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.1
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.”2
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.3
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 wheel.
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.1
“The Great Good Place”
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 participants.
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.”
“Where the Problems of 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. Tennesseans 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 re-enactor. 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.”