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first person

Illustration by Adam De Souza

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Leaving the work force, I expected early retirement to be the best time of my life. Little did I realize that losing my office community, my colleagues, would leave a void in my life. My plea of “loneliness“ is somewhat suspect, in that I share good talks, meals and a bed with a loving woman. However, I discovered that I needed to get out of the house, needed some good male friends – a hangout, some place where I could replenish my mojo and work on some male bonding.

My wife suggested I try going out for coffee and a morning read of my newspaper. Well, it was a start.

I looked in on the nearby café. I watched as a la-di-da latte with a cutesy heart carved into the froth on top was carefully made and studied the clientele – none over the age of 30, their faces glowing greenish from the reflected light of their laptops. I wondered for a moment if I had wandered into a zombie film, until the what do you call them? baristas? brought me back to reality. The best option, if all I wanted was “a coffee,” the bearded guy informed me, was an Americano. I waited five more minutes for it to be made, then took my plastic foam cup and headed out to a park bench, to decide on plan B.

What I needed was the real thing, the motherlode of Canadian coffee, a Tim Hortons.

The next morning, I walked an two extra blocks to Tims. Real coffee and plenty of places to sit, albeit plastic chairs with a bum life of about 20 minutes. Enough time to read my newspaper and to check out the habitués, eventually realizing that I recognized some of the guys from when I played pickup ball in the park. After a few mornings of newspaper reading, I heard my name and a somewhat hesitant, “Hey, didn’t we play ball together last year?”

I was invited to join the circle. Names that I quickly forgot were exchanged. I rolled with whatever was going around – regurgitated stories from the local paper, grousing about the price of oil, the younger generation, politicians. Spouse and kids. But it was not for me, all that thoughtless chatter and aged-male bravado. I wanted something more, even if I didn’t know what it was. It was time to move on, but where?

I needed a plan C, but what? “Have you ever tried that greasy spoon at Bloor and Jane?” my neighbour asked. A greasy spoon? I felt it was beneath me. As you have surely gathered by now, I confess to being a bit of a snob, or worse.

“Why not give it a try?” suggested that wise woman, my wife.

It was not what I had expected. Built in the early fifties, with a counter running along one wall and booths along the other, it was, I would come to realize, a classic emporium of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee – the real thing in a cup and saucer, set down in front of me, and a refill, free for the asking. So began my initiation into what became my breakfast club.

I began to see the place not as a fading relic of another age, but a genuine heritage site, preserving what was best of another way of life, a time that was happier and friendlier. There were guys rubbing elbows at the counter, nattering away about the weather, and analyzing the game the night before. In the booths, which offer a little private space for conversation, people like me.

I began phoning up old friends, even ones I hadn’t seen in years. “Wanna get together for breakfast? Just you and me. Catch up on things.” Never met a guy who wasn’t willing to give it a try. And I’d find myself with one or another of my friends, sitting in a booth. Somehow, face-to-face, just the two of us, there was less bravado, less need to rant than with three or four buddies. In some ways it was so obvious, and yet it came as a revelation. I felt a greater interest in what the person sitting across from me was about, a genuine wish to hear.

What started as a breakthrough moment evolved into much more than just keeping loneliness at bay. Now, with a growing number of like-minded souls – usually introverts like myself – my breakfasts have become almost a ritual, something far more and much deeper than I could have imagined. We meet one on one, in communion over our bacon and eggs.

I shape the conversation, I confess, and most who sit opposite me seem willing to follow my lead. Rants of any kind, about bosses, mates, government, whatever, I limit to one minute, a bit longer if they are fun or amusing. No discussion of politics or sports but weather is allowed. If they have a personal connection, movies are more than acceptable. Listening, good; questions, golden. Suggestions, advice, except when asked for – verboten!

Mostly we drop into the dimensions of our lives, sharing back and forth the pain, the humour, the meaning and the purpose, the lack of, whatever we’re about at this moment that’s important to us. In most cases, we find ourselves in a rich place of sharing, a time that is real and human and caring. It is a place where we’re safe, and can bring as much of ourselves as we’re in touch with to the table. For here is revealed and shared the essence of our lives. Equally important is the laughter at the quirkiness and indignities of life at a certain age.

Over time the routine became expected, anticipated. Every four to six weeks, I phone up a friend and arrange a time. If I don't call, they do, wanting to know when we can get together.

I realize now that I’ve created not a replacement for my old work community, but a circle of friends I can talk with in a deeper, more human way than I ever could before. On reflection I see that I have successfully negotiated my mornings.

Now on to Retirement 2.0, finding something to do with the rest of my day. The loving woman in my life has a few suggestions.

Austin Repath lives in Toronto.