Most of my writing happens over lunch. Since I work from home, I like to get out and sit somewhere. Two of the most common places I end up are Panera and McDonald’s. Both are just down the street, in a massive shopping center, right next to each other. They share a parking lot. I go to Panera because it has a nice patio and good wifi. I go to McDonald’s for exactly one reason: to get a cheap fix. A dollar (and 8 cents) buys me an unlimited amount of iced tea in a large cup. I don’t even eat. I just drink 3 big gulps worth of caffeine, which is enough to get me through the day. But I frequent both, and, as a writer, most of what I do is stare at other people and listen in to their conversations. You know, for research.
No one should be surprised that these two establishments, separated by a few feet of pavement, attract very different kinds of people. But did you know Charlotte is one of the few cities in the country which is majority minority? My wife was shocked when she told me this, though it’s been true for years. If over half the people in our city are minorities, where are all of them? She didn’t see anywhere close to that percentage in her daily life. Growing up here, 25 years ago, I went to a small church school that had a handful of minorities at most, and even my public high school was 90% white. Since we’ve been back we’ve lived in three places: upper class Myer’s Park (in a tiny condo), suburban South Park, and extra-suburban Matthews. My answer to her was an obvious, “not where you are.”
Amazing how we can live in the same place as people and never see them. There is physical separation, of course. In Charlotte, the north side is more minority heavy while the south is whiter. The economics of real estate and wealth gaps, and the legacy of abuses such as redlining and white flight (now gentrification), have contributed to this. But even those people who do live and work in our areas we often don’t see. It’s like having a roommate who works the night shift. You’re vaguely aware of their presence in the house, but you just rarely ever cross paths because your schedules and habits are so different. There are more minorities living in our neighborhoods than we realize, but because we don’t see them or interact with them as often, they might as well be segregated. That’s as big a problem as any physical space that separates us. It’s a lot easier to change where people live than it is to change where they go when they leave their house.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Panera I’d see at Panera. If you do go to McDonald’s, you go to the drive through, grab a quick bite on your way to work or band practice or ballet class. You don’t go in. It’s not the type of place you would go in. You’d probably rather (like me) order on Amazon than mingle with the people of Walmart, or go to Target if you must. Maybe you shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Maybe you enjoy microbreweries and craft beer and boutique coffee shops. Good. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. Everyone has preferences and tastes, and these places market and cater to certain groups. But you (like me) are a narrower person for only indulging it what is familiar and comfortable and hip. We feed our blind spots when we eat and drink and shop at places where the only people not like us are the staff.
But consider the place next door to both. We don’t spend much time at gas stations, which is a shame, because they are one place that brings people together. Everyone who has a car (so not everyone, but many), has to go to the gas station at some point, and no one really cares which gas station they go to. You go wherever is cheapest and closest. Rich people don’t go only to Exxon and turn up their noses at Shell, nor are the poor only able to afford BP. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you have or what the other customers look like. You can’t get it cheaper or more luxurious next door. You just go to one wherever you are. Gasoline, oddly enough, is a communal good.
I can’t think of any other good or service or event that brings people to one place without preference or prejudice. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of our hyper-personalized society, where everyone gets their own personalized news feeds, shopping recommendations, diet plans, tv lineups, and online friend groups. Once you’re an adult, no one ever really forces you to do or see or think anything you don’t want to. Choices abound. So we end up with two restaurants, in the same neighborhood, in the same shopping center, in the same parking lot, as separate as if they were internet sites, connected in theory, isolated in practice.
Choice isn’t going away any more than people’s preferences are. No one longs for a society where we all shop at the same limited grocery store and eat at the same bland restaurant, which sounds a lot like East Germany, and nor do we want one megasupereverythingstore where the problem will just repeat inside it, although we are moving in that direction We can make better, broader choices in the places we go, which will widen and deepen our lives in more ways than just our diets and fashion. But what we need are places where everyone in a community can meet, built around common needs and desires. In a society as large as ours, as online, as independent, as driven, as personalized, we are losing any sense of locality. There are precious few places we will meet if we don’t want to. And we can’t know, much less love, those who we don’t see. No wonder the ties which hold us together feel like they are coming apart.