Main Street Café is where I come to write. Here in Massachusetts, I live in the attic of a house with nine people, and from the boiling life of a large family I withdraw with my laptop and some books to my favorite table by the counter, my bottomless mug of coffee, and a casual buzz of a downtown breakfast. This is the best place for me to lose myself in work without losing myself.
The Café is a simple, mid-size place with a feel of a family diner, on the only main street of this small New England town, and indeed it is owned and run by the Scott family. Randy cooks, Mary serves with the help of Jess and a few others I quickly came to know by name. People know each other by name here, and the white noise of clanking dishes, half-muted TV, and conversation occasionally erupts into a debate that grows loud and penetrates into my consciousness, by which time it has involved usually the staff and several customers. They argue about the town and politics, celebrity gossip, UFOs, The Daily Show, football, the repeal of the Prohibition, and the concept of conspiracy theory. One never knows in advance. I spend a few seconds getting caught up on what’s going on and then plunge in. Or I go back to writing, a smile on my face, thinking, I like people.
The walls of the Main Street Café are covered with paintings or photographs by local artists. Mary exhibits them, changing every few weeks, and it’s a feast for the eyes: styles and colors climbing upon each other, singing and screaming, swirling and clashing. I like a few of these quite a lot. Others, not so much—day to day, and I come and study my favorites before they disappear. What I like most of all, though, is the idea: this is not the first nor the last eatery showing the work of local talent, but mostly I’ve seen this at coffee houses or upscale restaurants, never before at a town diner. I am surrounded by imagery and the smell of coffee, by the sounds of people’s thought swelling and ebbing in the background, and I’m happy.
In late September of 2013, I told Mary how much I enjoyed what particular works she had hung, she asked more, and quite by chance then we had a conversation that fed into my thoughts of the book I was writing about Dialogue: the biography of Leonard Swidler. I must say, in making a remark about pictures on a diner’s walls I did not expect to hear the replies that would lead me to consider where and why real dialogue begins—away from the academic round tables and in the swaying fields of the grassroots world. And it made me think also about why the academic round tables gather, and what gives them the strength and the idea to persevere in their word-filled quest while blood is soaking our feet, each day, it seems, in a new corner of the round world—and it’s this. This is why we keep talking. Mary and her pictures. The everyday world of dialogue, where people talk to learn and learn instead of killing.
River Adams: So why display them, then? I imagine, conflict is not good for business.
MS: For dialogue! Somebody doesn’t like it, I ask, “Why? What bothers you?” And we start a conversation.
RA: What to you is the goal of dialogue?
MS: Well, for one, it enriches my relationships. When I listen to people, it opens my mind up to something I hadn’t considered before. Even in my yoga class, there are people who don’t understand it or poo-poo it, but we begin to talk, and sometimes it leads to a much better understanding of each other. To me, dialogue about paintings is like that about peoples: races, religions, nations… It’s one thing to say, “I don’t like this piece.” It’s another thing to say, “Don’t display it.” The same goes for different cultures: you may not like the way other people are, but does it make them bad? Does it mean they shouldn’t be what they are? If you hate French people, you think this French person is bad—and he well may be, but you can’t judge that just because he is French. You have to get to know him as a person first. If you don’t like that some Muslims wear headscarves, does it mean they shouldn’t wear them?
RA: So what do you say to a customer who is vehement about having the art she dislikes removed immediately from any vicinity?
MS: Well, I say, you know, “Don’t you see any good in it at all? Maybe it’s not your cup of tea, but it’s someone’s heartfelt emotion, and it could brighten someone else’s day. Think of the joy that went into its creation!”
RA: Does it help?
MS: [she laughs] Sometimes. Still, it becomes an exchange of emotion.
RA: So people should talk?
MS: Oh, yeah! If we talked more, maybe we wouldn’t have so much human violence. Maybe we wouldn’t have such tragedies as what just happened in Kenya: the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi.
RA: You think talking can prevent killing? Why?
MS: Because people need to be listened to, if nothing else. When someone looks at a painting and says that it’s terrible—or when it’s more serious and may lead to violence—people need to get what’s burdening them off their chests. Dialogue is catharsis. And when we know what the other is about, we can understand them better, and even if we didn’t convince each other, we’ve gotten it off our chests. In the end we may not agree or be able to change everything, but the other becomes more human, and if we’ve been listened to, we are not disregarded, and maybe we feel understood. Catharsis leads to peace. We need to talk, and we need inner peace. I believe, dialogue and meditation can save the world.