Welcome to the jerk pit

Remember coffee shops?

Once, many years ago, I lived in a coffee shop. 

I didn’t really live there—I lived in a house with some friends 20 minutes away, and later in a series of apartments. But I was there almost every day, doing my grad school work and playing Scrabble and testing the new latte flavors and putting in my two cents about what music they should put on. I knew all the baristas, most of the bands that performed, and every single other regular, even the ones I hated and didn’t talk to. All my friends were people I met there—employees and former employees, regulars and regulars-to-be, open mic musicians and open mic musicians’ girlfriends. (Some of the musicians also had boyfriends but these were typically fine at best.) Not all of the parties I went to were parties there, but generally when I went to another party I would leave it and go to the party at the coffee shop instead which was always better. One time at a party two off-duty employees came up to me and another regular and said “maybe it’s because we’re rolling, but we think you two should hook up,” and we did hook up and then we got married and divorced but that last part happened after the coffee shop closed, after the idyll was over.

The coffee shop looked exactly how you’re imagining: mismatched couches from the thrift store, walls painted different bright colors, terrible art (sometimes by me), good art (much of it by my friend Amy, whom I’d met at the coffee shop). It was shabby and rickety and sometimes it felt as if it was scaffolded by nothing but our inside jokes, just a bubble of goodwill holding the roof aloft when it should have come down. The building had once been a house, so there were multiple rooms—the main area with sofas, but also a back room with a pool table and a bunch of board games, and a small front room where you could actually study unless someone came looking for you. The building was a little hard to find, so while it was often full it was also often empty; in both of these cases, very few rules applied. Every single one of my go-to orders was either an off-menu variation or some secret recipe from the staff (I was partial to the Death Latte). Sometimes they let me come back to the kitchen and make my own food so they could deal with someone else, in violation of every known health code. Once the person who was closing let me crash for the night on a couch, because it was supposed to snow and I wanted to stay near school; when one of the owners came in to open, she just said “oh cool, it’s Jess.” Another time, when I forgot my wallet and had to get a sandwich on credit, the other owner waved away my gratitude and relief. “No big deal,” he said. “I know where you live.” And after a beat: “It’s here.”

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This is a downright pathological level of being a regular, I realize that now. (Although for this particular place I was only mid-tier deranged. Other regulars ended up literally living in the coffeeshop, either in the rooms above it or the bungalows behind it, which were owned by the same proprietor, who lived back there too. And almost everyone got converted into an employee of some kind, at some point, except me. I did help clean up and do other chores, and I frequently did the art and lettering on the chalkboards, but I did all that for free.) But at the time, being a regular didn’t feel pathological. It felt… well, regular. Typical. Aspirational, perhaps, but aspirational in a way that was well within normal parameters. The concept of being a regular, of having a single place to go where they know you, is ingrained in the culture; we see it played out on practically every long-running scripted show, especially sitcoms. People on television reliably have a go-to bar or cafe or restaurant where they at minimum schedule every one of their social engagements (Central Perk, Cafe Nervosa, Monk’s, the Bronze), and more often, know everyone and get deeply involved in the lives of people both in front of and behind the counter (Cheers, Moe’s, Luke’s Diner, Cafe Tropical, the Double R). This is mostly because it’s easier to build one film set for most outside-the-house gatherings, but that’s not what you see when you watch. You see a place where they start making your order as soon as you walk through the door, where you don’t even have to plan to meet your friends because when you show up your friends are already there. A place where you are known, and yet still welcomed. Where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg developed the concept of the “third place” in 1989 to describe the shared social environments necessary to develop a sense of community and civic engagement. The idea is that you have a first place, which is your home, and a second place, which is your work, but for a community to develop you need a third social setting that’s neither. To truly function as part of society, in other words, you have to be able to access a space that is low-key, non-hierarchical, comfortable, neutral, and devoted to interaction. That could be a church or a library, but a lot of the time it’s a coffee shop or a bar. For people on sitcoms, the third place may be literally one of three (or not many more than three) places that exist in their world—a home set, an office set, and Central Perk. But they’re not just saving on soundstage space; they’re also demonstrating what we all need in order to take part in a healthy community. Those TV cafes where every character is a regular were, more or less by accident, giving us a gift: a reminder that to be part of the world, you must gather. Even if you only gather in the usual place, with the usual people, community is something we make together and we make it outside of work, outside of home.

