Another Cup of Coffee: Another day, another meeting of Martha?s Coffee Club, which has gotten together over breakfast to talk Packers since 1947
This story appears in the November 2014 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Two guys are sitting on one side of a large circular table in Bay Family Restaurant. The only thing that separates them from regular customers – and this, mind you, is to the sort of-trained eye, as I’d done some research and knew some of the signs to look for – is the big yellow plastic Packers mug, the words on its side chipped and worn, standing on the table, along with a pair of oversized dice and a general assumption that, based on where the two men are sitting, they’re probably waiting for more people.
If you didn’t know to look for anything, though, they are just a pair of guys dressed nice, button-up shirts and khakis, white hair combed into place, sitting on one side of a big circle table. I go in by myself and am seated in a booth directly behind them. This I didn’t plan. Those small signs, the mug, the dice, I recalled only after I saw them. If I’d have been seated somewhere else in the landmark Green Bay restaurant I might not have noticed. I ordered coffee and turned to look over my shoulder. It had to be, I guessed, so I asked if they were part of Martha’s Coffee Club, the group that meets daily at 9 a.m. to talk Green Bay Packers football, and has since over a decade before Vince Lombardi began turning the franchise around in 1959. They were. When I asked to join them they welcomed me like I was anything but a completely random stranger. I didn’t need to order coffee for myself, it turns out.
In Martha’s Coffee Club there is no time for strangers. At 9 o’clock the egg timer is cranked and starts ticking down from a half hour. That’s how long, give or take a few minutes, each meeting lasts. Outside in Green Bay it is gloomy. Rain is in the forecast for most of the day. It feels like a perfect day to dwell on a loss. But, thanks to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers reaching deep into their bag of football voodoo and stealing a win in Miami the day before on an unforgettable last-second drive, the weather makes Bay Family, sleepily scattered with a few patrons, all the warmer inside. It’s a good day to join the club, though any likely is. Each day is different as far as who shows up, but there’s always a meeting. A good-sized group is here today after the thrilling win. We have to scoot over so two more seats can fit around the table after a few stragglers arrive a couple minutes after 9. Today there’s Jim, John, Ray, Mike, Bill, Irv, Roger, and Jerry. The first shakes of dice don’t count until all are present, so, amongst a barrage of ribbing hailed at the late-comers, we start over.
The first meeting of Martha’s Coffee Club was held in 1947 in Martha’s Restaurant on Broadway on Green Bay’s near west side. The building still stands, though now as Our Place Family Restaurant. It hasn’t been Martha’s since the ‘80s. That’s when the club moved to Bay Family, a dining institution in the city for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – and also a motel if you need a room – since the 1950s. It feels like a perfect marriage. The club was started by four area businessmen who’d meet and talk about last week’s game and the next one. It grew, from four to five or six regulars, to sometimes needing adjoining big circle tables next to each other, sometimes around 20 members on a busy day. For those who come the connection is still the club. There are no longstanding friendships from school or neighborhoods. They are still area people – one of the first questions I’m asked is where I’m from – most with their hands in different areas of business. But they’re connected by Martha’s. It’s been continued from fathers to sons, members who’ve been showing up for decades. Mike is the son of Howie Blindauer, one of the four founding members. John is called the Grand Poobah around the table because of his longtime membership and duties as what amounts to the club’s accountant. Martha’s still charges $1 monthly dues, or, as they try to sell me on a couple times, the $15 annual special.
There’s a separate, smaller, blue plastic cup on the table reserved for fines and tips for the waitress. Fines are usually a quarter, handed out for infractions such as talking politics, religion, or business, spilling coffee – Mike pays this one today, though Irv may have had a hand in the spill – rolling dice off the table, coming up snake eyes, and more. You get the feeling these could be determined by a popular vote at any moment. In a different time smoking wasn’t allowed at club meetings unless you paid a quarter for the privilege.
Dues and fines are collected for a cause other than the club itself. In the ‘60s John came up with the idea to send money to children around the world, by way of the Christian Children’s Fund. In the club rulebook, a binder with the club name on the cover, written on yellowing paper held by old tape – which is oft-consulted because as Ray tells me, there are many times the rules are forgotten or otherwise debated over – they keep a recent letter from a child in India thanking them for their gift. Any money “won” by a member goes back into the donation slush pile. As Bill says, if a member actually keeps their winnings, well, they aren’t members for much longer.
