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Susan Campbell: Coffee With Two Scoops Of Neighborliness

It's a steamy fall afternoon — not the kind of day you'd associate with a hot espresso — but Silk City Coffee is jumping. Nearly every table in the downtown Manchester shop is full of what looks like college students who haven't left for school yet. There are laptops. There are loud voices. Someone squeals and runs to hug a newcomer. A student leaves. An older person comes in, smiling.

The shop offers more ways to liquefy a coffee bean than you can imagine, but one of the main attractions is a bulletin board in the back. There, small notecards crowd each other out. This is the Love Coffee, Love People board, and it's meant to allow people of the community to make and fulfill requests — mostly anonymously. People who need something write it on a card and pin it to the board. Customers then come in and, if they can, take the card and fulfill that need.

The needs run from prayers for a friend with a cyst on her brain to someone who needs a job to a band that needs a drummer.

On the requests asking for prayers, someone invariably writes, in ink, "Praying!"

Tammy Gerhard, co-owner of the year-old shop, knows a few stories about people who've helped or been helped by the board, though sometimes, the cards just disappear and she assumes the need was fulfilled. The card disappears and is replaced by another.

Here's one story Gerhard knows: Not long ago, Fariha Rashid lost her very first job, the one she got right after graduating from college. While she looked for work, she became a regular at Silk City, and haunted the needs board until one day, she came across a card from a woman who wanted to learn violin. Rashid had played violin when she was younger "and found some purpose again," she said. "The Silk City idea of creating a sense of community was definitely implemented through that board of people helping other people."

As Gerhard tells Rashid's story, a woman sitting at the next table — tattooed and wearing a Marvel T-shirt — speaks up. It turns out Rashid taught her friend how to play violin, and the lessons made a huge difference in the new musician's life. The woman telling the story has since brought her family — including cousins from California — to the coffee shop, as well as her therapist.

If this seems like a throwback to a gentler time, maybe it is. We are rife with division. People with whom we disagree are now not only wrong, they are stupid and wrong. Our favorite websites serve us what we already believe to be true, and rare is the opportunity to challenge one's self to think — or believe — differently. Depending on our political beliefs, we watch different television shows. One recent study said that Democrats lean toward cable shows — "Bridezilla" — while Republicans like network shows, particularly reality-competition ones like "Dancing With the Stars."

(That doesn't make members of either party look all that bright, does it?)

We get our information from different outlets, while insisting the other guys are delivering fake news. It's as if we live in parallel, alternate realities with a different set of heroes, sheroes and villains.

And that's just a skip through ideology. We are also segregated by race and class. This semester, teachers across the state struggle to teach the lessons of Charlottesville, as they earlier struggled to teach the lessons of Ferguson. Last year, The Atlantic magazine called Fairfield County the "epicenter of American inequality." Governing magazine said that Connecticut "may be too rich for its own good." All that sounds odd, given the state's fiscal crisis with a deficit that is measured in billions, with a b.

And then something like a spate of hurricanes hits, and no one asks about politics before helping someone into the boat. We hunker down, and do what we have always done best. We put all that aside and take in strangers. We gather — as Silk City did last holiday season — gifts for families who otherwise wouldn't have gifts for their kids. We share blankets, light and coffee.

Silk City is not a political place — not in the least. But it just may be a big part of the antidote for what ails us.

Susan Campbell teaches at the University of New Haven. She is the author of "Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl" and "Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker." Her email address is slcampbell417@gmail.com.

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