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Local Color: there's no place like Don's

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Don Selle will let you know a secret if you ask: the strawberry shortcake at Don's Coffee Club is not homemade. Nothing is, except for the coffee.

"I doctor my desserts," says Don, the sole proprietor. "It's sleight of hand. My desserts are sleight-of-hand desserts."

It's the middle of a Thursday afternoon, and a young woman has just ordered a cup of coffee and a plate of the shortcake. Behind a mahogany cabinet, in his makeshift kitchen, Don begins to work his magic. Out come the Jewel strawberries. Out comes the Entenmann's angel food cake.

"Is it real whipped cream?" the woman yells back to Don.

"Yeah," he says. "I make my own. I've got a Sunbeam blender. It cost me $6 at a junk store." He pulls a carton of whipping cream out of the refrigerator, which cost him $50 at a junk store, and winks. "I make my own," he repeats.

"Don," the young woman says, "you reaffirm my faith in humanity."

Don opened his Coffee Club on Jarvis just east of the el on May 1. Don lives upstairs, and spends more time in his cafe than he does at home. Going to the Coffee Club is like visiting Don's living room.

The walls are painted lemon yellow, except for the back wall, which is lined with 60s-style photographic wallpaper showing a palm tree at sunset. Ceiling fans whirl overhead. The room is full of tropical plants and knickknacks, including a ceramic flamingo, a ceramic panther, and a ceramic bust of some Egyptian goddess. A picture of Humphrey Bogart sits on a 1930s Zenith radio, flanked by ceramic swans. A chalkboard menu in a picture frame lists the day's desserts; thrift-store sea and jungle scapes line the walls.

Redwood-stained shelves house Don's silverware and his prized collection of ten-cent china. Everything at Don's is served on real china, bought at bargain-basement prices. "It's a thrift-store atmosphere." Don says. "Not the 40s, not the 50s, it's not now. It's a thrift store. My own world."

Don is easy to talk to, especially in the afternoon, when things are usually slow at the Coffee Club. This afternoon, however, Don has distractions. He has to grind coffee for one thing--his special "Casablanca roast"--and a customer has ordered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which Don has just added to the menu. He makes it on Wonder Bread.

"There are two kinds of peanut butter eaters," Don says. "The creamies and the crunchies. There's got to be a psychology to that. There has to be something; just like the coffee drinkers and the tea drinkers."

Don is also doing his laundry at the laundromat next door, and as he leaves to check on it he puts me in charge of rifling through his album collection for an original cast recording of South Pacific. His old record player spins all day long.

A wicker shelving unit holds Don's Broadway albums, along with his jazz albums, his torch-singer albums, his crooner albums, and his novelty records--several hundred in all. Don has original cast recordings of Kiss Me, Kate, Carousel, Candide, and Bells are Ringing. There's also Edith Piaf, Tony Bennett, Keely Smith, Ethel Waters, Abbe Lane, Lena Horne, Louis Prima, Dave Brubeck, and Doris Day, as well as a large selection of operas. Don has very strong opinions about his music.

On Doris Day: "The more I listen to her, I think she was one of the greatest singers ever. She's sickeningly sweet sometimes, but I could play you a few things with a good orchestra behind and you'd hear what she's all about."

On opera: "It's the highest thing of humanity. It's the ultimate thing that humanity has created. It's everything. Music, drama, art, ballet. It can be deadly boring, too, if it's done wrong. It's hard to say, it's a theatrical thing, you know."

Don doesn't like politics in his music. "I always thought the Beatles wrecked music," he says. "I mean I guess the lyrics are clever, but I don't know. I go for the old stuff where the songs are about romance, that's all."

Don, you see, is a romantic. He grew up in a more romantic era, he says--the late 40s and early 50s.

"We had movie stars that were bigger than life," he says. "Beautiful. Untouchable. Marilyn Monroe. Ava Gardner. Burt Lancaster. Edward G. Robinson. If they weren't beautiful people they were classically ugly people like Edward G. Robinson. An ugly guy, actually, but he was fabulous."

For all his talk of Hollywood glamour, Don is decidedly unglamorous. At 52, he has grown a little paunchy. He is fond of wearing Hawaiian floral print shirts. He has narrow blue gray eyes. He has most of his hair, which is white and curly.

He grew up on the south side, at 90th and Loomis, in the middle of Beverly. In his childhood coffee was a social drink, sipped from fine china. His Swedish grandmother, he says, even brought her china on picnics. Don remembers his childhood as a world of cultural wonders: opera, elaborate musicals, vaudeville routines, and spectacular movies. As a student at Augustana College in Rock Island, Don became further enriched.

"Fabulous college, fabulous," he says, "where we had nothing but culture. Where we saw Carl Sandburg come and read his poetry. We saw Bette Davis come and read poetry. We saw Aaron Copland conduct his own music. We saw all the jazz people, everybody that existed. Duke Ellington, I saw in person, my God. All to the school."

Since college Don has done many things, including office work, directing a home for wayward children, and waiting tables for eight years. He has also owned a magazine store, a few hot-dog stands, a thrift store, and a vintage video store. In none of these jobs did he employ his college major--languages.

"I took seven languages. Russian, Italian, Spanish, everything. Swedish I took. Norwegian, Danish, I took 'em all." Currently, he is talking to one of his customers about Italian opera, trying to decide what he will put on the turntable next.

"Will you play Aida?" asks his customer, a young man with longish blond hair.

"Oh, yes, I'd love to hear Aida," Don says, grinding up some coffee in a junk-store grinder.

"How about La traviata?"

"I've got a lousy La traviata," Don says. "Renata Tebaldi. She can't sing."

Don laments that there aren't more people around with whom he can talk opera. Or talk anything, for that matter.

"I don't think there's any culture, period, in the United States anymore," he says. "Except for people who have money. I think it's a cultureless society in a way. I think that's what's wrong, that's why there's so much violence. There's no culture anymore."

At night Don doesn't have a lot of time for opinions, because the Coffee Club, as he says, really starts to swing. He turns on the vintage lamps, and the Coffee Club begins to glow dimly as the hazy air fills with smoke. Smoking is allowed at Don's Coffee Club.

Sarah Vaughan plays in the background, and Don approaches a table of patrons. One young woman orders an ice cream sundae, and her companion orders some cheesecake, which Don buys from a local bakery. "Since my mother, there has not been a cheesecake like this cheesecake," he says. His portions are enormous, twice what anyone could expect, or desire. Don says the Coffee Club is not for those who are watching their cholesterol.

"I don't believe in all that," he says. "I remember going over to where my mother's people were from. Sweden. On these farms, that's all they did was drink milk, and they would drink milk that's, you know, 100 times the fat. It's all fresh from the cow. I didn't see all these sick people, and I don't know if I believe all that cholesterol stuff. Might be true."

Don's Coffee Club, 1439 W. Jarvis, is open from 3 PM to 1 AM every day. There's no phone in the place.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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