Don Selle decided to close his coffeehouse last month. He held a quiet funeral, not even bothering to notify his regular customers, and offered a reduced menu, since he hadn’t been shopping for a week. The final night’s fare at Don’s Coffee Club was coffee, tea, cocoa, ginger ale, milk, lemonade, limeade, pie with ice cream, various store-bought confections, sundaes, and one slice of ice cream cake roll. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread was not available. Don had a rationale.
“Nobody was buying it,” he said.
Naturally, several customers ordered the PB & J. But Don didn’t send someone out to the corner store for supplies.
“I’ve got enough stuff in the fridge for the rest of the night,” he said. “I don’t want anything anymore.”
Don’s Coffee Club was an institution defined by inexplicable paradoxes, which often drove Don, and his customers, crazy. He opened the storefront at 1439 W. Jarvis in 1993 with the intention of running a place where middle-aged adults could hang out and talk calmly, but for most of the shop’s life span it was overrun by teenagers, whom Don despised. In 1998 he attempted to drive out the kids by outlawing smoking, and it nearly killed the business. In the seven years he was open, Don offered such items as bratwurst, spaghetti, and root beer floats, which became popular and made him a lot of money. But when an item became too popular, Don rubbed it off the chalkboard. “It was driving me crazy,” he would say. “I can’t stand all these people.”
During Don’s first year, he was open at 3 PM. That didn’t suit him, because for the first few hours of every day he had only one customer, who was obviously deranged and spent most of his time eyeing Don suspiciously and never ordering more than a cup of coffee. He then pushed the opening to 5, then to 7. By the time he closed the Coffee Club, Don was opening at 9 every night and was considering pushing the hour back to 10 or 11 because he wanted to see as few people as possible.
Yet in his years in Rogers Park Don was one of the neighborhood’s most prominent citizens. One summer, when drug dealing on the corner of Jarvis and Greenview was especially prevalent and the alderman and police weren’t doing much about it, Don organized a group of neighbors to sit on the corner in lawn chairs until the dealers went away. For the last four years around Labor Day, he threw an elaborate prom on the concrete patio outside his building, complete with refreshments, decorations, and hours of swing dancing. One year Don donated all his prom proceeds to a neighborhood arts group and another year to the widow of a nearby Russian cobbler who’d been killed in a brutal holdup.
He was friends with nearly everyone. Don hosted meetings for tenant organizers, scheming landlords, and political groups both left and right. He counted among his customers local actors, directors, and radio personalities, as well as hundreds of more plebeian folk. For their comfort and entertainment he featured nothing but thrift-store furniture, yellowed lighting, and a backdrop of 40s big-band music. During one period of sagging revenues, he tortured patrons by playing “Gal From Kalamazoo” in an endless loop. His only break from the big-band era came when he got into a Donna Summer album he’d picked up in a junk store. Customers begged him to stop playing it, so he didn’t.
I started going to Don’s in June 1993, a month after he opened. Don was the subject of my first good Reader story and of several stories thereafter. In 1996, I wrote a mediocre play of monologues, and the Don segment was everyone’s favorite. But outside of whatever hay I made out of the place, for many years the Coffee Club was the center of my social life. On a bad day, I could take up a chair at the back of the room and spend a whole night reading, drinking tea and eating chocolate cake, playing cards, and engaging in meaningless conversation with people I loved but rarely saw outside the coffeehouse. I met my first serious girlfriend at Don’s and went to Don’s the night we broke up, three years later.
“She never liked it here,” Don said. “She was no good for you.”
If business was slow, I’d just hang out with Don and absorb his ludicrous opinions. He liked Louis Farrakhan because he thought the minister put on a good show. He believed in UFOs. He thought that Showgirls was “the greatest movie made in modern times.” Don became one of my dearest friends. His Coffee Club was my favorite place in Chicago.
Occasionally Don would venture outside the coffeehouse. For reasons he never properly explained, he was closed on Thursdays. He usually spent his day off at the movies. One Thursday a few years ago, we went to see The Fountainhead at the School of the Art Institute.
“It’s the greatest movie of all time,” he said. “A true schlock classic.”
From the opening credits to the closing swell, Don never stopped laughing. Every time Patricia Neal spoke, he’d throw his head back and shriek “HA-HAH!” This got him strange looks at first; by the end of the movie all the seats around us were empty.
The next week Don went to see The Ice Storm by himself. He walked out during the opening credits.
“As soon as that cello music started playing, I knew I was in trouble,” he said. “I despise movies that begin with one instrument playing. Can’t stand them. Horrible. Absolutely horrible.”
Don lived upstairs from the Coffee Club in a one-bedroom apartment, part of a shoddily maintained red brick building that took up half a block. When he moved there in 1993, it was a sprawling flophouse of inexpensive sleeping rooms in modestly ramshackle condition. At the time there were dozens of such buildings in Rogers Park for people like Don: eccentric wanderers with no fixed compass point.
In the early days of the Coffee Club, the building’s backyard was the location of raucous all-night barbecues and sleazy binge parties, in which Don gladly participated. Gradually, some of his wilder neighbors moved out, and the coffeehouse descended into a dull middle age. Business was often good, but Don would nevertheless talk about shutting down. No one took his threats seriously, and he never made any serious moves to close.
Earlier this year Don’s building was purchased by a pair of brothers who obviously intended to make some money.
“It’s finally come,” Don said. “Just you wait.”
It came in a form letter slipped under tenants’ back doors, telling them to clear off their porches. Then the evictions began. First to go were the luckless residents of the sleeping rooms, then the regular apartment dwellers. Those who didn’t go willingly found out that the new landlords were ready to go to court to clear their building. Only Don, who had a long-term lease for both his apartment and his business, was allowed to stay. He began making noise, as he always did when he was unhappy, about moving to Miami Beach.
