By Jared Ritz
Four silver canisters line a small section of countertop. Constantly going back and forth between the canisters and a table is a group of six men, all older and all clearly thirsty.
One man sits near the window, talking up a storm. His name is Tim Gribas, and, according to his friends at this club, he is just as addicted to chatting as he is to java.
"He likes to talk, and we like to listen, so it works out good," one of the men at the table said. His name is Bob Patera, and, if today's conversation was any indication, he is blessed with the gift of gab, too.
This coffee club has been going strong for about six years at IGA, but has its roots much deeper than that. It started off 10 years ago with two workers at what was then Northern Montana College, Gribas and Gene Corner. Gribas had just started as the carpenter for the college's physical plant, and Corner had been there for a while longer as a plumber.
They hit it off, and started meeting at work early to talk or, rather, for one to talk and one to listen. Gribas was a coffee drinker, so the migration to the old Iron Horse pancake house in the Park Hotel was an easy one.
After a while at the Iron Horse and adding a few members, the group moved to McDonald's. That didn't last for too long, though.
"I don't know why we left there," Patera said. He speculates that it has something to do with the members' cholesterol. "We couldn't eat all that stuff."
So the group moved over to IGA just as the finishing touches were being put on the eatery seating area, and it has been their happy home ever since, for a few of them seven days a week.
Most start showing up about 7 a.m., but Gribas and Corner couldn't be bothered into that. They show up about 5:45 a.m., a time considered by their friends at the club to be complete lunacy.
Corner said half jokingly they occasionally come so early they have to brew their own pot of coffee. Today' early-morning coffee bar worker shook his head in agreement.
The pair's strenuous work environment, Gribas said, may have something to do with the pre-rooster-crowing time schedule.
"It takes us that long to get motivated," he said.
No readily identifiable reason for the group coming together exists, except for that everybody who meets for coffee is a Lions Club member, except for two. The others claim they tried to join, but weren't up to snuff. The group appears to have just grown gradually and without any real reason; someone comes in for coffee one morning, decides to sit down, and ends up staying in the groove for years.
Besides razzing each other, club members talk about "anything and everything" Patera said.
Conversation was a bit stilted this morning from time to time, and there was a reason for that.
"What we talk about can't go in the paper," said Jim Rowlatt, a former Hill County Electric worker who now does independent carpentry work.
Today's conversation jumped around for a bit, then centered for a short while on the West Nile virus. A small argument broke out between Dick Nault, owner of Nault Plumbing, and Patera and Corner about whether the potentially fatal virus had or had not reached Montana. The rumored death of a horse near Billings was mentioned; nobody seemed too worried, though.
Along with the normal conversation and teasing, a lot of good-natured fibs are told to make things entertaining. If one thing keeps these people coming back again and again, it's either the coffee or the whoppers they tell. Corner said that even though they are a ragtag bunch, they have one thing in common for sure.
"The first qualification is you got to be able to lie," he said.