Seven years ago, Cat Moore (on the right, with a cup) took her cappuccino, sat down at a table in the Starbucks on Glendale Boulevard in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, and opened up her Apple laptop. With her 2005 BA degree in philosophy from the University of Southern California, she had a contract as an “applied philosopher” for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She had begun to use the coffee shop as her office. As a very attractive young woman, she got unwanted romantic attention right away. She fended that off by putting a bumper sticker on the case of her computer which read “I'm In Love With My Husband”.
But that had an unintended effect. People took the sticker as an invitation to talk about the joys and travails of marriage. She was there to work, not to chat, so at first it was a bit annoying. But the conversations got longer and richer and she began to enjoy the people she was meeting - people of all ages and wages. And slowly, quite unintentionally, she became the convener of a community. She was the grain of sand around which a pearl began to form. "The things that stimulate conversations best: babies, puppies, and shoes!" she says.
So indeed it helped bring people together at the Starbuck's when she got pregnant. A few months after his birth, she returned to the coffee shop with her son Noah perched on the table in a baby car seat. People cooed to Noah first, then talked to Cat, then to each other. Through the impromptu network centered around her, unemployed people got job leads from folks who offered their connections. Lawyers gave free legal advice. Homeless people befriended TV personalities. People in crisis found others who just listened or offered practical support. A grumpy, socially inappropriate old man who sat at the counter every day was drawn into the circle and the others noticed how his demeanor and manners steadily improved for the better. "He was what I call a 'trapper'. Somebody who corners you into listening to him rant, whether you want to hear it or not. But he's not like that anymore," she reported.
The changes in Atwater Village affected the community in the Starbucks. More families with kids were moving into the neighborhood as it gentrified: the crowd in the coffee shop changed accordingly.
Daniel Wheeler, a fine artist and designer, is part of Cat’s community at Starbucks. Daniel’s studio is just down the street, and he got to know Cat on his coffee breaks. He said that when Cat started out, she was shy and quiet. “The people in this community have changed her as much as she’s changed them,” he reported.
Early on, Cat felt like the community at the Starbucks was her way of being of service. She became a Christian while at USC and tried out involvement in different churches. But she felt more comfortable with the Starbucks community than she did in those congregations. She felt like she was following her faith commitment by bringing people together in love and care for each other - at Starbucks more than at church. She and her folks at Starbucks reflect the decline of religious affiliation in America, reported in today's LA Times: "Among Americans aged 18 to 33, slightly more than half identify as Christian, compared with roughly 8 in 10 in the baby boom generation and older age groups, the new data (from Pew Research Center) show."
Suddenly Cat's personal life turned inside out and upside down. Her marriage fell apart. She had trouble finding a place to live. She was living on the financial edge with a very young child. Suddenly she was the recipient, more than the giver, of care and concern and practical help from the folks at the Starbuck’s. Her predicament served to bring the community even closer together.
The older Noah got, the more involved he became in the community. "My son has people skills I never had as a child growing up in a little town in western Pennsylvania. He'll walk right up to a perfect stranger with a big dog and ask, 'Excuse me, sir, is that a wolf?'" Sometimes it takes a child to raise a village.
With help from her coffee shop friends, she and Noah are much better situated. She does public relations work, and manages an apartment complex in exchange for a nice place to live. She’s now writing a blog, which is becoming a book, about her experiences at the coffee shop: "Our Cafe: Brewing Up Local Love".
I share her conviction that her Starbucks story is one worth memorializing. And that’s a story in itself. Because once was a time in this country when such a community would not have been news. I used to hang out at a greasy spoon breakfast joint in Palo Alto when I was young and single and starting my ministry career. I got to know the other regulars, some of whom were very memorable characters. Like the guy who would get there at 6:30 am, at opening time, order a half-gallon of ice cream, and proceed to eat it for breakfast. The old waitress would dispense pointed advice as much as coffee. She'd fuss at me to hurry up and get a wife and make babies. “What’s a guy like you doing here at this hour of the morning?” she’d ask. New friends would meet me at the Peninsula Creamery Fountain for conversation over breakfast, and the regulars would lean in and participate. The Urban Ministry of Palo Alto was organized in one of the booths of the Fountain, with notes taken on the paper napkins. After participating in the making of a baby, I brought her in to the Fountain for milkshakes and to show her off to the regulars.
But even then, a quarter century ago, things were changing in America. Fewer and fewer people had any sense of belonging to a community. The development of social media has resulted perversely in the acceleration of social isolation, with text messages replacing face-to-face encounters. The sociologist Robert Putnam wrote a seminal book about the problem, with a title that told the story: “Bowling Alone”. Clubs, churches, temples, lodges, softball leagues, and yes, bowling leagues have long been in decline, and with them, civic engagement has shriveled. The last Los Angeles City Council primary election turned out only 8% of the city’s registered voters.
Communities like the one that has formed around Cat Moore can serve as the foundation of democracy. Belonging to a local circle of people who know each other personally, in a gathering that is accessible to any newcomer, has low barriers to participation, and brings people together daily or at least weekly, stimulates a sentiment of care for a neighborhood and the people who live in it. This sentiment can carry over into awareness and engagement with the wider world. The people who still belong to churches, temples, clubs, lodges, and bowling leagues are the ones who still vote. The people who don’t, don’t. Can the kind of community that formed around Cat become, indirectly and unintentionally, a way for people to get their votivation back? What if there was an organized effort to create such communities in coffee shops, and other public venues, everywhere?
Surely some of the magic that happened in that Starbucks was a function of its organic emergence. Cat Moore had no intention of saving American democracy when she set foot in that coffee shop seven years ago. Will the people in the community that formed around her translate their care for each other into care for their neighborhood, their city, and their country? The jury is still out. All the data aren’t in. The story of Cat and her cafe community isn’t over. So the next time you go to your neighborhood coffee shop, strike up a friendly chat with the woman tapping on her computer, and see what happens!