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Retirees take it slow amid the fast food

"Good morning. Good morning," George Dumas says as he shuffles toward a cluster of tables at the back of the restaurant, near dueling window posters of a gigantic double cheeseburger and a behemoth honey mustard snack wrap.

"All's quiet on the western front," Dumas announces, "except in Iraq."

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Actually, the noise level is pretty high inside this McDonald's on Powder Mill Road, hard by the Beltsville exit of Interstate 95. It's 8:30 a.m. and the bumblebee buzz of conversation is in full drone. Marian and Bill Lee are working on their bacon-and-egg biscuits. Bill Ceresa, Gene Perry and Harold Woods are nursing cups of coffee. Other regulars drift in and take seats.

Fast-food chains, ironically, seem to go well with slow talk, particularly for retirees. Burger King, Hardee's (home of the "Loaded Breakfast Burrito"), Dunkin' Donuts and Chick-fil-A, among others, host semiofficial breakfast clubs. Some of them have surprisingly deep roots.

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The one at the Beltsville McDonald's ranks among the oldest. On this winter morning, history buff Joe Mossi is holding a show-and-tell, passing around photos of a gravesite located in a restricted-access zone at Aberdeen Proving Ground. He took them some 40 years ago when he was doing "experimental work" for the military.

"He's the government's secret weapon," teases Marian Lee.

Lee Rose, a retired computer programmer and World War II paratrooper, samples tableside opinion before getting on his cell phone with his daughter, who is shopping for a new car: "My cronies think you're making a big mistake going with the manual shift."

High-volume, quick-service restaurants have been taking the communal-meeting place of the vanishing neighborhood diner and corner tavern for a long time. Most members of the "McDonald's Coffee Social Club" - a fluctuating cast of about 20 breakfast characters - are in their seventies and eighties. Most live within a few-mile radius of the golden arches out front. Various versions of the group (including some members who now frequent that glorious hamburger joint in the sky) have been meeting several hours each morning for more than 30 years.

Their original venue was a nearby Peoples pharmacy that had a vintage soda fountain. When the fountain was remodeled out of existence, they jumped to McDonald's and burrowed in deep. Matter of fact, on New Year's Day, they got there before the manager.

"It's great," says Tony Di Silvestre, a retired government mapmaker from Adelphi. "You got a place to go when you get up. Gives you a reason to shave and take a shower."

Vietnam veteran Jim Farran - a relative kid at 55; always easy to spot in his 101st Airborne baseball cap - generally clings tight to his words. But he can't say enough about the Beltsville McDonald's. Friendliest staff he's ever encountered. The restaurant couldn't be cleaner if they licked the floors. Can't beat the ambience.

"It's like sitting in your living room," says Farran.

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Lots of other folks around the country apparently feel that same way about their local McDonald's. Nobody keeps statistics, but everybody is aware that McDonald's has tapped into a breakfast-club niche market. The trade publication Nation's Restaurant News estimated in 2005 that a quarter of McDonald's annual sales were breakfast-based.

"I would say there's close to one in every store," Rick Szabo, operations manager for the Baltimore-Washington region, says of the clubs.

People clearly take these breakfast bonds seriously. Just read their obituaries.

From the Charlestown Daily Mail, in West Virginia: "He was a member of the Judson Baptist Church and McDonald's Breakfast Club and was an Army veteran of World War II."

From the Augusta Chronicle, in Georgia: "She was a homemaker and had retired from Seminole Mill. ... Honorary pallbearers will be members of the McDonald's Breakfast Club of Clearwater."

Bob Houck owns 11 McDonald's franchises in suburban Baltimore. A handful of customers at his Reisterstown location have shown up almost every morning at 10 o'clock for more than a decade. They call themselves the "ROMEOs": Retired Old Men Eating Out. His Eldersburg and Riviera Beach restaurants have breakfast bingo groups.

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When asked if it's bad business to have seniors dawdling over a cup of coffee (and free refills) for hours on end, Houck concedes, "That sometimes enters your mind."

But he quickly adds it's really not a problem. About 60 percent of his revenue comes from drive-up eaters, so there's always seating room to spare inside. Besides, breakfast clubbers help create a cozy atmosphere.

