Sunday, November 8, 2009

The third place, and why we need it

By Norman Fulkerson

The informal gathering place provides a way for
many Americans to survive their hectic daily lives.
Ladies have their tearooms, but many men have found
a solution also.

Years ago, I had the chance to visit Italy. I loved my
stay there and had an amusing experience in the airport
the day of my departure. While standing in line to check
my bags, an employee announced that our flight would
be delayed. The next man in line went ballistic and
vented his anger on the lady who was checking us in.

“This is terrible,” he said. “I’ll miss my appointment.” He
went into great detail about how all of this was really of
earth shattering importance.

The Italian lady stood calmly and listened, with a
sympathetic look and a pensive gaze.  She could just as
easily have been watching a popular Italian opera as listening
to an American complaining about the tragedy
of a delayed flight.  He eventually finished his operatic
dramatization of the disaster of his altered travel
plans.  She looked at him with her droopy eyes and
serene face, and all she had to say was, “Compared to
life, its not that bad.”

This was a memorable experience for me since it
gave me a brief glimpse of two opposing philosophies!

On one side of the counter was the stereotypical “time
is money” philosophy, which cannot tolerate an
unplanned moment, while on the other side was a “joy
of life” philosophy that welcomes the spontaneous
moments that enrich life.

Such situations are a chance to take a deserved
break for some, but for our businessman it was a source
of anger and frustration. His world is one of travel planners
and nifty computer programs to schedule his every
minute. His life is a succession of airports, taxis, hotel
rooms, business lunches or quick burgers at McDonalds,
then quickly off again to some other destination to
close yet another deal.

Fortuitous circumstances that allow a moment of
relaxation are considered vile intruders in his world of
production. An outsider witnessing such a scene
might think that America is simply one big machine,
with man playing the part of cogs in a massive industrial

Those who think this way have missed a growing trend.

With the cigar boom of the mid 90’s, smoke-rooms
for men sprouted up in almost every major city in the
country. And since my first trip to Italy I began to
notice how these rooms are a haven for men who long
for more than time management.

Riding the crest of this new wave was Denver’s elegant
Brown Palace Hotel. They simply took what was
formerly a small bar servicing their Atrium Lounge,
added a wall in 1996, and transformed it into a cigar
bar named after Winston Churchill. In its first year of
operation, “the Churchill Bar did $1 million worth of
business, a 500 percent increase over the previous year.

There are between 3,000 and 4,000 people on the bar’s
mailing list, which continues to grow.” What is the
attraction? The reason is simple: “Cigars force you to
stop and do something that is pleasurable for at least
one part of your day,” said one regular of the bar.

Americans avidly search for such informal “third
places” that will provide them with the elements necessary
for a relaxing conversation.

Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place
says that “Great civilizations, like great cities, share a
common feature. Evolving within them and crucial to
their growth and refinement are distinctive informal public gathering places.”

Most men need an occasional break from work and home. What is often missing is that unique third place where they can get together with other men to enjoy a simple yet satisfying pleasure
of life: conversation.

Women may have their Victorian tearoom escapes
to enjoy a nice chat, but now many American men
have also found an escape. Providing us with yet
another Only in America paradox. In a nation that promoted
the “time-is-money philosophy,” you also find a
good number of men who appreciate fine tobacco and
the relaxation their third place provides.

Such third places are common in Europe. It is difficult
to imagine an Irishman without a pub close by to
enjoy a pint of Guinness and discuss politics. French
cafes supply the necessary ambiance for speaking
openly about philosophical currents of the day, and
the beer halls of Germany are the breeding ground for
new ideas.

Similar places also exist in America, however, and
their role in society is becoming more important. And
Mr. Oldenburg’s blueprint of the third place provides
necessary elements to see that such locations provide
the same benefits for Americans that Europeans enjoy
in their pubs, coffee houses, and beer halls.

Almost every town in America has its local diner,
which is not just a place to get an inexpensive breakfast
and hot cup of coffee — good portions of conviviality
are served up as well.

The corner barbershop is a frequent stop for retired men who want someone to talk to, and the public squares of many cities provide more than a park bench in the shade to rest on
a hot day.

The common denominator among all of these
places is the note of surprise. Who will show up today?
Those that do are always welcome since frequenters of
the third place are people with loads of personality and
lots to say. So the ordinary stop at the barber, the diner,
or the park bench becomes an experience that enriches
life like few things can.

The regular, the newcomer and the bore

According to Oldenburg there are many distinct characteristics
that make up a third place. The third place is comfortable, a home away from home. It is a place that has its regulars, but also the occasional newcomer who adds a fresh element to the ambience. “What attracts the regular visitor to the third place,” says Oldenburg, “are the fellow customers.”

Informal meeting places are “upbeat because those who enjoy them ration the time they spend there.” Besides the “regulars”
and the “newcomers,” he also describes another type: the bore.

He is the one who has “long since lost that edge that makes people interesting, an edge that is honed by confrontation with life outside.” While the regular and the newcomer leave “before the magic fades,” the bore has a tendency to hang on forever,
milking the moment for all its worth.

