Posts Tagged ‘coffee shop’

I need community. I am not alone. Rural and small town areas of our nation are replete with stories of community. The proverb—from a hard to verify source—that states “it takes a village to raise a child” is a pithy example of the value of community. Strong bonds of friendship develop on college campuses. Fraternal organizations are often cemented with comradely feelings. Faithful congregants in religious communities describe their connections with one another as family and many sing about being in “the family of God.” Even people who are bent on destruction and mayhem find brotherly camaraderie in the pursuit of evil.

I am defining community as a social, religious, occupational, educational, or other group that shares characteristics in common and is perceived or perceives itself distinct from the larger society around it. A community can be of any size and the common characteristics are felt deeply so as to create a strong bond. The size of the community is not as important as the vitality of connection between members of the community.

Each of us find community in different sectors of society, and are most often members of more than one community. In fact, participation in multiple communities promulgates healthy life balance. The narrow focus of a single community creates energy and purpose but is devoid of healthy perspective and requires constant recalibration from sources external to that community. If these external influences are not strong enough to bring needed correction, personal commitments to only one community result in a life that becomes unhealthy for the individual and, by extension, the community, and the world immediately outside of the community.

This submission to a single community often happens when fanaticism and radicalism take hold and fundamentalist ideologies overpower the autonomy of the individual. This phenomenon is observed in political climates regardless of the niche in the structure of society: government, philosophy, education, religion, entertainment, or science.

Someone may take umbrage with my position. I’m thinking of people who are so strongly committed to one ideology that they feel every one should share their life’s single purpose. This is true in every segment of society and can be documented with a plethora of examples. Consider the politics of government, or religious faith traditions, or the philosophical underpinnings of any human endeavor.

But I digress. Back to my initial statement that I need community. Upon the death of my wife Barbara, I was faced with how much I had grown to depend on her over the 45 years of our marriage. This was particularly true when I examined how she had become my entrée to community, particularly those communities with a social component. My introverted personality depended heavily on her. When I was left to negotiate the serpentine ways of entering into and engaging components of a community, I floundered. But I desperately needed what communities afford: belonging, affirmation, support, purpose, and social opportunities. I persisted in my effort to engage communities in which I had relationships.

Members of my communities were unaware of how isolated I felt in the hollowness of Barbara’s leaving, even while engaged in relational activities among them. I was a master at pretense and masked the difficulty I had in entering new communities. However, I persisted in my attempts because I felt community was critical for healthy living.

The reality of my need for genuine community became vividly real when I began the process of bringing people into a fuller understanding of who I am as a gay man (click here for a post about my coming to terms with my sexuality). I knew from the beginning of this kaleidoscopic journey toward authenticity, toward living a life of integrity, that former communities might disappear and new ones would hopefully emerge. I was not blind to what I was doing. I was cognizant of the real possibility of losing friends and even entire communities in which I had enjoyed the accoutrements of belonging. A huge question mark was superimposed on my communities when I began informing people that I am gay. Would some disappear? Would some grow stronger?

I am on the other side of those initial steps into sharing the truth and reality of who I am as a gay man. I am now able to begin evaluating my world of communities. There are some of my past relationships who may or may not have received this recent revelation about me. I have not, nor at this time do I plan to bring them into the circumference of this knowledge for I have not had a strong connection with them for over 20 years. Nor does it concern me should they hear from some source that I am gay. Truth is not something to fear.

There is still a question mark hovering over some communities in which I have enjoyed relationships in more recent years, though I am not currently active within their circles. In some cases there are community members who now have a more complete knowledge of who I am, but the community at large may be uninformed.

The primary community of family and close relatives has been affirming and I am most grateful for their acceptance. Some of them accept me without affirming, and that’s okay. Each must come into their own understandings in their own way. My children in particular have been wonderful. Their love has not diminished and their acceptance is unwavering. This family community is a source of comfort, affirmation, acceptance and pride for which I am deeply and fully thankful.

There are other communities in which I circulate. For instance, my church is a significant community for me. As such, it was the first one in which I began opening my life. Not the entire church, but valued members with whom I already had a warm relationship. I might characterize these friends as a community within a community. Each time I have opened myself to someone in the church, I have received no condemnation, no negative reaction, only love and gratitude for being considered a close friend with whom I could be authentic. My church community, not in whole but in a large part, is a place where I feel safe, receive affirmation, support, and can live my life with transparency.

Another community is the condominium where I live. I have discovered an enlarging group of friends who have warmly accepted me as a gay man. Some of them are gay while others are not. An interesting thing about this community is that almost all of them could be either my kids or even my grandkids! I am grateful for them, their affirmation, their support and the social opportunities they afford me.

