The light inside the golden arches flicked on, casting a strange glow on six elderly men filing into McDonald's. It was early morning as the men slid into molded plastic seats, warming their hands around Styrofoam coffee cups.
"To me, this golden age stuff is a lot of crap," said one, fingering a vial of pills for high blood pressure. "You pick up the newspaper and the first thing you turn to is the obituary page."
"Yeah," said another. "I look to see if my name is listed there."
Each morning for the past 10 years the men have come to kibitz about the nebbish of a doctor who treated them yesterday, the price of nitroglycerin, Saddam Hussein, bus trips to Las Vegas, sex, crime, traffic, car mechanics and assorted jokes that revolve around camels.
They have transformed the Woodland Hills Erwin Street McDonald's into a type of Yiddish "Cheers"--a place to go where everybody knows their name.
"We're like old dogs--a certain spot takes on a special meaning for you after a while so you keep coming back to it," said Norman Schlosberg, the unofficial chairman of the group that meets each morning from 6:30 to about 8:30. "Meeting here gives us a reason to wake up in the morning.
"We tend to have a liberal outlook on most subjects. But we're all Jewish, so we tend to be a bit harsh about what's happening in the Mideast."
Schlosberg, 75, a retired attorney from Brooklyn, started the other men talking nearly a decade ago by asking them questions about current events. Many of the men, who often number 10 or more, live at the nearby Oakwood Apartments. Those who comprise the group's core include Dave Millman, 84; Roy Levine, 75; Murray Turner, 80; Les Ronay, 72; and Abe Zemser, 73. All of them live in Woodland Hills.
"We solve all the problems of the world," said Millman, a retired Los Angeles cabdriver. "We throw topics around and everyone has an opinion. Some are good and some are bad."
Despite the duration of their time together, the men said they haven't formed any deep bonds. They rarely see each other outside of McDonald's, but they often visit each other in the hospital when illnesses strike.
"Some of us have discovered that at a certain age, this bond stuff no longer works," said Schlosberg, who now volunteers his time as a lecturer on philosophy at the Woodland Hills Jewish Community Center. "I don't think any of us would make any real sacrifices for each other. When you're in your 20s, 30s and even 40s, you pay attention to fraternity and brotherhood and so forth. But not now."
Their conversations grow heated. Rising tempers ("I don't want your opinion") and finger jabbing ("Who asked you anyway?") often prompt early-morning patrons to lay down their Egg McMuffins to catch a glimpse of the ruckus. On occasion, management has asked the gentlemen to tone down their voices.
"They're basically good customers," said manager Ed Wilcox, 28, who has worked mornings at the restaurant for eight years. "I don't get involved in their conversations very much and, frankly, I'm too busy running the place to listen."
Following is an account of the group's discussions, broken down into the men's favorite topics:
Ronay: "Once in a while, I try it, but I think it's more trouble than it's worth. I let the machine pick the numbers. I treat the lottery like maybe I treat my wife. She tells me what to do. The lottery machine tells me what to do. I don't want any arguments."
Millman: "I have to go to the miserable doctor this morning. I got a pain in this eye and, boy, does it hurt."
Levine: "This subject will take us an hour and a half."
Millman: "Listen to me. In three years maybe this country will create a national health insurance. In the meantime, the AMA and the doctors are bleeding Medicare to death."
Schlosberg: "Every industrialized Western nation has national insurance. You can go up to Canada as a tourist and, if you get hurt there, they'll treat you free."
Turner: "There aren't enough policemen out here for this huge Valley."
Ronay: "Crime and drugs are starting to move out to the West Valley now."
Turner: "Moving? They've been here for the past 10 years."
Millman: "We need more money."
Ronay: "More policemen."
Turner: "We've got too many Easterners out here now. They clog up all the freeways."
Schlosberg: "I think there's too many people on this earth. We no longer have the resources to . . . "
Turner: "Much of the problem is unwise management. Why don't we go back to having big trucks make their deliveries between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. like during the '84 Olympics? Traffic was much lighter, the air was cleaner and there were fewer accidents."
Schlosberg: "Let me tell you what my doctor said to me. I said, 'Hey, doc, I'm a little bit envious of some of the men that I have breakfast with. They tell me about all their conquests with women. But these guys are my age.' So he said to me, 'Norman, those guys are full of bull.' "
The alternative to not meeting at the restaurant is "rather harsh," Schlosberg said. "Most us are married, but for various reasons our so-called romance has faded. And so life is rather blase. We're all a little bit lonely."
Millman added: "When one guy doesn't show up, we have to know why. One person becomes a delegate to go find out what's wrong with them. Yes, we always talk about sickness. But we can throw each other curves. We learn a lot from each other and we're very controversial."
"Yeah," said Schlosberg. "Just yesterday we agreed that oatmeal is much more expensive than it used to be. We talked about that one for over an hour."