by Susan Karol Martel
Chestnut Hiller Elijah Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale University, is one of the nation’s leading urban ethnographers and cultural theorists. He has written many books – several about Philadelphia – and his most recent one, “The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility In Everyday Life,” describes places in Philadelphia that provide diverse peoples who might not ordinarily mix, mingle, and possibly meet, a place where this happens automatically.
Rittenhouse Square, he says, is such a “canopy.” Walking, sitting, playing amongst one another are young and old, black, brown, Caucasian and Asian, the homeless and condo owners, rich and poor, four legged and two legged, and, occasionally, the one legged. The Reading Terminal Market is another canopy, says Anderson.
But Starbucks? “Yes,” I say. The Chestnut Hill Starbucks is a canopy for sure.
I moved to this area 16 years ago after living and maintaining my private practice in psychotherapy on the Main Line for 25 years. Compared to the suburbs, the Chestnut Hill-Mt. Airy communities are like the UN.
I’m a regular at the Starbucks. I like the coffee. I use their WiFi. And I like the daily greetings: “Hi, Susan!” from the baristas to whom I say in return “How’s it going Randy, or Kathryn, or Hal?” among another 10 or so. It’s the closest thing to “Cheers” I’ve ever experienced.
Case in point: One recent Sunday, I was at the ‘Bucks working on my computer. I call it my office away from home. Rent is on the low end, really, even with an occasional “vente half caf four shot cappuccino.” On this Sunday, an older (than I) Caucasian couple passed my table and addressed the young African American man at the table to my left who was busy writing on his computer.
“Are you writing a great American novel?” the white gentleman asked, smiling.
The black man responded that he was completing his doctoral thesis. “About …?” the male passerby asked.
From what I could hear the thesis was about the ways people arriving here from several African nations respond to racism. Partially concentrating on what I was writing, partially eavesdropping, I couldn’t make out what else was said; but mostly, I was responding internally to the ways in which this conversation was reminiscent of Anderson’s canopy concept.
The conversation seemed to be drawing to a close. I figured I had less than a minute to decide whether I wanted to jump in.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I heard the word ‘race’ and my ears perked up.”
I asked the three whether they knew each other, though I suspected they didn’t. I was right. I mentioned my interest in Anderson’s canopy idea. We all introduced ourselves, shook hands, and talked a bit more.
When the couple left, the doctoral candidate and I continued to speak. He asked me what I was writing, which happened to be an article about the neuroscience behind our fear of “the other.” We wished each other well and, sitting next to one another, continued our work. This is just one of my many experiences under the canopy.
Several years ago, Chestnut Hill Starbucks hired a young deaf woman. I felt warmhearted each time I connected with her from her post behind the cash register. For me and for most customers I assume, it was a connection and communication of a different kind. Eye contact seemed more direct, speech slower, and another language between two people who might not have had the chance to communicate was explored, thus contributing to the canopy.
I’ve asked myself, is it because I’m not shy that I meet and talk to so many people I’d not ordinarily meet? Perhaps. Maybe it’s because for many years I’ve been a student of improv, so that connecting on the spot in different kinds of circumstances is not difficult for me. But when standing in line at Starbucks, it seems easy and natural to smile at the person behind or in front of you, if not to speak.
That’s how I met Elijah Anderson. He was standing in front of me in the coffee line one day. We didn’t know each other. When he turned around I saw his Yale sweatshirt.
“Yale isn’t really all that great, you know,” I said, smiling.
“Where did you go, Harvard?” he answered, without missing a beat.
“Yes,” I replied nonchalantly.
And we both laughed. We spoke post coffee line, and he told me that he had just taken the position at Yale after having been in the Sociology Department at Penn for a number of years. Our discussion ended with his inviting me to sit in on one of his last classes at Penn.
Several years later, I was drinking my coffee and overheard a very stimulating conversation between two African American men at the table to my right.
“Excuse me,” I said to them. “I couldn’t help hearing what you said about …” Another conversation ensued. The younger of the two men was a professor at a university in Pittsburgh. As soon as we began to speak, I recognized the other. It was Anderson.
“We met here, in line for coffee, several years ago. Do you remember?”
And he did. All under the same canopy. After this second meeting, we’ve corresponded several times.
If you come into Starbucks, I’m usually sitting on one of the bench seats across from the assorted pastries and foods. I hope you’ll stop to say hello, if I don’t beat you to it. I’m a Caucasian woman “of a certain age,” 5 feet, 1 inch, with long brown hair and rimless glasses. I’d like to meet you.
And thank you, Chestnut Hill Starbucks for creating a canopy for us to connect with each other’s humanity. Keep spreading the canopy even further. And when I finish my great American novel, there will be a special thank you to all the folks behind the counter by name, young and old, black, Caucasian, Latino and Asian, wearing caps or head wraps, some hearing perfectly and like me, some not.
Susan Karol Martel, Ed.M., is a writer and columnist and has practiced psychotherapy for more than 35 years, the last 16 under the canopies of Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, and Germantown. She is a Harvard grad without an identifying sweatshirt. She’d love to hear about your “canopy moments” if you’d be willing to share them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.skmarteledm.com.