In the Third Place
By Mark Kingwell, Guest Curator
I used to write a cocktail column for a men’s magazine, maybe the best part-time job in the world. What was, before, a slightly disreputable interest in bars and drinks was instantly transformed into research. I wrote off my bar tabs and liquor-store bills. I enjoyed films and novels exclusively for their use of drinks and drinkers. I was invited to gin tastings and brandy unveilings of awesome preciousness. The only downside was that I had to sample a lot of bad cocktails, but that was easily remedied by drinking a good one.
I mention this as a way to introduce a sometimes awkward fact without which you cannot appreciate this trio of short documentaries. Sure, you can clothe drinking and other vices in sophistication and connoisseurship. You can articulate your tasting notes, the caramel scents and spicy undertones, and list your fancy cultural allusions: Cary Grant orders a Gibson on the train out of Grand Central in North by Northwest, and Philip Marlowe drinks the same in Raymond Chandler’s Playback, but Marlowe drinks gimlets, not Gibsons, in The Long Goodbye. That’s all great, and I enjoy it, just like I enjoy the ambiance of a saloon right after opening time, when, as a character in the last novel says, “the air inside is cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth.”
But underneath all this clean glitter is a simple fact that accounts for the basic appeal of drink and drugs: humans like to get fucked up now and then. The burden of everyday consciousness can be a heavy load, and the hundredfold mundane challenges of being here, working and living and dealing with other people and the world, conspire to make that first hit, pull, snort, or shot look not only like a welcome respite from life but also an affirmation of its possibilities. Stronger than an evasion; more like the right idea, a twisted sort of duty to self.
I think we all recognize this fact, even if we deplore it, or abstain from this intoxicant and that, or have witnessed up close the damage of “social drinking” and “recreational drug use”, which too often mutate quickly into anger, meanness, neglect, and violence. Alcoholism and drug addiction are suicide on the installment plan. But it’s the yearning I’m talking about, the ache for comfort and rightness. There’s a reason for the euphemistic usage of “watering hole” to describe a bar, that oasis in the desert of life.
The people in these three documentaries are, most of them, pretty wasted. Some of them are destined to be, as Sheldon Nadelman says in Terminal Bar, “taken by the street.” But I chose the films (and I think they belong together) to illustrate a second awkward fact that lies underneath the first one, and that concerns an even deeper ache than the one for bracketing selfhood’s insistent demands. I mean the desire for communion with those who share the first yearning, and, even more important, for a physical place to answer the two needs together.
The sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “the third place” for the space where this complex of desires can, sometimes, be answered. The third place is neither work nor home. It is not a space of motion or transaction, like a street or a store; it is a place simply to be, to enjoy. The list of these “great good places” between work and home includes bars, pubs, taverns, cafés, beer gardens, coffee houses, parks, even post offices and barber shops. They offer warmth and company, also solitude and anonymity; there is food and drink, gossip and intrigue, diversion and discourse. In some cultures, the place takes on an almost spiritual quality, beyond mere coziness or Gemütlichkeit, approaching a transcendent serenity.
The third place is a public space, and hence also a public good, in the economist’s sense of being non-exclusive on the outside (it is open to everyone) and non-rival on the inside (there is no competition for enjoyment). If you are lucky or rich enough to belong to a gentlemen’s club or country club, that might be your third place, but the idea of gated membership is foreign to the spirit of the third place.
Which is not to say that officially open places may not turn out to be constrained, public houses in name only. English folk culture from Tolkien to Coronation Street idolizes the appeal of “the local”—going down the boozer for a social pint or two—but anyone who has lived in Britain knows that entering certain pubs can cause a battery of cold stares to swing your way, or even lead to fisticuffs. Bars and cafés regulate clientele with messages far more subtle than just high prices or posted dress codes. The unfamiliar can be made to feel unwelcome.
Still, the ideal is one I think we all recognize, just like we recognize how the ideal speaks to human need, especially when it is enhanced by the self-selection around a cult artwork or a shared musical passion. I might not myself seek tribe by smoking dope in the woods with tattooed Insane Clown Posse fans (American Juggalo). But I believe them when they say they would welcome me if I chose to come, maybe to join in on some “fucking chicken-fried steak, fucking collard greens, and fucking mashed potatoes” which actually sounds pretty fucking tasty. The Juggalo campground is a moveable feast, a third place of the messed-up mind. Who can doubt that its claims to community are real?
Likewise with the loaded Judas Priest fans in Maryland who transform a parking lot into a festival surrounding a temple (Heavy Metal Parking Lot). I was more of a Clash fan than a Priest acolyte, but the convoy of Camaros and Chevettes, the profusion of centreparted fluffy hair, the elbow-length rock ‘n’ roll t-shirts and bandanas, the suspenders, high-crowned ballcaps and cutoff jeans—well, it takes me back. And amid all the heavy metal stylings, watch for the brief glimpse of a smiling blowdried preppy in aviator shades and pink Lacoste polo shirt, collar popped, who clearly thinks he is in line to see Haircut 100. Or that awesome Valley Girl at the end, Kelly, who issues an ironic DUI warning and then pushes off the two lunging, hammered oafs: “Get away from me! Please!”
Tailgates deserve a sociological study all to themselves, from the sub-zero barbarian bacchanalias of Steelers and Bills games to the Range Rover and crystal glass displays at the annual Harvard-Yale fixture known simply as The Game. Roger Ebert may choose to describe the Heavy Mental Parking Lot tailgate as “stoned worshipers at the shrine of their own bewilderment,” but I think that’s too condescending. This isn’t bewilderment; it is, instead, one of the variform declensions of human joy. Those faces! Those stories! And where are they now, the sublime Priest fans of yore?
Which I guess brings me to the third awkward fact in play here, lurking in the shadows and yet in plain view whenever we want to get sideways in the company of others. The urge for the community, the human need to connect, has baseline limits. Compassion and fellowfeeling are fragile. More seriously, no matter how many friends we have, we all die alone. You could even say that, in a kind of paradox of human consciousness, it is precisely awareness of those limits that prompts the urge they limit. I mean what Martin Heidegger would call our “ownmost possibility”: not the mere fact of death; rather, the fact that nobody can do our dying for us.
That awareness is mostly unconscious, and of course we contrive many ways to keep it at a distance. But there is no profit in despising these distractions and alterations of consciousness. They are human, all too human. Far better to reflect on the force of Sheldon Nadelman’s hard-won Eighth Avenue wisdom: “When one person’s lying in the street, everyone’s lying in the street.” Toast that.
In the Third Place screens on Wednesday, May 9, 6:00 PM at Pacific Cinémathèque
Mark Kingwell is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is the author of 15 books of political, cultural and aesthetic theory and is currently at work on a large-scale study of 21st-century democracy.