JANESVILLE, Wis. — As leaves spun down like blazing yellow confetti from the honey locust trees in the terrace of Uptown Janesville, six men unfolded Green Bay Packers lawn chairs under a cloudless Friday morning sky.
The men, most in their golden 80s, one just turned 90, sat under the crumbly awning of the mall's former JCPenney store. In unison, they uncorked Thermoses of hot coffee, sending the smell of java into the 65-degree air.
The bright colors of the men's standard-issue satin windbreakers and ball caps were reflected in the glass entry of the empty Penney's, now marked in white adhesive lettering as "Building E."
The men make up one of several groups of mainly middle-aged and elderly men who have begun to meet and socialize in retail parking lots on Janesville's northeast side. Residents say they've recently noticed small groups who meet daily for coffee klatches. The meetings are conspicuous because each man brings his own lawn chair, the Janesville Gazette reported.
The lawn chair clubs (if that's what the groups can be called) seem to have developed organically—an outdoor, socially distanced reaction to months of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
George Brunner, a retired Janesville police chief and one of the sentinels who hangs Fridays at the old JCPenney, said a few of the men walk around the mall parking lot to exercise. On Fridays, the whole group—six or seven, sometimes spouses, too—congregates on lawn chairs outside the mall for coffee and chat.
"We sit around spread out in chairs," Brunner said. "It provides some…"
Mark Bennett, another member of the lawn chair club, cut Brunner off with a joke.
"It provides us time to BS," Bennett said, chuckling.
Brunner smiled and continued.
"Everyone is looking for some semblance of things being normal right now. For us, we're friends. We can share information or share an idea you have. Sometimes we just tell stories," Brunner said.
Janesville resident Hank Brill came in on cue with a dose of gallows humor.
"Hey, did you hear about the doctor that they asked about COVID-19, and when it's supposed to get over with? The doctor said: 'I'm a doctor, not a politician. How the hell am I supposed to know?'"
Laughter echoed along the mall's empty backside and east parking lot, vacant except for the men's cars and a mall maintenance golf cart. But like every Friday morning for the group, everyone important was there and in a lawn chair.
Earl "The Ice Man" Schultz, retired owner of a local ice company, stood with his arms folded across his chest, listening to a conversation among the gaggle of 70-ish men.
The topic: Why don't funeral homes give senior citizen discounts? Another member of the group, Wilson Leong, said it was probably the heaviest and most speculative issue that the friends had tried to tackle that morning.
"We're solving the world's problems, as you can see," Leong said. "And that's about it. It's not a panel on politics. We've all got diverse backgrounds, but we're all friends, and you know what discussing politics can do. So we don't let that get bad. Mostly, it's chats about 'What the heck is the deal with this or that?'"
Leong, a former community college athletic director and news media public relations manager, said he and his friends for years met at diners for breakfast and coffee. But the pandemic has temporarily curtailed their dining indoors.
Most of the men feel more comfortable meeting up at a slight distance, outdoors, with chairs stationed on the parking lot and spread apart 6 feet or so.
"It's not a normal time. I'll admit that me and most of us here are getting tired of this (pandemic). But meeting up like this, it makes things feel almost normal," Leong said.
He said the lawn chair club meets twice a week early in the day. It gives the group some sense of routine, and Leong said it also helps the men stay up to speed during a time when things seem to change quickly.
A few of the group's friends have recently had surgery, and one can't come to lawn chair club because he has an underlying health condition that makes him a higher risk for getting COVID-19.
"It's more difficult to do right now, to stay connected," Leong said. "But part of this is we're trying to stay in touch, because that's a part of looking out for each other."
At the former JCPenney, retired nurse Angie Schendel was passing through the parking lot in an SUV. She'd seen the gaggle of people hanging out at the store entrance, and she understood. She has seen another lawn chair group out in the parking lot at the McDonald's on Milton Avenue.
Schendel said she'd bought the McDonald's lawn chair club breakfast once because she was so happy to see people who had found a way to maintain contact during the pandemic, something she said is vital for people, especially the elderly population.
"I think it's wonderful. It's important for people's minds and bodies to have these interactions. The times we're in are hard enough. Much worse to be isolated. So, I say bless them for what they're doing. It's amazing," Schendel said.
She had another thought for the group of men:
"Tell them to get their flu shots. And tell them if they're going to sit outside, put on some sunblock. You still need to wear sunblock in the fall."