“Lord help us. Local government has targeted the coffee club!”

The cell phone signal was weak, and the voice of the caller muffled. I could barely hear my old friend in the town where once I had published the newspaper.

“Sounds like you’re calling from a tornado shelter or underground. Is there a storm?” I asked.

“I’m telling you, a bad storm has blown up. I’m down here in city hall, hiding in a closet. Can’t let the powers-that-be see me or I’ll get thrown out. Maybe even arrested!”

Outraged, I asked what a retired, civic-minded, upstanding citizen had done to bring down officialdom’s ire.

“Reckon me and about twenty other citizens is guilty of coffee congregation.”

The sordid tale needs some exposition to be understood. Thirty years ago, when I arrived in the small Appalachian community to run the paper, one of my earliest introductions was to a coffee club at the downtown corner drugstore.

Even then, the coffee table and nickel cups had a long history, going back to when the pharmacy’s owner – a staunch Republican in a Democrat county – realized the best way to argue local politics was over coffee. He installed the coffee machine, table and chairs in a corner of the drugstore’s gift shop. He posted a request for club members to clean up after themselves and donate to the java fund. The pharmacist was surprised by the response.

Retirees, businessmen, cops, city and county workers, preachers, elected officials, coaches – a veritable cross-section of the community – filled the seats and made the coffee club locally famous. Behind the counter, the pharmacist filled prescriptions but kept up with the hot topics and ongoing debates, often injecting pithy comments.

The pharmacist’s widow kept the tradition alive. When I arrived in town, the club had grown to two shifts, 10 a.m. until noon and 2-4 p.m. daily. Because there was a newspaper sales rack in the corner, I became a regular. My daily visits became a source of information and rumor. If there was any news fit to print in the community, you’d hear about it at the coffee club.

Years later – after I had moved on to greener journalistic pastures – the pharmacy closed, and the coffee drinkers had to relocate. I don’t know where they landed. But apparently, they did not settle permanently until the mayor allowed them to use the kitchen and breakroom in city hall.

Several of the group were retired municipal officials and employees, after all. The mayor himself was in the club and used the coffee drinkers as a sounding board. Things worked out just fine until the mayor lost his re-election bid, and a new city administration occupied city hall.

The coffee club did not appear to be an issue with the new mayor, a former grocer known himself to tip up an occasional cup. However, a councilwoman looked askance at the practice of allowing coffee drinkers to occupy city hall space, underwritten by taxpayers. She said complaints had been received about lack of parking, too.

“She expects the mayor to give us the boot. If he won’t, she’ll get the council to vote, and we’ll be banned by ordinance, I reckon,” my friend reported. “Coffee congregation on city property will be against the law.”

Lest anyone jump to the wrong conclusion, this absurd kerfuffle could happen anywhere, not just in Appalachia. Public officials have become regulation-crazy, from the mayor of New York City trying to outlaw soda pop containers of certain sizes to states enacting laws making it illegal to drink coffee while driving.

The real purpose of the call was revealed when my friend whispered in the phone: “We wish you was back here. You’d write an editorial for sure… you know, the way you jumped on issues and got folks stirred up?”

I remembered. But I am no longer employed by a business that buys newsprint by the ton and ink by the barrel. I am retired… and a congregating coffee drinker myself, but at a more distant table.

This seems to me an attack on “freedom of assembly” by local government. If the city council bans the coffee club from gathering on public property, what’s next? Would coffee drinking at the senior citizen center be next? What about at ball fields and the recreation center? City parks? The municipal golf course? What about election night when nervous council candidates and their supporters guzzle coffee by the gallon while awaiting the returns?

Perhaps a local restaurant will come forth and invite the coffee club to gather around a table. Maybe the new mayor, who seems to be on the side of the coffee drinkers, can broker a compromise. I encouraged my friend not to give up. More than a half-century of tradition is worth fighting for, even in today’s caffeine-free society.

“Yeah,” concluded my old friend. “We probably need to get on the next council agenda and have our say. Pack the house, fifty or a hundred members and supporters of the club, all of us holding coffee cups and chanting, ‘Hell no, we won’t go!’ Think that would work?”

I hemmed and hawed, but thought privately that a bunch of old men with enough time on their hands to drink coffee twice day can stir up a lot of trouble… pardon the pun.

POSTSCRIPT: The city council back-tracked after the mayor polled members and found the majority had no issue with the coffee club. Members parked across the street at the Methodist church, and city employees liked having them around. It was also revealed that club members had been contributing money to the annual city hall Christmas party. Kudos to the councilman who pointed out: “Small town USA is made up of retired people who sit around and chat. If it’s not [a problem], then don’t try to make it one.”