The Last Days of Gold Bar
Jeff Newton is looking for office space. Nothing fancy, just a table and chairs, a good desk lamp and a caramel double-shot latte waiting when he walks in the door.
For the past four years nearly every night since January, when he quit his waiter job at Olive Garden Newton's been a regular at Gold Bar Espresso, a coffee house in Tempe. He piles his usual table in the back corner with a mess of legal pads, bills and photo magazines. Newton's cell phone, set on vibrate, jumps across the table when he gets a call.
He gets a lot of calls. Newton is a photographer, a band manager and a poet.
Newton, who is 24 and perfectly average looking until you get to his hair, which defies gravity in a Flock of Seagulls sort of way, was never really one to hang out at coffee houses until he found Gold Bar.
Other coffee houses are so fake, he says. He used to live across the street from Undici Undici, a stylish cafe in Mesa.
"I went in there and tried to write once and they had . . . all this different art on the walls and everything, but it just felt so much like they were trying to be like, 'Look, we're cool! We promise!
We promise, we're cool, come here!' I couldn't write a freaking single poem. I felt like I was trying to be fake along with them."
Then a friend told him about Gold Bar, which is housed in a former Valley National Bank building in a graveyard of a strip mall on Southern Avenue. The dress here is roll-out-of-bed casual, and the decor is strictly garage sale. The pastries aren't always so fresh, the coffee is pricey and the rest rooms at Starbucks are much cleaner, but Gold Bar has high ceilings, a drive-through and plenty of space to spread out. And despite small signs that admonish customers to buy a drink an hour, no one cares if you plug in your laptop and hang out all day and night nursing your iced mocha until it's watery and gross.
"This place, it kind of has a forget-about-it vibe," Newton says. "It's like, 'This is who I am, like it or not.'"
And that's the kind of people the place attracts, as well. Lulu in Hollywood, an acid jazz band, and Fiona-McGregor, a harp duet with a penchant for '80s pop, join the traditional James Taylorish acoustic guitarists as part of Gold Bar's regular music lineup. Among the crowd migrating in and then outdoors to smoke and kibitz, you can find aspiring comic book artists and filmmakers, accomplished pianists and mountain climbers. The baristas are ceramists and theater junkies. It is not unheard of to walk into Gold Bar on a weekday afternoon and see a 4-year-old in a pink fairy dress sipping a hot chocolate after preschool, or catch a woman in a zebra-striped plastic cape her hair half up in plastic clips, half down in cascading curls ordering a cinnamon roll. (There's a hair salon across the breezeway.)
Gold Bar's owner is a guy named P.Z., a mysterious Wizard of Oz type who drives an old gray convertible Mercedes 450 SL and won't talk to reporters. It's said that he learned how to make coffee in Europe, and once owned a coffee house in the Pacific Northwest. He is short and silver, and his dog Luigi, who is short and brown, often sits on the patio at Gold Bar or wanders back behind the counter. The regulars say that P.Z. once had an aborigine pray over the place.
For several months, Jeff Newton would come to Gold Bar on his nights off and sit in the vault it's the actual vault the bank once used, now equipped with benches and tables and write. Slowly he met other regulars, making both friends and business contacts. He came more and more often, and eventually the coffee house became his workplace.
"Like, I joke around, but it has," Newton says, straining to be heard over a raucous card game at a neighboring table. "That's what I'm freaking here doing right now. I've got all my business cards out for all these different companies, I'm booking concerts for the bands that I manage, I just set up a photo shoot for another band that I do photos for. A bunch of stuff. And then sitting here studying photo magazines, trying to read reviews on just whatever I can learn."
Sometime soon no one will say for sure when, but likely before the end of June Gold Bar's doors will close. The coffee house has lost its lease, and Jeff Newton and many others will have lost their office space.
And they will have lost their community in a metropolis where community can be a rare commodity.
Gold Bar's demise has been a near-constant topic of discussion for weeks. Even if the old bank becomes another coffee house and that's the rumor the regulars say it won't be the same under different management. They won't come back. And even if Gold Bar does eventually relocate, it will be to a tiny spot with no drive-through, no place for music and no room for Jeff Newton.
"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.
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.
It seems that everyone at Gold Bar is either talking about making a short independent film, is making one, or has made one. Newton sat in the vault to write the screenplay for Phrases Lacking Tone, a 21-and-a-half-minute film he also directed and starred in. It's a "personal thing," Newton says, explaining that he used some Dylan songs, so he could never go public with the film.
Maass' film is called Universal Remote, about a guy who can control his neighbor's television set with his own remote control. Maass has the unedited tapes at his house. Creative differences halted production.
"It was one of those terrible Hollywood things I'm at his throat, he's at mine," Maass says of the unemployed photo imager, who no longer hangs out at Gold Bar.
Maass does have hope for a project he's got in the works with Josh Schicker, another Gold Bar regular and aspiring comic book artist. Maass envisions a dark comic based on an opera written at Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp that housed musicians and artists. First, however, Schicker intends to launch his own comic book series, "Naked Chicks With Jetpacks."
Schicker is a low talker, a problem possibly exacerbated by the large metal ring through his bottom lip. He's 25, and typically wears baggy shorts, striped sport socks and low tops. The ID to his day job as a credit analyst at FACS West, some sort of financial company, as he describes it, hangs around his neck. His black nail polish is chipped; Schicker smokes Camels, and he, too, plans to quit May 2.
He calls the comic "Naked Chicks With Jetpacks" because naked chicks and jetpacks are Schicker's two favorite things. The main characters are actually the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, living in a "semi-functional anarchistic society," Schicker says. "They pretty much gave up on good and they're doing their own thing now." They do wear jetpacks.
Schicker is hesitant to share too much, fearing someone will rip off his idea. He says it's written like an independent comic crass and violent but with art he hopes meets the standards of a mainstream company like Marvel.
"It's going to be hyperviolent with a lot of meaning. It's going to be misunderstood a lot," he says.
"Parents will hate it," he adds, smiling. His own parents don't want him to be an artist. "They're like, 'Why don't you be a police officer?'"
He's not in it for the money, Schicker says. It's just about getting his artwork out there. And it would be nice if one day there were some really cool "Naked Chicks With Jetpacks" tee shirts.
Friday, April 26, 9:45 a.m.
At night, Gold Bar is loud and clubby, with a coffee line out the door and an influx of hipsters taking a break from Lucky Dragon, the art gallery/Chinese restaurant/nightclub a few storefronts away.
Mornings are different, although equally busy. More like a highly caffeinated version of Cheers. Mel and Chelsea (Mel's the girl, Chelsea's the boy) are the baristas on duty today. It's Chelsea's birthday, according to a small sign posted on the counter alongside the glass tip bowl; someone has taped Scrabble tiles spelling out the word SPIT along the rim of the bowl. There's a constant line at the counter, the drive-through buzzer keeps ringing, and the drink orders are rarely simple: a triple-shot skinny iced mocha or a schizo double caramel latte.
A tall blonde in heels and a chiffon skirt walks in.
"You look so cute!" Mel tells her. "What's going on?"
"I'm going to some interviews. And I have my period," the woman answers, running down current pertinent life happenings.
"Me too!" Mel squeals. After some discussion of cramps, the blonde walks out to the patio with an iced coffee. A few minutes later, she's back, hungry. She eyes the oversize pastries. Would it be possible to buy just half a banana nut muffin? Sure, Mel says, then changes her mind and gives her the entire muffin free, for luck.
John Summers wanders in, buys a cup of coffee and sits for a while, then heads for the piano. The baby grand an antique, ornately painted with gold flock and angels is off limits to most customers. But Summers is invited to perform whenever the mood hits. He plays "Happy Birthday" and everyone sings to Chelsea.
A couple years back, Summers started playing jazz piano at Gold Bar on the weekends. He hadn't played professionally in 14 years.
"I stopped because I was intent on being Joe Productive Citizen, something I thought my family would accept," he says. "I never had the courage to say I was a musician."
His career path took him from law school in Chicago to a law practice in the Valley, but running a small business was too much for Summers, who wound up clinically depressed. "I'm one of those lawyers who was definitely not a good businessman," he says.
