Satisfying a Craving For Someplace Familiar

By Bruce Johansen
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 21, 2008

As a transplant to the Washington area in 1994, trying to get a handle on my new community, I was drawn to Silver Spring's Tastee Diner, firmly planted on the corner of Georgia and Wayne avenues for more than 50 years. I liked that the small eatery was worn yet still well used, and that the staff knew the customers, taking time to stand and chat. Each time I stopped in -- pretty often, back then -- I'd see the same faces and enjoy my interactions. Most were with Eunice, one of the veteran waitresses, who often shared photos of her dog. Others were with fellow patrons, including a group that gruff staffer Martha had dubbed the "old crows."

Food seemed less the attraction than history, sociability and the diner's theatrical aspect. Pleasure came from watching a wide array of characters pass through its door. Eavesdropping on conversations swirling around me also was a source of delight.

On my first visit, display cases holding faded newspaper clippings caught my eye. Together with other memorabilia, they documented how workers and patrons had rallied in the mid-1980s to save the diner from the hands of an ambitious (or was he ruthless?) developer.

I soon realized the Tastee had been, and remained, an important place for many area residents, which made me wonder: Would it become my regular hangout?

Over the past decade or so, settings like diners, coffeehouses and neighborhood bars have witnessed a new surge in popularity. Largely due to increased mobility and the changing nature of work, the relationships many of us form with the land, a neighborhood, family and friends are fragmented. Searching for ways to compensate, we frequently turn to public places where others congregate. Places like diners fill a void, becoming venues for newcomers and telecommuters alike to meet or make friends, be alone in the company of others, or simply to e-mail and keep up on news from home, whatever city, state or country that might be.

"Third places" is what these hangouts have been tagged, a term that's caught on among academics, corporate CEOs, marketing firms and small business owners alike.

Ray Oldenburg, the sociologist who coined it, says that whether we know it or not, we all need the balance that these informal community gathering places provide to home ("first place") and work ("second place").

It could be the climate, the culture or a combination of the two, but whatever it is, the Midwestern cities I relocated from have an abundance of vibrant third places. These social settings make Minneapolis and St. Paul continue to feel like home to me.

On a recent trip back, I relished bantering with the young hipster clerk and a fellow patron at Dunn Bros. Coffee, the three of us trying to recall all of the characters in "Winnie-the-Pooh." The next day I delighted in having the barista at 2nd Moon offer to lend me her tape of a favorite Eddie Murphy flick, all because of a joke that had the two of us in stitches shortly after we'd met, earlier that week.

Sometimes it's simply the familiarity that gives me pleasure.

Opening the door to Matt's Bar in Minneapolis, I'm comforted by the dark exterior that never changes, and the knowledge that a "jucy lucy" -- a burger with piping hot cheese in its center -- is in store. It's a place where I've joined friends and co-workers for more than 25 years, so being there stirs memories. At the Bryant-Lake Bowl I know I'll be served a tall, cold Summit Ale -- my favorite local brew -- while listening to the crash of pins in the adjoining lanes. Stopping at the Band Box Diner, I'll be greeted by owner Brad, who will stop to chat in between flipping pancakes and refilling coffee cups. These idiosyncratic places are Minneapolis to me.

Returning to the Washington area, I'll get my bearings by heading to Silver Spring's Kefa Cafe, where Lene and Abeba, the Tsegaye sisters, extend warm hellos and ask where I've been. At Mayorga Coffee Factory I'll enjoy the sight of Metro trains flying by in a section of town I associate with hardboiled detective writer George Pelecanos. If I find a seat, even on a couch, at Adams Morgan hot spot Tryst, I'll feel lucky. And I'll be entertained at Soho Cafe, hearing Sami's update on where he's living and his current business dream. Occasionally I still stop by the spruced-up, expanded Tastee Diner, in its new location, to grab a bite and visit with Eunice.

Humming with people engaged in conversation or focused on work, these settings energize me. Glancing around I see people who, I suspect, like me are seeking connection. Even so, I sometimes wonder how many of us are fulfilling our need for sociability.

How do the more fleeting relationships I have in such gathering places measure up to ones our more deeply tethered ancestors had? Are we simply "together alone," as one book posits? Or is the discovery of a comfortable third place an important part of setting down roots?

My father's family farmstead in North Dakota lies abandoned now. He and his siblings chose a life less harsh than their parents had known, most of them opting to raise families in cities and suburbs. Like them, I know I don't want my grandparents' life, but my search for grounding places tells me I do desire some of what that generation had -- the deep ties that come from having somewhere to call home.

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