I suddenly realized that it was exactly the time I had walked the same route many mornings on my way to the Tracy Inn Coffee Shop. It was coffee time, and Joe Wilson was right in the center of it.
Joe died New Year’s Day at the age of 85, and as his obituary in Wednesday’s edition of the Press reported, he was Tracy’s first recreation director, continuing in that position for 36 years.
But besides directing recreation activities in our town, Joe had another important role to play over many years in the life of the dusty San Joaquin Valley tank town in the second half of 20th century. He was one of the originators and the long-term mainstay of the weekday 10:30 a.m. coffee klatch that began in the early 1950s at the Tracy Inn and continues to this day in a weekly gathering at McDonald’s on West 11th Street.
Joe started meeting friends for coffee — and plenty of conversation — soon after moving from Lodi to Tracy in early 1952 to direct the newly formed Tracy District Recreation Commission.
In those days, the main downtown coffee gathering place was Anderson’s Drugs on Central Avenue. But those who took part at the drug store’s lunch counter were mostly older Tracyites.
Joe and younger friends started their own morning coffee group at the Tracy Inn, soon later adding an afternoon session. Those friends included George Sawyer, then manager of the Tracy Chamber of Commerce with an office in the Tracy Inn lobby; Doug Brodie, Tracy correspondent for the Stockton Record; Jack Fisher of Tracy Auto Parts; florist Jim Glotfelty; and several others whose names don’t register at the moment.
As some of the originals faded away, others, like Jim Meservy from the Chevron station across the street and Lonnie Slayter from his real estate office next door, joined the group. The “others” included, on occasion, my brother Tom and the guy writing this column.
While some of us would miss showing up on given days, Joe was always there — at 10:30 in the morning and also at 3:30 each afternoon with a smaller group. The coffee gatherings had become an entrenched part of his daily routine, and besides, Joe wanted to know what was going on. He had his ear to the ground (and glued to the police scanner radio at home), so there wasn’t much that occurred in our town that he didn’t know — or want to know — at least something about.
And, true to his vocation, he orchestrated the “recreation activity” that always ended each coffee session: the flipping of the coins to see who paid for the coffee.
If there were 10 people present, Joe would point and say, “Three, three, four,” indicating who would flip in each sub-group (odd man out) until two guys matched for the coffee. (Yes, it was a men-only gathering.)
For a couple of years, Meservy kept meticulous records on who was “the stuckee” in each session — and how much he paid for coffee. At the end of one year, Jim gave me his list, and I gave a rundown in my column on how much each of us had paid for coffee that year.
“You mean you spent that much on coffee?” was a question voiced by any number of wives the day the list came out in the Press. That was the last time the list was kept.
When the Tracy Inn Coffee Shop closed for a time in the 1990s, the coffee group moved to The Horseshoe, then Perko’s Café and finally McDonald’s. The increasing cost of coffee doomed the coin flip, and when the move to McDonald’s — where coffee was cheaper — was made, the coffee had to be pre-paid anyway.
Before the group moved from the Tracy Inn, Annette Tuso Elissagaray and Chuck Tuso, the sister-brother team who had operated the coffee shop, presented a plaque thanking us for our loyal patronage. For the curious, here are the names on the plaque: Joe Wilson, Jim Meservy, Lon Slayter, Jim McLeod, Art Kaku, Frank Hoyt, Tom Hawkins, Woody Souza, Dale Collins, Clyde Bland, Stan Davis, Mike Erceg, Bert Fitzpatrick, Ed Edmonson, Everett Hart, Richard Hastie, Chet Miller, Bill Pollard, Bill Levin, Tom Matthews, Sam Matthews and Rich Medeiros.
A few names, like the early 1950s founders, along with later arrivals Rod Bairos, Jim Fisher and Milton Alvarez, were missing — but, of course, Annette and Chuck remembered only who had been there during their tenure.
With memories of coffee drunk, conversations had and coins flipped floating through my brain, I walked into the Tracy Inn lobby yesterday morning. At first, I glanced over to the area where John Rickman and Vern Fleck had long operated their Beckman stock brokerage office, and it was vacant. It closed several years ago, and John had died in the past couple of months.
From the lobby, I walked over to the door leading to the coffee shop, but it was locked. From behind the inn’s front desk, Dino Margaros told me that nowadays, the restaurant doesn’t open until 11 a.m. That never would have worked in the days when Joe Wilson presided over the 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. coffee hours that took place in that same room for so many years.
Coffee in those days was just coffee — nary a latte nor a cappuccino in any cup. But conversation and camaraderie were the essential ingredients, anyway.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.