It’s a weekend morning ritual all over the hills — friends meeting friends at their local café. At Gabe’s in Caledon East, the usual crowd convenes.
The chairs are circled, facing inward. At least they are on Saturday morning, every Saturday morning, around 9 a.m. at Gabe’s Country Bake Shoppe.
Gabe’s is small. Cozy. Six tables, 20 chairs and a short bar with a view of Airport Road in the heart of Caledon East. A long refrigerated display case is filled with baked-in-the-wee-hours croissants, cookies, biscotti, muffins, strudels, Danishes, cupcakes, Nanaimo bars and more. Walk-in-and-out customers come and go steadily, buying pastries, prepared entrées and fresh bread culled from a cord of interesting loaves.
Gabe’s also serves coffee. Walter Getman comes in for his (black, medium) at 8 a.m. sharp. He has a mischievous smile – and breadth of knowledge behind it – that wouldn’t be amiss under pointed a wizard’s cap. A resident of Caledon for 46 of his 82 years, his career with Environment Canada took him to remote postings in places such as Mould Bay, N.W.T., way up on Prince Patrick Island in the Arctic Ocean.
Walter knows weather. And much else. His good pal Dave Mullan (black, large) arrives less than a minute later and the two take, as they invariably do, a table together by the wall.
James Brown (large with cream) is not the Godfather of Soul. He is a retired contractor, 70, with a bristling moustache, a twinkle in his eye and a repertoire of well-worn witticisms. He ambles in at 8:25, late for him, followed by Hal Heatherington (blueberry tea) at 9:02.
“Stay Weird” is the motto emblazoned on Hal’s multicoloured mug. He admits he might be weird, but “in moderation.” He is 62, a lifelong Caledon resident and a conundrum. Burly and bearded, he looks like someone you might not want to meet in a dark alley, but he is soft-spoken and prone to expressive hand gestures and thoughtful pauses. A former trucker and miller, he delights in driving the province’s backroads on what he calls “tours.”
Orval, 88, and Sarah Mashinter, 86, (small, black / small, regular) arrive at 9:06. Orval doesn’t get about as well as he used to and Walter jumps up to hold the door. Orval and Sarah have been married so long they finish each other’s sentences. They don’t know what a venti mochaccino is and don’t care. They were local farmers, now relocated to a subdivision just off Caledon East’s downtown. They once walked in for their morning coffee. Now they drive. They could have coffee at home, but don’t. “It wouldn’t be the same.”
Steve Brown (milk and sugar) has picked up Larry Stacey (cream) from the other side of town, and they arrive at 9:14. Steve and Larry. Larry and Steve. They are a pair. Steve, 64, was with Canada Post. Steve’s funny. Larry, 84, is quiet – a retired engineer who had his own construction company. They both wear ball caps. They keep them on and take a small table by the window just before Carol Moore (some cream, some sugar) and her husband, Bill, walk in.
The couple take the remaining places among the ragged circle of tables and chairs. For the next hour or so, and for the foreseeable future on Saturday mornings at Gabe’s, these folk and a few others are The Regulars.
A generation ago in Caledon East, neighbours gathered and chatted outside the post office. Before that, their parents met and mingled at church or school or at the feed store. Today, when communication is increasingly by text, tweet and email, these neighbours still meet at Gabe’s, face to face and hands-free, in easy-going, free-flowing conversation. The hot beverages seem almost incidental.
On this Saturday, Brownie (James Brown) shows off a bandaged finger he injured in a recent garage-door accident. Others chime in with their own home-injury stories, and the group conversation turns to doctors, surgeons and how almost any problem, mechanical or biological, can be solved with duct tape. Jim’s finger generates a full five minutes of concern, memories and mirth – and he has nine more!
The conversation is not noisy and not deep, but it is warm, familiar and neighbourly, like Gabe’s itself. It bounces to and fro, changing direction like a puppy in a pillowcase.
Walter shares a photocopy of a De Beers diamond mine that is closing. It’s passed around and commented upon, turning talk to mining in general and to chlorine in particular – its uses and usefulness – before ricocheting to pies and their baking times.
“I put a pie in for an hour and a half and it came out perfect!’ Walter exclaims. Most agree no pies taste as good as those their moms made, but Steve volunteers, “I liked my mom’s pies, but the crust is better here in Caledon East.” He has evidence to back this up. At the recent church bake sale, 400 volunteer-baked pies sold out quickly, but it’s whispered more may be available if you know who to ask. Steve did, has stocked up and may have one to spare – which Walter allows he wouldn’t mind having.
“I’ll have to ask my wife if they’re all spoken for,” Steve declares, to guffaws. “You have to ask your wife about a piece of pie?” comes the instant and well-practised joshing. “Hell, yes! I have to ask! It’s a maybe…” (The answer was “yes.” Walter gets his pie the following Saturday.)
The topic of pies and baking slides into pickling, putting up preserves and general lamentation for a bygone time when people did bake, pickle and put up preserves – and hadn’t the leisure to bemoan their passing at coffee shops on Saturday mornings.
The conversation briefly touches philosophy: “Is pie best enjoyed shared or eaten whole by yourself?” Opinions vary. “Mine wouldn’t last until I got home,” Hal laughs, and conversation turns to his road trip for the day. “This is the start of it,” he announces. “Breakfast, then Palmerston, Harris-ton, Walkerton, Hanover, Kincardine, Creemore and back.” Last week his tour was a quest for Thornloe cheese, a delicacy had from a factory north of Sudbury. He brought some back for Walter.
