A few years ago, shortly after he retired, my stepfather joined a coffee group in his northern New York town. He would never refer to it as a “coffee group,” of course, but still, a couple times a week he drives the eight miles into town to grab a cup of coffee at a cafe. He goes at the same time, sits in the same spot, chats idly with the same people in this community of coffee. This surprises me.
My stepfather is not a talkative man. Not at all overtly social. But he has always been drawn to an interesting conversation, even if not as an active participant. One day last summer I joined him and it was clear that he hadn’t transformed into a social butterfly. He sat quietly amid the clatter of the busy cafe, listening to the discussion about world travel, letting us more loquacious customers guide the conversation. And he was thoroughly enjoying it.
My father-in-law, also recently retired, has found himself in a coffee group too. He meets up with five or so other men at a Skagit Valley restaurant every Tuesday morning. There is no agenda as they talk about books and current events. They get nostalgic and fondly revisit memories of their pasts. Over time these acquaintances have become friends. My father-in-law likes knowing that if he didn’t show up one Tuesday morning he would be missed.
I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to write something about these coffee klatches and he immediately said, “Oh, you have got to head up to Hilltop on Meridian.” Apparently, there’s a group of men that has been drinking coffee there every morning for 40 or 50 years. This sounded like an exaggeration. And it also sounded like just the group I wanted to sit down with. So I set my alarm for 5:00 a.m. to meet up with Bob and “the boys” at sunrise one Monday morning.
As I walk up to the door of Hilltop Restaurant early that gray day I fall in step with a smiling man. He greets me by name and introduces himself. This is Bob VanderPloeg. He is the unofficial leader of this group. We stride into the restaurant together and greet the men already assembled. It is 5:45 a.m. The restaurant opens at 6 a.m., but three men already sit at a cluster of tables under a sweeping mural of Mount Baker. I shake hands with Victor “Vic” Rohwer, Ola Sinnes and Willy Cadman. We are soon joined by Doug Bouwman.
I take a seat and before I even set down my bag our server Leana has placed a mug in front of me and holds the coffee pot poised to pour. Would I like coffee? Yes. Because, as I mentioned, it is not yet 6 a.m. I am a little fuzzy-headed. But not these guys. They are downright chipper. I ask the obvious question: Why do you come here before the place opens? The answer: “We just always have.”
And indeed they have. Each of these men have been coming for coffee at quarter to six every morning for decades. Vic started to have his morning cup at Hilltop with his grandpa in the 1960s. Most of the others cannot remember exactly when they started the ritual but Bob chimes in saying, “I used to buy coffee here for ten cents a cup!”
Everyone lives within three miles of Hilltop and part of their daily routine for all these years has been to come in before work for coffee. Work started early so, naturally, coffee was even earlier. The restaurant is not technically open? Not a problem. Regulars have privileges. And this group is as regular as it gets. While most of the originals have passed, Bob, then in high school, was there when Hilltop first opened its doors and this group assembled in 1959. Hilltop has since changed locations and owners. And Bob is the only original left.
With the exception of Bob, who owns Meridian Equipment, and Vic, who works in construction, these men do not have to be at work anymore. Ola is a retired deputy Sheriff, Willy retired from the Intalco aluminum plant and Doug retired from Lynden Transfer. But still, they come most every day for a cup of coffee and conversation. Our current discussion progresses quickly from pleasantries to political views, with Vic taking the helm. Ola places a stack of quarters on the table between himself and Vic and pantomimes inserting one into a slot. “Gotta feed him to keep him talking,” he says to me with a wink and a wry smile. Vic has clearly heard this ribbing before and continues to calmly espouse his stance on government. I ask if there are ever any arguments. There are not. These men keep it pretty light and hold similar views on most things anyhow. This isn’t a group prone to heated exchanges. This is a group that finishes each others’ sentences.
While we talk, Leana returns to fill our mugs several times. Mine is stock diner white but each of the men drink from a personal mug kept for him at the restaurant. Bob points out the wall behind me. Lined up on a shelf is an array of colorful mugs containing various mementos—a small American flag, photographs, obituaries. “That’s the wall of dead,” he tells me.
Each of the displayed mugs belonged to a departed member of this coffee club. They are a prominent and impressive memorial to those lost friends. And this gets me thinking… this particular coffee group is a sort of memorial too. It’s not like my stepfather’s group of casual acquaintances, nor is it like my father-in-law’s gathering of new friends. These men meet here not only to maintain a routine or to catch up with pals. They certainly do not meet here to simply drink coffee.
They meet here to keep a tradition alive.
When I ask the group to articulate why they do this every day, Ola asserts, “We come for coffee in the morning to complain about the price of coffee.” And that is certainly true. But there is also much talk about the “good ol’ days” during our morning together. The price of coffee is just one of the many things that have changed since 1959. And while these men can’t go back to the glory days when coffee was ten cents a cup, they can keep meeting every morning to preserve a little piece of the time when it was.