About 10 years ago, Rhonda’s diner in the village closed its doors and left a bunch of us orphaned. We could not for the life of us understand why a person would not want to rise at five in the morning to serve a five dollar plate of bacon and eggs to the last eight farmers in the township and then stand there and watch them complain about the world and drink bottomless cups of coffee until the paying lunch crowd made us clear out.
But Rhonda’s husband Dave, who had been standing at the grill for several decades was beginning to suffer from poor circulation. We bought him a special mat for his feet . . . bought is the wrong word . . . found him a used mat that was surplus to the needs of the nursing home kitchen in town, but it didn’t do the trick. So Dave and Rhonda retired. I still have her restaurant sign in the barn in case Rhonda, or anyone else named Rhonda, ever gets the urge to fire up the business again. There is another Rhonda farther north in town serving coffee at a diner she owns but her place is called Paula’s Pantry, for reasons only the most elderly among us recollect. There is no Paula in the place and hasn’t been since 1978, but there you are. Her Paula sign is even older than my Rhonda sign but she is used to it, as is everyone else. So my Rhonda sign will stay nailed over the south window of the barn until the situation changes.
At about the same time we lost the diner, Bruce Burgess died and his garage was sold, shutting off yet another gathering point for people who don’t care to pay for coffee. Garn’s Repair Shop and Combustion Club south of Stayner had shuttered a few years before that. The only outlet left for people who had time on their hands and liked to talk was Neil’s Driveshed on the next concession where about six dilapidated Easyboys form a circle and the visiting hour lingers between 9 and 11 a.m. depending on who is in attendance and how wound up they are. Unfortunately, Neil’s Driveshed was closed about two years ago by the authorities. Neil’s wife and her sister-in-law across the road agreed the men needed a change of scenery and turned them all out on the sideroads. For awhile it was a hit or miss thing to run into any of them at Tim Horton’s or the back corner of McDonalds in town. I found I was missing any number of news reports, death notices, hip replacements, cataract surgeries, lost dogs and special deals on used lawnmowers.
So the situation languished until the pandemic hit. After a decent interval and applying a list of sensible precautions the women conceded that perhaps Neil’s Driveshed should be allowed to re-open under a temporary permit. The doors were thrown wide open to allow air movement, the chairs pushed apart to a regulation six feet, maximum occupancy of 10 and bring your own mug. The men already work in a fog of Round-up and Captan so the virus doesn’t stand much of a chance even if it makes it past the mailbox.
These bubbles we are now forming everywhere across the country are essential to mental health. I was reading a psychologist the other day who claims that human beings need three things to operate normally: Structure, Predictability and what she calls Mirroring. Structure and predictability are probably self-explanatory, although I have never been impressed by the human ability to predict anything with any accuracy. We guess wrong 10 times out of 10. The psychologist assures me that we don’t need to be right in our predictions but we do need some assurance that they will land somewhere in the ballpark. The pandemic has left us without any idea of what the state of things will be a month, six months or a year down the road. That is deeply disturbing to us.
The business of Mirroring is more subtle. The oldest part of our brain, the limbic lobe which produces all of our emotions, evolved over 75,000 years while we learned to live in the village. Whether it be the flicker of appreciation in a stranger’s face when we hold a door for them or the wave of a driver who lets us into traffic, we still need a regular diet of micro-contacts with people every day to remind ourselves that we are part of a group and expected to behave. Yank it away and our anxiety levels climb dramatically.
I think the women knew that already without having it explained to them. That’s why they gave us back our driveshed diner.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca