Finding a place to belong, making a place for others

I am a creature of habit.

Like many, I’m sure, when I find a good routine, I stick to it. There is comfort in the familiar.

There is also comfort in baked goods, which is why, most Wednesday mornings, I walk three blocks down to the New York Bakery on Main Street in El Cajon for Italian wedding cookies and whatever other chocolate-covered, jam-filled confections are ready and waiting.

We send this newspaper to the printers on Wednesday mornings which means that I either have a long Tuesday night – up till 2 or 3 a.m. on occasion – or a very early morning – read: in the office by 5 a.m.

I am not a morning person, so by the time our copy editor has OK’d our last jump and headline and our graphics manager has sent back the PDF of our finished paper, I am ready for a good cookie.

Off I trek down the warm streets of downtown El Cajon to my favorite bakery. It is small and simple, to be sure, but the goods are top-notch and I am there so often now that everyone knows me by name.

And isn’t that what we all want, after all? A place where everyone knows our name?

One of the delights of working at an old-timey diner was getting to know our regulars. We had people from the retirement center down the street and Navy kids with nowhere else to go on a Thursday night. I could walk into the diner at any time of day and tell you exactly who would be sitting at the end of the counter or in booth eight or at table three without even looking.

We knew them all by name. When Bill’s wife died, we didn’t even have to ask – he never comes in alone. The taxi company made a special option on their automatic message system for when we wanted to call a cab for Arnold. And we could set our clocks by Tommy’s arrival and departure every evening, every week, all year long.

As they say in the beloved ’80s classic “Cheers” theme song, “Making your way in the world today takes everything you got. Taking a break from all your worries, it sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

I only just started watching the show (thank you, Netflix), and the concept resonates with me deeply. Every time Norm walks into the bar, usually in the first third of the episode, and Sam and Coach both greet him with an enthusiastic, synchronized, “Norm!” a little piece of my soul wishes I could be that well-loved regular somewhere.

I’ll be honest, I don’t go to the New York Bakery every Wednesday. Sometimes our sales manager beats me to the punch and goes out for donuts before I can check all our captions or drop the final copy of this column (which, too often, I end up writing on deadline).

He walks down the street and comes back with a box of goodness.

We all always have the same donut order, but he asks us every time just to be sure.

What is it about routine that is so attractive? Why are we so drawn to the same well-worn path, whose only footprints are the ones we made the day before?

Maybe it is the safety of the already discovered that keeps us ordering our same prefered Starbucks coffee (grande vanilla chai latte with whipped cream – our office manager doesn’t even ask me now, she just sets the purchase on my desk as my eyeballs swim through page jumps).

Or maybe it’s the longing for familiarity? Maybe we’re all just searching for a place to be known and to belong?

The real question, then, is why do we search for a place to belong outside the home we’ve already been given?

Norm is hardly a family man. He avoids going home at all costs. And while it’s a funny schtick for a comedy about a bar, it’s sad to think about in real life.

Have we built the kind of homes where people greet us with enthusiasm and joy? Are we the kind regular in our homes, our schools and our churches where people are delighted to see us? And do we make those who enter our homes, schools and churches feel like we want them there? Do we make regulars out of the people in our lives?

Each of us has the chance to be the bartender (or the baker, in my case) – to listen to the goings-on of someone else and offer encouragement or a kind word.

If everyone wants to go somewhere where everyone knows their name, let’s make that right where we are.