"Like the good old days of the country store," Houck says. "They like to find a warm place to really relax and sit down and talk with their compatriots."

Ernest Hemingway wrote about the allure of "a clean, well-lighted place." Made no mention of Egg McMuffins, but times change. The need to occasionally escape outside ourselves doesn't, however. It's rooted in that primordial urge to huddle around the campfire and enjoy mastodon steaks and juicy gossip.

"Everybody's got a story to tell," says Gene Perry, 85, even though on this day his story happens to be an X-rated joke about George Washington crossing the Delaware.

Allan Dansie, for example, is going off to sort duck wings after breakfast. Repeat: sort duck wings. When's the last time you heard that come up in conversation?

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Dansie volunteers (when not busy making bird houses or square dancing) at Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge. Randomly selected hunters are asked to clip the wings off their kills and mail them to the refuge so federal biologists can analyze the duck population. And somebody's got to help those biologists separate 25,000-plus severed wings into meaningful piles.

"You can tell the sex and type of duck and its age by looking at the wing feathers," Dansie informs his breakfast mates. "They sort 'em all out: mallards, teals, scaups."

Joe Mossi excuses himself. He's researching the history of Baltimore railroads and has to go meet someone who's lending him maps of Prince George's County circa 1861 and 1878.

Meanwhile, George Dumas reminisces about the glory days when he was a technician at CBS News in Washington, working with Mike Wallace and a young Ed Bradley. ("We used to go down with Tricky Dick years ago to Miami ... travel on Air Force One. ... Oh, man, the money flowed like wine.") Lee Rose gets coaxed into singing a Japanese lullaby - in Japanese. It sounds authentic.

Heck with ordering off the menu. Tony Di Silvestre breaks out a box of biscotti that he baked last night. Thelma Curtis is afraid to bite into one with her loose tooth. Not to worry, Di Silvestre says. He adds butter to his recipe, which makes the crusty cookies softer than normal.

Thelma's still worried.

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He tries another tactic: "I tell people, 'Dip 'em in your coffee.'"

A few minutes later, Di Silvestre calls across a few tables to Bill Ceresa, a retired medical illustrator. "Bill, what was that school you went to? Say it in Italian."

"L'Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence," Ceresa replies. By the way, his cousin's brother-in-law owns La Mora, "one of best restaurants" in that renowned city.

A certain Marx Brothers zaniness infuses any room whenever 18 people cross-talk. Oddly enough, though, Coffee Social Club participants rarely socialize outside the walls of McDonald's. This is their only mixing bowl. Yet they know the details of each others' lives and keep a close watch for any signs of trouble.

As Marian Lee says, "If somebody doesn't show up for a number of consecutive days, someone will call to see if they're still on this side of the grass."

Lee Rose takes tiny photos of the club regulars and mounts them in a framed collage. It hangs on a wall by the tables that the breakfast club has staked out in a far corner by the restrooms. He updates that collage every six months or so. There are currently 28 faces on display, five of them marked with a red asterisk that indicates "moved on to a better place."

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That doesn't mean Ruth's Chris Steak House. The last person to move on was James Davis, a retired accountant who died a year ago Thanksgiving. Everybody in the club knows that an asterisk will appear next to his or her name someday. Maybe sooner rather than later. But no point moping about that.

"We laugh a lot. That's a good thing," says Gene Perry.

His father named him after Eugene Fields, a 19th-century writer of children's poetry whose best-known work is "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod."

It's almost 11 a.m. now. Club members are heading home. Their leftover coffees grow cold. Suddenly, Perry, an inveterate joker, is feeling a little poetic himself.

His wife died in 1995, he explains. He has outlived even his dog and his cat. "There isn't a hell of a lot to look forward to," he murmurs.

Other than breakfast at McDonald's, of course. Which satisfies two kinds of hunger.

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"We feed off each other," says Gene Perry as he reaches for the door, prepares to step out into the cold. "We come back tomorrow and start all over again."

tom.dunkel@baltsun.com

For the record

A photo caption on Page 1A yesterday accompanying an article about a seniors' breakfast club misidentified the man seated at the far left of the group. He was Bill Ceresa. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR


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