4 min

Coffee talk, small-town style

When there's only one place to get a coffee, everybody had to get along

When I first rented the little yellow house on the river back in September, I thought my first winter in a small Ontario town might take some getting used to.

I thought that as the nights got longer and the dark got colder and the snow got deep enough I would miss big city life. That I would long for urban luxuries like lattes and dim sum and gay bars and streetlights. But I don’t.

My favourite thing about living in Fitzroy Harbour, Ontario, population 600, is coffee club. Coffee club meets at 8 am every morning seven days a week, except for Sundays in the winter when everyone sleeps in a little bit and we start at 9 am.

Rain, snow or shine, we cluster around a well-worn wooden table in the back room of the Harbour Store, our post office slash liquor slash video slash corner store. From 2 pm until 8 pm the back room of the Harbour Store doubles as a pizza and burger place and a second home and first part-time job for the town’s crop of baggy panted bored teenagers, but in the morning, it is where we gather to drink drip coffee and tell stories.

Not everyone is there every day. Sometimes the fireman is working nights or the cattle farmer is busy with a sick calf or the retired plumber’s knee is too sore to risk the icy sidewalks. The old guy with the snowplow comes late when there’s a blizzard, and his wife skips Sundays to go to mass, but there is always someone around.

We tell jokes and do the quiz in the Ottawa Sun together and talk politics. Shoot the shit, I believe, is the technical term for what it is we do.

Membership comes with benefits, such as free turnips and septic tank advice and someone’s mother’s shortbread cookies and a never ending round of talk. For any storyteller worth his or her salt, it’s basically a dream come true.

This morning I dragged myself out of a January slumber to don my down parka and big black Sorel snow boots to tromp the two snow-blown blocks up the street and, as always, it was worth it.

I just got back from a gig in Florida, so I had alligator sightings and a New Year’s Day swim in the Atlantic Ocean to recount to everyone. There was hockey talk of course, and the morning paper to skim through and discuss.

This morning’s sunshine girl had breasts that looked bigger than her head, a ratio even the fellows agreed was disturbing.

There was a tearful moment and a heartfelt round of condolences when the engineer showed up for the first time since his elderly mother passed two days after Christmas. The salesman’s 13-year-old son moped in to stay warm until the school bus showed up, certain that his life was unbearable ever since his school’s snowboarding field trip was cancelled on account of the freezing rain we got last night.

Carole, his mother, kissed him goodbye in front of everyone. Then, after he had left for school, she took off her toque and showed us that her hair has started to grow back in after the chemotherapy, and we all said another silent prayer in our heads for her and her family.

By 9 am almost everyone had left for work or headed into town to pick up groceries, except for the self-employed writer, one of the twins, the lady who works nights at the store, and Carole, who is off work at least until the next round is over and she has beat this thing.

It took me awhile to be able to tell the twins apart, until someone pulled me aside and explained that one of the two big burly brothers had a goatee and the other one was gay, and that was how to keep them straight, no pun intended.

So Dave, the gay twin, starts complaining about being single for way too long. Sharon, the lady who works nights at the store listened and nodded for a bit, and then piped up that her sister, who was just a couple of towns over, happened to be recently single too, through no fault of her own of course, and maybe she could introduce the two of them, you never know, right, maybe they would hit it off.

Dave blinked a couple of times and then looked at me, and then back to Sharon.

“But I’m gay, didn’t anyone tell you by now?”

Sharon dropped her jaw, then fumbled around with it for a split second, and then picked it back up again.

“Oh Dave, I didn’t know, ” she swallowed. “I’m so sorry.”

Dave crossed his big eyebrows, confused.

Sharon waved both hands in front of her chest, a bit panicked, and backpedaled. “I mean, not that I’m sorry you’re gay, that is not what I meant to say. I mean… what I meant was I’m sorry I didn’t know, how embarrassing, not that there is anything wrong at all with you, I mean please don’t get me wrong it is totally okay to be gay.”

I tried so hard not to lose it, because she was trying so hard not to be rude, to be nice, to say the right thing, so it seemed the least I could do was not fall off my chair laughing at her.

But then Dave placed a forgiving palm on her shoulder and said: “I know there is nothing wrong with being gay, Sharon. I’m the gay one, remember?”

I nearly shot Tim Horton’s brand drip coffee out both nostrils.

That’s the thing about living in a small town. There is only one place to get yourself a coffee. Somehow everybody has to just get along. And this always makes for a great story.