Summers quit law and started hanging out a lot at Gold Bar. Then he started playing there. That led to gigs at the Velvet Room in Scottsdale and then to My Florist Cafe in Phoenix, where he now plays six nights a week. Days, he's an anti-gang counselor in an East Valley junior high school.
Gold Bar is still home. It reminds Summers, who is 54, of a coffee house he frequented in Hyde Park, during his days at the University of Chicago. He likes the mix of "spiky hair and button downs," the crowd from Arizona State University, the community colleges and the naturopathic college nearby.
Jeff Newton performed a poem he wrote, called "The Palace of Dreamers," about Summers and Gold Bar at the National Poetry Slam Competition last year in Seattle.
. . . again and again I find myself here, the palace of dreamers, a womb for the uninhibited. The Gold Bar. A place where John plays the piano in the most soulful tones I almost feel as though I'm on the road with Keota passing through some 1950s jazz joint in New York City. It's the tone of purity and with the freedom of obscurity we all come here to dig the night and all the other free of mind and spirit. Dang. Never have I felt so free . . .
Summers speaks of Gold Bar in the past tense, although he still stops by for coffee after wrapping up a night at My Florist. "You could walk in, you had no clue what kind of conversation you were going to get into, but it was going to be good. . . . It was almost like a living Sunday New York Times, you know what I mean?"
After he played there, Summers says, people would tell him they felt peaceful.
Thursday, May 2, 9 p.m.
The mood at Gold Bar is festive this evening it's the last day of classes at ASU, and people are ready to celebrate before beginning the real study grind for finals. It's also the day Dave Maass and his friends have vowed to quit smoking.
Robert Lang, a Gold Bar fixture, plays Beatles covers on the acoustic guitar, as well as selections from a long list he hands out. "We're going to do one for Dave. Maybe two for Dave," Lang says, breaking into "The Ballad of Poncho and Lefty."
"I asked this guy to learn it for me. It took him months," Maass says, grinning and turning his chair to face Lang, basking in the glow of being such a regular the guitar player knows his favorite song. Maass hasn't had a cigarette in almost a day, so he's splurging, adding an enormous oatmeal raisin cookie to his standing iced spiced chai order.
Tom, one of the baristas, has also quit smoking today, and seems to be doing fine, Maass says. Even John Avery quit. But no one's seen Josh Schicker all night.
"This is the saddest song," Maass says, shaking his head and looking around for The Sisters, Joy and Jamie Stevens.
Joy's 21, Jamie's 23. Both live at home with their parents in Mesa, both are aspiring musicians. Joy has just quit her job at Mervyn's and is waiting to hear from God about what to do next, she says. The Stevens sisters are pretty devout Christians, which Maass, who is Jewish, figures will ultimately squelch any chance he has of dating Joy.
Maass finds Joy in line for coffee and she mentions she's leaving for Colorado tomorrow for a short vacation. He's really bummed.
"We've had 20 years of not knowing each other and I'm leaving for four days," she says, smiling.
Joy's a pixie in a black hooded tee shirt, dark jeans and celery green nail polish. She leaves really early flight in the morning and Maass turns his attention back to the Scrabble board. At 10:55, the lights dim and the baristas start putting chairs on tables, a not-so-subtle signal that it's closing time. Still no sign of Josh.
Maass is a few turns away from ending the game.
"They'll let me finish," he says. "After all, it's me."
And he's right, they do.
Thursday, May 9, 6 p.m.
Already, some of the artwork is disappearing from the walls of Gold Bar. The Owner, as the baristas call P.Z., is taking his stuff home slowly. It will be no small feat to empty the coffee house; every corner is packed with dusty old books, coffee grinders, tea sets junk The Owner picks up at garage sales and displays haphazardly. St. Lucia, a mannequin in a coffee-stained white eyelet dress, with candles on her head and a tray in her hands, still stands guard at the front door, honoring a Swedish holiday in which children bring their parents coffee.
It was the art in this place that first drew Audie Leah Gehring to Gold Bar. She was running Arizona Theatre Company's box office when she heard about a coffee house in Tempe that had a great collection of work by the Dutch fantasy artist Michael Parkes. She came in for a cup of coffee and six months later found herself quitting her job to become a barista.
