A Place of Conversation and Community

Marian Wilson Kimber - Iowa City, Iowa
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, March 25, 2011
Marian Wilson Kimber

Musicologist Marian Wilson Kimber felt socially isolated when she lived in southern Mississippi – until she found a spot where she could bond with her neighbors. Now living in Iowa, Kimber yearns for a place that offers that same convivial atmosphere.

Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe in the coffee shop. I believe that many of life’s problems can be solved in coffee shops. Well, not any coffee shop – I’m not advocating some sort of national “Starbucks solution.” I mean the kind of coffee shop I went to daily in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. When I lived there, I came to realize that the other residents were mostly not like me. They were more conservative, more religious, more Republican. Amidst the women, who seem never to have heard of feminism, I felt perpetually underdressed.

In Jody’s Coffee Shop, I was known as the “latté lady.” I went there to write undisturbed and, well-caffeinated, I wrote. But I also became a regular, a person whose favorite drink was already being made when I walked through the door.

Jody’s was tiny, no more than a room really, with cheerful yellow walls and eight little tables very close together. Presided over by gregarious, white-haired Miss Dot, the people at those tables found themselves talking – talking to her, and talking to each other. Life stories unfolded, child rearing advice was given, theology was discussed, politics argued about and life wisdom passed on. Absent customers caused much worry, and more than one regular who was ill got their cappuccino delivered to their hospital bedside.

Oh, some days the staff snapped at each another, and one friendship ended badly within earshot of everyone. But Jody’s remained a place where people sat together and talked about the stuff of day to day life, and what mattered most to them.

Politicians should have heard Stephen the critic’s daily reactions to the newspaper; Lee the teacher’s education reforms; Luis, from Mexico, on immigration policy; or Mr. Anderson, pulling his oxygen tank, on the health care system. Of course, politicians pretend to know about coffee shop – they wander through them every four years or so to shake some hands, but they’re not regulars.

Jody’s coffee shop is closed now, but I still believe in it. I’ve moved to Iowa City, where the people are more like me. The women wear jeans and Birkenstocks, and the bumper stickers on the cars outside my new coffee shop express my political sentiments. Inside the walls are gray, the lighting subdued. The stereo croons old jazz standards to familiar characters: writers, mothers, teachers and newspaper readers. But the tables are arranged a polite, non-intrusive distance from each other, and only the faces staring out from the large modern paintings make eye contact with me.

I know that my fellow coffee drinkers have as many ideas about how to save the world as Jody’s regulars, but we don’t talk to each other about them. I suspect, however, that Miss Dot could single-handedly transform this coffee shop into a place of conversation and community.

These days it’s hard to imagine people coming to know one another and managing to get along and even like one another in spite of their disagreements. When I grieve over the divisiveness in the world, I imagine everyone, the Mississippians, the Iowans, the conservatives and the liberals in a coffee shop, drinking and talking, telling each other their stories – and it gives me hope.

Marian Wilson Kimber is a musicologist who teaches at the University of Iowa. She has published research about the composers, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and about how poetry was recited to music in the late nineteenth century. She writes in the coffee shops of Iowa City, Iowa.