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When the Internet Brings You a Piece of Your Own Past

Oh, internet, how I do love thee!

You deliver things daily to my doorstep that I didn’t know I wanted, that I didn’t even know existed, but which instantly put a lapidary glow on a humdrum day.

The latest example concerns my father. His name was Solomon Paul Dubner; he died when I was 10; he was a newspaperman; I wrote about him at length in my first book, for which I thought I’d read everything he wrote.

But the internet — or, really, a blog post on the Schenectady County (N.Y.) Historical Society Library site — delivered this nugget about a fascinating place called the Dialogue Coffee House in Schenectady. It is described as:

“[A] non-profit organization aimed at creating dialogue among members of the local community. The organization’s coffee house hosted presentations and open dialogues about a number of topics, including social, economic, and political issues, local politics and government, civil rights, the war in Vietnam, visual and performing arts, health, religion and spirituality, psychology, labor issues, education, morality, and the nature of dialogue. While controversial topics were often featured at the Dialogue Coffee House, the atmosphere tended toward conversation rather than debate. In addition to open discussions and presentations, the coffee house also provided a space for underground films, musical performances, and plays as an impetus for dialogue.” 

The post includes a couple of great vintage photographs from the Dialogue Coffee House records, courtesy of the Schenectady County Historical Society’s collection:

Leonard Miller asks a question during a session of the Dialogue Coffee House about a series of tape recordings written and produced by Rev. Malcolm Boyd about civil rights. This dialogue was held January 14, 1966, at the First Methodist Church in Schenectady. Photograph from the Dialogue Coffee House Records. (Photo: From the collection of the Schenectady County Historical Society)

This photograph shows the second location of the Dialogue Coffee House at 121 S. Ferry Street. The Dialogue was located on the second floor. Photograph from the Dialogue Coffee House Records. (Photo: From the collection of the Schenectady County Historical Society)

And the post also includes an excerpt from an article my father wrote but which I’d never encountered:

“Political protagonists seem to lay down their arms when they go to the house. Persons from all major political parties gather at this Schenectady night spot to talk and listen. Those of opposite political camps – liberals and conservatives – find they can hold dialogue with each other with feelings of tolerance and understanding.”

— Paul Dubner, in a 1967 Schenectady Gazette article, writing about the Dialogue Coffee House.

I had three immediate responses to reading that paragraph:

  1. The visceral Proustian rush that accompanies this sort of encounter with one’s own past.
  2. Pride in the fact that my father found such an interesting place to write about, and appreciated what was so interesting about it.
  3. Sadness over the fact that this kind of public dialogue between opposing minds is practically nowhere to be found today.