Customers play a game at Lawrence's RPG, a board game cafe. The business closed its doors June 30. (Submitted)
Today, let’s dwell on special places in our lives.
A little more than two years ago, Kansas Reflector opinion editor C.J. Janovy wrote a column about RPG, a board game pub in downtown Lawrence.
When that piece appeared, I had been out of journalism for years with no plans to return. But I was already familiar with RPG, where friends and I played trivia every Wednesday night. We started going before the COVID-19 pandemic and stuck it out during the months when trivia switched to an online format.
Eventually, of course, Massachusetts Street and all of downtown Lawrence reopened. In-person trivia night once again became a regular date on my calendar, a place for friendly yet intense competition over meaningless dust bunnies of esoterica. The place, and the people there, became important to me.
Unfortunately, RPG closed its doors Friday, leaving me wistful.
I don’t want to write about the actual closing — the Lawrence Journal World did so in some depth — because my relationship with the place wasn’t as a journalist, but as a regular.
Instead, I want to write about why places like RPG matter. Being a regular, having a place, having a group of people you know and see every few days, that makes a difference in one’s life.
Our shared communal spaces have withered for decades, as depicted in Robert Putnam’s seminal book, “Bowling Alone.” Our relationships have migrated online. Our interest in other people’s lives have shifted from those we know to those we see on streaming TV shows or gossip websites.
Even in politics, few of us know the name of our city councilor or representative in the Kansas Legislature. We sure know who serves as president, though, and we know who shows up on our TV news channel of choice to make arguments in their favor.
A community gathering spot like RPG, with craft cocktails and a full menu, served as a welcome antidote.
I knew my friends who showed up every week to share a table. I knew my friends who didn’t show up every week, but might drop by now and again (I’m looking at you, Sherman). I knew the folks asking the trivia questions and the servers, who knew my orders before I even asked. I’m nothing if not predictable.
This all sounds simple. But I don’t think such bonds are especially common in the lives of grown-ups with families. I know they aren’t in mine.
There’s a reason why the TV sitcom “Cheers” garnered huge audiences over its 11-year run. Sure, Ted Danson and Shelley Long (later Kirstie Alley) were terrific comic actors. But as the show’s theme song put it, “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.” The show presented an idealized tavern where the regulars and bar staff weren’t just acquaintances, or even friends. They were a kind of chosen family.
Yes, I know how sappy this all sounds. Yet we all need to make these human connections, whether we be Cliff or Norm or even Dr. Frasier Crane.
The fact that RPG shut its doors as this year’s Pride month drew to close didn’t escape me either.
LGBTQ people often don’t have the best relationships with their biological families. Thankfully, matters have improved over the past couple of decades, but it can still take a surprised set of parents a few years to accept a gay, lesbian or trans child. That’s why shared community spaces make a difference. Especially a place like RPG, where all orientations, expressions and enthusiasms for geeky pastimes were welcomed.
As the news sank in throughout June, I remembered Henry’s. That was the name of a ground-floor coffee shop in Lawrence where I spent evening after evening during my college years.
Henry’s Upstairs, a bar, remains, but the downstairs coffee shop space has been taken over by Grounded Coffee. The original Henry’s was one of the first gay-friendly spaces I experienced as a young adult. I could go there and talk to friends and baristas (and barista friends) about my life. About who I really was. About who they really were.
The problem with magical places like Henry’s 1.0 and RPG is that they don’t last. No dining or drink establishment can, not even those with gargantuan paintings depicting favorite games. People and staff members move on. Ownership changes. Business plans collapse, or new business plans arrive. Even if a business keeps the same name, it will evolve into something different.
But I was glad to know these special places. They gifted me with friendships and memories.
Let’s make some new ones.
Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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