In high school, it was the parking lot of Griff's Burger Bar. In college, the Starlight Terrace, a terrazzo-floored, sky-lit space filled with café tables on the student union's fourth floor. In my mid- to late-twenties, it was a homey Northern California bar called Jambalaya that hosted poetry readings and plays, as well as the house band's rollicking music on weekends.
I remember these places not so much for their physical features (though I can still picture Jambalaya's homemade tablecloths and the compass design in the center of the Starlight Terrace floor) as for their feelings they evoked. Each place, in its time, was the place to go and find a sense of belonging. You could always count on running into at least one person you knew, but more often, a whole crowd of friendly faces. And because these were all public gathering spots, there was also the chance of meeting someone new and exciting.
When I moved with my parents to American Samoa for a year in my mid-teens, I wondered if any such place existed for kids my age to connect. The driving age was eighteen, and even if we younger teens had been allowed to drive, there were no burger joints with parking lots where kids could hang out. But, as I discovered within a week of my arrival, there was the tennis court. By day, it was nothing but a rectangle of pitted concrete surrounded by rusty chain-link fencing, but every evening, it was the place to make the scene and socialize.
Here's how I describe that social scene in my unpublished memoir, Mango Rash: Survival Lessons in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta:
Girls in Bermuda shorts and summer tops clustered together, alternately whispering and shrieking, glancing over their shoulders at the older boys, who hung back in the shadows, cigarettes dangling from their lips. A couple of younger kids, not yet in their teens, rode Sting-Ray bikes in figure-eights, slicing through the crowd like swift fish through a reef. A Samoan boy shinnied up a palm tree and threw down coconuts; someone cleaved off the tops and passed around the unhusked nuts for drinking. Not exactly lime Dr. Pepper, but I'd give it a try.
The night had the feel of a midsummer evening in the small-town America of my childhood, where all the neighborhood kids drifted out of their houses after supper for a game of Kick the Can. Without cars or other signs of status, we weren't adolescents posing as adults; we were just a bunch of big kids who'd come out to play under street lights and stars.
That tennis court was where I met the motorcycle-riding, cigarette-smoking bad boy who would be my romantic interest (and my father's bane) for most of my stay on the island. Now, many decades later, I'm not looking for romance when I head to a gathering place; I'm just looking for conversation and connection. Some days, not even that. Some days, it's enough to sit quietly, tapping on a laptop or writing in a notebook, in a cozy, familiar place where others come together.
Often, the place my friends, neighbors and I choose is Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café, a comfy eatery five minutes from my house. Local artists' ceramics, jewelry and metal sculptures (all for sale) decorate the walls, and more than seventy species of birds have been spotted at the feeders outside the windows. On Monday mornings, after class at nearby Woodland Yoga, a group of ten, fifteen, or more women (including me) crowds around the big, corner table and shares tidbits about local goings-on, recently-read books, herbal remedies, Netflix movies, and the proper undergarments to wear beneath clingy knits. On Tuesday mornings, the men's yoga class—a smaller and less rambunctious group—holds court after their hour of down-dogging, Warrior II-ing and Savasana.
Once a month, the café owner's eldest daughter Tracy Murrell, an award-winning chef, stokes her creative fires to produce a six-course dinner. At other times, the café hosts readings, talks and films on topics ranging from beekeeping to human trafficking. In winter, there are weekly domino games and twice-a-month euchre parties.
Hit the Road Joe is the hub of our little community, but that didn't just happen by chance. Owner Linda Cudworth and her sister Kendra McKimmy, a mixed-media artist whose wares are displayed there, filled me in on the story during a recent post-breakfast chat.
The sisters' commitment to community-building began nearly 20 years ago, when both women were part of a collective that operated an art gallery in downtown Newaygo. Until then, "there were all these kind of freaky people living out in the middle of the woods, but we didn't know each other," says Kendra. The gallery and an adjacent coffee shop owned by graphic designer Pat Brissette drew creative types, and connections grew. Eventually, Linda, who worked at Pat's coffee shop, began to dream of owning her own café closer to home.
"She wanted to be able to walk to work," Kendra explains. Linda envisioned an old, funky space, where customers would feel at home. When she couldn't find anything that quite fit the vision, Linda, her husband Chris, Kendra and a contractor built Hit the Road Joe next door to the farmhouse where Linda and Chris lived at the time, and they proceeded to funk-ify it with a tin ceiling, counter, tables, chairs and anything else they could glean from a Grand Rapids bar that was being demolished.
With an emphasis on fresh, local food, Hit the Road Joe soon attracted customers, but it was Linda's outgoing nature that kept them coming back. I remember the first time Ray and I visited the café, soon after we bought our house down the road. We knew hardly anyone in the area and didn't know how locals felt about outsiders, so we were timid about venturing into what looked like a hangout for local folk. Would we be welcomed or met with hostile glares? We needn't have worried. Not only was our waitress friendly, but before we'd finished our coffee, Linda emerged from the tiny kitchen, wearing something tie-dyed I'm sure, and made her way to our table to get acquainted. From then on, she always remembered not only our names, but other details about us and our lives, as well as our drink orders and food preferences.
Linda never has had qualms about using the restaurant as a forum for discussions of controversial issues, such as proposed developments and the pumping of water for bottling from a local spring.
"She has a commitment to these kinds of things," says Kendra. "Maybe it's not always the best business decision, but she has stuck by it." Ultimately, some people on opposing sides of the issues have become loyal customers, not necessarily won over to a different viewpoint, but won over by Linda.
Nowadays, you may not always see Linda when you visit Hit the Road Joe. Her youngest daughter Keeva Filipek has taken over managing the restaurant, and Tracy and middle daughter Vanessa Farrel work there every other weekend. Still, the café that many customers refer to as "Linda's" has the welcoming feel she fostered over the years.
Where do you feel welcome? I'd love to hear about your favorite hangouts, recent or remembered, and what makes them special to you.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.