s true that I never wanted to develop a breakfast capacity in this place, but truth be told, I honestly didn’t expect the Third Place to become as popular as it is. I mean it’s packed every noon and evening and I’m deeply gratified for the success that has come through all of our efforts.”

Dad sighed, looked over again at Mom, and continued.

“Perhaps what I’ve been most pleased about has been how civil society has treated us here. I mean, the people who come here, especially the regulars, have taken the challenge of investing in this community seriously – more than I could have dreamed.  Patrons don’t just come to eat but to participate in a kind of citizen dialogue that has become something of a lost art in this fast-paced era.  If increasing numbers come for breakfast to take part in that democratic experiment, it remains a difficult thing for me to deny that opportunity.”

There it was, said simply and profoundly as only Everton Overly could say it.  It was a beautiful thing to listen to and we as a family appreciated Dad’s insights.

And so, two months later, the great favourite breakfast meals were offered Monday through Saturday.  I helped whenever I could because I knew the strain on Dad and Mom would challenge their physical endurance.

And just as Dad had predicted, the conversations in the morning hours mirrored what was said later in the day, at lunch and dinner.  Service clubs, friendship groups, book clubs, church breakfasts, Urban League sessions, even some party politics – such groups found themselves at the Third Place, offering views on everything imaginable, especially as it related to community life.

All this was happening as Daisy and I worked out our college schedule.  My little sister had chosen the same college as I attended and we drove to school together on most days.  Her energies seemed boundless.  She joined the annual theatre production, invested her time heavily in soccer and basketball, and always seemed surrounded by friends.  I lived a more solitary life at college, choosing to work on my courses in urban design and architecture and only occasionally attending a social function.  Maybe it was that part of Dad that was strong in me. Architecture had been his love prior to military service and his physical wounds.  The field of design, buildings, how they are built and placed and the development of community infrastructure held strong fascination to me, just as it had for him years earlier.

Yet despite our different lifestyles, both Daisy and I remained committed to helping out at the restaurant whenever we could.  There was no shortage of funds for our parents to hire qualified staff, but the Third Place remained a family activity from first to last and somehow, as students with busy lives, we nevertheless found time to help with the family enterprise.  Plus, Dad and Mom always believed in paying their people a living wage, and that included us.

We were counted on for certain hours but other than that we could fill in as our time permitted and those extra funds helped to pay for clothes, movies, school trips, and we always had the funds on hand to purchase our parent’s gifts that they would appreciate for their anniversary, Christmas or birthday.  It was a great arrangement, giving the kind of independence that also brought responsibility and a sense of exploration.


Next chapter: Disruption

The Third Place (Chapter 5) – Rules of Engagement

Posted on August 5, 2018

At some point during the Third Place’s early years the public began to understand that Everton Overly had quietly struck a deal with his customers without anything official being said about it.

The future of any restaurant depends on its performance – quality of the meals, parking, decor, price, selection and aura.  Should the operator get it right in all of these fields then the chances of success were good.  In a world of rampant consumerism, it was all about the customer and the operation that didn’t understand that had already lost.

Except Dad didn’t really believe it.  A restaurant in his mind wasn’t just about serving food but, rather, a public space where contribution was expected.  At one point he placed on the back of all the menus something he called The Rules of Engagement.  It wasn’t hard to tell where he was coming from.










This looked fashionably corny on paper, but it formed the essence, atmosphere and expectation of the Third Place.  And the last sentence held out the possibility that there was something new to discover, a new place to be, if people held one another in respect.  It was all very intriguing and somehow most customers felt they played key roles in the mystery.

At some point Dad told me that the “Third Place” wasn’t his idea, but that it had come from someone named Ray Oldenburg who was looking for some term to describe the kind of location that permits citizens to be the best versions of themselves. If he had told me years earlier I would never have understood the meaning, but after a lengthy time watching Dad’s customers quietly conform to the better angels of their natures, I instinctively understood how it worked.

“It all seems kind of old-fashioned – kind of like living in the past,” I noted to him one day.  I suddenly fretted I maybe had offended or hurt him, but was relieved to see the grin begin spreading across his tanned features.

“That could be why many older folks visit us so often,” he responded, “but how do we explain all those 20 to 30-year-olds?  Seems to me they aren’t coming to revisit the past but to kind of unknowingly rebuild the future.”

I didn’t really understand it all then, but over time it came to make more sense.  He was perhaps banking on the hope that his customers were searching for more meaning in collective life than perhaps they even understood.  I could be wrong on that, but I don’t think so, since Dad himself seemed to be in that place already and enjoyed an unusual frankness with his patrons.

Later, while in community college, I learned that the Third Place was actually a concept as well as a physical space.  The diversity of such spaces was extensive: community centres, senior’s centres, bars and pubs, coffee shops, stores, malls, hair salons, barbers, YM/YWCAs, houses of faith, schools, colleges, universities, bookstores, parks, neighbourhood homes and yards, block parties, barbecues, and, of course, restaurants – anyplace where citizens gathered and conversed.

In more recent years there has been an abundance of online, or “virtual” third places that supposedly substitute for personal gathering places, but Dad never saw it that way – something that was to come back and plague him on numerous occasions. He was convinced that third places helped people to break away from the social status boundaries they encountered in their everyday lives – job levels, racial distinctions, economic strata, even gender distinctions.  He believed, ardently, that when people escaped such constructs and simply gathered that they would inevitably establish their own norms that would usually include everyone – especially those he called the “regulars,” who he viewed as the true backbone of any gathering.

It didn’t always work out like that, but more often than not it did.  The regulars inevitably came to understand that they were a key part of a great experiment and Dad believed that they would be effective moderators of any gatherings.  They responded to that expectation by actively involving themselves in discussions in ways they would never have done in any other establishment. No one led, per se, but they facilitated conversations in ways that brought people together as opposed to dividing them along typical lines. They actually got pretty good at it over time.

“Canadians have grown accustomed to being content with the ideal home instead of the ideal city,” he said to me once and I think he was attempting to reverse that process.

Everton Overly saw his business as more than just some financial enterprise; for him it was about recapturing a spirit – not the past but of our essence – that had been lost in the country’s pursuit of prosperity and material things.  It formed an attempt at bringing people back to social awareness.  He would say things like, “Say what you think, but be careful,” or, “avoid topics not of general interest to everybody,” and the customers, especially the regulars again, took it on as a collective challenge.  It wasn’t social engineering but it definitely was an effort at community mobilization that became something of a recruiting tool.


Next chapter – A New Concept

The Third Place (Chapter 4) – The House

Posted on August 4, 2018

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

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