A daily helping of conversation Friends: The Table, a Glen Burnie fraternity of mostly middle-aged businessmen, has been meeting every weekday for lunch and discussions since the mid-1950s.

December 11, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

In the thick of the weekday lunch hour, a group of middle-aged men at a Glen Burnie diner is deep in discussion about male strippers.

"The girls don't stuff money in the britches?" asks 61-year-old Joe Jacobs as he flips through a stack of pictures a waitress, who recently attended a raunchy fund-raiser, has handed him to pass around.

The talk isn't always so saucy at The Table, a lunch fraternity that has been meeting every weekday since the mid-1950s. Since the group of about 10 men began lunching together at a Glen Burnie greasy spoon, members of The Table have talked about everything from the demise (then revitalization) of their community's town center to television shows such as "Ally McBeal."

The group's regulars are between ages 41 and 75, and many are quintessential hard-working, self-made Glen Burnie men who own real estate offices, auto supplies stores and music recording studios. Their lives have changed through the decades, but one thing has remained constant -- that noon lunch appointment every weekday where they get to relax, eat and shoot the breeze with their best friends.

"I try to be here every day, and it's not for the food," said Jacobs, who's been at The Table since the 1960s, when his attorney, John Collins, invited him. "It's just like we're family. Everybody has kids that grew up with all of us talking about it, and now we're starting to have grandchildren."

In the 1950s, when Glen Burnie had a thriving downtown around the Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad stop at Crain Highway and Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard, many went to lunch at the WB&A restaurant next to the station. Attorneys and businessmen who knew one another began sitting together.

That original bunch included such local luminaries as John A. "Jack" Blondell, a Glen Burnie attorney; Jerry Sidle, who owned Sidle's department store where everybody in Northern Anne Arundel County shopped; and Bill Wilson, owner of a real estate development company. Wilson is the last of the original group who's a regular.

The group grew as members invited other businessmen to lunch, and before they knew it, people began referring to them as The Table.

"We got very well known," Wilson, 75, said. "If you were in Glen Burnie, people knew to stop in and have lunch with The Table."

The men occupied about three booths at the WB&A each weekday, sharing business chat and the more than occasional off-color joke over hot beef sandwiches and hamburgers. In the early 1960s, they moved to The Whistlestop, an eatery in the train station, and when it went out of business 15 years ago, they headed a block up Crain Highway to Fay's Luncheonette. Their next stop was Venice restaurant at Cromwell Fields Shopping Center before they settled at Mikie's on Furnace Branch Road last year.

The conversation hasn't changed as much as the locale. County politics and business dominate their discussions. Disasters, wars or tragedies also are big topics. Wilson said the group was the most somber that he can remember the day after the Kennedy assassination.

"We were all in a state of shock," Wilson said. "Our president had been shot. We all thought that was a rather earth-shattering type of situation. Some of them made a joke about it, but some got right upset."

The mood generally is light-hearted, and recent years have brought on such discussions as cell-phone purchases and television shows, especially "Ally McBeal."

"Every Tuesday we have a lot to say about it," said Nelson Cross, 55, who owns an auto-parts business.

"I like the co-ed restrooms," Jacobs said with a smile. "And the music."

The members pride themselves on being so diverse in their occupations that Glen Burnie people know to stop by for free advice. Jacobs owns a music recording studio; David Hare, 58, a photo studio; Kern Brooke, 41, is a self-professed "Mulch-man" who owns a business of that name; and more than a handful of attorneys come to lunch whenever they're not in court.

The group seems prouder about the politicians who stop by The Table to schmooze. During the recent elections, they said James E. DeGrange Sr., who won his race for the state Senate, and newly elected County Councilwomen A. Shirley Murphy and Pamela G. Beidle came by. Beidle is one of their favorites. She had lunch with them when they were at Fay's and was one of the first women besides their wives to join The Table.

"We had others," Brooke said. "But they didn't last very long."

In 1985, member Robert Stout invited his sister to have lunch with The Table. The moment she sat down, after the men stopped sizing her up, legal secretary Jacqui Showalter fitted right in. She shot retorts back when the menteased her and critiqued her clothing.

Showalter, 47, said she never minded their mocking because she knew they respected and cared about her. Newly widowed when she joined the Table, the group became her family and social network. She stuck with them after her brother moved to Richmond, Va., a few years later.

She said she didn't know how much the men had become her family until she met her husband, Barrie Showalter, four years ago.

"They had to screen him," said Showalter, who put her husband through interrogation at The Table. "Kern said to me, 'I think you're worthy of him.' "

The tradition they represent might be coming to an end. Cross is a second-generation Table member -- he began coming by in the early 1980s after hearing about his father's lunch buddies. Not many new faces have shown up recently.

"Younger folks are just too busy," Cross said. "I have a 29-year-old son and he just doesn't have the time. I could never do this unless I owned my own business."

That doesn't stop the Tablers from hoping this gathering outlives them.

"I would hate to see something that has been going on for 40-something years to end," Jacobs said. "It's something special to each one of us."

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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