FORT KENT, Maine — Let the worldly socialites have their Soho House, the male powerbrokers their Bohemian Club and the old money Yalies their Skull and Bones. It’s a pretty safe bet none of them could crack what could be the most exclusive piece of real estate in North America.
Every day, rain, shine, snow, sleet or gloom, the circular, four-foot table in the middle of the Fort Kent McDonald’s is home to a small group of regulars who guard that turf with all the fervor of the Jets versus the Sharks — minus the Bernstein and Sondheim songs and choreography.
They come every day, this group of area retirees. They come to enjoy some coffee and soda, to get out of the house and socialize and to catch up on the latest local news and gossip.
But mostly, they come to play cards.
Not just any card game, mind you. They are here to play Charlemagne, that uniquely French Acadian game that, to an outsider anyway, looks like an incomprehensible mashup of bridge and cribbage.
“Not just anyone can come and play at this table,” Judy Levasseur, of Fort Kent, said with a laugh Friday afternoon while sitting out a hand. “Oh, we’ll give people a chance one time, but if they can’t play they are out.”
Levasseur’s days revolve around the several hours she spends at the Fort Kent McDonald’s. For the disabled resident, it’s equal parts social and medicinal.
“I am under doctor’s orders to come here,” she said. “He told me the worst thing I can do is sit around the house alone, so I come here to be with people.”
Once there, she is anything but alone.
That’s because the eatery has become a sort of unofficial senior club in town, and its “members” are there before the sun comes up.
“We come in to see what’s going on,” Gil Gagnon, a 62-year-old Fort Kent retiree said over a cup of coffee early Friday morning. “We always learn something new and pick up some good gossip.”
Gagnon, along with fellow regulars Omer Dubois, 71; retired plumber Patrick Albert; Clifford Pelletier and Gary Nadeau are among what they term “the first shift” of seniors who hang out at the restaurant every day.
The Fort Kent McDonald’s opens at 6 a.m., but the men’s trucks are pulling in by 5:45 a.m., engines idling until the manager opens the doors.
“One of the things we talk about is how we wish they’d open up earlier,” Gagnon said.
“This is the start of the day for us,” Albert said. “Plus, the coffee’s good.”
There is usually at least one newspaper to pass around to provide fodder for the morning’s conversation.
“We talk about politics, the weather and what’s going on around town,” Nadeau said.
“And women,” Gagnon added with a grin. “There’s always something to talk about and we try to solve the world’s problems, but nobody ever listens to us.”
It’s an all-male crowd in the predawn hours, but those demographics change as the day goes on.
“We are always the first shift,” Gagnon said. “We stick around till about 8 a.m. or so and then the older crowd starts coming in, and after lunch, it’s the card players.”
There is a bit of overlap among the groups, and Levasseur says that time is spent in conversation comparing notes.
“We do share a lot of recipes,” she said. “We talk about the news and our families and some of us gals come in to see the men.”
More than a social outing, the gatherings at McDonalds also provide a sort of safety net for the group.
“We are sort of like a family,” Levasseur said. “If one of us does not show up we notice and try to make sure they are OK.”
“That’s why I come every day,” Nelson Bouchard piped in. “If I die someone will notice I’m missing.”
And like a family, there can be a bit of strife from time to time.
“Sometimes there are spats between people,” Levasseur said. “But eventually everyone makes up.”
The bonds among those who gather daily at the restaurant go beyond coffee and hamburgers.
“You can pretty much count on the people you see here,” Levasseur said. “They are here if you ever need a helping hand.”
At times there are three or four gathered, other times the group commandeers up to four tables, but they are never made to feel unwelcome by the management.
“We don’t mind having them in here at all,” Angie Gagnon, store manager, said. “Every day they are here is a fun day [and] we all know each other by name now.”
All the management asks, Angie Gagnon said, is the group leaves those tables free during really busy times of the day.
“They are really accommodating,” the manager said. “We like having them and when you notice someone is missing for a few days, we get worried about them.”
For their part, the retirees have nothing but good things to say about the employees and will often bring in baked goods or other treats for the workers.
The lunch rush is hardly over before the cards come out and decks are cut to determine partners for the day’s Charlemagne game.
“We don’t always play ‘Charlie,’ sometimes we play cribbage, but that’s rare,” Gary Ducas said, dealing out the first hand.
“That’s because no one knows how to play cribbage,” Roland Voisine retorts, looking at his cards.
Teasing and bantering is constant during the games as cards are drawn, placed down and points counted and friendly accusations exchanged between partners.
“We never get physical about it,” Bouchard said.
“But sometimes we do talk under our breath,” Levasseur added.
There are nuances to the game, covert looks between players and subtle hand motions.
“In some forms of Charlemagne a player ‘knocks’ or raps on the table to signal what they have,” Leonard Pelletier said. “We don’t play that way.”
But the older gentleman pointed to the players and said, “They don’t knock, but look at that thumb action, it’s legal cheating.”
The game goes on to around 2:30 p.m. when the group disperses for the day.
“There is an evening shift, too,” Gil Gagnon said. “But I don’t come down at night.”
Organizing his cards, Bouchard said he knows he is one of the lucky ones.
“This table is reserved for the chosen few,” he said. “I was lucky and made the cut.”
For the group, McDonald’s represents a hangout, reminiscent of the soda fountains of their youth.
“I think we’d all really be lost if we didn’t have McDonald’s to come to,” Levasseur said, and considered a moment. “I suppose I could heat my garage if it came to that.”