The family of three came bouncing in from the laneway with their dog and greeted the owner from outside the cafe. The father and son waited at the door with their joyous cream Labrador wagging his entire body, while the mother came in to order a take away breakfast (coffee and bacon and egg rolls). He was one of those dogs that seem to make it their life’s mission to be loved by all and nearly ran inside while he made an eye popping greeting to the cafe owner – clearly a big fan. It seemed this little ritual was probably a regular occurrence. All three were from North America somewhere but had made this little inner city area their home. You could say they belonged.
Part of the reason they belong is because of the sense of community that little owner run cafes like this one can create. I was there for forty minutes having breakfast prior to doing some work in Sydney. During that time this cafe owner stood at the helm of his well used Italian machine greeting everyone and engaging in some sort of conversation. He seemed to make a point of making eye contact and greeting and farewelling everyone who came in even if it was just for their daily espresso. I noticed that some of those making their way to work under the grey cloud that hovers pre-office seemed to lighten up with this opportunity of being acknowledged by a familiar face who was also taking an interest in their well being.
Our society has become increasingly atomised and isolated. Within the industrialised West education and wealth have created immense opportunities for the individual for different types of work and a much more mobilised workforce than existed pre WWII. But the cost of this mobilisation and individual choice has pulled apart the seams of the smaller communities in which most of us lived. I am not saying whether this is good or bad – it is what it is. But what it means is that we tend to live more isolated lives, and human beings have evolved in small to medium size groups, not in isolation.
So many more people now are working from home or are self-employed. I see them with their laptops out, meeting with clients or making phone calls in my local cafe in the small Southern Highlands town where I have my practice. Having somewhere to come where people recognise you and know you by name, somewhere to chat and catch up with any local news, to meet and say hello to others who work nearby, all this fosters in a small way a sense of community and belonging which we all really need to help us feel a part of the whole. It doesn’t sound such an earth shattering thing the fact that an owner run cafe can create a sense of community. But no matter what new technology brings or how embedded Facebook or Twitter become in our lives, we actually need a physical, not a virtual place to feel we belong.
Perhaps cafes are a way to combine the virtual and physical worlds in which we now live. You could call it the tail wagging Labrador of the heart.