by Glen Coburn Hutcheson
My best ideas come from conversations over food. That may be because most of my meal conversation is with my partner Kate Stephenson, who’s smart and generous with her thoughts. But I choose to believe that talking while eating always leads to better ideas no matter who I’m with, because like many people I need help to think, and because when my mouth is full I’m more likely to listen.
When I began my council campaign three months ago, I started inviting Montpelier residents to breakfast every Thursday. My idea was to learn more about what residents care about, and why. At first, it was usually just me. I would show up at 8:30 am at Bagitos or The Skinny Pancake, get a coffee and food, and sit with my laptop. Usually I’d end up talking with someone, but rarely about Montpelier in any direct way. Topics included the French painter Francis Picabia (related to at least one recent Montpelier resident), making a living as a musician (I hear it’s difficult), having or not having children (some people like them), and the weather (mostly bad).
For the past few weeks, the venue has been Open Hands Cafe, the restaurant that George Estes runs at 64 State Street out of the Episcopal Church’s parish hall. I like it there because it’s calm, the food is good and cheap, and there’s always an interesting mix of people. I’ve started calling the breakfast sessions “Open Ears at Open Hands” for lack of something snappier.
I’ve been learning a lot at city council meetings, and it’s always good to hash it out the next morning at breakfast. A few weeks ago, the council talked over possible ways to help with ice-jam flooding. My short version of the conversation: some people suggest building concrete pillars upstream to hold back ice jams and flood open land instead of downtown; other people would rather remove the old unused dams, maybe dredge the river, and let the water and ice flow through more readily. This was the first I’d heard of any of these possibilities, but I’ve seen the floods, and it seems like we should consider doing something. Anyway, the morning after that council meeting, I descended on a comfortable trio having breakfast at Open Hands and told them more about it than they probably wanted to hear. I even brought the printouts and graphics, I think. But they were very friendly and didn’t seem to mind.
Recently, I don’t have to pounce on unsuspecting breakfasters so much, because a few people will show up on purpose to talk and listen. I remember one good morning with three people when we talked about redesigning Barre Street parking (reverse angled spots, alternating sides each block), the best ways to prune trees (over three years), and a serious discussion on enforcing road laws (as a pedestrian, I suggested suction-cup darts with tickets that I could throw at the back windows of speeding cars). But even despite my distracting nonsense, I think the group made some progress and everyone learned something; I certainly did.
It’s not always perfectly friendly, which I think is good. There are real competing interests and stories in Montpelier, and I’m only beginning to grasp the differences and my own positions. If open ears helps in any way, I hope it will be in the direction of clarity—not necessarily complete agreement, but more mutual understanding even in disagreement.
I hope you’ll join me on Thursday mornings at Open Hands Cafe, 64 State Street in the Episcopal Church parish hall, from 8:30 to 9:30 am.
Glen Coburn Hutcheson is city councilor for District 3.