Gehring, who is now 26, thought she was downsizing, but she laughs about that now. Three years later she's Gold Bar's night manager and music coordinator. Gehring and Alicia Smith, the day manager, do their share of hauling boxes, scheduling events and pulling espressos, but there's always time to chat, they say, as they settle at a table by the counter, within easy earshot of a barista-in-training.
Smith's shift is over and she has to get home soon, to iron her cap and gown. She's graduating tomorrow with a fine arts degree from ASU. She started out drawing, and recently got into ceramics.
But Smith's real interest, for now at least, is coffee. Gold Bar is the center of her universe, she says, has been her entire adult life. She's 23. She moved to an apartment complex next to Gold Bar so she could walk to work.
"If somebody brings back a drink, I'm upset for two hours after that," Smith says.
"It doesn't happen too often," Gehring adds quickly.
When Smith started at Gold Bar, she had coffee grounds in her ears at the end of the day. Gehring would fall into bed, totally exhausted. Now they attend national coffee conventions and train the baristas to speak of coffee like fine wine.
The word Frappuccino is nails on the chalkboard for these women they can't believe how Starbucks has butchered the Italian language. The Gold Bar baristas speak their own language.
"When you yell out from the drive-through, 'I want a grande iced one pump decaf skinny with half a Sweet 'N Low, naked,' no one knows what that is unless they work at Gold Bar."
"Naked" means no whipped cream. When someone orders a skinny (non-fat) decaf drink, Smith calls it a "why bother." Recently a man came in and ordered a skinny drink. When she heard he was on vacation, Smith insisted he have it with 2 percent milk instead.
"We know about our customers' lives. It's scary, how much we know about our customers' lives," Gehring says. "We've got nighttime regulars, and when I first started working here, they were pregnant. They've since had kids, they got divorced, now they have a new boyfriend. There are people who come in, like couples, that'll be coming in together for a year and then all of a sudden, only one of them comes. I'm like, 'Where is so and so?' 'Oh, I got Gold Bar in the separation. They're not allowed to come here anymore.'"
A sign was posted months ago at the drive-through, warning of Gold Bar's demise. Seems like every customer orders a drink, then asks for a status report. Gehring and Smith don't have any answers.
"People are freaking out. 'Where am I going to get my drink if you guys go away?'" Smith says.
Gehring rolls her eyes. "There's enough freaking out on our part about where we're going to work."
Tuesday, May 14, 8:45 p.m.
Dave Maass is wearing contact lenses for the first time, and they're bugging him. Every 30 seconds or so, he squeezes drops in his eyes, which just get redder and redder. He's been walking around with a rubber ball he bought at Target. It's supposed to keep his mind off smoking, but other patrons have been yelling at him for bouncing it inside. And he's 50 points down in Scrabble.
Maass moons across the room at Joy. Last week she let him down gently, in an e-mail. They're still friends. They watched the movie Cast Away together over the weekend, and Joy and Jamie tell Maass his rubber ball reminds them of Wilson, Tom Hanks' volleyball/companion. The night before Mother's Day, Joy had all her friends write her mother letters. Maass wrote that he was being held captive in a Mother's Day letter-writing sweat shop.
Mostly, Maass is worried about money. He's got to find work, he insists, and is considering something in the janitorial field. At least he's not smoking. Tom's doing well, but Audie Gehring long since went back. And no one's seen Josh Schicker.
Finally, at 10, Maass switches the contacts for his glasses and puts away the Scrabble board.
"I'm not doing so well tonight," he mumbles, heading outside to bounce his ball.
Friday, May 17, 2:30 p.m.
Afternoons at Gold Bar are cool and dim and almost empty, except for Jim Waugh.
Waugh is arguably the most accomplished Gold Bar regular. He's a legend in Valley mountain-climbing circles, founded the Phoenix Bouldering Contest 20 years ago and wrote the guide that's considered the bible of Arizona climbing routes. Recently he started organizing climbing events for ESPN's X Games and the Gorge Games, which will air this year on NBC.
