Don Selle threw a prom last year and too many people came. "I still dream about it," he says. "One hundred and fifty people. It was a nightmare. We couldn't keep up."
Don owns Don's Coffee Club, which in four years has evolved from a little Rogers Park place no one knows about into a little Rogers Park place a lot of people know about. One of the most prominent decorative features is a picture from a fraternity formal during Don's freshman year in college, in which he looks like a scared rabbit about to get creamed by a Peterbilt. A regular customer of Don's thought the picture was hilarious and told him he should throw a prom. At the time, Don thought that sounded like a good idea.
So he took out $1,000 worth of newspaper advertising. He hired his friend Avril Greenberg to bring her hot dog cart and set it up on the sidewalk out front. He blew up hundreds of balloons and strung Christmas lights from his neighbors' apartment windows. Then came the deluge. "I ran out one time and said, 'Look at all the people.' I couldn't believe it."
The promgoers backed up three-deep waiting for Don to serve them pie. He played 45s by Louis Prima, Duke Ellington, and Buddy Holly, and people danced. When the police arrived at around 2:30 AM, several dozen customers were doing a conga line to a Tito Puente record. Don was relieved when the cops broke it up. "Otherwise it would have gone all night. They never would have stopped. Two police walked in and said, 'Who's responsible for this?' I played dumb. They said, 'Where is your permit for outdoor music?' I said I didn't know anything about it. You know, you do the Chicago dumb act. They said, 'Turn it off.' I said, 'I was anyway.' I'm surprised the neighbors didn't call earlier."
In the years since Don opened he's accumulated many loyal customers despite his extensive efforts to drive them away. Last year he raised the price of a cup of coffee to $3. He also removed several outside tables because people loved them so much. Starting September 7 Don will no longer allow smoking. He's hoping that the large groups of teenagers, whom he detests, will never return. But they probably will, he sighs. "It's become a Frankenstein monster. It's good, because you need the money, but I never thought people would flock in like they do. Besides, it's more exciting when you're turning people away. People like that. They hate it, but they like it."
Every time a dish gets too popular he takes it off the menu. Pies and ice cream have disappeared and reappeared numerous times. Over the years Don has served bratwurst, spaghetti, and toasted cheese-and-tomato sandwiches, but no longer: people liked them too much. For a while he provided something called Donchos--three different store-bought salsas mixed together and poured over tortilla chips. People loved it too, and soon it disappeared.
If Don gets too busy, he'll shove a coffee urn into the hands of a regular and say something like, "Here. Serve." But he does have employees. Jacqueline Rieker has worked at Don's since October 1993, when he first pressed her into service.
Jacqueline is a broad-shouldered, big-eyed Italian in her 30s who's prone to utter, with no prompting, statements like "If you kiss your pet and it tastes like spaghett, that's real Italian love." Though she has a day job selling drapery and has cut back from her initial six nights a week at Don's, she finds it hard to get away from the place. She still lives around the corner and is there so often that one college newspaper referred to her as "Don's wife."
"We spend too much time together," she says. "I've had more than one person tell me that I'm as much the institution of Don's as Don. It's not something to brag about."
Don drives Jacqueline to drink more coffee than she would like. She calls Don's "the business that survives in spite of itself." On a recent weeknight in Don's tiny kitchen she talked about how things would be different if she were running the place. She wouldn't get rid of the parrot lamps, the 1940s records, the ratty old chairs, the house cats, or the thrift-store china. But everything else, she says, would change.
"I've always felt like if Don would leave for a week and let me open, business would be better. Tremendous. I'd reopen the outside. Hire employees and be open all the time instead of just at night. We only serve ginger ale. If you're going to serve pop, what the hell? Buy a case of ginger ale one day, Diet Coke the next, and Coke the next. He's thinking about bringing back Polish sausages. No Polish. I said, 'Why don't you just bring back a cheese sandwich?' Not toasted. Just cheese. And I think we should have two microwaves so we can do things more efficiently. I would at least rewire the kitchen so we could have the microwave and the toaster on at the same time."
Don's come back to the kitchen to slice a gooey piece of vanilla cake. "I tried that," he says. "I had it rewired and it didn't work."
"But I would do it again," says Jacqueline. "And I would have different desserts all the time."
"Nineteen desserts today!" Don says.
"Nineteen desserts. But for a long time we only had the same things. We got rid of the pies."
"People like what they like."
"Yeah, but I have a car. You don't!"
"They like things."
"That's too bad! They would get used to the rotation of desserts. There'd be a dessert of the week."
"Oh, I'd hate to get rid of that chocolate cake."
Jacqueline looks exasperated. "Well, certain things could stay! But there would be variety. It wouldn't be the same all the time."
"Let them eat cake!" Don chuckles merrily.
He'll run this year's prom his way, turning over all the food-serving work to a caterer. Also, the festivities will end precisely at midnight. It's his coffeehouse, he says, and he should be able to do what he likes.
"I hardly go anywhere besides here. I would never go to a big prom like this otherwise. That many people? I'd hate it, just hate it. I think it's my Swedish background. You know Swedes. They don't ingratiate themselves to people.
"Besides, outside of the place I'm not Don. I'm a schlub from the south side. I'm cloned. I'm a clone now for the place. A robot. It's sucked up all my personality, if there ever was any."
And the prom will be outside this year, he says. "Paper plates and cups--very little stuff. None of this coming back here and asking me for things. Toast."
Don throws up his hands, thinking about the onslaught. He goes into the kitchen, his voice trailing off--"No. Nooo..."--and comes back with some pie a la mode.
"I learned my lesson," he says. "Offer them too much, and they'll drive you crazy."
Don's second annual Prom Night goes from 9 PM to midnight this Saturday at Don's Coffee Club, 1439 W. Jarvis. Formal attire preferred. Call 773-274-1228. --Neal Pollack
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Don's prom photo; Don Selle, Jacqueline Rieker photo by Lloyd DeGrane.