I live in a downtown neighborhood not unlike a neighborhood anywhere in the country—rural, small town, or suburban. I know the store owners, restaurant servers and even cooks, policemen, street sweepers, mail carriers, and homeless people. Many, though not all, know I am gay and, because of my transparency, my relationship with them has even been strengthened.

I am a “member” of a community of people who habituate a coffee shop. We greet each other warmly, call each other by name, and all of us enjoy coffee. A member of this community stopped me on the street today to ask if I had made my trip to Dallas yet. I hadn’t seen him for several weeks yet he was interested in me and showed that interest by mentioning something specific about my life. And so it was when a friend entered the coffee shop today and I encouraged him to tell our friend the barista what happened in his life over the weekend: he had gotten engaged to a wonderful girl. This is another example of a community of people in my life.

I have not gotten involved in a “gay community,” though I’m not averse to doing so. Because so many people, gay and straight, have affirmed and encouraged me, I have not felt the strong necessity for such a single purpose community, which has been a felt need for many gay people. I have participated in a few activities with some of these communities and do not feel as awkward doing so now as I did when I first began revealing my gay sexual identity. I have yet to feel the need to depend on them as once I thought I would.

There are times when I identify with certain communities for specific purposes. As an example, the mass murders in Orlando, Florida brought me into the gay community emotionally and spiritually. I feel a kinship with the survivors of that awful atrocity. Though not organically so, I am a member of the community and feel the loss. This is not unlike when I was an international missionary in Southeast Asia and heard of the accidental death of a missionary in another part of the world. Even though I had not known the one who was killed, I felt a part of me had been injured and I grieved. So I offer prayer and tears for my gay community in Orlando.

I need community, but not just one community, a variety of communities. These communities provide perspective to keep my life in balance. My communities increasingly enrich my life and fill it up with novelty and growth, with spirituality and courage, with peace and contentment. I need community and am finding it in many places. You are reading my blog and I count you as a member of this virtual community. Please leave a comment below to spark community conversation, drop me a note in the “Let’s Talk” tab, or can click the “Follow Life’s Design” button at the top left of the page to receive an e-mail alert for the next post. Let’s build this community together in this space.

I have been away from this blog for a year and a half. My life’s design has changed and morphed into something new and different. Perhaps future pages on this blog will open those months so we can have a dialogue about how life’s designs evolve. In the meantime, I hope to give life to this space once again with random posts about the different shapes and hues of color presented as life around, in, and through us brings about kaleidoscopic designs, which are never the same, always changing, and always beautiful.

To begin these pages, here is a brief thought about downtown Saint Louis, my home.


After a haircut this morning, I walked over to Starbucks at 6th and Olive. It’s a corporate shop that is in the shadow of the former Macy’s/Famous-Barr department store. A department store had been in that building for over 100 years until Macy vacated it a couple of years ago. That was a sad day for downtown St. Louis. Attempts to fill the huge one-block-square space have been futile. One exciting prospect early on was for a small foot-print Target. Nothing materialized from those discussions. So, this huge building of one block square and twenty-three stories in the heart of downtown St. Louis sits empty.

While most of the empty downtown buildings have been reclaimed, several empty ones remain. Just down the street from the Macy building is the Arcade Building being redeveloped by Webster University. This is another large building, which in its heyday was one of, if not the first, indoor mall, thus the name Arcade. There was a huge two-story atrium that ran the length of the building from Olive to Pine with shops lining it on both levels. My understanding is that there will again be shops in the building but that a large portion of the space will be apartments and that the rest of the building will house a university satellite, maybe it’s MBA program.

Looking out on the cross streets I watched pedestrians walking back and forth to and from their offices as I sipped a venti decaf skinny Caramel Macchiato. There is a Jimmy John’s delivery guy on a bike and the corner hamburger stand, both busy about the delivery of food. This pleasant scene gave the appearance of already being in the lazy hazy days of summer. With the sun casting a filigreed shade through the trees lining the street, the city seemed at peace with itself, unhurried yet exhibiting purposeful movement of economic enterprises that propels it ever onward.

On my return home, I stopped at my favorite spot for a Greek salad. Being just after twelve noon, the servers were comfortably busy with patrons filling the tables, regulars picking up carry-out, and a few diners tolerating the wind and sun and cool air to sit on the patio.

I had a moment’s conversation with the server when he came to pick up my empty salad bowl. I continue to be amazed by how much people reveal of their personal lives. I simply asked him an innocent “how’s it going” or something like that and he began to tell me that he was tired and doesn’t know why because he has been off work for two days and spent much of the time sleeping. His sister is out of town on vacation with her family and he is house-sitting and taking care of their puppy. He said, “That’s a lot better than being alone.” With his warm and engaging almost shy smile he told me all of that in less than a minute. That was his answer to my simple “How’s it going”? An almost oxymoronic thought entered my head: This busy restaurant seemed at peace with itself.