By midsummer, the backyard was a pile of rotting wood, plumbing fixtures, and assorted detritus, and Don was the building’s lone remaining resident. He would go to bed at 3 AM and the construction would start at 8. The writing was on the drywall.
Don placed a classified ad listing his business for $25,000. Privately he admitted he would take considerably less. In July he went to a psychic, who said he would sell the business on August 6.
At midnight on August 5, Phil Tadros, a 21-year-old soon-to-be graduate of Columbia College, walked into Don’s Coffee Club. After talking to Tadros for five minutes, Don knew he had found his heir.
“It was inevitable,” Don said. “He didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who he was. But we walked together down the street and I just knew. He’s a Greek. His parents have all kinds of money. They own restaurants, they own everything. You know how the Greeks are. They’re like the Jews. They’re what the Jews want to be.”
Tadros offered $20,000, and Don accepted. The next night was the Coffee Club’s last.
On Monday, August 7, I got a phone call from my friend Bruce, who goes to Don’s every night. I called Don immediately.
“Is it true?” I asked.
“You’d better get over here,” said Don.
I was there at 9:30. Don was already talking about using the money to move to Florida. He had determined that his future lay in Hollywood, Florida, which was more low-rent than Miami.
“I want to have a little stand, you know, a little hamburger stand where I have stuff. Shove it out the window. I’m gonna be 60! I’m getting too old for this running around. Sixty in March. Can you believe it? I would like to get a job in one of those sleazy motels, working the night desk. That would be very nice for me. It’s very Jewish there. Good. They have money. I wanna be where it’s all Jewish. Where they have money for going out to eat. Right?”
In walked a group of young people.
“I should have banned them years ago,” he said. “People who have been banned are goons. Like people who should have been banned from the world.”
Don served the goons.
“What I like about this place is that it’s just coffee,” said one of them.
“Eh,” Don said. “The money’s in espresso and cappuccino.”
“It’s not about the money,” she said. “It’s about the atmosphere.”
“Fuck the atmosphere,” said Don.
A few regulars who had heard of the closing straggled in. They discussed with Don the items people had bequeathed to him over the years–movie books, a Marilyn Monroe bank that blew wind up her dress when you put in a coin, a decorative cigarette tin, a 3-D picture of a standard poodle. One guy produced a bottle of champagne, and a few short toasts followed:
“Here’s to Don’s. He saved my ass in more ways than one. He’s made us friends and made us family.”
“Don’s has been part of my life, just like breathing.”
At 12:30, Phil Tadros appeared. Earlier that day, he had made the mistake of coming over during All My Children, which Don watches downstairs on a four-inch black-and-white television. When the phone rang, Don made Phil watch the show for him. A plot development was exploding. “It was some wacky shit,” Phil said.
The crowd thinned. Then it was just Don, Phil, and me. We discussed Phil’s plans for the place. He was going to paint the walls for the first time in years, and tear up the carpet. He was going to get some new chairs and tables. Don agreed that the place needed sprucing. The landlords, he said, were planning to tear out the back wall, which bears a tropical palm tree mural, and replace it with glass.
“I asked them if they would put a mustache on the Mona Lisa,” Don said. “They looked at me like I was crazy.”
Phil said he’ll have a revamped menu when he reopens this weekend. He will serve espresso and cappuccino, as well as sandwiches, salads, and a variety of other items.
“I’m gonna slice my own meat,” Phil said.
Don looked alarmed.
“With a meat slicer?” he exclaimed. “Slice your meat? Ohhhhhhh! Nooooooo! Don’t slice the meat. Buy it. You’ll get busy and slice your finger off. It would be fabulous, God, but meat slicing is a pain in the ass. I’m telling you. I once ran a deli for a friend of mine. It was horrible.”
“Well, Don,” said Phil, “that’s a risk I’m going to have to take.”
Don turned off the coffeemaker and turned out all the lights but one. Don’s Coffee Club was no more.
The place will now be called Where’s Don? “When people come in and ask me where Don is, I’m gonna make up stories,” Phil said. He’ll tell them Cuba, or Italy, or wherever he feels like putting Don that day.
Don smiled. He seemed truly relaxed for the first time in years.
“Where’s Don?” he said. “Isn’t that great?”
A few weeks later Don returned from Florida defeated. Things were too expensive down there, he said. He spent his days downstairs moping, watching Phil install a new kitchen, slap on some paint, tear up the carpet. “I’ve been driving him crazy,” Don said. “I’ve been coming downstairs and straightening pictures like bananas. I can’t help it; it’s like a love affair I can’t let go of. That first week I went insane. I almost died. As much as I hated it, I really missed it.”
Don came up with a new plan. He would open a fast-food restaurant in a “hipper neighborhood” for the “late-night bar crowd.” He conceived his dream menu: sloppy joes, barbecued beef, Italian beef, hot dogs, bratwurst, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, grilled cheese, and “soup for the vegetarians.” There would be no french fries, Don determined, because they were too expensive to make and he didn’t feel like doing the extra work.
“I’m not going to make a regular fast food,” he says. “I’m gonna make it nice. Play my old music. I don’t know. I’m gonna see what happens.”
He intends to call the new place Sloppy Don’s.
A few Sundays ago, Don walked around various neighborhoods looking for a spot. East Village, he determined, was like the “worst of old New York.” Wicker Park was not his scene either. Bucktown was “too full of yuppies. You could eat off the street, like.” He decided his new restaurant will be on Clark south of Foster, where it seems a lot of bars are opening, or in Uptown. Roscoe Village was a distant third.
“Somewhere,” Don said, “there has to be something for me.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.