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It's a prized ritual: an hour or so of coffee and talk

SEATTLE - Home was hard there for a while, with his wife's health failing, and 52 years of marriage coming to an end. Lloyd Atkinson felt a little lost.

SEATTLE - Home was hard there for a while, with his wife's health failing, and 52 years of marriage coming to an end. Lloyd Atkinson felt a little lost.

So his daughters made a suggestion: Go get your morning coffee at the Auburn Senior Center. It was only an hour, but it was a solid, stable hour, and in it, Atkinson always knew what would happen. He would walk in and find his old friends from the phone company, teasing and talking silly, in the world outside his wife. "It was good for me, I think," said Atkinson, 76, whose wife, Polly, died recently. "It took my mind off it for a little bit."

Any mental-health expert will tell you: Staying connected in old age is crucial. But men, as a rule, aren't that good at it. Staff at senior centers often have to coax them into committing to a wellness program, or a lecture series that lasts even a few weeks.

Then along comes this morning ritual the men in Auburn made for themselves, complete with coffee, doughnuts and discussion of the day's most pressing issues, like how many miles Dick Miller's prized 1992 Geo Metro gets to the gallon.

"Forty miles," recited his good friend, Tedd Fitzgerald, 77, rolling his eyes.


"Forty-five average," said Miller, 78. "Absolutely amazing."

The group is mostly men, retired grocery workers and phone workers and truck drivers. But recently a few women joined the ranks. Doris Davis, 66, a retired phone worker and football fan, was the first to step forward.

"When she walks in every morning, they all scream 'Tiger woman!'" said Radine Lozier, supervisor of the Auburn Senior Center.

No one can remember why, exactly. Any more than they can remember why they call Ed Kavanaugh the General. Or Murray Board the Sergeant at Arms. Just so happened some morning, those names seemed to fit.

And this is a group that follows tradition, whether it works in their favor or not. Take the doughnuts. They could take turns buying those doughnuts, like other groups do. Instead, they've got a wait-and-see-it's-a-surprise policy. Sometimes, three people will bring boxes of doughnuts. Other mornings, none.

Every morning the crowd arrives at 8 a.m. and leaves, at the latest, by 9:30. They gather in the senior center's lobby, against the backdrop of a crowded aerobics class.

"We used to go to another place, and everyone kept dying," said Murray Board, 75, retired from the Auburn Police Department. "So Dick and I decided to change places."

Granted, there were other reasons. At the local greasy spoon, which shall remain nameless, the price of a cup of coffee rocketed up to $2. Plus, this was before the smoking ban, and the men had to put up with all kinds of smoke.


So the small group of friends moved to the Auburn Senior Center, sitting on stools near the 25-cents-a-cup coffee bar and leaving "reserved" placards on their seats if they needed to take a break. A few years later, the whole thing got high-school popular. Now as many as 18 people will show up, push tables together, read the paper, eat the doughnuts and make a major fuss when the coffee runs out.

First comes the thunder of mugs pounding on the table. Then the primal call:

"Pot's dry, little mama!"

"Little mama" is Lozier, who took over from "big mama," the previous senior-center director, earlier this year. She's now the one who opens the door every morning to find a line of men waiting. Occasionally, they pound on the door. Just for fun.

At the tables, any conversation is fair game. Just the other day, the men bothered a retired industrial engineer at Boeing for a peek at her temporary tattoo, a small butterfly printed above her breast. But mostly, the talk sticks to times past, bingo games won and the achievements of grandchildren.

The group is careful to steer clear of religion and politics. Who wants to get into a shouting match over coffee?

The General might. Nothing tempts Ed Kavanaugh more than a good jab at government. He has no shortage of opinions on any number of subjects, including who should be the next president. Hillary Clinton, hands down.

"She has more testosterone than all of 'em put together," said Kavanaugh, 69, of Algona, Wash.


Kavanaugh is a regular at these morning meets, even now that he has been diagnosed with stage-three lung cancer. Especially now. His grandchildren will bring him for the hour, then drive him to chemotherapy for treatment.

"If you come here and act normal for a few minutes, it tends to rub off on the rest of the day," he said.

If there is sadness in their lives, rarely does the group discuss it. They flat-out dismiss the idea that this is an informal support group.

"It's not like we hug or kiss or anything like that," Board said.

But beneath all their gruff talk, Lozier said, there is no end of support.

At 9 the other morning, Miller turned to his childhood friend, Fitzgerald, a three-season athlete in their student days at Auburn Senior High School.

"Come on," Miller said, handing his friend his cane. "Doctor time."

He waited, watching as Fitzgerald raised himself, shaking at times, from his chair. The man seated next to him gave Fitzgerald a gentle push. Then, business as usual, Miller and Fitzgerald said their goodbyes, and walked out of the senior center and into the rest of their day.

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