Martha’s used to feature the likes of Tony Canadeo, Bart’s father Ben Starr, and has had visiting media from around the country, even former Packers linebacker Na’il Diggs, sign the club guestbook. John and Mike are credited for keeping the club going now, as they oversee the official aspects of the club. Otherwise Martha’s is self-sustaining. Meetings keep happening because guys keep showing up every morning at 9. Every arrival is greeted with some sort of faux shock and awe, groan or verbal jab. Most every taunt is followed with a look and a wink. I feel like I’m at a family Christmas party and it’s getting late.
The dice are rolled again. Once the timer starts running they’re shaken to decide who is paying the day’s coffee tab. After it’s whittled down to three members a single, smaller dice is used, and the rest of the group chooses who they think will be the biggest loser, as they’re called. As you’d expect each vote gets a response, or at least a look. I roll a 4, barely sparing myself from the final three. The table gets loud on controversial rolls, the barbs get sharpest and funniest when the game is paused for some basic math calculations. The easiest target is whomever’s up next; no one is safe, and that’s what makes the banter great. It’s like any group of old friends comfortable in their ping-ponging world of zingers, chats about last weekend and doctor’s appointments, all free from the hassles of boring, sterile dinner table conversation. Free to simply be apart of something relaxed, easy.
Packers talk goes in and out. When researching the club I thought maybe we’d go around the table in an organized manner. But nothing is forced into conversation. The club’s rituals simply happen, there’s no stopping or starting anything in a rigid way. What you have always at the table is a group of people who enjoy being around one another, and who understand what it is that Martha’s Coffee Club is, and means. The long history building its foundation. The simple genius of making a meeting an enjoyable thing to attend day after day the true achievement. Balance this club against how it can be tough trying to meet up with friends once a month in our lives, how even the best of ideas and once-planned get-togethers can fall victim to undefeated time and the omnipresent Other Things Going On. Balance that with how this club carries on, day after day, after losses and in snowstorms, the dead heat of summer, that Tuesday you just don’t feel like it. The camaraderie is the reason the club’s been going strong for 67 years, longer than 21 of the NFL’s current 32 teams have even been franchises. The Packers have just always been the best reason to get out and shoot the shit. The people here still had to want to show up. And they do, I think, in-part because no one is anything but a member of Martha’s Coffee Club once they’re at the table and that timer starts.
Bill says, and I think he is being serious, that he never had a doubt about the Packers’ final drive on Sunday. Rodgers gets the praise you’d expect: Can you believe how calm and cool he looks out there no matter what? Who do you think knew what on that fake spike? The offensive line’s struggles are noted and we speculate on the injuries to Sam Shields and Tramon Williams. But really it’s a morning for basking in the glow of a great victory. A reason for the damp, chilly weather to not mean a thing on a Monday morning. A victory in any book.
The half hour mark dings on the timer once. It gets pushed back a few extra minutes so we can finish shaking. Mike loses today and has to pay the tab. Between that and the spill it’s not Mike’s day, I guess. The long and lasting legacy of Martha’s Coffee Club suggests that they’ve all had their turns as the day’s biggest loser. They’ll come back tomorrow or whenever they can to see who it is next time. ‘Cause it sure as hell won’t be them.
The timer goes off again. The table slowly starts losing its members for the day. For some the coffee club is just something for them to do, one guy jokes. Many are either retired or scaled-back in their business responsibilities, but there are appointments and errands, jobs for some, the rest of the day ahead. In a basic sense it is something to do. But you don’t do something that often, if it isn’t business-related, if you don’t like it. And business isn’t allowed here. See you tomorrow, they say, as members shuffle out the door. Bay Family settles into a mid-morning lull in the action before lunchtime.
Jim and John, the two guys I spotted when I first came in, sitting on the big table with the old yellow mug now stuffed with dollar bills, thank me for joining them. Like I was the generous one this morning. John has a suitcase, a blocky older model with a flapping handle and clips to close. It has Packers stickers on the outside and it’s where he keeps the club’s important documents. Before John closes it up and stands to leave he reminds me that, next time, I’ll need to bring my first month’s membership dues.