Peace is not the antithesis of busy. As I thought about the peaceful hustle in the business district, so it was in this small coffee/wine bar at noon-time rush, seriously busy while concurrently at peace.

We have all known of the close-knit community a small town can nurture–“it takes a village” and all that. The phrase often heard is “everyone knows everyone.” Community life in a small town is a cohesive whole. Five years ago when talking with friends in one small town about my pending move to St. Louis, they couldn’t imagine doing so. In fact, they had a tinge of fear with only the thought of doing such a thing. They said they couldn’t leave their community where all their friends and family lived.

I moved to St. Louis, downtown St. Louis, bought a condo and moved in. I will have lived here for five years when October arrives. It has become my neighborhood, my community. This community is located on a stretch of Washington Avenue from approximately Tucker (12th Street) to 16th Street. The heart of the community is the 1400 block. People in this community live, work, and play here. There is a coffee shop-cum-urban convenience store, a gelateria, a judo establishment, a delicatessen, a dry cleaners, a fitness club, several restaurants, and pubs. These establishments are in street level spaces of six to ten floor, one-hundred-year-old former warehouses. The upper floors are condos and apartments.

The primary gathering place is often the coffee shop-cum-urban convenience store. Members of the community gather either at tables on the sidewalk or inside depending on the weather. Another place to connect is the gelateria, again, outside or inside.

The people who make up this community are varied, different, interesting. There is nothing homogenous about the community. In my building there is a young couple with two small children, one a preschooler and the other entered kindergarten this week, my next door neighbors. He paints houses, inside and out; she’s a student.

In the next block west another young couple–their all young around here–lives in a loft condo. I had seen them in the neighborhood, but it wasn’t until one evening last week that we get acquainted standing in front of Levine Hat store while I was out walking my dog, Paco. His wife has some Asian heritage. He is involved in graphic design and also dabbles in vinyl records. They enjoy traveling and we discovered we had both been enjoyed some time in Amsterdam in the same year recently.

A couple of days later, when in conversation with the graphic designer while I was drinking coffee at the gelateria, I mentioned something about the proprietor of the coffee shop-cum-urban convenience store was biking on the river trail with the older Asian gentleman who frequencies the coffee shop, the young man said, “He’s Japanese. He’s my wife’s father, my father-in-law.”

There is a criminal lawyer in my community who also mentors young lawyers and is an adjunct professor at a university in Atlanta, Georgia where I once lived. He meets with colleagues at the gelateria mapping out lawyer stuff.

Last Sunday, I ate lunch at a sidewalk restaurant about six blocks from the condo–under an umbrella while a soft rain fell all around me. On my walk home, about two blocks from my condo, I stopped for a conversation with a couple with whom I had a speaking relationship. Over the last few months I had watched the vacant southwest corner of Washington and 14th street change from weeds to a freshly paved parking lot, bright strips, and a credit card reader, no cash accepted. On this occasion, the owner and his wife were present. The installation of the new card reader had just been completed the previous day. We exchanged names and talked about the parking business, the economy in general, and living downtown. They are actually considering moving to our neighborhood from a suburb thirty miles out.

Tuesday, while drinking coffee and eating a scone at the gelateria, I picked up a word or two in a conversation across the room. My curiosity was piqued and I tried to capture the flow of words, but only caught a few, they were enough. A short while later, that conversation broke up but the gentleman whose words I had heard was free and standing off to the side. I walked over to him, introduced myself, and then asked if he had said something about a Christian and Missionary Alliance church. He said he had, so I followed up with, “So you know about the Dalat School.” The Dalat School is a Christian and Missionary Alliance boarding school for missionary kids and was located in Dalat, VietNam. In the middle of the VietNam War, just after the Tet Offensive took place in 1968, because of concerns about security the school was moved to Penang, Malaysia. I knew all about that; I had lived in Dalat shortly after the school had moved. The gentleman, whose conversation I had overheard, a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor, is from Longview, Texas, and in town visiting his son, the proprietor of the gelateria.

One afternoon late last week I encountered an acquaintance, the publisher of a monthly news sheet–well, several sheets stapled together into a booklet–advertising neighborhood businesses. He lives above the gelateria, I think. He also runs a shuttle service, an old school bus, between Washington Avenue restaurants in our neighborhood and Cardinals baseball games. And then, on the way home, I passed by the neighborhood dry cleaners and waived to the clerk inside. He has a Chihuahua-Dachshund dog just like mine and lives about twelve floors up in an apartment on 4th street that overlooks the Mississippi River and the Arch.

The point is that in this downtown, urban setting there is a neighborhood, a community where people know each other, there are family connections, and greetings pass from one to another while doing life. Everyone of the people I’ve mentioned I know by name. It’s like a small town in the heart of the city, life’s designs in the city.