Grumpy old men? Not here, where the coffee is hot and the conversation flows freely

06/17/2014 4:56 PM

06/17/2014 5:05 PM

Around 8 a.m. in the Price Chopper at 95th and Mission in Leawood, a group of guys ranging in age from 66 to 90 sit around a table sipping coffee from identical brown paper cups.

Over the next three hours, men will come and go. For some, this morning ritual has been a tradition for more than 30 years. And by now they know when everyone will arrive. Well, for the most part.

“Frank’s here!” A man walks in wearing a gray jersey shirt. He’s about 30 minutes late, so the guys speculated that he was skipping. He goes to the counter, pays for his coffee and walks to the table. He shakes his head, waving away their speculation.

“Frank had to go to the dentist,” said Frank, taking a seat at the table. “I forgot all about it.”

“What, Frank still has teeth?” one companion asks innocently.

“Some,” Frank retorts. “Some I don’t. They’re like stars. They come out at night!”

“Even the ones he doesn’t have, he’s still paying for!”

The table laughs, loud guffaws that taper off into coughs. This group is seldom comprised of the same men on any given day, but each weekday, an informal club of retirees meets. Some are more consistent, like Sonny Jaben, 82, an original participant who’s there almost every morning. It’s a habit, he said. He has been a part of the breakfast club for more than 30 years. And while locations and faces have changed through the years, it’s part of his routine.

All over Kansas City, variations of this activity aren’t unusual for older men. There are similar meetings at many grocery stores, fast-food restaurants and coffee shops around the city.

It’s like clockwork. And it’s an understated part of society — though not one that should be underestimated. After all, men have been gossiping, swapping tales or offering advice over coffee since it arrived on the wharves of Europe. Historian Charles Colby notes that even in 17th-century London, every sect of people had a coffeehouse meeting place where witty conversation could be heard.

The tradition continued, and 21st-century Kansas City is no exception. No fliers advertised these social clubs for retirees. But somehow the groups formed. And somehow the groups stayed. Their banter may sound like the plot for a “Grumpy Old Men” spin-off, but each week, come rain or snow, a morning brew accompanies their wisecracks and discussion.

This social connection can improve retirees’ health by allowing them to mindfully engage in the world and be exposed to new thoughts and ideas, explained Harvard social psychology professor Ellen Langer. A desire for social contact is never-ending, she said. When people retire and are separated from the workforce, they must develop new ways of having a peer group. For many, that manifests itself in informal, morning coffee clubs.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Langer said. “I think that once someone is retired, if they allow their world to shrink, there’s less to think about. There’s less to do. Slowly, that leads to an increase in mindlessness, which is bad for one’s health and well-being.”

Some come for the camaraderie, the social aspect of a variety of folks talking about the state of the world. For others, humor proves the best medicine.

Members of the self-proclaimed Worthless Men’s Breakfast Club wear matching T-shirts to identify their weekly breakfast group in Independence. Although the Worthless Men name is a joke, the wisdom and support they glean is genuine. They met one another through church and often volunteer together, said Gaylin Yaeger, 74, one of the founders. But that’s not the focus of their organized breakfast.

“If you listen to us — well, it’s not a Bible study group,” said John White, 73. “We all go to the same church, but that’s just a coincidence.”

One Overland Park group also has a church connection. It actually started as a Bible study, but now the members meet each Friday morning to talk for hours.

“We all discuss what the world situation is and what it should be,” Wirth Davis, 70, said. “It’s a fountain of knowledge.”

Location is everything, and George Gross of Shawnee, a former member of a 15-year bacon-and-egg group, cites convenience and central location among the most vital qualifications for coffee club potential.

“It seems like the unwritten rule is that you have to find a place that will let you linger around,” Gross said. “A grocery store is a real good place. For some reason, they’ll just let you sit there forever. And the other thing is that it has to be cheap, because again, most of them are all retired, so they’re all on fixed income and watching their money.”

Another favorite? Gross said McDonald’s offers a senior discount on coffee that makes it a hot spot.

A group in Raytown, whose members are ages 62 to 88, originated at Fox’s Drugstore, chosen for its inexpensive meals and proximity to everyone. They’ve been together for 42 years, said Steve Knabe, 65. Most of the guys grew up in the town. It’s an aging community, he said, but back in the day, many of the community’s businessmen grabbed a bite and a cuppa at Fox’s before beginning the daily grind. The tradition continued long after the work stopped.

Over the years one rule prevailed: no politics. They agree that though they accept each other’s diverse experiences, politics can get too messy.

Oh, and no girls allowed, they joke. Through the years, it’s just been the guys.

And while their wives will send them off with grocery lists, they don’t tag along.

