The late, great Alternative Grounds

Those of you who knew me well at Alternative Grounds are familiar with my predisposition for analyzing just about anything that moves.  And since life is always moving, I figure it’s fair game.  You also knew that I like to ‘blog it out’ – which is probably my equivalent to the ‘talking it through’ that some people do.

Since the Grounds closed, between houseguests and dinners and ice storms and such, I’ve continued to analyze the ‘café situation’*.   At least a half dozen times I’ve started to blog it out, and stopped.   And here I go again.

I started this new Ground-less* era assuming that I’d pick a new café, and eventually get used to it.  Many of the old ‘regulars’ have managed to do just that.  But it hasn’t happened for me, and I’m slowly beginning to understand why.  I needed to play around with a few questions in my mind, exploring my café life from different angles and perspectives.

What had AG meant to me all those years?  How much of my attachment was the friends I saw there regularly?  How much the variety of customers?  What about the staff?  And the aesthetic – old vintage kitchen tables and mis-matched chairs? What was happening for me there most mornings as I tapped intermittently on my keyboard?  And how much of that was different from what others were getting.

Starting with basics, one of my young friends from AG pointed out to me that where I sat most of the time probably meant I noticed everyone who came in.  That was true most of the time, and it now seems obvious that the steady sprinkling of certain ‘regulars’ who breezed in and out without sitting down, were like spices in a meal.  They did often pause for a chat on the way out and it is amazing how much of a relationship happens over years, just from snippets. And those who did sit  awhile provoked many a piece of writing or reflection in me, or ideas I could play with on ‘social justice’ issues, or other activism that occurred in that metaphorical idea incubator.

Friends – I mean people with whom I also had a relationship outside the café – tended to come in for awhile, read their paper, do a crossword,  perhaps discuss the latest political story, go through their emails, or make a date.  They were content with perhaps an hour, then moved on to other activities.  Their relationship with the café was different from my own.   Friends and relatives who never went to ‘the Grounds’ expressed puzzlement at my attachment to it, and how much of my perspective was impacted by that place.  To them it was a mystery.

Many customers were there for hours because of the free wireless network, focused on their computers, in solitude, only engaging in conversations during smoking breaks.   You could almost see them as a tiny ‘sub-culture’.  Then there were those who’d have a half hour ‘game break’ – perhaps a mid-morning game of chess or cribbage, then back to work again.

Then there were the ever evolving and changing staff members — each and every one unique and distinctly memorable.  Actors, musicians, students, doctors of Chinese medicine!!  Yes, really.  Being such a long time ‘regular’, I did develop a relatively open, sometimes close relationship with some.  They were young, creative, smart and interesting.  They kept me up to date, and on my toes.  For me, as an ‘older’ member of society, they were the proverbial breath of fresh air, and another ‘sub-culture’ to be moved and changed by.  I came to feel that if the future is in their hands, it will be interesting and perhaps even exciting.

From them I learned about a newer generation’s cares and concerns, quests, and joys.  They increased my passion on affordable housing, as they found it harder to afford the neighbourhood.  They were not typical youths.   They were not afraid to be ‘different’ and seemed to comfortably welcome  ‘unusual people of all kinds.   They provided a general culture of generosity and kindness at the café, with their welcoming, inclusive spirit – a kind of “Sure, whatever…. ”

Many exceptional people came – some well known – enjoying the unpretentious anonymity there.  Everyone experienced the delicious relaxation of feeling accepted as they are.   They also understood that accepting differences was their job too.

For me, endlessly fascinated by people, this was a world of incredible riches.  And as someone who spends half her waking hours in the world of ideas,  it is amazing to me that there were always smart, thoughtful people willing to explore an idea, or provide intelligent feedback and argument.

So where are we now?  We have scattered – and most have adjusted – to a handful of cafés: Roncy’s Bean, Timothy’s, Lit, Ideal, Bell Jar.   For me, not so much.   At All That Jazz, the aesthetic is neat-and-tidy-and-middle-class professionals; the tables are in neat rows, and I never see a homeless person, or anyone ‘writing a book’ or composing a symphony, or drawing a comic strip, or running after a little one.   I suggested shifting a few of the tables – into a more relaxed, user-friendly arrangement, I thought.  I think I just created confusion.  If I keep coming back, I may try again….

The ‘groups’ I’ve seen here, appear to be people on schedules.  They may be a group having a meeting, or neat and tidy friends who meet here every Thursday.  If there’s a mothers’ group, they must have forgotten the kids somewhere.  There is no toy box, no box of children’s books.  It’s nice to see the ‘Zen’ group Friday mornings, but from my perspective they really are a neat-and-tidy’ group too – in disguise.   I’m okay with people needing neat, tidy places.  But I have my needs too: I find chaos stimulates my lateral thinking best.

Hmmmm.  I seem to have a thing about neat and tidy – in fact some discomfort with  it.  And an aversion to people for whom it is important.   If I get in touch with that a little deeper, I realize I am actually threatened by it, and in my mind it is associated with judgmental people.  Part of my problem?

It suddenly strikes me that a person probably can’t be very critical or judgmental if they’re comfortable in a messy atmosphere, tables with dried coffee spills, toilets that sometimes don’t function.  I did know people over the 18 years or so, who disliked Alternative Grounds’ chaotic messiness.   They frequented other tidier cafés, or stayed home.  That could have been an important element in the atmosphere – which depends so much on who shows up.

I, on the other hand,  miss the un-coordinated kitchen tables, the messy, sometimes chaotic atmosphere.  I should work on that, I suppose; but I think a better approach for me might be to vary my cafés: visit a different one each day, or maybe each week.  Perhaps Mondays at Ideal, Tuesdays at Lit, Fridays at …Jazz?

Talking about ‘scheduled’,  one of the neighbours just bustled into Jazz trailing two little boys, to grab a coffee on her way to the kids’ hockey practice.  She made a joke about my being here even on a Saturday morning – a concept she clearly finds amusing.  She has made comments before, like “Your home away from home?” She’s a nice person, a good neighbour, and a very smart executive in a huge bank.  She always smiles when she comments.  Just not the sort of person you’d bump into at Alternative Grounds.  Organized.  Purposeful.  Productive.   And I felt, once again, why am I here?  Another opportunity to practice not caring what others think?

I think that what I experienced every day at Alternative Grounds might be akin to an artist’s palette: oh the endless dreams that might be created out of that mess.  And how I loved that mess.

Could I be feeling a Part Two coming on…..  Or is it time to ‘pull the plug’ (on the Alternative Grounds blog?)

This entry was posted in Alternative Grounds, community, Inclusion, Roncesvalles Village, urban life, world class city and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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