THERE’S an old Italian saying, “A tavola non si invecchia,” which means: At the table, you don’t grow old. All of us, of whatever age, need to socialize in public places to feel connected and alive.
That sense of shared conviviality was notably absent recently when police officers removed loiterers, many of them elderly Korean-Americans, from a McDonald’s restaurant in Queens. The slew of comments that followed a report of the dispute were unsympathetic to those who whiled away their hours there.
One New York Times reader commented, “It is only in the inner city that McDonald’s and Starbucks are the gathering places for the unwashed, elderly, incompetent and infirm. I suppose this is the price for being a city dweller. These people ruin everything!” Others offered proposals to “solve” the problem by making the seating uncomfortable or removing it altogether, suing the elderly customers or playing blaring rap music to drive them away.
Older patrons may test the limits of public dawdling, but this phenomenon — call it loitering or community building — is essential for the survival of many people 65 and older. According to the last census, seniors constitute 12 percent of New York City’s population. Many of them are single, sometimes far from family, and have lived in their localities for decades, their entire lives even. For the past four years, I have studied how neighborhood public places help older Manhattan residents avoid isolation and develop social ties that offer support, ranging from a sympathetic ear to a small emergency loan.
Like the teenagers who linger over sticky tabletops at Burger King and McDonald’s, these older people have reached a time when their lives do not revolve around work and family. In the absence of those, these public places can anchor routines and provide a sense of structure and belonging.
A Manhattan bakery I observed had served as a de facto senior center for decades. The owner allowed customers to linger; many stopped in more than once a day. The bakery hummed with conversation: It felt more like a social club than a business, with a cup of coffee being the modest price of admission.
Yet the elderly are often now hindered by the loss of neighborhood places that have closed because of gentrification and rising retail rents. When that West Side bakery was shuttered, its patrons were forced to regroup in other neighborhood locales, including a nearby McDonald’s.
For retirees on fixed incomes who may have difficulty walking more than a few blocks, McDonald’s restaurants remain among the most democratic, freely accessible spaces. Much of the appeal lies in the fact that, as an elderly patron said to me, “you can sit all day and nobody bothers you.” At the branch I observed, the tolerance for older New Yorkers also extended to the homeless, people who appeared mentally unstable and teenagers who congregated after school — even when they occasionally flung ice cubes at one another.
An afternoon at McDonald’s opens up a world of people-watching opportunities. One elderly regular I observed sat an entire day and greeted a changing cast of passers-by, acquaintances and friends — a welcome alternative to sitting alone in her apartment with worsening dementia.
Ray Oldenburg, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of West Florida, calls these gathering spots “third places,” in contrast to the institutions of work and family that organize “first” and “second” places. He sees bookstores, cafes and fast food joints as necessary yet endangered meeting points that foster community, often among diverse people. The Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson likens public settings such as Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia to a “cosmopolitan canopy,” where people act with civility and converse with others to whom they might never otherwise speak.
The care-taking performed by such places extends to all kinds of groups. A professor of sociology at Princeton, Mitchell Duneier, has found a Chicago cafeteria that supports older working-class African-American men in this way. I have interviewed people who tell me they don’t like senior centers because “they’re depressing”; in these cafes, they can form emotional attachments with a wider mix of people.
Centers offer vital services, but McDonald’s offers an alternative that doesn’t segregate people from intergenerational contact. “I hate old people,” one 89-year-old man told me.
We should praise companies that allow loitering and devise public-private partnerships that benefit both older adults and business owners: I can imagine tax breaks for franchises that serve a high proportion of older adults and discounts to encourage patronage at off-peak hours. And we could replicate the “Café Plus” model of the Chicago nonprofit group Mather LifeWays in 30 American cities. These attractive coffee shops not only offer older customers who dislike traditional senior centers a 75-cent bottomless cup of coffee, but also welcome customers of all ages.
The Queens dispute has been settled, for now, by a compromise that allows the elderly Korean-American customers to linger, provided they vacate during the lunchtime rush. Battles over public space are as old as the city itself, but we have an opportunity to reimagine overlooked resources like McDonald’s as new generations of older people find themselves needing places to hang out.