There’s a tiny slice of pavement between my neighbourhood supermarket and the senior’s apartment next to it. It’s kind of a grey area, not claimed by grocers or landlords. And just like the shadowed nook under the bleachers back in high school, it attracts a certain type of person - albeit with witty elders instead of sassy teenagers.
It’s known as Dale’s Office, a title honouring the namesake fellow who sets up his lawn chair (office chair?) in this no man’s land each summer. Smudged by his seemingly never-ending pack of cigarettes, Dale creates a casual space that has a certain centre of gravity to it. Neighbours are enticed one-by-one into his semi-circle to chat and wile away the day. Their conversations are bluntly real, yet they are guardrailed by the rules Dale makes clear to all with his practiced welcome speech: leave the drama at home and no arguing.
“She went crazy in the head because she went off her meds. Too bad - otherwise she was a nice enough person.”
Ah, the sounds of spring.
The sound bites I overhear when I commute past to grab groceries often bring a smile to my face. These folks are old-school cool - a rotating cast of characters swapping life stories that may or may not have happened, with eye rolls and gentle ribbing making it clear that it’s fine either way.
They clearly live for these hangs and I can’t help but wonder: where do they go to get this during the seven months of winter? Because I can’t picture their banter stopping even for a day.
There is a concept in sociology called “the third place”: a social environment separate from the usual ones that are home (the first place) and work (the second place). They are locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships - with informal conversation being the main activity. City planners and academics alike laud them as playing a critical role in our sense of community, and I’m pretty sure if I asked Dale he would agree.
We all need these places - playful, mind expanding, neutral…these are ingredients for serendipity (never mind mental health). Yet, as with most things, we often take them for granted until they’re gone.
In the early stages of the pandemic, locked down and locked out, I vividly remember walking past old haunts that once were bustling with life and feeling deep grief for their emptiness. A yoga studio sat dark next to a church with crookedly lettered signage proclaiming, “STAY HOME.” The neighbourhood coffee shop flipped the deadbolt instead of the open sign - closed to visitors but delivering beans in valiant survivalism. Libraries sat even more silent than usual, waiting waiting waiting.
All of these are solid examples of third places. And all of these I doubly appreciate after their unanticipated absence. But with this realization comes the confounding reality that the existence of all these places are waning in the face of late-stage capitalism - new ventures not plentiful enough to fill up the gaps left behind by closing doors.
What falls through the cracks when a culture lifts up individualized living and privatized industry above all else? Many things…and things I worry we won’t realize were important until they’re gone.
I admire the resolute entrepreneurial spirits who set out to create such physical third places, but I also appreciate the quieter individuals who endeavour to cultivate such emotional spaces within arms reach.
Dale’s Office exists to inhabit this role in the lives of those who spend their time there. It’s not about the unclaimed piece of pavement itself, but rather the people and lives that flow into it.
The welcoming culture of the folks who fill a third place should not be overlooked. An open door is a part of it, but its spirit can be brought into the everyday.
And maybe that’s where a nugget of wisdom lies: each of us can create such spaces in the day-to-day, embracing one little action at a time. In this way perhaps we can be empowered to not just find, but also shape such places everywhere that we go.
I see hope in the stoops and grocery aisles filled with casual encounters between those not looking at their phones.
There are many signs of the coming of spring - little vees making up bigger vees that point towards the northern horizon, water babbling life-giving sounds as it flows after a long frozen halt, bare skin once again welcoming the touch of the wind. After the forced quietude of winter, life emerges into the spaces between our shelters.
Dale’s Office is open for the season and I’m here for that. Where I’m from in Winnipeg, a certain segment of folks disappear for the summer. But some of us stick around. We get to know each other with nods of greeting; from the Sunday dumpster divers to the kids marking up the street with sidewalk chalk, a simple acknowledgement of each other’s existence wards off any loneliness.
I’ve lived in this neighbourhood for sixteen years now, in four different apartments along the riverbank and always walking to the same central supermarket. The grocers and I know each other on a first name basis, chatting more often than most friends and family.
Yet time passes and things change. The postman-turned-friend is replaced by someone who doesn’t look up from their job, the countdown to retirement of a kindly lady behind the cash register hits zero, and the elderly man on the corner reminds us all that nothing lasts forever.
Paths cross, and cross again.
My hair has thinned and is slowly taking on a grey ombré; myself, an aging fixture of this community as much as the rest. Wrinkles on my skin do not bother me - a reminder of the slippery passage of time.
It’s not all easy, but it’s also not all hard. We laugh so we won’t cry, at the beautiful absurdity of it all.