In The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Ray Oldenburg praises “third places” where people can just get together and hang out as essential to healthy public life. (The “first place” is home, the “second place” is work.) In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argues that many third places are disappearing from American life, especially from the suburbs, which are built for cars with strip malls and “destination shopping.”
Two years ago, The New York Times ran an article about senior citizens in Queens who were fighting to use McDonald’s as a hangout spot, and this week The Guardian published an article titled “McDonald’s: you can sneer, but it’s the glue that holds communities together”:
When many lower-income Americans are feeling isolated by the deadening uniformity of things, by the emptiness of many jobs, by the media, they still yearn for physical social networks. They are not doing this by going to government-run community service centers. They are not always doing this by utilizing the endless array of well-intentioned not-for-profit outreach programs. They are doing this on their own, organically across the country, in McDonald’s.
The fast food joint as third place is not necessarily a new phenomenon: Larry McMurtry writes in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen about how the restaurants served as third places in tiny Texas towns in the 1960s:
Dairy Queens, simple drive-up eateries, taverns without alcohol, began to appear in the arid little towns of west Texas [in the late sixties]. The aridity of the small west Texas towns was not all a matter of unforgiving skies, baking heat, and rainlessness, either; the drought in those towns was social, as well as climatic. The extent to which it was moral is a question we can table for the moment. What I remember clearly is that before the Dairy Queens appeared the people of the small towns had no place to meet and talk; and so they didn’t meet or talk, which meant that much local lore or incident remained private and ceased to be exchanged, debated, and stored…
Certainly if there were places in west Texas where stories might sometimes be told, those places would be the local Dairy Queens: clean, well-lighted places open commonly from 6 A.M. until ten at night. These Dairy Queens combined the functions of tavern, café, and general store; they were simple local roadhouses where both rambling men and stay-at-homes could meet. To them would come men of all crafts and women of all dispositions. The oilmen would be there at six in the morning; the courthouse crowd would show up about ten; cowboys would stop for lunch or a midafternoon respite; roughnecks would jump out of their trucks or pickups to snatch a cheeseburger as their schedules allowed; and the women of the villages might appear at any time, often merely to sit and mingle for a few minutes; they might smoke, sip, touch themselves up, have a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea, sample the gossip of the moment, and leave. Regular attendance was necessary if one hoped to hear the freshest gossip, which soon went stale. Most local scandals were flogged to death within a day or two; only the steamiest goings-on could hold the community’s attention for as long as a week.
And always, there were diners who were just passing through, few of whom aspired to stay in Archer City. They stopped at the Dairy Queen as they would at a gas station, to pee and take in fuel, mindful, gloomily, that it was still a good hundred miles even to Abilene, itself no isle of grace. Few of these nomads, if they had stories to tell, bothered to tell them to the locals — and if they had wanted to tell a story or two, it is doubtful that anyone would have listened. People on their way to Abilene might as well be on their way to hell — why talk to them? Folks in Archer City knew the way to hell well enough; they need seek no guidance from traveling men.
All day the little groups in the Dairy Queen formed and re-formed, like drifting clouds.
I had been spending a lot of time drawing at the Taco Bell on 14th Street in Manhattan. They have free drink refills, and the tables are pretty good for drawing. After a bit of doing that myself, I thought it might be fun to invite other people to come draw with me…. If I am in New York, I will usually have a meeting (though I personally do not have to be at a Taco Bell Drawing Club meeting for it to happen — as long as people are drawing in a Taco Bell, they can consider that a meeting). I try to post about it on my Instagram feed or on the TBDC blog. If I am out of town, I will try to have meetings wherever I am. Luckily, there are a lot of Taco Bells.
Artist Jim Houser on sketching in a Denny’s:
After I got kicked out of college, I used to sit in a Denny’s that was about a 15 minute walk from my house. I’d go there at 8 or 9 at night, and sit at the counter and listen to my walkman and draw and write in sketchbooks. I did this every night, for 2 or 3 years maybe. I’d draw stuff for the waitresses and they’d give me free pie or French fries. And coffee was a dollar with unlimited re-fills. So, it was someplace to go, out of my house, when I only had a dollar. These sketchbooks I used to keep, there’s a bit of obsessive compulsive disorder to them, when I look back at them. Little things I would do that maybe were a bit odd. Like, every time they would refill my coffee cup, whatever I was doing, I’d draw a little coffee-cup at the top of the page.
IHOP played such a large role in David Sedaris’s collection of diaries, Theft By Finding, that the publisher put a picture of an IHOP on the promotional postcards. (The New Yorker published an excerpt with the title, “The IHOP Years.”) Sedaris used to write on the back of the placemats in the IHOP in his hometown of Raleigh, then when he moved to Chicago for art school, he found another IHOP to hang out in at night.
Ten years ago, I was visiting Cambridge, MA, and after rambling around Harvard’s campus and the bookstores, I popped into an IHOP with a $5 breakfast special. I sat and drank coffee and doodled the sketchbook page above and had a wonderful time just sitting.
I used to go to Bob’s Big Boy restaurant just about every day from the mid-seventies until the early eighties. I’d have a milk shake and sit and think. There’s a safety in thinking in a diner. You can have your coffee or your milk shake, and you can go off into strange dark areas, and always come back to the safety of the diner.
Besides fast food restaurants, I collect other stories of creative people hanging out in mundane retail spaces. Pee Wee Herman loves a particular Walgreens. Andrew Bird wrote a song about how much he hates big box stores like Costco. Zan McQuade writes beautifully about how she learned to love the mall.
My favorite recent example was novelist Amy Daws, who found the cure for writer’s block in her local tire shop — after bringing her cars in for new tires and getting a bunch of writing done, she started taking her friend’s cars in for maintenance work so she had an excuse to write there, and eventually the management just invited her to come hang out whenever she wants.
Top image: my former local Dairy Queen on Manor Road in Austin, TX (used as an illustration in Show Your Work!)