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Coffeehouse Stories: Two decades of wisdom in Del Ray

For such a caffeinated conversation, it starts sedately enough.

“Are we going to talk about the big leak?” is the opening bid, tossed out pleasantly by the Earl Grey.

“Which one?” asked the Black Coffee. “Aren’t we done with the Gulf spill?”

“He’s talking about the Afghan documents,” says the Half-Caff Espresso. “It’s amazing to me how little this dump of information changes your view of what’s been happening....”

And with that, as it has done every Wednesday at 10 a.m. for two decades, the Socrates Group comes to order. Nine retirees, two of them women, surround a cup-cluttered table at St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood. With an acrylic portrait of Bob Dylan looking on, they conduct a kind of performance-art version of Washington Week in Review.

“The Pakistanis are plying both sides! Man, stop the presses,” cries the Demitasse of Espresso with mock surprise.

“You simply cannot trust anyone under 45,” says the Black Coffee, shortly after condemning the alleged source who provided the documents to Wikileaks, a young Army private.

Two Gen-Xers texting away at a nearby table look up and laugh. They’ve been listening, even over the sounds of Dion’s “The Wanderer” playing in the background.

Coffee shops, like taverns, certainly draw their share of blowhard regulars and know-it-all fixtures. But Del Ray’s Socrates Group stands out, and not just for longevity. It’s their level of preparation, formality and popularity that has elevated a coffee klatsch into a local institution, according to St. Elmo’s owner Nora Partlow.

“They have a moderator, they give each other homework,” says Partlow. “Sometimes there are more people listening in around the sides than there are sitting at the table.”

The group this week includes a former Navy captain, a former district judge, a math teacher, an economist and an editorial writer, all formers. The youngest was born in 1935, the oldest two in 1925. Their hair is uniformly white but their politics are mixed. Three of the nine are Republicans. The Navy captain describes himself as “fiercely liberal.” And they are steeped in Washington experience and world history.

“The Russians had a big advantage over us in getting out of Afghanistan,” said the Coffee with Milk. “They just had to walk across a bridge.”

This is retirement, Washington-style, where longer lives give educated minds so many more years to fill with something other than grandkid graduations and being on hold with Aetna. The unwritten rules around this table demand deep reading, mannerly argument and intellectual passion. Politics and policy dominate, but they also debate religion, literature, culture. They have guest speakers occasionally, and a few years ago, the group amassed a reading list of all the books an American should read before the end.

“This is the highlight of my week, not just being here but preparing for it,” says Don Trilling, 82, a longtime economist at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Jack Tomion, 82, a lawyer and former Naval officer, says he was aware of the group for years before he agreed to join. “I thought it would be a bunch of people sitting around talking about their colonoscopy,” he says. “No, these people are engaged. This is thrilling. It’s like smoking marijuana.”

The Gen-Xers laugh again.

The group was founded in the mid-1990s in an Old Town bookstore by a transportation engineer named Peter Schumaier. He was looking for a little stimulating and civil convo in an age of increasingly coarse dialogue.

The group thrived and found a comforting home 14 years ago at St. Elmo’s, a local landmark that serves as a living room for the neighborhood.

Also on the table, amid the plastic lids and newsmagazines, is a growing pile of dollar bills. Sheepish about buying only one or two cups of coffee for their two-hour gab fests, members long ago agreed to toss in a weekly kitty, which Partlow collects and distributes each month to a local charity.

When Schumaier died a few years ago, many customers asked Partlow if the entertaining Wednesday group would survive. It has, although the current participants are quick to quip about their own mortality. At least two of them fought in Europe in the 40s (“Don didn’t want to tell you that he was in Korea,” whispered Tomion, “but he saw some of the really heavy stuff.”)

Tomion himself says he’s not sure he has enough time left, for example, to plow through 90,000 leaked Wiki-leaked documents. "Like my friend said the other day, ‘Jack, I wouldn’t buy any green bananas if I were you.'”

But there is little sign of any impending ends among the animated group that fills the coffee shop with argument and laughter and life. For a couple of hours each week, at least, the members of the Socrates Group prove they are far from ready for the Hemlock Society.

“See you all next week,” says the Coffee with Cream.

By Steve Hendrix  | July 28, 2010; 6:31 PM ET
Categories:  Local Life, coffee house newsroom  
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Very nice! Beautiful, really shows what a driving force the desire to learn all one's life is. The perfect thing for a coffee house. Thanks!

Posted by: 1citizen | July 28, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

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