Hearts that are delicate and kind and tongues that are neither--these make the finest company in the world.
-- Logan Pearsall Smith
Crisp, morning banter is what you'll find at Bill Lang's Soft Water in Burbank three to four times a week. It's a rare and special conversational flow, a tradition of hard tongues and soft hearts that has flourished for 30 years.
A varying number of men have been gathering in this clanky office-garage for coffee and conversation since 1956. It is, simply put, Lake Wobegon--Southern California style.
In this age of time-management, upward mobility, disposable friendships and strategies for success, what makes Bill Lang's Soft Water such an anachronistic and endurable morning magnet for these law-abiding free spirits?
"Oh, I think it's basically the coffeepot," 57-year-old Lang deadpanned. "When I get everybody going, it's just some place to spend an hour in the morning. It's a place men can tell each other things you can't say at home or you don't want to say at home.
"Take Bob Muravez, the Maytag man, a couple doors down. He's 48 and races in those super carts, those miniature Formula Ones. He comes in here and goes through all the gyrations of his weekend road races. Ray's (Swann) the same way. He's 52 and still races dragsters. They both like to tell everything about it. We all love to brag."
Good-natured one-upmanship colors the morning conversation as it zigzags from the sport of the season to family events, controversial TV shows, the business of water and the latest in lottery lore.
"I came in here with four of my hard-earned quarters, after already buying the doughnuts, and gave them to Bob to buy a lottery ticket," Swann said with a feint of pain on his face. "And these guys hit the big one ($2). Then they cashed it and spent it too!"
Perhaps one reason this kaffeeklatsch has endured so long is that Bill Lang's roots are deep. Lang's father moved from Mankato, Minn., to Burbank in 1946 and opened the business along the nondescript curve on Victory Boulevard.
After his father died in 1955, Bill Lang ran the business with his two brothers, Tom and Jim, until they sold out in 1970. "On Monday mornings, I would buy about 10 cases of Coors," recalled Lang. "At 3:30, the city employees would come here and have a beer. There'd be 10, 12 fellows sitting around talking."
Lang estimates there have been about 50 regulars or semi-regulars at the kaffeeklatsch through the years. "There was Ed Clarke with an 'e,' " he noted. "Some of the guys from the VFW. An insurance salesman. A mailman. A Laundromat owner. A liquor-store manager. An upholstery man. I even had one route man, Tim McGill, who lived in Fountain Valley. He liked the atmosphere so much he drove here everyday, back and forth."
"Well my daughter, Pat, comes in around 9," he explained. "But sometimes the sessions get so bad, so thick, she turns right around and goes back in the office."
Bob Muravez's father started the Maytag business he now runs in 1945. "We're all creatures of habit," said the Burbank native. "You get up early, go and have a cup of coffee before work. And you have different types of people sharing all types of experiences."
Basic Minnesota Guy
Does Lang's personality have anything to do with the longevity of the group? "I think what most people like about him is he's genuine. He's your basic Minnesota guy stuck in the middle of a big city," Muravez observed. "And he's a white-knuckler. He's never been in an airplane. In this day and age, I think that's a wonder. Plus he has that Midwest humor, with a tail on it. After he says something, it kind of comes around and hits you."
Ray Swann, another Burbank native, joined the group in 1971 after he built his Spray Rite Car Wash. "Lang's a fun guy to be around and has a good rapport with people," he said. "We've got some regular things we like to needle each other about. I stir him up good every morning. When he gets all fired up and excited, then I leave."
Ken Druck, a San Diego-based clinical psychologist, said this type of gathering and the friendships that have developed from it are quite rare.
A wall exists among most male friends, he said, dividing male friendship into five categories: best friends, good buddies, party friends, friends of the past and institutional friends.
"It sounds like this group falls into the latter category," he said. "It provides them all with the self-esteem of a sense of belonging. But it's completely unusual because our society is so transient and men are not inclined to invest that kind of priority time into their relationships. I would say maybe 10 to 15% of men on the coasts enjoy this kind of institutional friendship. In the middle parts of the country, it's probably 20 to 25%."