One of my favorite books on how towns and cities work is called The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day. It was written in 1989 by Ray Oldenburg, a retired professor of planning and has been re-printed several times (adding “Beauty Parlors” to the already weighty title.) His thesis is that modern life suffers from the lack of informal neighborhood gathering places (such as Curley’s Diner,) He calls them socially necessary “third places,” (in addition to home and work) and goes so far as to blame our current high divorce rate on their absence (too much “togetherness.”) He also claims that democratic societies need gathering places where people can share information and discuss politics. The book’s a great read, one where you find yourself shaking your head in agreement every other sentence. It’s all so obvious when Oldenburg points it out. He blames the exclusionary zoning of the past sixty years for preventing these natural “homes away from home” from developing - modern tract housing subdivisions that forbid any commercial uses – even ones that meet community needs.
Curley’s is the quintessential home away from home, at least for me. If I’m down in the dumps, for whatever reason, I go to Curley’s. I am immediately fed, nurtured, entertained and informed as to what dirty deals are going on in City Hall. You can’t get that at Dunkin’ Donuts (and Curley’s coffee is better too.) The current owners, Maria and Eleni, Greek-born sisters, bought the Diner more than thirty-five years ago from a bald Swede named (what else?) “Curley”(maybe he had lots of hair when he started out) and have run it almost single-handedly ever since. There’s not much turnover in staff; the only way the cooks and waitresses seem to leave is when they die. After your second or third visit you become “family” and are known by name and by food preferences (i.e. coffee with meal, not before). I go there at least once a week, coming home from the $8.95 three-course lunch with a full stomach and enough extra food for two additional meals. It’s not gourmet, but it’s good home cooking, and, in fact, it’s a lot better than my home cooking.
Curley’s has its regulars: the lawyers and businessmen who have been breakfasting there for at least a dozen years originally came after exercising at the nearby “Y.” They are now along in years and I don’t think they do much exercising any more, but they do thrash out local goings-on, as do the other regulars. I often meet my artist friends there in the morning before we go to our studios (alone) and every few weeks I have Sunday brunch with three “menfriends” - two lawyers and a retired college professor. We go after the morning church crowd has left and usually sit around for several hours (undisturbed) discussing philosophy, literature and politics. I see the same people there week after week – it’s Ray Oldenburg’s “home away from home” for me, a Great, Good Place.
Curley’s not only provides me with company, I get subject matter for my artwork. I rarely take photographs (although no one seems to notice when I do) but I feast my eyes on all the characters in the place, mostly over-abundant women and tired men who’ve obviously had hard lives. I did try to photograph a new waitress last week - she looked like she should have been on a chorus line - but just as I lined up the perfect shot, the battery quit on me – a message from the gods. Fortunately, she registered on my retina and will turn up one day (unbidden) in a painting.