For the last year, of course, many of us haven’t even had second places. The biggest reason that the social constriction of the pandemic weighs so heavily on us is also the most obvious reason: we only get to spend time in a single location. If you live in a very small apartment, like I do, that means you see two rooms, a bathroom, occasionally the building’s laundry room, and a mile or so radius around your home. But even a larger house, with more different rooms to be trapped in, is a first place only; it simply can’t be a second place or a third. People who hated their jobs and still do have started to dream about going into the office, just to look at different walls. The third place, that fertile ground of community-building, in many ways the cradle of society, is dead to us, for now. 

The other hardest thing, though, is watching our former third places crumble. When a bar or cafe or restaurant or club you loved closes—especially if it’s one where you were a regular, if you were one of the people whose camaraderie held up the roof, who made it into something more than a bar or cafe or restaurant or club—it’s a genuine source of grief. It’s not comparable to losing a loved human being, or even comparable to losing a business you owned—that is, to losing a livelihood. But sorrow doesn’t need to be superlative to count. The loss of a place where you built yourself, alone and in relation to others, is a manifold loss: we are mourning ourselves as we used to be, in this place which is gone, in relation to others we may never see again, and we are mourning all the ways we could have been together in that place in the future, which now will not come. Losing your place hurts the way getting older hurts, or forgetting a language, or moving away. You left a part of yourself somewhere, and it disappeared, and it won’t come again, and so you are diminished. 

The coffee shop I loved has been gone for more than a decade. There was a much-deserved electrical fire, brought on by the legendarily bonkers wiring, which dealt it a killing blow. Even before the fire, though, the first generation of regulars had been wandering away, alienated by changes that made the place more efficient but less welcoming, and by a new crop of regulars who wrecked the vibe. Visiting became less about seeing friends and more about navigating around oily glad-handers and drunkards with no boundaries. When it finally got bought and rebuilt into a chicken place called the Jerk Pit, we joked that in fact it had been a jerk pit for years. 

Still: it was a wallop. The finality of the place entirely ceasing to exist underlined all the ways in which it was always already lost to me: the entropy nibbling at every scaffold, the stubborn linear trudge of time. The thing about brief shining moments is that they’re shining, and that they’re brief. Third places are supposed to be neutral and pleasant, but at the same time, any crucible of community contains implicitly within itself the possibility of rift, disappearance, estrangement. Even if it’s never realized, it’s there, the way death lurks in every wedding vow. 

I’ve been thinking about this as I repeatedly see friends apologize for eulogizing a restaurant or bar when people are dying—as if only the largest grief is real. A coffee shop isn’t a person, but it’s also many people: all our old selves, the shells we climbed out of and can’t climb back in. And it’s the relationships between people, all that scaffolding we built together, some of which hangs on even after the roof caves in. To lose these places, or even to be separated from them for a while, makes it difficult to be whole. 

I think many of our cafes and bars and other spaces will survive, against the tremendous odds of these few years. But I also think it will be a long time before we’re easy with each other in public. And virus or no virus, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to be a regular again. I have been to many places that qualify under Oldenburg’s definitions since my coffee shop closed, but I haven’t really had a reliable, go-to third place in years, certainly not a place where I knew everyone. Being a regular at my coffee shop was intense to a preposterous degree—a young person’s game, not something I could do again. But I’m worse off for not having some attenuated version of that overclocked kinship, and in a way I’ll always be chasing it—the feeling of being caught up in that bubble that holds the roof up high. As we crawl slowly, slowly out of our homes and learn to gather again, I suspect the nature of my personal quest won’t really change. I’m not just looking for third spaces: neutral, accommodating, calm. I’m testing every door for the one that opens on a place where they started your order as soon as they saw you coming, a place where they know you by name.