He doesn't have a usual table, Waugh says, or a usual drink.
"I go through patterns. I was into chai tea for the longest time, and lately I've been totally into the mochas, so I tend to vary." Today he's drinking an iced coffee trying to cut back on the chocolate and entering evaluation results from the Phoenix Bouldering Contest onto an Excel spreadsheet on his laptop.
Somewhere in his 40s, Waugh is lean with sun-worn skin and bleached-blond hair. Jeans and flip-flops. He found Gold Bar years ago, and comes almost every afternoon for several hours.
"I come down here because it's a relaxing atmosphere, and because they don't mind that I sit here with my laptop plugged in, my cell phone plugged in, and conduct my business. I'm the kind of person who, while I'm an independent contractor, I don't think I could sit at home without being distracted . . . and I find that if I come down here I'm usually more efficient with my time, even though it takes me 15 minutes to drive down."
He has no idea where he'll go when Gold Bar closes.
Friday, May 17, 5 p.m.
Gold Bar staffers had whispered there was a chance the doors would be locked for good today, but there's no sign of anything unusual, and business goes on.
Dave Maass appears. The glasses are back. The rubber ball is gone. It popped at home, he says, when he was holding a knife. He's waiting for a call from his Smoker's Helpline counselor.
Maass is looking hard for a job, and took a test to work at Rula Bula, the Irish pub on Mill Avenue. Maass has no experience as a waiter or bartender, but he worked in the Irish Embassy when he lived in Japan. The test didn't go so well.
Josh Schicker has resurfaced. He's been busy. He moved to a new apartment, his car broke down and he finds he gets more done on his comic at home than at Gold Bar, where he knows too many people. He never stopped smoking.
Maass has decided that when Gold Bar goes, so will his friendships. Jeff Newton's thinking about moving to downtown Phoenix, Schicker will hang out at bars more and Joy and Jamie will do something totally different, Maass figures.
"We're not going to hang out together," he says. "We don't like committing to friends."
Maass has been looking for a new hangout. He's considering Roots, a coffee house that opened recently on Mill Avenue. Parking's a problem, but there's a fountain in the middle of the place, and the coffee drinks are cheap.
Thursday, May 23, 5:25 p.m.
Musicians are in and out of Gold Bar all the time, but still, it is strange to see two small women lugging huge harps into the coffee house.
Gillian Nieboer and Leslie Jabara are Fiona-McGregor, a harp duet named after Nieboer's harp, Fiona, and Jabara's harp, McGregor. The women are proficient harpists (they insist it doesn't take much) and have voices good enough for the Phoenix Symphony's choir. But they really draw a crowd for their renditions of Crowded House and New Order ballads and their pseudo-Irish patter in between.
Nieboer says, "We thought there's just not enough cheesy, sappy '80s music out there."
"Played on the harp," Jabara adds.
Gold Bar groupies from Dave Maass to Audie Leah Gehring really believed that Jabara was Irish and Nieboer was a former nun with three ex-husbands (including Christ, as Jabara says in her act). Actually, Jabara is Lebanese. She works in semiconductors and is music director at her church in Ahwatukee. Nieboer is Irish, but she's only got one ex-husband. She's an account manager at Qwest.
Nieboer belongs to a group called the East Valley Entrepreneurs, which used to meet in Gold Bar's vault. She's been a regular for years. Last December, she heard that Gold Bar needed some musicians to play the Saturday before Christmas, so she called her friend Jabara and told her to dust off her harp. Nieboer hadn't played the harp herself in 10 years; she went out and bought a new one for the occasion.
They crammed to learn Christmas songs, and Fiona-McGregor was such a hit that Gehring even after she found out that Nieboer wasn't a former nun started booking them. Now they also play at the Authors Café in Scottsdale, making just enough to cover the monthly installments on their harps.
This afternoon Fiona-McGregor play a quick set including Lisa Loeb, New Order and Crowded House as well as some Sarah McLachlan and a rousing "Danny Boy" then bid farewell to Gold Bar. This will be their last performance.
"I would say I'm a little verklempt," Jabara says, waving her hand in front of her eyes, "but I'm Irish, so I don't say that."