My mother does this weird thing with coffee: She doesn’t drink it. Oh, she still expects the nursing home staff to bring her a cup every morning. She just lets it sit there, untouched. Then after 45 minutes, she picks up her plastic mug (a sippy cup for elderly people, just without the lid and spout), takes a drink, and announces, “It’s cold.” She always seems completely surprised by this development.
You might think Mother’s behavior is the result of her deteriorating mental capacity, but that’s not true. She’s been doing a variation of this morning routine for as long as I can remember. Even when she was young and healthy, she always made a big production of making coffee (yucky instant) every morning—boiling the water, setting out her favorite mug—but after a sip or two, she’d let it go cold. Then she’d put the coffee cup in the microwave to warm—and promptly forget about it. Six hours later I’d find the abandoned coffee in the Radar Range. I suspect that Mother has never really liked drinking coffee in the first place. She simply likes the idea and ritual of drinking coffee. Maybe as a kid she thought it was a sign of sophistication and maturity to start the morning with it. Who knows?
Now she and I have a new routine. When I go back to Alabama to visit her, every morning I bring her a large coffee from the McDonald’s across the street. Fast-food coffee is her absolute favorite kind to ignore. One morning I made the mistake of not stopping to get it, thinking she no longer cared about keeping up the pretense. Her first words to me were, “You didn’t bring me any coffee today?” She had such a crestfallen look on her face that I turned around and immediately went to McDonald’s to get it. True to form, she let it glacierize. I suppose the wasted coffee is a small price to make her happy after all those years she worked her fanny off to buy me nice things and put me through college.
To confess the truth, I like going over to the McDonald’s anyway because I get to run the Geezer Brigade gauntlet of old men who gather every morning for a coffee ritual of their own. Comprised mostly of widowers (or perhaps married men who need a temporary break from their wives), these guys meet daily to drink coffee, talk about politics, local gossip, the most recent deaths in the community, or whatever else strikes their fancy.
I always get an ego trip when I walk by their tables because I can count on at least a couple of them to stop talking, turn around, and check out my ass. I always make a big production of swinging my hips as I pass. It’s a nice quid pro quo. They get an early-morning thrill, and I get a self-esteem boost. What can I say? When a woman reaches middle age, she appreciates any positive attention she can get. I mean, I used to be flattered when our old dog Midas humped my leg after his glucosamine kicked in and he was feeling frolicky. Let feminists rail against the “male gaze.” As long as these old dawgs still feel the impulse to stare at women (even the 80-year-old gals sporting walkers and portable oxygen tanks), more power to them. It’ll probably increase their longevity. Ain’t no harm in it.
Turns out that these old-guy coffee clubs are well-known features of fast-food joints and local restaurants all across the country. Some have official names like ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out) or Worthless Men’s Breakfast Club. Most geezer gatherings I’ve seen are predominantly male, though the one that meets at Jack’s in my hometown, Blountsville, Alabama, includes both women and men.
One morning I decided to have breakfast at Jack’s, just to eavesdrop on their conversation. Because they are southerners, I suspected the Blountsville Geezer Brigade might have a gift for humorous storytelling in the collective, the sort of talent Mark Twain described in “How to Tell a Story.” Twain writes:
The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst…The humorous story is strictly a work of art,–high and delicate art,–and only an artist can tell it.
I can’t completely recreate the conversation I heard at Jack’s, but it went something like this one. (I’ll concede I’ve embellished the subject matter a little.)
Elderly Man 1: Well, I need to run. I’m going to stop by old Sam Wilson’s place. He has a Cub Cadet riding lawn mower for sale. I might buy it if he ain’t asking too much.
Elderly Man 2: Didn’t his boy get pecked to death by his one-eyed pet chicken? Name was Cyclops or See-Clops, or something like that.
Elderly Man 3: His boy was named See-Clops?
Elderly Man 2: Tarnation, no! The chicken was named See-Clops.
Elderly Man 1: No, that ain’t the same Wilson. You’re thinking about Bob Wilson. He lives up near the crossroads.
Elderly Man 3: Bob got a mower for sale?
Elderly Man 1: No! His boy got pecked to death by his pet chicken.
Elderly Man 3: Bob Wilson had a pet chicken?
Elderly Man 2: No! Bob’s boy had the pet chicken.
Elderly Man 3: So Bob’s boy named See-Clops got pecked to death by a chicken?
Elderly Man 2: Dad burn it, Roy. You’re as dumb as a fence post. See-Clops was the chicken’s name.
Elderly Man 3: Didn’t somebody say the chicken went to the other side of the crossroads after he killed the boy?
Elderly Man 2: Hell no, Roy! That’s an old joke. You know, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
Elderly Man 3: I know why he crossed the road! He was trying to get away from the law so he wouldn’t get arrested for pecking that boy to death. Joke, my ass!
Elderly Man 1 (Sighing): I’ll see y’all tomorrow.
If it weren’t logistically impossible to get Mother’s wheelchair down the hill and across the busy four-lane highway, I’d take her over to McDonald’s and let her join the Geezer Brigade for a few laughs and humorous stories. I think she’d really enjoy socializing and wasting her morning coffee in this club.