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The coffee club

[Times photos: Janel Schroeder]
Coffee Club members, from left, Thais Arms, Lib Moore, Bob Kosian, Pauline Kosian, Ken Bales and Tony D'este clap with excitement as they are cheered by Wal-Mart employees during a tour Friday of the new superstore on Little Road and State Road 54.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- By 7:55 a.m., the ICEE machine is rumbling, the nachos are cozied-up under the heat lamps and that buttery popcorn smell is creeping out through Wal-Mart's IN doors.

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Wal-Mart employees Curtiss Sears, left, and Mary Kaufmann cheer as each Coffee Club member greets them with "Good Morning" during introductions.
It's high time to start wondering where everyone is. The Coffee Club is usually in full swing by 8 a.m., and this morning is certainly no day to be getting started late: It's aerobics day for 83-year-old Edwidge "Ed" Sherbert, and she's gotta hit the road by 8:20.

Ed and a dozen others have been meeting here every morning for years. Everyone is punctual, usually.

Of course, Loretta comes only on the days she doesn't bowl. Thais comes only on the days she doesn't teach. But 11-year-old Michelle always makes an entrance right about now. Every morning she glides in and grabs a fistful of stirrers and a package of instant Folgers decaf and plops down at her table to wait for Dad.

No, there's no time to dawdle, not today, and certainly not this week. For the first time since it began (and after so many "senior moments" no one's quite sure when that was), one of the most committed breakfast clubs in Pasco County is being displaced.

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Bob Kosian wipes his cracked mug. Coffee in it costs 11 cents. The deal has been discontinued, so club members who have cups tend to them carefully.
This is big. Bigger than the Super Bowl. Certainly bigger than the new gambling boat docked in Port Richey. Their morning routine is being messed with.

Members of the coffee club at the New Port Richey Wal-Mart have little in common except the snack bar's red Formica seats, and the 3,000 or so hot pots of coffee that have warmed them for most of the last decade.

The snack bar closed Friday to make way for a supercenter on Little Road. But just because some $165-billion conglomerate decides to close up shop doesn't mean the Coffee Club must disband.

In fact when the supercenter opens a week from Wednesday, this motley crew will play an official part: They'll share super-size scissors to cut the ribbon on the super-size snack bar. That is, if they can ever agree on who gets to hold the scissors.

"Me and Tony, we're gonna have to fight over it," says Ed, who figures it could get ugly. Tony is ready to rumble any time. "I can't wait for this. You'd better look the other way."

Not one of them is crystal clear on what brought them here in the first place. Maybe it was the bargain prices or the raisin bagels, or maybe it was the Otis Spunkmeyer wild blueberry muffins. Whatever it was, they keep coming back, religiously: for breakfast, for lunch, sometimes for dinner. Always for one another.

"It's the people," says Lib. "You couldn't meet nicer people than here."

They don't even know each other's last names -- "Who needs a last name, we'd probably forget 'em, anyways," Lib says -- but they know each other's life stories.

Monica and Vin met 26 happily married years ago, back when they were making carburetors side-by-side at the GM plant in Rochester. Red owned a metal manufacturer on the north side of Chicago. Ed examined auto claims at GEICO back in Maryland. Ken plays banjo and mandolin in his bluegrass band, The Cumberland Gap. Played seven times at the state fair and twice at Busch Gardens.

Coffee Club members taught school, managed stores, raised children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They flocked to Florida for retiring spouses, sick parents and a sunny place to finally relax.

John's the one with the walking cane and the yellow Coors Racing hat. Pauline's the one in the size-12 sandals -- from the kid's department ("I used to be 4 foot 8, but I think I shrunk"). She and her Bob come in every day after church.

Then there's Thais, the aerobics teacher. She's been coming in ever since her husband passed away; it's the only place she can meet men. You can trace where she's been by following the trail of lipstick-puckered paper napkins.

Legend has it -- and as many legends have been passed around these tables as creamer packets and English muffins -- that she won $100,000 on a gambling boat awhile back.

"First of all, it was one thousand dollars," she says. "And the aerobics is low impact -- I mean, really low."

They talk about the kids. They talk about the news. Most importantly they ask: How are you? That question has kept the coffee club together for what seems like forever.

Red makes his famous jokes and almost always messes up the punch lines. "He gets 'em all twisted and by the time he untwists 'em, they're not funny anymore," Ed says.

Lib's got a few up her sleeve, too.

"If you're an American when you go into the bathroom and an American when you leave the bathroom, what are you while you're in the bathroom?"

