The Last Days of Gold Bar

The doors are closing on the Valley's most eclectic coffee house.

"It freaking sucks," Newton says one recent evening, resting his head against the stucco wall by his table. "I don't know what I'm going to do, to tell you the truth."

Tuesday, April 23, 8:30 p.m.

Don't dare ask Audie Leah Gehring for a Frappuccino.
Irvin Serrano
Don't dare ask Audie Leah Gehring for a Frappuccino.
A typical Gold Bar workday.
Irvin Serrano
A typical Gold Bar workday.

Dave Maass is the self-appointed philosopher-king of Gold Bar Espresso. On this night, like most others, the lanky, bespectacled 23-year-old is mingling with the other regulars like the host of his own cocktail party. He can tell you anything you want to know about the patrons, musicians or employees of Gold Bar, although his facts are sometimes slightly off.

Maass wasn't always so social. When he returned to the Valley two years ago after studying in Japan, he started hanging out quietly at the coffee house, looking for Scrabble games with a hand-lettered sign that read "Play Scrabble With Nerds." It included a self-portrait, his all-time high score (391) and the postscript: "I am not unbeatable."

People started calling Maass The Scrabble Guy. Back then he also brought his laptop and wrote a lot — he's a sporadically employed journalist — but since September 11 the work has all but disappeared and Maass has been more angst-ridden than usual, so he's spent a lot of time at Gold Bar just chatting and smoking and drinking iced spiced chai lattes. And playing Scrabble.

When he heard this spring that Gold Bar was going out of business, Maass, feeling nostalgic, tried to meet as many of the regulars as possible outside his usual circle, and he's invited his new friends to try out new places with him.

Success has been mixed. After Gold Bar closes for the evening, Maass has a habit of heading home and turning on his laptop, sending out e-mails late into the night and the following day.

"We're in the last days of Gold Bar," he writes one afternoon. "It's been a beautiful run, and I think it'll have a beautiful ending. Last night, a few of the most shy regulars made a big leap into the outside world. We went to IHOP. And outside of the bank walls, away from the wire wicker chairs and the cardboard cupholders, we didn't have much to talk about."

For now, Maass plans to spend as much time as he can at Gold Bar.

On this quiet evening, Maass is headed for a very respectable Scrabble score of 324. Someone plays Gershwin on the piano and Maass pulls out his journal between turns and puts his head down, scribbling. He's told that people only write in journals when they're unhappy. His head pops up. "It's important to know the difference between being unhappy and being confused," Maass says, and keeps writing.

Maass thinks romantic relationships will bloom as Gold Bar's end nears. Everyone's indecisive right now, he says. He keeps an eye out for Joy and Jamie Stevens, sisters who practically live at Gold Bar. Maass likes Joy, but he thinks Jamie might sort of like him.

He holds up his Scrabble tiles with quiet pride. He's spelled I HAVE MS. Not a usable word, obviously, but commendable.

John Avery watches the Scrabble board intently, although, like many of Maass' pals, he won't dare play.

Avery works in a group home for mentally handicapped men. He brings one of them to Gold Bar on Saturday afternoons sometimes, he says. Jessie, who has Down syndrome, likes to say hello to the women as they walk by. Avery's been a regular at Gold Bar for about three months. Before that it was Jitters, then Essenza.

"I found out there are a lot of lonely people who go to coffee houses," says Avery, who is slight and pale, with light brown hair. He was lonely. The friendliest people at the coffee houses were the smokers, so he started. Now a small group of Gold Bar regulars and baristas are planning to quit together May 2. Maass asks all the smokers if they're going to quit.

Avery's not sure.

Maass says he's planning to quit smoking strictly for economic reasons. He's so broke he can barely afford his chai lattes. He does have a part-time job — running searchlights. Not the smaller, safer, modern "pussy searchlights," as Maass calls them, but World War II-era searchlights that are six feet across and require great dexterity and some risk to operate. This kind of searchlight works like a welder's torch, and Maass has to hit the thing with a stick every 15 seconds to keep it from catching on fire.

He worked Christmas Eve at the intersection of Cave Creek Road and the Carefree Highway, looking for Santa Claus. He gets $8 an hour.

"I think it's the most poetic thing in my life right now," he says.

Maass is hoping to strike it really big through one of his Gold Bar associations. Jeff Newton hooked him up with an assignment (albeit unpaid) at a local business magazine. Another guy who has a gig with a video game company in L.A. might get him some work writing copy. And Maass points to the table where he met an unemployed photo imager with whom he made a short independent film last year.

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