The reason informal meeting places are upbeat is simple: It is a place where the pretensions of work and the responsibilities of home can be put aside. It provides us with the situation and surroundings in which we can be ourselves and explore our ideas and dreams in a neutral environment with non-threatening

Smoke-rooms are perhaps the best examples of the
“third place” for men that I found. Born over 300 years
ago in London, the gentleman’s club or smoke-room
was an essential element in the social life of men,
described by one astute observer as “mausoleums of
masculine inactivity.”3

“Where the problemsof the world are solved”

It was an overcast day as I walked down the cobblestone
walkway of what I later learned is the gentleman’s
quarter or arcade. It is the oldest part of
Nashville, a place where men of the past gathered to do
business. This area of town is home to the Arcade
Smoke-room, where men of the present remember the
past. The closely laid cobblestones seem analogous to
the close friendships that are formed, strengthened,
and solidified in the Arcade. Housed in the oldest
building in town, it is a popular gathering place for
Nashville men.

My visit to the Arcade proved to be an experience.
Tennessee by nature are a very hospitable people,
and as I entered the shop I immediately felt at home
due to the kind treatment of the owner, Wilson Frazier.
Do you get a lot of customers here, I asked. “Yes,
sir,” he said, pointing to a couch pushed up against the
wall, “the problems of the world are solved right there.”
With such a small sitting area, I figured there couldn’t
be more than a handful at any given time.

When I returned during lunchtime to see who it was that solved the world’s problems, I found a constant flow of men coming and going.

The Arcade Smoke-room was the classic example of a third place as defined by Oldenburg, “where individuals may come and go as they please and in which none are required to play host and in which all feel at home and comfortable.”

Patrick Owen is a regular of the Arcade and the owner of his own smoke-room up the street. He works for the Department of Human Services in downtown Nashville and does Civil War reenacting as a hobby.

“Why do men come to these smoke-rooms?” I
asked him.

“Men need the company of other men,” he said,
“time to recapture camaraderie. Smoke-rooms give
them the opportunity to discuss traditional things.”
Men need a place to relax with other men and pound
out those perplexing questions that have been ruminating
in their head during the day.

The segregation of sexes “accounts for the origins of the third place,” says Oldenburg, “and remains the basis for much of the
appeal and benefits this institution has to offer.” Men
sometimes need to be with other men, as ladies often
need to be with other ladies.

Patrick is an archetypal example of a civil war reenactor.
When he first greets you there is the characteristic bow of the head, and the gentlemanly usage of the title sir. He doesn’t just barge into a conversation but is the champion of a smooth entrance and gentle transition. His mannerisms were thus more
civilized, like someone of the nineteenth century. He
was polite, chivalrous, a joy to be around. “The
smoke-rooms of today are like the campfires during
the time of the Civil War, where men would gather to
converse,” he said.

“We have always needed this type of thing,” he continued.
“The Greeks had their agora — an ancient
marketplace of Greece; the Romans had the Forum —
the public square where laws were read; early Americans
had taverns and coffee houses.”

Suddenly I found myself engaged in an elevated
conversation surrounded by a pensive group of men;
some puffing on cigars, others drawing from elegantly
shaped pipes. Waiting my turn to speak I was amused
by the sign hanging on the wall overhead. “A pipe gives
a wise man time to think, and a fool something to put
in his mouth.”

“Do angels have free will?”
This experience in conversational cuisine is by no
means restricted to Nashville’s Arcade. While visiting
Rae’s Tobacco Shop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, one
day I unexpectedly found myself drawn into a theological
debate with one of the regulars, David Ravegum,
on the existence of angels and whether or not they
have free wills. With the help of a friend I was able to
explain that they do. Upon leaving David looked at me
and said, “You have piqued my interest. I am going to
go home and read up on the angels.” The next time I
visited Rae’s, David recognized me and affirmed, “You
are right, angels do have free will.”

The men who frequent the Tobacco Chandler in
Hanover, Pennsylvania, enjoy conversations more
along the sociological line. “What is happening with

the youth of today? Why don’t they have respect for
elders?” One such conversation was so interesting that
Mike Evans, the owner, suggested that we invite some
of the area youth to participate. Instead of just playing
billiards on Mike’s table, he felt they could also benefit
from the simple pleasure of an elevated conversation.

The Humidour in Timonium, Maryland, provides a
dignified ambience for its customers, with leather
armchairs, rich wood paneling, a splendid air freshener,
and large crystal ashtrays. Don Curtis of the National
Investors Company is one of the regulars.

Don is a master conversationalist with whom it is easy to talk
and who has a lot to say. His concerns are more of a
political nature and when I first met him he wasted no
time in venting his anger over the myriad scandals surrounding
the Clinton administration, especially the
moral ones. “If we are not careful,” he said, “We could
end up like the Roman Empire, rotting from within. If
that happens we won’t need an outside invader, we will
simply give up.”

Back in Nashville...
Before leaving the Arcade, Wilson Frazier was kind
enough to show me the upstairs of the shop. As we
reached the top of the stairs, a dimly lit sitting area
caught my eye. Two comfortable armchairs faced each
other with a table between them. Arranged on the
table was a chessboard ready for play. Outside the window
was a birds-eye view of the cobblestone arcade
below. The back room had a conference table where
some men go to escape the agitation of the workplace.
“It gives them the opportunity,” Mr. Frazier said, “to get
away from their offices, secretaries, and noisy phones.”

The smoke-rooms of America are a strong indicator
that some men are becoming increasingly dissatisfied
with the rat race and desire a solution to the rush
of every day life. The cigar boom provided the excuse,
the smoke-room the place — a third place “where the
problems of the world are solved.”

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