I am sitting at a corner table at Jacko’s, my current diner of choice. I’ve been writing some technical copy for a client in India, and some poetry. I’ve been through two cups of coffee and a breakfast sandwich. Shortly I will begin work on my sermon for tomorrow, and likely that will mean a third cup of coffee.
When I finished my poem, I took a break and checked e-mail. There was a question there from a reader of this blog. It’s a question I get a lot – “What is it about you and diners?”
I do love little local diners and coffee shops. When I am not traveling, I often spend my mornings in them. When I travel? Well, let’s just say that I scope out places near my major clients that serve good coffee and have good wi-fi.
My love of coffee shops and diners came later in my life. I didn’t frequent them when I was young. I was around 50 when they became important to me. I was recently separated, and then divorced. I had at the same time, I had changed jobs, moving away from the people I had worked with for almost a decade. I had changed churches, so my wife and children could continue in the church we had been a part of for 12 years without stress.
I was isolated.
I was also in a deep depression. And if you know anything at all about depression, you know isolation is the enemy. One of the best things you can do for yourself when you are fighting depression, is to fight every impulse to crawl into yourself, and put yourself in a place to be with people.
For me, that place was Mill Mountain Coffee in Daleville, Virginia. I began using it as my office when I was not traveling. I would park myself early in the morning with my computer, sip coffee, and work. Clients, when they were local, met me there to work through things.
What I discovered was, that after a couple of weeks, you become a regular. You begin as a familiar face, with nods of acknowledgement, and an occasional good morning. Then, as time goes on, you find yourself in short conversations, and then in longer ones. Inside of a month, you really are part of the family. You know people. They know you. You share. You become part of that little community, and learn more about the community at large.
At Mill Mountain, I met people from Welspring Presbytarian Church, ended up visiting there, joining in with activities until it became my home church until I moved to Vermont. I met a group of men who ate there every morning and joined their table, learning about their businesses, their families, their struggles, hopes and politics. I met new people. I made new friends.
I was no longer isolated. It was a big part of my recovery.
When I moved to Vermont, I knew three people here. But my house was just down the road from Dutchies Country Store, which served pretty good coffee, breakfast and had wi-fi. SO I began again, settling in each morning I was in town, slowly getting to know people in my little village. Will and Eric, who ran the store, were wonderful about introducing me to people and telling me about them. Vermont being typically New England, being accepted takes years, but those two probably sped my integration into the town by years.
Dutchies burned down. But in nearby Pawlet, a little town a few miles down the road opened a new diner, Pawlet Station. It was a charming place, in an old railway station. So that’s where I began going. The same pattern – a month or so of being left alone, then nodding acquaintance, then more and more…. friends. Community.
Pawlet Station lasted for several years. It went through four owners, but the basics stayed the same. Each owner brought slightly different menus, but they each had good coffee, a decent home cooked breakfast, and solid wi-fi. And of course, people to connect with. At the end of several years, I had come to feel at home, each morning talking with friends from the neighborhood, catching up on news, often having a chance to, simply because I have a title of “pastor”, listen to people working through important things in their lives. Writing. Every day writing.
But for whatever reason, Pawlet station finally folded. I’ve really missed it. I missed the community.
I tried the Round House, in Cambridge NY. A truly wonderful place and the owners, Scot and Lisa Carrino and truly delightful people. But it’s just so far – a fifty-minute drive.
Then I heard about and tried the Trolly Stop in Poultney, Vermont, which I have often referred to as the “Relentlessly Cheerful Diner” because of it’s brightly painted walls and great light. Some of the people who had worked at Pawlet Station had gone there, in particular, one of the cooks. I loved that place. The people I was getting to know were smart, nice, and they had a chicken and gravy breakfast I loved. Great coffee.
But they changed their timing. Now they only do breakfast on weekends. And so, I ended up going to Jacko’s in Salem. It’s been about a month. Good coffee? Check. Decent breakfast? Check. Solid wi-fi? Check.
It’s not perfect. None of these places are perfect. That is part of their charm. Jacko’s began as just an ice cream parlor and it has these teeny round tables and wimpy (but very cute) metal wire chairs. Hard to spread out and work. It’s pretty busy, which can be a distraction when I have to pound out some work.
No, it’s not perfect, but it’s real, just like all the other diners were and are, real. No fake decor that you can find in every other chain of coffee shops and diners. Local references abound. The food is not premade and frozen. They cook it right there. Each has a distinctive coffee.
And each has a distinctive community.
I’ve relearned something in these diners. People are nice. People are more open, even to a stranger, than we give them credit for. If you are nice as well, they let you in. And it takes far less time than you imagine.
For an introvert like me, this is good to be reminded of. I know how crippling or limiting isolation can be. “Putting myself out there” has never been easy. But having a place where I can just be, and letting myself be drawn into community, is life affirming. It is energizing. It is joyful. It’s what I need to thrive. In fact, I think it’s something most of us need to thrive.
You don’t get this at McDonalds or other chains. Even Starbucks (which I visit a lot when I travel) misses that essential sense of community. Chains are perfectly decorated with music scientifically chosen to affect our mood, and food that is the same every day and in every store. But community rarely happens there.
I believe that it is the individuality, the wonderful quirky imperfection, the real personality that makes diners and local coffee shops so inviting to me. They are places designed by people with that person’s personality, not by focus groups or corporate philosophy. They have authenticity, and that makes real community happen. It’s safe to be quirky and individual yourself when that is what you are surrounded by.
And that is why I like diners and coffee shops. Their realness. Their imperfections and quirks and personality. Their openness to drawing in a stranger and making him part of the family.
And of course, the good coffee doesn’t hurt either.
Be well. Travel wisely,