Having recently completed my first cross-country road trip from Seattle to Washington, DC, with frequent bathroom and re-fueling/re-flooding stops in coffee shops and gas station diners in dusty, tumbleweed Western and grits-serving tiny Southern towns, I have a greater appreciation of the role of these ‘third places’ in communities, in civil discourse, and in democracy.
Third places are informal community gathering spaces, separate from the ‘first place’ of home (assuming you have one) and ‘second place’ of worksites. Third place is a term and a concept developed by the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg. This article in Psychology Today does a decent job of explaining his work on third places.
Being a socially progressive, moderate Democrat-leaning person, I wanted to spend some time immersed in a broad swath of Red States. Especially in Texas, which seems to be one of the Redest states of all. Imagine my surprise, while sitting at a community table at a Starbucks outside of Houston, when I tuned in to the conversation of a group of four middle-aged men. It went something like this:
“We’re all Americans here and we represent a cross-section of our country. I’m a white guy. We’ve got someone who is Jewish, you’re Hispanic, and you’re African-American. And we’re sitting together here talking about things that are important.”
“Yeah, this sure wouldn’t have happened thirty years ago,” said the Hispanic man sitting at the end of the table.
“I don’t understand this,” said the white man. “The Supreme Court justice yesterday equated civil rights of Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews–people who have clearly been discriminated against–with homosexuals and transgender types–who are–what?–less than 1 percent of the U.S. Population. How can that be the same?”
The Hispanic man replied, “If they’re fully realized human beings–they had the surgery or whatever to cut off their penises or whatever it is they do–I’m okay with it. We probably don’t even know there’s a difference. They could be right here or even serving us our coffee of whatever and it don’t matter at all. And everyone needs to use the restroom, so they should be able to do that and not have people harass them over a basic human need.”
All four of the men nodded in agreement and then started to show each other family photos from their phones. I nodded in silent agreement, having ended my enlightening Red State third place eavesdropping experience. And I went to use the mixed gender/any gender Starbucks bathroom.