Friday, May 06, 2005

Last Call at the Ground Floor ...

A couple of weeks back, the family and I headed downtown for a cup of coffee and some conversation at one of the Tall City's best locations for both. It was a night like many others I had enjoyed over the years at the Ground Floor Coffee House in downtown Midland. But there was also one big and - for me, at least - sad difference. It was to be our last night at the Ground Floor.

The coffee shop's closing is old news to most of you by now. But I only just got the attached photo developed, so I'm writing about it now.

I started off as a weekly visitor to the Ground Floor several years back, when it was still owned and operated by John Nute. Like so many of us, John "wasn't born in Texas, but got here as fast as he could." He brought with him an entrepreneurial spirit, the speculation that bordered on high-odds gambling, that was much akin to that of the old pioneers in the oil and gas industry.

I was working for the Thursday morning weekly Fort Stockton Pioneer newspaper and, every Wednesday night, we brought our dummy sheets up to the pressroom at the Midland Reporter-Telegram for printing. The printing - even for a relatively small run such as ours - took some time, and I was glad to discover one of the few downtown locations that was still open after dark, where I could just walk in, have a little something to eat, and fortify myself with enough coffee to get me back to Stockton later that night for the inserting and delivering of Thursday morning's paper.

John was almost always there. He seemed to illustrate that old adage ... "the best part about owning your own business is, you only work half-days most of the time ... and you get to pick which twelve hours you work each day!"

Once we made the move to Midland, we became more frequent visitors to the Ground Floor. A Saturday tradition for the boys and I was a trip downtown to visit the library, and then the Ground Floor ... a cup of coffee for me, Italian cream sodas or granitas for the boys, and cookies all around. We'd sit and play games, like chess (which John and I taught the boys) and Crazy 8's or Mancala (which the boys taught us).

We weren't alone - though there were some days it seemed we were - in our appreciation of the coffee house. Whenever friends and visitors came to town, sometimes pulling off I-20 late at night, we could always count on the Ground Floor to be there, open and easy to find, with a line of sandwiches and drinks to appeal to every taste, and a staff that didn't mind you lingering long after the meal was over, talking and catching up on old times. It was a favorite stop for Southwest Airlines crews overnighting next-door at the Hilton - John had a whole row of Southwest tee-shirts, carrying the names of airline staff who 'signed-in' ... it became something of a tradition with them.

It was a popular spot for the young people, high school students who received a genuine welcome when they walked in the door - rather than a suspicious glance. In fact, a pretty good number of young people took jobs at the Ground Floor over the years, starting off as counter help, with some moving on to manage. It was for many of them their first real-world experience in business, and most of them turned out very well, indeed. It was "THEIR" place - in a way no other business in town could be - and they cared about it. When the time came to hand over more and more of the Ground Floor's operation, John found young hands ready, willing and able to take over.

John also set the example of a responsible business citizen, and a promoter of downtown initiatives. For Artwalk and Celebration of the Arts, he would bring in artists and musicians. Throughout the year, he provided free meeting space - and plenty of coffee - for poetry readings, political gatherings, and meetings among 'Friends of Bill W.' Young artists were given walls to hang, display and sell their works

And now it's gone ...

Much has been made recently of the latest batch of movers-and-shakers who are going to rejuvenate Midland's downtown. They have surveys and they have plans, they have executive boards and they have committees ... they even have taxing authority.

And now, they have one more empty storefront ...

Of course, they ARE busy ... there are meetings to be held, speeches to be made, artist's renderings to be published, and tax revenues to be collected. And I wouldn't be surprised that some sort of honorarium, some type of award has already been prepared to celebrate their incredibly successful "vision."

But what about their "application" ... what happens when it's time to stop talking, and start working?

I hope something comes of it all ... not just lucrative write-offs for the usual, select few - but a rejuvenated and refurbished downtown from which we might all benefit ... I hope, but I don't know ... and I don't expect, either.

Otherwise, the last call at the Ground Floor will be just another note in the continuing, growing chorus, the last call for downtown Midland.


Pancho said...

As a longstanding 'Friend of Bill W' I was in attendance at our Wednesday "lunch bunch" meeting since we first started meeting at the Ground Floor. I got to know John and many of the "kids" who worked there quite well. In fact, John is the only person I know who has actually been to my personal sister city of Coober Pedy Australia. We'll miss them.

Eric said...

My wife and I were frequent customers in the early days, back when I was still a corporate drone. In fact, some of the details of the ARCO Permian/Chevron asset merger (which, alas, never actually took flight) were negotiated over rounds of granitas and cappuchinos as we met semi-secretly in the Midland Center basement.

After my primary reason to be downtown went away, we fell out of the habit of going there, and it had been probably a year since we'd last been in. It's always sad to see a unique business shut its doors, and I feel a little guilt for not being more consistently supportive.

deb said...

I frequented the coffee shop quite a bit between 1997 and 2000. Despite working with geoscientists whose hometowns were scattered across the country, John felt like one of the few cosmopolitan souls in the city. I loved the diverse atmosphere in the shop, which was a welcome change from the almost exclusively late-30's-and-up demographic of my workplace. Finances at the store were always tight, though, and I always wondered when, not if, it would close. I'm sad to hear it finally folded but John's hopefully happier without that monetary albatross around his neck. I wish I had kept in touch better and I'd know all this already instead of finding it out when I'm trying to send him a holiday card. If anyone knows his whereabouts, please email me: Thanks, Deb.

for Barb, John said...

one desert flower
sharing life with mourning dew
smells the coffee, still.