What Happens When Our Third Places Go Away?

Conversation among strangers. Photo: New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

It was six weeks into lockdown when I stumbled upon a bar I’d never seen before. Ostensibly, I was on a trip to buy beer. I’d never really considered drinking at home to be fun in the past, though I’d also previously assumed that I’d make it through at least two-thirds of my natural life span before society collapsed. Considering I’d just been proven wrong once, reassessing other long-held claims seemed wise. Or so I thought. As soon as I clocked this place — narrow windows that would surely obfuscate the passage of time, neon signs suggesting the availability of non-craft beers, and no name printed anywhere on the squat building’s façade — I felt more resolute in my appreciation of bars than ever before.

But more than any of these physical features, I was drawn to the (rockabilly adjacent?) group hanging outside with their to-go cups and cigarettes. As I stopped to stare at what seemed like a quarantine mirage from across a busy thoroughfare, one reveler pulled down her face mask to announce that Kim Jong-un was likely dead. As she read aloud from a TMZ article on her phone, I basically had to be pulled away from the crowd with a vaudeville hook like a scene out of Looney Tunes. I’d never been more desperate to talk to strangers in my life.

All city dwellers inherently understand the concept of “third places,” even if they’ve never read Ray Oldenburg’s famous sociology book about their importance. Just as the beer gardens of Germany or the coffeehouses of France served as affordable places for regulars to stop in and chat with their neighbors between work and sleep, anything featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives could arguably serve the same function today. These places typically inspire devotion — a GoFundMe campaign when they’re in danger or glowing hagiographies if they shutter. Now they’re facing an extinction event, and nobody’s stepping in to save them.

I’ve never spent so much time in my life talking to friends over the phone and through various chat apps as I have during lockdown, but how are we supposed to talk to people we don’t already know? I’m not talking about brief exchanges, though interactions with cashiers have also been nixed for the sake of maximum efficiency and cornering a stranger in the produce department to talk about the weather is not likely to end well. Even more than small talk, I long for a lost afternoon spent hearing the unsolicited, meandering life story of someone sitting two stools down. As Oldenburg notes, people’s roles at home and the office are carefully circumscribed, but there’s no status markers at the dive bar except for the ability to drive conversation. That means the tone of such a chat is more playful than purposeful and that it’s completely democratic — if either party stops being entertained at any point, they can just get up and leave without explanation. Even if I’ve historically forgotten the details of such conversations months after they’ve taken place, I have to believe these informal, low-stakes interviews ultimately add up to a greater understanding of the world. If you read a book and forget the plot a year or two later, are you not still edified from having once been made to consider a different point of view?

When I called up Oldenburg, it became clear that the answer to that question is “yes.” His first experience “hanging out” was at a small-town Minnesota warming hut when he was 5, which led him to a career extolling the virtues of joyous association with strangers. He’s lived in suburban Florida for decades and long had a hard time getting his third-place fix among the strip malls and sprawl, so he converted his family’s two-car garage into a dive bar. Prior to COVID-19, he was also among the regulars at a local Hardee’s chain. Now that he can’t even go there, the 88-year-old is experiencing the same ennui and isolation as I am. “Nothing really happens nowadays,” he told me. “Life is so much easier when you have friends who know all this stuff and have occupational diversity.”

My last normal night in New York, I headed into McSorley’s after a show at Webster Hall. It was too late for the rolling-suitcase crowd to be in there taking pictures, which meant the bartenders were free to chat. It all seems like a million years ago now, and not just because I ordered a liverwurst sandwich that I loaded up with mustard from a communal pot. The guy I spoke to was named Mike. He worked Tuesdays and Sundays, loved the Bouncing Souls as a teen growing up in Ireland, and bought me a round. I stayed much later than I intended, and I would give anything to have stayed longer.

When Oldenburg strikes up a conversation at the bar, he relies on a handful of anodyne questions that get people talking and avoids discussing politics or “bad news.” Right now, it’s harder to imagine talking about anything else than it is to remember what it’s like to purposefully loiter inside a business. After all, thousands of New Yorkers are risking their lives every night to march in solidarity alongside their neighbors. Third places are typically commercial, but they’re more importantly defined by their ability to foster a sense of collective responsibility and joyful association among strangers. People might not be able to engage in small talk at bars, but they’re now able to meet those same needs through a much more direct form of civic participation. While my enjoyment of talking to strangers made me an outlier before, it’s hard to imagine that many other people aren’t having epiphanies at these protests that are similar to the one Oldenburg had when he was 5. Maybe they’ll seek out third places when this is all over, even if they didn’t before. I had assumed that bars wouldn’t have communal mustard bowls when they finally reopened, but I no longer think that’s the only thing that will feel different about being in one.

What Happens When Our Third Places Go Away?