Coffee Communities

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I do want to assure everyone that I’m not going to be giving up this blog. I will likely maintain this slow pace of updates for the foreseeable future, but I can’t imagine giving up this site completely. If nothing else, I do sometimes refer back to it to jog my memory about what I was doing five years ago, or more. Better than a diary this is.

And without this blog, I wouldn’t be able to tell you that my latest column is now up at the Kitchener Post’s website. Here, I talk about the long-established and growing Grand River CarShare network.

The new routine here, now that Nora is in pre-school for half-days, and Vivian is in grade one all day, is for me to pack off Nora and Erin with my parents, who drive them to school and work, and to walk or drive Vivian to her classes at her grade school. Once safely in school, I then take transit or drive somewhere to get a hot breakfast, a hot coffee, and to sit and write until it’s time to pick up Nora.

I do find that this time spent out of the house is important and that it helps my writing. Erin’s already described why it helps her to have an actual off-site office in which to work. I don’t have her need for solitude. I’m told that when I get writing, a bomb can go of beside me and I can successfully tune it out, but for both of us, going out keeps the household chores from getting in the way. It’s also a mental separation that all of us goes through. If you stay at home, there’s incentive to kick back, sleep in a little more, dawdle a little over coffee, see what’s on the television, and so on. Get out and go someplace with the specific intension of working — be it a real office or a pseudo one in a coffee shop or a library, and your mind tells you that it’s time to get serious. You’ve paid for that coffee, now get to work. Stop goldbricking, you goldbricker!

But for both of us, being writers, going out means getting exposed to people, listening in on their conversations, watching them (subtly), and seeing what makes them tick. Erin has to step out from her office to do that, and she does so during her coffee breaks. I just have to look up from my computer.

I recently realized that my morning ritual was costing me a not insignificant sum: about $10 per day, all things told. It’s not money badly spent, in my opinion, but I’m ashamed to admit that I only recently came around to the revelation that I didn’t have to shovel that money to a coffee chain like Starbucks. I could get the same effect, and contribute to the local economy by heading to an uptown Waterloo haunt called Whole Lotta Gelatto. This hangout serves the region’s best iced treats and a decent espresso too. The proprietor has been very supportive of local artists, and is friendly and chipper to everybody in the morning. He has quickly gained a host of loyal regulars who are interesting to watch and listen to.

I also have to admit that I have spent some of my time at McDonald’s. Yes. Shameful. But I do like their sausage-and-egg mcmuffin occasionally, and it’s interesting that they’ve attracted a completely different community of regulars.

Yes, regulars. At the local McDonald’s, a gathering of at least a dozen elderly individuals take up about three or four tables in the spacious seating area, all sharing a coffee and conversation. They likely predate McDonald’s. I wonder if they’re retired workers from one of the big plants, like Schneider’s or Budd? They laugh at half-told jokes, pour over the papers, and argue over the news, with the ease of long friendships.

And you know what? I think this is a feature of every McDonald’s everywhere. I noticed a gathering of elderly people in the late breakfast hours of every McDonald’s Erin and I stopped at during our treks through small-town America, hopping off of the Interstate for gas and coffee. All clutching coffees, one of them reading the local paper, and the conversation the soft murmur of old jokes and gossip about the grandchildren.

I can see, in small towns like Geneseo or Michigan City, how a fast food restaurant like McDonald’s could become a community centre for those who have retired from work and enjoying the latter years of their lives surrounded by their circle of friends. But a big city like Kitchener-Waterloo?

McDonald’s seems to have found that winning formula, as does Tim Horton’s, and Whole Lotta Gelatto, though their clientele is subtly and not-so-subtly different. Other places? Not so much.

Next door to the McDonald’s in my neighbourhood is a Burger King. It too serves breakfast. But no one passes by the drive through window, and its seating area is empty. The establishment’s lone employee twiddles her thumbs and wonders where the people are.

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