Mike, her husband, cocks an eyebrow at her: "I'm doin' my business."

"No. Euro-pean."

Laughter all around.

The talk almost always gets around to the weather. "It's gonna be 81 degrees today."

"81 and sunny."

"Can you believe it's gonna be 81 today?"

"Who's gonna be 81?"

"No -- we're talking about the weather."

More laughter.

They laugh about what they remember, and they laugh about how often they forget.

They laugh at Tony, the "mouth" who's never met a lady he wouldn't consider marrying. Tony was born and raised in New York City, Little Italy, then Germantown. He's a portrait artist. Always keeps a ring with a gumball-size "diamond" in his pocket, 'cause you never know when you're gonna stumble upon little Ms. Right.

Sometimes -- especially when Tony is around -- the gabbing stretches 'til 10 in the morning. Lib says Tony could outdo any woman, any time, "in the talkin' department."

Wal-Mart has not just become a regular part of their lives -- it has changed their lives. In the most joyful and most difficult of times.

Mike, Michelle's Dad, just found out that after 15 years, he's got to close the family's gift shop on the sponge docks. When you got two kids and a wife to feed, that's scary stuff. He's talking to the manager at Wal-Mart about a future in inventory control.

Loretta, the 57-year-old "baby" of the group, came out of retirement and got a job working the cash registers at the supercenter. For practice, she has been helping out the snack-bar girls, delivering toasted English muffins and packets of grape jelly to the group.

No matter how long they spend yakking, they always make time to shop. They always manage to find something they "need" at Wal-Mart. Monica was on a Little Debbie kick awhile back. Lately, she's been on a candy kick -- bought 13 bags of Bon Bons the other day. The kind with the peanut butter filling.

You're welcome to join them any day, as long as you observe the sacred ground rules.

Check in with the girls at the counter and give 'em your birthday. They do a cake for all the birthdays each month.

Feel free to sit anywhere -- as long as you're not sitting in one of the regulars' regular seats. "If you are," says Ed, "well, you're gonna have to move."

Howard always perches in the corner. Didn't come in yesterday. Come to find out, he had a back problem and a knee problem. Mike was away for awhile, tending to his sick brother.

"Any time someone's not here, you do miss 'em," Ed says.

Smitty hasn't shown up for weeks. Red called him, turns out that he had a stroke. Red says he's okay, he just can't drive.

Whatever you do, don't lose your cup. These guys tote their own -- coffee stains, cracks, faded smiley-faced stickers and all -- in crinkly plastic bags tied at the handles.

If you were one of the smart ones who invested in a "coffee club" cup while the offer lasted, you're entitled to a lifetime supply of 11-cent cups of Wal-Mart coffee. Ed's husband refused to invest. By the time he died, they'd discontinued the line. So she's had to pay full price. All of 51 cents per cup.

It's Friday, the club's last day. Time to cut the cake. Ed got a chocolate and vanilla quarter-sheet cake, enough to feed 22 people, with strict orders for no big roses or anything too cheery-like because this is, after all, the end of an era.

The message, in black frosting, reads: "Farewell Ole Wal Mart."

As a side dish, Monica brought some of her sacred Bon Bon stash. Red brought his wife Carolyn. Ken wore the get-up he wears when he performs -- a floor-length patchwork tie and cowboy boots.

The black frosting goes everywhere, giving everyone an excuse to stick out their black tongues. It even gets into Tony's salt and pepper mustache. Lib tries to help him out.

"You got it on your mustache."

"What's on my tongue and mustache is MY business!!" he shouts.

Eric Hirons, the store manager, comes by, taking a break from the 16-hour days he's been working setting up the new store. He has worked at 10 Wal-Marts, and every one has a little something, bingo clubs and what-not, but nothing to compare to this little group.

They're special enough that the occasion calls for a little rule bending. Eric announces that he's gonna take them on a tour of the soon-to-be-opened store. A round of applause, and a caravan of minivans, Town Cars and Oldsmobiles heads down State Road 54 to Little Road.

The supercenter is the size of five football fields. After tour stops at the travel center, the nail salon, the hearing aid center ("What? I can't hear you"). Eric delivers the little troupe to the place they've been wondering about these last few months.

"You know what's amazing," says Tony. "This just started out as a couple of people horsin' around in the breakfast club. Other people came in. They liked it, and we had a big to-do.

"There were mornings we were so outrageous we thought Wal-Mart was gonna call the cops. And look at what's happened. It doesn't take long for something to become an institution."

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