Coffee Spot Closes, but the Talk Goes On

For the Valley News
Tuesday, May 16, 2017


There’s something I find very comforting about seeing old men gathered anywhere for coffee and conversation. It conveys an inner calm toward whatever political or economic calamity may be roiling the waters of their native lands. Retired and free to do what they wish with their unbespoke hours — particularly early-morning ones — they gravitate to each other like silver maple seeds in a river eddy and comment on the current news. It’s not as if they could do anything about any of it anymore; it’s just that things that happen need commenting.

When I’m driving early to a job east of Vermont, I take US Route 2 east and split off north or south once I reach the Connecticut Valley. Along that route I know every McDonald’s where the old guys gather. The new big one in Littleton is one of the best: pickups in the parking slots and lots of baseball caps inside.

It won’t do to nod politely at the group and say, “How do you do?” That’s what folks from away do. A slightly challenging tone is what does it: “Anybody around here work anymore?” “Your wives know you’re out?” Sometimes I venture, “Got room for a stranger?” It’s the old hunting camp greeting rule. If I ever got to camp after almost everybody else was there, and I was greeted cordially, I had to wonder what I’d done to upset things. If, however, somebody piped up, “Oh, look! Here’s Billy all the way from New Hampshire with his designer beer!” I knew all was well. I noticed, however, that whenever I was out hunting for the day, some of my designer beer bottles, empty, nestled conspicuously among the empty Genesee Cream Ale and Bud Light cans.

Old-guy gatherings are the same, as far as I can tell, all over North America and Europe. In the little hill towns of southern Italy — insular, and everyone clad in black as severe as that of any Old Order Amish sect — there’s usually a dominoes game going on, with argumentative kibitzers looking over everybody’s shoulder. In the cities, I like to walk up to a group and destroy their calm by asking, “Dove è un buon farmacia?” Each one of them, apparently, has a favorite pharmacy different from everybody else’s, and tries to outshout the others. Oftentimes, one will grab my elbow and lead me away from the debate toward his choice, then hang around to see what I’m after. I have a lot of Italian dental floss and a bright red plastic soap container.

When we lived in the Adirondacks during the 1960s, Saturday was trash day. I could count on a sturdy little figure sitting on my chest about dawn and shouting, “Hey, Dad! Let’s get inna da truck and go ta da dump!” He remembers it warmly to this day because, on the way home, we always stopped at the dinette, where I got coffee and he got a donut, a glass of milk and about half an hour of listening to the conversation of the grown-ups.

Coffee and conversation go back hundreds of years. The London coffeehouses of the 18th century are legendary for their witty debates and famous habitués. Some of Doctor Johnson’s greatest mots were uttered as he penuriously nursed his pennyworth of coffee.

I never drank it myself until I was in my 20s and dating a girl at Bennington. Driving down from the Adirondacks late on a Friday evening, I stopped for tea at a roadside cafe in Eagle Bridge, N.Y., and took the only remaining stool at the counter, right in the middle of a long line of weary truckers. “What’ll it be?” asked the counter girl. I took a quick look in both directions and answered, “Coffee. Black.” And I’ve never once looked back.

During our 40 years in Hanover, I frequented Lou’s on Main Street for its (still) incredible glazed crullers. But the tables were too small to admit much of a group conversation. Then about 10 years ago we moved to Montpelier.

The conversation in Hanover had revolved mostly around business, items on the town meeting warrant, or the college’s affairs. Here in the state capital, there’s much more chat about the news, from local (dustup over the city manager’s performance) to national (what in the world is he up to now?). We’re in the heart of arguably the nation’s bluest state, so there’s very little talk of revolution or activism. We all tend to agree with our two senators, different though they may be, and our single embattled representative. We’ve been meeting every Friday morning for many years. The table at Coffee Corner is oval-shaped and seats 10. The waitress never asks me what I want; she knows. And the cook makes it just so, with American cheese, for which I get a lot of flak from one companion, but that’s the way I like it.

Suddenly, about a week ago, we learned that our retreat, the handiest and most pleasantly situated spot in town (how can you improve on the corner of State and Main?), was about to close and be converted into yet another pizza shop. This past weekend, it did close, and after over half a century is no more. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the faithful (a group of fiddlers, guitar strummers and others, for example, play here every Thursday morning), but I’ve sensed very little panic among our Friday group members. We’re almost all of us quite old and retired, and we’ve all dealt with a lot of changes during our lives. Our ship has sunk, but instead of sitting in our lifeboat bemoaning our loss — which is admittedly great — we’re getting out the compass and oars and deciding which way to go for next week.

The important thing, as J.R.R. Tolkien would agree, is the fellowship of the ring — in this case, the ring around the table. Obviously, we can’t hold our breakfasts al-fresco in January; but somewhere in town there’ll be a friendly place that’ll open early enough for us to clump in on Friday mornings, sigh over the first sip of hot coffee, and just enjoy the company of old guys.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.