Coffee talk turns political


Recalling those dizzying, blissful nights romancing his sweetheart, Harry Horney quiets the usually raucous breakfast crowd at Coffman's Snack Bar in Middle River with a dramatic pause.

He then continues: "I'd come in here and get us a couple of hot dogs and then me and Mamie would sit in my oil truck parked out back, and we'd smooch," said Horney, displaying an impish grin. "It worked out, because we've been married 52 years."

Such yarns are the soul of Coffman's, a fixture on the east side of Baltimore County since 1947 where regulars, young and old, each morning debate topics from politics to baseball over plates of eggs, home fries and coffee.

The place has gone through several transformations since Wiley Ray Coffman from Fairmont, W. Va., set up a small hamburger and soft drink trailer at Orems and Middle River roads after being laid off from the nearby Glenn L. Martin airplane factory.

"Five months later, we enlarged, Dad bought an old bus and converted it into a snack bar," said Jim Coffman, who runs the place now with his son, William. The family built the current place in 1957.

Through all the changes, one feature has remained - Coffman's mighty chili dog, a robust salute to the taste buds.

The senior Coffman calls his restaurant "a bar that doesn't sell booze. It's a comfortable place where you can lean over to the next table and butt in on somebody's conversation. It's my job to stir it up in here."

Lately, though, Coffman's intercession hasn't been needed. County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's plan to revitalize the east side by condemning buildings feeds the flames of discontent these days at Coffman's Formica-topped counter and dining nook.

Terry Stevens, a waitress at Coffman's for 23 years, can't remember anything like the fight over Senate Bill 509.

"It's 509, 509, that's all you hear," she said. "That's all they talk about in here. It's gotten so that customers wait for someone to order our creamed chipped beef on toast with coffee. The bill, with tax, comes to $5.09! Everybody boos or yells."

Calling themselves "rabble rousers" and "peasant insurrectionists," opponents of Ruppersberger's plan have forced the law to go to a referendum on the November ballot.

"The empire in Towson has spoken, but we find condemnation unacceptable," said Mike Moller, an easygoing industrial supply salesman from Wilson Point who starts his morning engine with Cofffman's coffee.

"We are afraid that the developers will erase the character of the east side."

Earl Graul, a retired aviation mechanic and a regular customer, sits at the next table and nods in agreement.

"They are trying to shove it down our throats and we're fighting back," he said. "I'm in here every morning, and that issue pops up every day. It's like you're sitting here drinking your coffee and somebody mentions '509' and everybody perks up."

Coffman's is a symbol of the east side's spirit and gritty determination. There is no economic caste system; everyone from ditch diggers to army generals has partaken of Coffman's food. And it's a place where nobody gets a check; they pay their bill on the honor system.

"In 1961, when we were open past midnight to handle the late shift from Martin's, a guy came here 11:30 p.m. dressed in his pajamas and a raincoat," said Coffman. "He had breakfast here that day, ran out to work in a hurry and forgot to pay his bill. He was laying in bed that night and it suddenly dawned on him that he didn't pay. He had to drive here and settle his debt and conscience."

As a point of pride, Coffman shows a visitor a copy of the July 1999 Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, which contains a mention and a photograph of his restaurant.

Over the half-century they've been in business in Middle River, Coffman said, the family only wanted to offer good food at fair prices. That the dining area - festooned with pictures of airplanes, patrons and an enlarged newspaper political cartoon that harpoons Ruppersberger over the 509 issue - has evolved into the community's morning command post for redevelopment opponents is a natural spin-off.

"There's the inaccurate stereotype of people who live on the east side, and then there's the truth," said Henry Rackl, a state employee who grew up in Essex and a regular at Coffman's breakfast counter, which features polished knotty-pine paneling.

"The culture of this community, ironically filled with people who have paid their dues, is 'Don't trust the government,'" Rackl said. "But this plan to condemn property, having the unchecked ability to confiscate homes and businesses, is like having socialism at our doorstep. I've never seen the distrust so deep."

Coffman said he has watched over the years as a series of neighborhood issues - from an Asian theme park in the 1980s to a watered-down motor sports facility four years ago - were defeated because of community opposition.

"My customers came in and debated those ideas, too, with good points on both sides," he said. "These folks are salt of the earth, doctors and educators have come from this area as have laborers. One thing is they don't shrink from a fight."

And you can see it every time a breakfast patron orders the creamed chipped beef and coffee. The people in Coffman's are ready to pounce.

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