The prompt for the Chatham Writers Group today was to write about “a favorite third place”. I did some research into the origin of the phrase created by Professor Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg is an urban sociologist who has written about the concept of “third places” as being informal gathering places where the general public conduct civic engagement, debating thoughts and ideas. After reading about Oldenberg’s concept, and discussing it with my wife, we both hit on a couple of “third places” when we lived in Connecticut. My memoir follows.
A Day on the Green/A Night At Rudy’s
I sat on a park bench, a 35mm camera with its zoom lens held at the ready in my hands. Spotting a few possible subjects for my Psych class project on body language, I began snapping away. Strangers would greet strangers, sit and talk for a few moments then one or the other would smile and go about their business. A busy bus stop discharged passengers who dispersed to the four winds; to work, to school, to shop. A few people nodded and greeted me with smiles. Noticing my camera with the big lens they asked if I worked for the local newspaper. A guy sat down next to me, lit a cigarette and asked what my thoughts were about the recent capture of the U.S. Embassy in Iran, and the diplomats being held hostage. We had differing opinions about what should be done, but he listened thoughtfully to my reasons, agreed with some of my viewpoints, and he had some valid points. He closed the discussion by asking me if I wanted to buy some weed. I politely declined. He smiled, shook my hand and said, “nice talking to you bud.” This was mid-November 1979, and it’s my first favorite 3rd place, the Green in downtown New Haven, Ct.
The 16 acres that grace the center of downtown district are actually privately owned by descendants of the people who first established the common in 1638. Since that time, the New Haven Green had been the cultural, spiritual and political hub of the city. Three historic churches line the Upper Green, while the Green itself is bracketed by Yale University, law offices and the New Haven Public Library, city hall and other government offices, shops, restaurants and trendy bars. Busses transporting passengers from the New Haven suburbs discharge their fares at the Green bus stop. My wife enthusiastically still refers to the New Haven Green as having been the gateway to the city.
During the time we lived near New Haven, on any given day, one would encounter peaceful protesters on opposite ends of the Green, buskers playing a variety of instruments, or people just enjoying playing an instrument in a pleasant setting, political and cultural discussions being conducted respectfully between complete strangers. In the summer months, the Brian Alden Jazz Festival brought big name jazz musicians to perform on the Green. Thousands of people would attend, spreading out blankets and lawn chairs on the lush grass. There would be a great camaraderie felt by those at the jazz fest and, again, strangers would strike up conversations with each other about the performers and sometimes debate the style of play between Maynard Ferguson and Dizzy Gillespie.
One of my visits to the New Haven Library happened to coincide with the birthday of the U.S . Marine Corps. A city vehicle displaying the American flag and the Marine Corps flag circled the Green playing the Marine Corps hymn over a PA system. Numerous men and women stopped what they were doing and saluted the flags as the vehicle drove by, several groups formed and sang the hymn, some people wept with pride. I felt I had to do something to honor the occasion, so I did as I do at baseball games when the National Anthem is played, I removed my hat and placed it over my heart. A man standing behind me on the library steps asked if I was a jarhead too. I said I wasn’t, but felt compelled to honor the event. He patted my shoulder and said “thanks”. In those years, there was something mystical, or magical, about a 16 acre park in the middle of a city, that inspires complete strangers to greet each other with friendliness and respect.
Ironically, with all of the activities conducted above ground, beneath the verdant surface lie the remains of between 4,000 – 5,000 late New Haven residents. Until 1821, the Green had also served as the city’s cemetery. Although all headstones were moved to the historic Grove Street Cemetery, the remains of Benedict Arnold’s first wife and members President Rutherford B. Hayes family still inhabit the Green.
My second favorite 3rd place was a few blocks northwest of the Green. Located on the corner of Elm & Howe Streets, Rudy’s Bar was a place where scholars and students from Yale, cops and lawyers, postal workers and average Joe’s would gather to enjoy adult beverages and discuss the hot topics of the day. My friend Kevin and I would pop in for a few ales after Friday night tennis matches, or on a night before a Yale home game. We would sometimes join the vigorous debates about local and National politics, speculate to the outcome of big court trials, the thoughtful analyses of movies, music and bands. Perhaps more vigorously debated than politics was which was the better team, the Yankees or the Red Sox? Rudy’s was always a busy place, but was packed to the rafters on nights tvhe Red Sox were playing the Yankees. Loud and raucous, the crowd behaved as though they were at the stadiums.
During football season, students from the visiting Ivy teams would go to Rudy’s. Two outstanding incidents, that Kevin and I witnessed, stand out in my memory. When Brown University came to play at the Yale Bowl, Rudy’s became the venue for an impromptu barber shop quartet challenge between the two schools. It was a truly fabulous evening as several different groups of students treated us non-singers to a song list that I did not believe existed. I thought Lazy River was the only barber shop quartet song. I believe the challenge ended in a draw as the contestants consumed copious quantities of Ballentine Ale and began to forget or slur words, then giggle. Some started to hiccup. The second incident began as a debate between Yale and Dartmouth students about the economic policies of the newly elected Ronald Reagan. Things really started to roll as an economics professor from each university joined in. The debate held Rudy’s patrons spellbound. Each school presented their arguments so passionately and so eloquently, it was truly astounding. Full disclosure, I had no idea of what they were saying, but it was eloquent. And it wasn’t baseball. Patrons applauded when the debate ended, someone bought the debaters a round of drinks.
Sadly, New Haven has had more than its share of urban challenges, but I still have fond memories of the allure of its Green. Equally sad, Rudy’s moved to a more gentrified location a few blocks away about 12 years ago. It is still in business, but now caters to diners, which stifles lively debate among friends and strangers.
The Chatham Writers Group
November 6, 2022