William Raspberry / Syndicated columnist
In pursuit of "third places"
The beginning of the week usually finds me in Durham, N. C., preparing for the classes I teach at Duke University. But this was fall break...
WASHINGTON — The beginning of the week usually finds me in Durham, N.C., preparing for the classes I teach at Duke University. But this was fall break, and I didn't have to make the trip.
Instead — almost without thinking about it — I dressed and headed for The Washington Post, where I busied myself with various journalistic chores.
And then it hit me: Where will I go next fall break — and spring break, and all those other free-from-school times? What will I do to get out of the house?
At the end of this month, I'll be retiring from the newspaper where I've worked for more than 43 years, and I had already been going through the process of redefining my existence without the Post. But this was a new worry: How does a retired guy get out of the house?
Let me be clear: This is not a commentary on my marriage. I've enjoyed 39 years with a wonderful woman, and I'd happily sign up for as many more. No, the getting-out-of-the-house quandary is as much about her as me. You may have seen the story by my Post colleague Anthony Faiola concerning a new disorder being treated by Japanese mental health therapists: RHS, or retired husband syndrome.
Apparently, Japanese wives have grown used to playing something of a servant's role to their husbands — making their dinner when they come home from work, seeing to their well-being and so on.
But listen to one desperate Japanese housewife's reaction to her husband's beaming announcement that he was retiring:
" 'This is it,' I remember thinking. 'I am going to have to divorce him now.' It was bad enough that I had to wait on him when he came home from work. But having him around the house all the time was more than I could possibly bear."
I don't consider myself a particularly high-maintenance husband, but Sondra can't possibly cherish the prospect of having both a lot less income and a lot more husband invading the space she surely must think of as primarily hers.
But how to save her sanity — and mine?
One helpful friend to whom I put the dilemma pointed me to Ray Oldenburg's 16-year-old book, "The Great Good Place," wherein he laments the loss of what he calls "third places" in American life. The first place, of course, is home; the second is work. Third places, in Oldenburg's taxonomy, are those informal gathering spots where one finds not just escape but camaraderie, conversation, friendly argument and pleasant conversation with regulars.
I read his description of — his paean to — third places, and I think of old-time barbershops, where barbering was largely a backdrop for an informal social life; of chess players in the city park, where the only admission ticket is a delight in the game and where opponents need know little more about you than your first name, and of small-town diners where regulars dawdle for hours over coffee and pie.
But all these are Norman Rockwell vignettes. Barbershops, even if they haven't gone unisex, are unmistakably about business these days, and I wouldn't urge you to dawdle too long without spending money at Starbucks. Commercialization and suburbanization are crushing the life out of third places.
At least in America. Irish pubs, German biergartens, Moroccan tea shops, French neighborhood cafes — all are hangouts of regulars who seem to check their titles and status at the door. Or at any rate, potential regulars, for, as Oldenburg points out, admittance may be free, but "membership" happens only after the regulars get to know and trust you.
"The Great Good Place" argues that third places build community, social capital and civic solidarity. Perhaps, but my immediate worry is that they won't be there for me when I need them.
I suppose a case could be made for the gym as a latter-day third place. Likewise, the beauty salon or the sports bar. But listen to Oldenburg:
"The lure of a third place depends only secondarily upon seating capacity, variety of beverages served ... or other features. What attracts the regular visitor to a third place is supplied not by management but by fellow customers. ... It is the regulars who give the place its character and who assure that on any given visit some of the gang will be there."
And that describes perfectly the newsroom of The Washington Post, except that it was — and is — a job site. I need a new third place.
William Raspberry's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org