Third places are the places we go for social connection, for a sense of belonging; they’re the spaces outside of our home and workplace, like temples, cafes, gyms and bookstores. There have been myriad television shows and movies set in that very third space—the record store in High Fidelity, the bar in Cheers and Central Perk coffee shop in Friends—and those of us who watched these shows as children craved such a space for ourselves once we grew up.
There are many consequences from the pandemic. And one of them is the erasure of our communal spaces, either temporarily or permanently. So many places have closed forever already. Restaurants. Favorite retailers. Bars. For me, the most painful was Pollinate Farm and Garden closing its brick-and-mortar. I always felt welcome there; I liked to chat with regulars about the particulars of chicken breeds and bond with them through the love of gardening and urban farming, with our professional lives and other particulars mattering very little, if at all. It was a place that gave me a sense of wellbeing.
So, where is it we still go for a third place, even within the context of a pandemic? I’d like to write about those safe spaces. They still exist.
Where can we belong, when we are supposed to be confined to our homes? When for many of us the workplace is no longer a place of safety, but of dangerous exposure? And when for many others, the workplace no longer exists because the office is closed, or we’ve lost our jobs?
As a child growing up in New York City, my third place was the corner bodega. It’s where my grandmother took me on hot summer days—because the owner would take pity on me and stick me in their walk-in freezer to cool down. Where we stopped for a chat. Where I always got an ice cream on our daily walks around the neighborhood. It was part of our routine, and it provided me with the sense that people cared about each other beyond the walls of our home.
Here in Berkeley and Oakland, my bodega is Eddie’s Drive In Liquors, located a couple of blocks south of Rockridge BART. I’m a regular there, if only because I’m attracted to bodegas and liquor stores for the above reasons. I’m a regular too, because of the sense of community in that particular store.
It didn’t matter if I walked up buying a fifth of bourbon every week like I did in the early weeks after my husband left me or when, after I stopped drinking, that evolved into my buying Takis and Bundaberg ginger beer simply because by then visiting Eddie’s—there’s also a legion of people who insist that it be called Liquor Video, because those are the largest words on the parking lot sign—was a ritual. I feel like I could buy a pack of cigarettes every three hours, no questions asked. They have always greeted me neutrally and with good humor, a wall collage of confiscated IDs and bounced checks behind them. The banter is the kind you have with a bartender—casual but meaningful, jocular but not dismissive.
Over the years, curiosity piqued, I’ve peppered them with questions.
“Are you Eddie?”
Only to be met with the cryptic but bemused response, “There is no Eddie.”
“There’s no Eddie?” It felt like an existential question at this point.
“Nope, no Eddie.”
Then who, I wondered, was Eddie? Who created this place where one day, my partner and I walked in and the theme from Law and Order was playing on repeat? We knew it was playing on repeat because it repeated three times while we were in there.
“What’s up with the music?”
They said they’d been listening to it on repeat all day. On purpose. For their amusement.
So I asked Adam Johnson, the manager of Eddie’s Drive In Liquors, who, as it turns out, has worked there off and on for over 30 years, as has his father, who worked his way from cashier to manager before buying the store decades ago, “What was up with the theme song on repeat?”
Adam replied, “The theme song on repeat! It was the song from Law & Order and I eventually banned it, lol. I’m sure I drive the staff crazy in my own ways, but playing that theme song for hours was driving me insane!”
Of course, I also asked him, “Who is Eddie? And was it ever a drive-in?”
Eddie was Ed Silva, who passed away several years ago—he bought the lot and built the building before he ran out of money and sold the store, without opening it, to a buyer who decided to keep the name Eddie’s Drive In Liquors when it opened in 1964. So, in a sense, there is no Eddie. And in a sense, there never was—because the owner of Eddie’s Drive In Liquors never was the owner of Eddie’s Drive In Liquors.
Oh, and it’s called a “drive in” because the idea was to “drive in” to the parking lot—a rarity in Rockridge.
The wonder was gone. But in its place was more complexity. That Eddie was both real and a concept adopted by others. Just like a liquor store—which is its own complex intersection of joy and pain.
“We sell some products that people might feel bad about themselves when buying but it is not our job to question or judge why they are buying it,” Adam said. “Some people use alcohol or tobacco as a way to have fun, relax or to forget about the messed up life they had as a child or have as an adult. I wish peace for people in pain and hope they can seek help in a way that helps them, but for that moment they are there in Eddie’s, we are there to show kindness, respect and love.”
From Adam I learned that a third place is the result of the intentionality behind it. That it’s not just a function of transactions, but a space for people to be themselves, for even a few minutes. And that a third place can be nurtured by a person. Even if there is no Eddie.
For me, Eddie’s is a place for vices during heartbreak and the pandemic, a place to buy my sundries without having to wait in a long line for a couple items. But it is also solace during heartbreak and a source of amusing anecdotes during a pandemic. A little break from the world, in whatever way I need, at whatever time in my life narrative. And it helps me see how I can create a third place for others, in turn.
A liquor store is a tough crossroads. It’s also a third place.