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Here's how I describe that social scene in my unpublished memoir, Mango Rash: Survival Lessons in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta: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.
Thanks for the history of Joe's. We've been there several times, but not recently. I always assumed it was an old building. And now the addition? So glad they were successful and are still growing. We used to hang out at Samuel's in Fremont, but it's not there anymore. We like Doc's Diner in Spring Hill. The family's dream was to always have a diner. Their son, who was a medic in the army, was killed in Afghanistan, so when they finally opened the diner in Dec., they named it in his memory, Doc. All done in military theme. Good breakfasts too.!Love your photos and book excerpt about your tennis court hang-out. Great post.
3/3/2016 05:44:53 am
Fun to hear about your favorite hangouts, Janet. I especially love the ones with a family story.
3/2/2016 12:58:02 pm
My daughter and I run our own company along with a few contractors and have no need for expensive office rent just yet. While it's liberating to carry your office in your laptop, a laptop isn't a gathering place no matter how many online conferences are held there. Our hometown of Mount Clemens had no coffee shop, until a few weeks ago. A former investigative reporter opened a coffee shop called Minha's with beautiful buttery-yellow walls, comfy overstuffed furniture and one large high top table. My daughter and I are working there regularly now and always chat a bit with the owner and her son. We are planning to meet clients and contractors at our new gathering place any chance we get.
3/3/2016 05:48:57 am
I was surprised to hear that Mt. Clemens didn't have a coffee shop until now. Minha's sounds great, and it's wonderful that you and your daughter are making good use of it. Are you getting to know any other regulars?
3/2/2016 03:35:57 pm
This post that makes me realize I don't have a 'hangout', but I'd like to hang out at yours! Also, you have ARCHIVES!!
3/3/2016 05:51:37 am
Come on up, Kay! You would love Hit the Road Joe and all the folks who hang out there.
3/3/2016 06:58:17 am
I am enjoying your blogs Nan (? Janet?..learn something every day)) Thinking back to hang outs, pre & early teens in Allegan MI. it was the skating rink, bet we didn't hang out as much as skate. Later it was the drive in which was the turn around for teens in cars cruising the area. I worked there serving burgers, fries & ice cream for a few years. The restaurant size remains the same, altho the name has changed many times.I still remember when local bands climbed up on the flat roof and played music. I realized that while in Grand Haven, Mi as a young mother I did not have a hang out & later folks hung out at my house down town. Now I call Hit the Road Joe my home away from home and sometimes fantasize our retirement community built very close by. I am headed there shortly for the weekly dominos game.
3/3/2016 07:14:34 am
Love hearing about your youthful hangouts, Valerie. Ray used to hang out at a skating rink, too. And drive-ins! Was anyplace every as much fun? There have been times in my life when I didn't have a hangout -- like when I first moved to Detroit -- and I really missed that.
Sally C Kane
3/8/2016 07:40:47 am
You've so captured the heart of "Linda's," certainly my favorite cozy haunt. I'm sitting here as I write this, crowing to the locals 'coffee clutching' around me, to check out your blog. I remember joining the community in cheering Linda's cafe venture forward when she launched it. I look forward to more of your posts about the Newaygo area.
3/9/2016 08:11:14 am
How cool to get a comment written from the café! Interesting to hear about your favorite haunts in GR. I've been curious about Cherie Inn, and I didn't know about The Brandywine but will check it out.
3/8/2016 10:30:25 am
I think the coolest hangout in my experience is a literacy center in Tucson, AZ, Literacy Connects. My 1:1 literacy student actually calls it his "Cheers," which is quite a statement from someone who spent most of his life trying to be invisible. (Now he's a tutor in the ESL/ELAA program!) Many of the adult students help clean donated books for the center's library and for the kids' book giveaways. Students often attend the tutor training sessions, too! This hangout gives everyone a place to be seen, known, contribute and "learn out loud" how to be and become their best selves. What could be cooler? And isn't that what we each wish our own hangout to be?
3/9/2016 08:14:55 am
Wonderful to hear about places like this. I had the pleasure of meeting one of the students (the one you mention here?) in Tucson last year, and it was clear how much Literacy Connects meant to him.
3/16/2016 07:34:41 am
In my Detroit neighborhood, the hangout was Duly's Coney Island, which has since taken on a cache it never had in the old days. Anthony Bourdain visited it for his TV show on Detroit restaurants. Duly's, on Vernor Highway, is narrow and deep, with a counter and stools running down the length of it. In back were a handful of tables, seating maybe 6-8. This is where we came after games, and once after absconding from school at lunchtime. The nuns caught us, too!
3/16/2016 07:49:05 am
Is Duly's still the same as it was back then, Kathy? How cool, if it is! Your description of it reminds me of the Malt Shop that was a block away from my junior high. It seems incredible now, but back then we were allowed to leave campus and wander around downtown at lunch time. The Malt Shop, with its hot dogs and dime malts, was a very popular destination.
3/16/2016 08:13:20 am
Yes, Nan -- same place. I doubt anything has been done to it in the intervening 50 years. Ha. Duly's would be so packed on a Friday night, you'd have to walk sideways and kind of slither down the wall to get to the back, where the kids preferred to gather.
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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.