Published on Sustainable Cities

Big Mac Dan and the Conversations of Cities

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ImageMy lovely wife recently gave me a MacBook Air for my birthday. She debated a Mac Air or iPad but went with the Mac Air since we had ‘free’ Microsoft Office software available from an earlier 3-copy purchase. All was going well until I went to install the software. After hours of trying to download the software, cryptic Microsoft internet messages, and a very unhelpful phone-in customer ‘service’, we were left with one remaining option: endure the Mac store and trade it in for an iPad or figure out the software. This is where we met Big Mac Dan (BMD).

BMD is a six-foot-six tall large man at Toronto’s Fairview Mall Mac Store. He was one of the many blue shirts in a very crowded store. After being delivered to BMD by a woman who politely pointed out to me, despite my surliness, that this really was a Microsoft issue, Dan and I proceeded to figure out how to install the software. After lots of trial and error, it turned out that both of us mistook a product-code ‘B’ for an ‘8’. Fortunately Dan (the other one) was incredibly patient.

Once the mistake was identified, we completed the whole process in less than 45 minutes by using the store’s external hard-drive. During that time BMD and I had a great conversation. How his parents had recently retired to Vancouver Island, how he and his wife are expecting their first child, how he prefers working at the ‘suburb’ Toronto Mac Store rather than the even more crowded downtown store in the Eaton Center.

All this time working with BMD I kept thinking that this is what makes cities great – the ‘conversation class’. It is the people who converse with us, give us directions and help us navigate through society, that underpin all world class communities. I adjusted to the crowded store and found that a one-on-one conversation was not only possible but enjoyable.

A couple of years ago I was in Milan by myself for a few days. Someone had suggested I try out a small restaurant – La Petite Cave on Via San Carpoforo. I managed to find the place in the rabbit warren of streets and had a wonderful meal. The food was great, but what was even more memorable was the conversation I had with Gianluca, the chef-owner-waiter.

I had brought some work with me and was reading while eating when Gianluca came over and said ‘a truly great meal includes a good conversation’, and between serving his other clientele, he sat down with me and we talked about Italy, his nephew in Canada, the World Bank, and the need for good food. He wanted to practice his English and I wanted to learn about Italy. I will always fondly remember that evening and the value of the conversation class.

Taxi drivers, waiters, concierges, store clerks - the conversations we have with these urban ambassadors are the most powerful forces that shape our opinions of the cities we live in and visit. The enjoyment and exploration of a place is best shared through conversation.

I’m writing this on my spiffy new laptop (yes, in Word) while in a pleasant wireless-supplied Starbucks in Alexandria, Virginia. A few tables over a woman is interviewing potential Princeton students. The servers are recent immigrants from Ethiopia. The staff and customers in coffee shops like these, and at places like farmer’s markets, parades, and real bookstores, are all building the community one conversation at a time.

This all suggests a few things to me. First, my wife buys great gifts once I can figure them out. Second, businesses and even ideas need a ‘bricks and mortar’ place where we can try things out and talk to someone in person. A few Big Mac Dans can go a long way to build a company. And most importantly, the companies and cities that nurture the conversation class will be the ones that succeed.



Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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