Non sequiturs and cross-conversations fly back and forth among The Regulars like multiple tennis games using the same court – the oeuvre of Ben Kingsley, things dogs have stolen off dinner tables, hospital care in Honduras, farm truck traffic on Airport Road. “Soybeans are off. They’ll be trucking corn now,” Orval remarks. He still knows farming. Neither the conversations nor their participants are rigid and some of the party twist in their chairs to form transitory subgroups, debating side topics.
“People break off into little groups, but that’s a good thing,” muses Hal. “Sometimes it does get stagnant. The same subject comes up maybe a little more than it should. It happens. But I always like ‘the weather.’ Keep it comin’!”
The Regulars present a tableau that has the air of a ragged Last Supper – a dozen animated speakers and avid listeners, expressive gestures, raised eyebrows, puzzlement, loyalty and engagement.
“When I was young I’d just sit there and absorb. I didn’t say much,” Hal says, sipping his tea. “I’d never talk politics. Here, it comes up, and you get into a full-blown discussion, everybody getting in their two cents. It’s not a heated discussion. It’s not, ‘Why the hell did you say that?’ It’s, ‘Well, okay…’ and you carry on. You agree to disagree. All of a sudden somebody nods and the conversation changes. That’s the beauty of it.”
Asked to name his most memorable moment over coffee with the group, Hal sets down his Stay Weird mug, strokes his luxuriant whiskers and recalls, “It happened just last week. I don’t know how people take me in the group. I got talking. I always do the gaze thing. Look around. I don’t leave anybody out. Boom, the discussion ended and as they were leaving a couple of people put their hand on my shoulder. Didn’t say anything. They just did that. That registered with me.”
Angie Atkinson works behind the counter at Gabe’s. She’s a petite red-head who wears a black apron and “Gabe’s” ball cap, calls people “dear” and greets customers with “Here comes trouble!” She would never call herself a barista. She’s been in, smiling, since 6:02 a.m., putting on the coffee, serving morning java before officially opening at 6:30 to early-risers not officially there. She knows and likes everyone, and the feeling is mutual.
“Gabe” is Gabriel Giraldi (espresso). You’ll rarely see him on Saturday morning before nine, but he puts in an 80- to 90-hour work week in the family business, formerly called Caledon East Home Bakery. At 42, he’s been there for 17 years. It’s been “Gabe’s” since 2012, the name changed for branding purposes. Gabe has a business degree. His mother is a lifelong baker. He “fell into it.” As the café’s personable front man, repeat customers inevitably greeted him with a chorus of “Hi, Gabe!” and it stuck. As did he. “I love this. If you don’t, it’s just like any other job.”
Gabe’s parents, Tony and Anna, have been in and working since 6:20, when they started the ovens and began preparing dishes for the hot table. At 7:14, Tony is hand rolling panzerotti dough. At 8:05, Anna is dolloping thick chocolate icing onto layers of a custom birthday cake she’s just pulled from the oven. By 8:20, the cake is a frosted masterpiece and she’s pressing a line of Smarties into still-warm gingerbread men.
As the sun streams in and steam rises from coffee, appealing smells of the day’s baked offerings waft out the kitchen. Does the regular coffee-only group, who fill the café on Saturday mornings but don’t fill themselves with Gabe’s pastries and breakfast, wear out their welcome?
For Gabe it’s not a question worth considering. “You build an environment, a community. This is a small town. It’s a meeting place.”
The Regulars, he says, “bring excitement. They bring energy. They bring movement. Some are here every day. We’ve been having hard times. For three months we had no parking lot [while the adjacent gas bar underwent renovations]. These people came anyway. It’s their habit. It shows… love.”
“Yeah, you could say that,” Gabe says quietly.
The Regulars could have their coffee at home, but don’t. “Gabe’s is our morning coffee,” says Sarah. “We feel part of it. It starts our day. It gets us going and out of the house, seeing what’s going on. It’s a friendly group. It’s a gossip shop. We’ve nothing in common other than the coffee, in reality, but they are our friends and we go to see them. They make us welcome every time. And vice versa.”
“This group makes you feel wanted,” adds Walter. “You are part of something. If you aren’t here, they’ll miss you. If I don’t show up, for some reason, they’ll ask – or know why. If I don’t show up for a while, someone will phone to see if I’m okay.”
For Gabe’s regulars, it’s not just a coffee klatsch. It is about community and caring. Larry and Walter send emails back and forth about this and that. The Mashinters and Walter don’t, but Sarah plays solitaire on an old computer Walter donated. Hal brings Walter cheese. Steve brings pie. Hal doesn’t do computers, so Walter loads interesting stuff on a tablet to share with him. Hal brought Gabe a sign to hang behind the cash: “Instant Human. Just Add Coffee.”
The group at Gabe’s on Saturday morning are customers, but the word doesn’t seem quite right, or nearly enough. The Inuit have many words to describe snow – Gabe’s regulars could also use a more precise definition. A noun that more aptly distinguishes Hal, Walter, Dave, James, Sarah, Orval, Steve, Larry, Carol and Bill from mere irregulars dropping in as they pass through and taking away. “Most of them, I consider friends,” says Gabe. “I really do. I know them like I know family. They know my family. I’ve met their kids and vice versa. It’s more intimate than ‘customers.’”
The lack of a definition doesn’t faze the Saturday gang, now pushing their tables and chairs back into a less-sociable configuration, soon to depart and carry on with their lives. Walter, first to arrive and last to leave, lingers, hands embracing his stainless steel mug. The mug is from home. The coffee from Gabe’s. The Regulars are going, but they’ll be back next Saturday and the Saturdays after that, Walter guesses, “for as long as we are able.”