“I think they realize it’s an outlet for us,” Knabe said. “It’s a social thing for us. It’s something we look forward to — sharing our stories.”

Davis’ wife, Jan, has never been to the Hy-Vee men’s breakfast, but she knows her husband enjoys the guy time. He comes home with stories of their weekly breakfast, something he wasn’t able to do when he worked as a pharmacist.

“It’s just been since he retired,” Jan said. “He didn’t have any chance to do that before. Men don’t have very many opportunities to do things like that, so I just think it’s really good for him.”

As for the future of groups like this, they’re not sure why their generation seems so attached to them. Most don’t remember their parents or grandparents having anything quite like this.

Maybe in the small towns when it rained, the farmers would come in to talk about crop prices and gossip over coffee. That was about it.

A few speculate that their parents simply worked harder and life spans were shorter, so they never had time to retire, let alone sit around and shoot the breeze.

Assata Zerai, associate sociology professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says there’s a simple reason that men are drawn to social groups. Historically, men are used to networking at jobs and being among wives and families, so they’re less used to being alone. When they retire, the workforce networking is gone, and some have spouses who died.

“The literature shows that men don’t need to put themselves out there to get social interaction as much because they have wives that are providing the benefits of that,” Zerai said. “After retirement, they need a substitute for those social connections that they’ve had in the past. Public places provide an adequate substitute.”

But just as these social groups weren’t prominent in older generations, many of the men speculated that the joy of simply sitting and talking to friends for up to three hours each day will be lost on younger generations as well.

Gary Marrow, 65, recently adopted his 17-year-old grand-nephew. Never having been married or rearing kids, his first experience with parenting is beginning late in life. Marrow is one of the Worthless Men, and most of them have grandkids. They give him advice and tease him about when PopTarts are on sale. They let him vent when parenting gets hard.

One of the most confusing parts of being a new parent to a teenage boy, Marrow said, has been understanding an apathy toward the art of conversation. His peers can relate. They compare stories of how their grandkids would often rather be on the computer or sending text messages than talking.

“It does amaze me, though. I do believe that the younger generation are not going to have the social skills just with the way things are,” Marrow said. “He and his friends, they don’t talk. They text each other. They’re sitting next to each other, and they don’t communicate.”

Jere Jackson, 73, overhears.

“Careful, guys,” he hollers down the other end of the table. “Gary’s talking about the ‘good old days.’”

Laughs and groans follow, but most agree. It’s unfathomable for a generation who values sitting for hours over coffee and swapping stories and opinions.

As for the future, very different forms and tools of communication will exist in 40 years, Langer said. So, it’s hard to know whether Millennials will reject traditional ways or simply evolve them.

“We can’t predict,” she said, but “no matter what technology gives us, people will always seek out the company of other people. Or, to be more precise, I think that when people seek out the company of other people, either virtual or real, they’ll prosper.”

More than anything, older men’s groups are able to provide a support network for one another. When John Carson’s wife of 51 years died from cancer, the Worthless Men gave him people to talk to and a reason to get up and out of the house each week.

“These guys helped me get through that ordeal,” said Carson, 74. “It’s wonderful to have buddies who can help you through a bad time. We’re always around, and we’re always there for each other.”

Deaths and hardships are a reality for groups like this, Knabe said.

“When you get a lot of 80-year-olds together, eventually you’re going to lose some of them,” Knabe said. “When you reach a certain age, death is imminent. It’s going to be here.”

He says it calmly, and the guys around him nod.

“It’s like losing a best friend,” Ed Sosna, 84, agreed. “We stay together, and we die together.”

Frank was a part of a Marine group that met in the same Leawood Price Chopper as those he pals with now.

“When that crowd died, literally, these guys asked me to join them,” he said. “There were about 10 of us who sat at another table, all Marines. And now they’re all gone. That’s the way it goes.”

“Not all of them are gone, Frank,” Jaben reminds him. “You’re still here. Don’t forget it.”

That’s part of why they meet — so they don’t forget. It’s easy to get in the habit of just staying at home and sitting around or watching television, said Sidney Carr, 90. Getting breakfast gives them something to do. The groups provide a vast variety of experiences, and everyone has their own stories to tell — decades worth of them.

“Keep in mind that many of the stories that we share we’ve heard and have been retold at the same table multiple times,” Jaben said. “When your memory’s short, you’re hearing them for the first time.”

The men surrounding him laugh, nodding in agreement.

“But if you do miss a story,” he pauses, and the other guys quickly chime in …

“Just come back next week!”

To contact Linlay Sanders, call 816-234-4297 or send email to lsanders@kcstar.com.

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