When Barbara Gauntt dropped into the Cleveland Park McDonald’s for a coffee on the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 14, she saw about nine of the dozen regulars she knew sitting at their usual tables. They were senior citizens, mostly in their 70s, who had staked out their niche in the restaurant for years.

But for a crew accustomed to holding lively discussions of the day’s news and hammering away at the crossword puzzle, the group seemed unusually glum. They called over Gauntt, whom they know as the librarian from the Cleveland Park branch across the street, and asked if she’d heard the news: As of the next day, they said, McDonald’s would be no more.

The average Cleveland Parker won’t miss a McDonald’s. “They’re happy about it [closing],” says Vas Sagar, manager at Potomac Video across the street. “But they’re a different strata of people. They think of [McDonald’s] as vulgar and low-end. But they’re not familiar with people on fixed incomes.”

The prevalence of more upscale dining along the neighborhood’s Connecticut Avenue commercial strip makes it difficult for some to find a convenient, affordable breakfast. Many restaurants don’t offer breakfast at all, and most of those that do prefer to turn customers over quickly and don’t offer many bargains.

But at the McDonald’s, says Vance Garnett, coffee for senior citizens was 28 cents a cup. “You just can’t beat that,” says the 67-year-old. “And McDonald’s has good coffee.” Older residents gravitated there, turning the restaurant into something of a salon where seniors would gather each morning to discuss current affairs.

By Friday, Jan. 16, the restaurant had been stripped down to a bare gray façade. A note on each glass door announced the closing of the restaurant and referred patrons to a corporate number if they had questions. The closing was so abrupt that some residents surmised mad- cow disease was to blame. “They thought mad cow had run it out of town,” says Garnett. “I guess because it was concomitant with the news break.”

The more plausible rumor along the strip was that a rent hike on the building had forced out the lessee. Many seemed to think that a Chipotle would move in.

But the real mystery was what had become of the seniors. Next door to the McDonald’s site, at the Wake Up Little Suzie boutique, manager Tim Bellis expressed concern the day after the closing.

“They’ve all been displaced,” said Bellis, adding that he’d miss the $3 lunch. “They were pretty faithful. The same people every morning and every afternoon.”

When the regulars told Gauntt about the closing, she was concerned enough to offer them their own table at the library each day. She even consulted her branch manager on the issue, and he OK’d it. “They were saying they’ll have no place to go,” she says. But Gauntt couldn’t make an exception to the library’s stringent no-food-or-drink policy, so coffee was forbidden. That, combined with the group’s reluctance to chat in a library, was enough to cool them on the idea. “I said, ‘We’ll make a special dispensation. If you get too rowdy, we’ll let you know,’” Gauntt says. “They said, ‘We can’t go there. We can’t talk in a library.’”

With McDonald’s gone, the regulars stopped showing up in the library, where they formerly would often drop by to make enlarged photocopies of the crossword for comrades who had trouble reading the regular print. Gauntt also suspects they had been in the habit of using the reference resources to solve clues that stumped them.

Cleveland Parkers often gather at the Firehook Bakery just a few doors from the McDonald’s, especially in nice weather, but the crowd tends to be more 30-something than octogenarian. “These people, I don’t think they’d feel comfortable there,” says Gauntt.

John Squitero, one of the old McDonald’s regulars, says he just bowed out of the group. He’s been heading solo to the Firehook since the McDonald’s closed, resigned to losing daily contact with other members. “We’d just shoot the shit, that’s all,” says the 83-year-old, who’s lived in Cleveland Park since 1968. “We’d get something to eat. Talk news. I’ll probably lose weight now that it’s closed.”

The staff never tried to shuffle them along after they finished their Egg McMuffins. “We’d spend money. None of us were chiselers,” says Squitero.

They were so devoted to the restaurant that one of them would have his last meal there. About two years ago, Squitero says a friend he remembers only as “Bob” died right at the table over a McDonald’s breakfast. “He had his food and all, and he sat down,” recalls Squitero. “Then I look over, and his head is flopped down on the table. He was dead. He never came to.” An ambulance came to the scene, but it was too late. The incident delivered a psychological blow to the seniors, many of whom were dealing with physical ailments at the time. “[Bob] was always worried about getting enough interest on his money,” says Squitero. “I kept telling him, ‘You don’t have a lot of time. Stop worrying and enjoy your life.’”

Squitero heard that some of the other seniors have relocated to the McDonald’s in Woodley Park, also on Connecticut Avenue. But on three different mornings during the week after the Cleveland Park franchise closed, no groups of senior citizens were visible at the Woodley McDonald’s. A manager at the restaurant said he’d seen an unfamiliar assemblage of seniors one morning early in the week, but he didn’t notice them again on any other days.

Shortly after the closing, Garnett made a trip to the Cleveland Park post office and ran into George, a friend he describes as a “ringleader” among the McDonald’s set, and his wife. Garnett asked George if he felt displaced now that McDonald’s was closed. George’s wife said it was for the best: He’d been spending too much time there. George told him nothing about Woodley Park.

Squitero, for one, says he wouldn’t have time to hike down to the Woodley McDonald’s. He has a golf schedule to keep to, even in January. “They’ll hang around there all day,” he says. “They’ve got nothing to do; my life is different. You miss McDonald’s, but you get over it.” CP

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