My wife and I host a monthly “soup night” to which twenty or thirty of our friends, plus their partners and children, have a standing invitation. They know that, on such-and-such a day, every month, they’re welcome to stop in for as long as they like.
Besides cleaning the house and trying to prepare ample soup and bread for everyone, we don’t do anything special for Soup Night. There are no activities planned. Nobody is expected to bring anything. Sending an RSVP is not required: some people show up often, some rarely, some not at all. We’ve had over twenty guests come; we’ve also had no guests come.
I love playing host. It makes me happy to see people in my house, having a good time. When we have a good-sized crowd, I usually keep busy filling glasses, washing bowls, and making sure no guests are being ignored. (I occasionally suspect that I was not meant to be a librarian at all, but an events planner.)
I confess, though, I really like the times when enough bowls are washed, everybody has something to eat and drink, and all the adults and children are engaged in conversation or play. Then I can take off my host hat and just relax.
I’d love to hang out for a while nearly every day with a crowd of friends, or just congenial acquaintances. But — the cost of feeding that many aside — hosting so often would just be too much work. There has to be some other way to meet up.
I’ve just begun reading Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Oldenburg introduces the term “third places” to describe public places that are welcoming to all and that give people a chance to be somewhere other than home (your first place) or work (your second). Third places play many social functions. Of the purely social “meeting of friends” function, he writes:
The “neutral ground” (space upon which one is not burdened by the role of host or guest) of third places offers the great ease of association so important to community life. People may come and go just when they please and are beholden to no one….
An individual can have many friends and engage them often only if there is a place he or she can visit daily and which plays host to their meetings…. Interaction is relatively easy as one is required to contribute only his or her “share” of the time.
What I’m looking for, I realize, is a third place: somewhere outside of home where I can (and want to) spend free time, run into acquaintances, be a part of the “scene”, and not have to spend too much money. (No grocery or department stores! At the risk of sounding catty, I ask: would you ever spend time at Fred Meyer if you didn’t need to shop there?)
More central to easy sociability than I ever realized is the need for some other place to play host. Until a few days ago, I had never thought of the role of host or guest as a burden. But think about socializing in the home, whether yours or somebody else’s: isn’t there usually a tension, or a stress? If you’re the host, you have to make your house clean enough for company, buy and prepare enough food, commit several hours of your time, and focus your attention and energy on your guests. If you’re the guest, you have to show up with some punctuality (especially if you are the sole guest), commit to more than a perfunctory visit, focus your attention and energy on your hosts, worry about not overstaying your welcome, and possibly bring a dish — not to mention learn new (if similar) rules of conduct for every new home you visit.
One of my favorite Soup Night visits happened when a married couple stopped in, hurried and practically out of breath. “Tonight’s Soup Night, right?” the husband asked, “Because we really need some dinner. We have to be somewhere in” — he looked at his watch — “half an hour.” They were the kind of friends who didn’t have to worry about the appearance of being “good” guests. They knew that their presence, how ever much they could give, was payment enough. We didn’t feel snubbed or used; in fact, it was a relief not to have to play the attentive host for them.
I’m not sure where the good third places are in Fairbanks. When you just need to get out of the house awhile, and you don’t want to make a special event of it, where do you go?