Eye-Opener at Dad's Coffee Shop Isn't Likely to Be Found at Mom's

Associated Press

The question before the court remains: What is entertainment?

It is a subject discussed the livelong day in this gritty little town of 6,700 in the Pennsylvania hills, especially over the plywood counter of Dad's Coffee Shop, an unremarkable establishment in every respect save one. At Dad's, the waitresses, who serve the coffee in Styrofoam cups, are naked from the waist up.

Well, not quite. The law says they must wear what are called pasties, tiny stick-on things that glitter and seem to serve only to accentuate the obvious, and Dad says he insists on operating strictly within the law.

Dad is Thomas Wasley Jr., a stout man of 46 with wire-rimmed glasses, thick black hair just going to gray and brown eyes that plead astonishment over the trouble that has befallen him.

Wasley and his coffee shop came into prominence last May, during a local election campaign as it happened, which brought him more attention, and customers, than his small ads in the sports section of the Scrantonian Tribune ever produced.

Call From Australia

"I even got a call from a radio station in Australia," he was saying the other day, over coffee. "I thought it was phony at first, but it wasn't. That's when I put up that map."

The map of the United States is about the only thing that decorates the pale walls of the coffee shop. That and a bulletin board covered with newspaper clippings about the dispute over the meaning of entertainment. A legend above the map asks, "How far did you come to Dad's?" Pins are stuck in about a dozen states.

Now business has fallen off from 500 or so customers a day to about 75, and the paper will no longer run Dad's ads.

"People think I'm closed," Wasley said. "I'm struggling, but I'm not closed."

Not closed, but subject to a fine of $500 a day since the city magistrate determined, in a 13-page decision rendered June 26, that Dad's Coffee Shop was providing "live entertainment" for which he needed a special permit under the zoning law.

Wasley has appealed to a county court and says he will continue if necessary to appeal to higher courts on up the line.

The magistrate, John E. V. Pieski, ruled that since the zoning statute did not define "live entertainment" he would use the dictionary definition: "The act of diverting, amusing or causing someone's time to pass agreeably."

"That would apply to cheerful waitresses at Dunkin' Donuts," says Wasley.

But, argued the magistrate, Wasley advertised his waitresses, not his coffee.

"So do the places that advertise their waitress-of-the-month instead of their food," says Wasley.

But when Wasley's waitresses went from wearing swimsuits to baring their breasts, ruled the magistrate, the price of his coffee doubled to $2 a cup, no refills. A clear indication, he ruled, that Wasley considered them live entertainment and waitresses only incidentally.

High Overhead

"All price reflects is overhead. You have to hire topless girls from out of town, pay agency fees, motel room costs. That still doesn't mean they constitute live entertainment," says Wasley. "They don't sing or dance. All they do is serve coffee."

The debate lingers.

According to John Maholic, the borough president, the dispute was more political than semantic. "If it were not an election year it would never have come up," he argues.

The pot boiled over a few weeks before the May 16 Democratic primary when a group of residents presented to the council a petition with 1,100 signatures opposing Dad's "or any other enterprise of obscene nature."

"In a town of 6,700," said Maholic, "1,000 names is a lot of voters."

The resident who headed the petition drive, Frank Siderowicz, says there is nothing to the idea politics is involved.

"It was a moral issue from the beginning," he insists. "We collected those signatures outside our churches after services. Politics was never mentioned. It was a coincidence that an election campaign was going on.

"This is small-town America. A topless coffee shop doesn't fit."

Dickson City is a small town all right, but hardly typical of what the phrase usually conveys. It abuts a string of similar communities just north of Scranton, suburbs really, whose varying ethnic makeups reflect the immigrant groups who arrived here years ago to dig coal.

It is a town of seven churches and 15 taverns. It also features a topless go-go joint, The Rose, which is across the street from the borough hall, and a porno shop on a major highway that cuts through town.

"Both of those places were objected to when they opened, but for some legal reasons they were allowed to remain," said Siderowicz. "Dad's Coffee Shop was something we could do something about, so we did."

Incumbents Ousted

Siderowicz says it was also coincidental that the committee he headed to collect the signatures was a group called "Democrats for Good and Honest Government," formed specifically to oust the incumbents. And it did. All three who were running, including Maholic.

"I guess I wasn't the only loser," Wasley commented. "But if I were confronted with a petition like that outside of church with all those people standing around I'd have signed it myself."

Apart from his current troubles, Tom Wasley's career as a restaurateur has not always been placid.

He grew up in Mayfield, the next town over, and in 1978 opened a short-order restaurant. It did well enough until two years later when an elderly customer mistook the gas pedal for the brake and drove his car through Wasley's front window.

"Nobody was hurt, but it killed my business. For some reason people didn't want to come anymore."

So in 1985 he changed the operation. He borrowed money, put in a bar, hired bands and stayed open until 2 a.m.

"That," he said, "was my idea of live entertainment, and the results were terrible. I had to break up three or four fights every night and I had 11 break-ins the first year. I started 1986 deep in debt and figured I'd have to shut down.

"A friend of mine asked me if I ever thought of go-go girls. I told him I'd never even seen one. Besides, I couldn't see myself in the role. I'm a guy with a mother who sings in the choir and says the rosary every night and a son in parochial school.

"Well, I went with him to a go-go place in Scranton and nothing I thought would happen happened. It was great. The girls joked; the men behaved. I went three more times after that and finally decided to try it.

"I tore up the floor where I had had a pool table and used it to build a stage, and hired two girls, one for the afternoon and one for the evening. No bands, just records.

"It was a success from the first day. No fights, everybody just having fun. After two years I was finally back on my feet.

"Then one night--I wasn't even there at the time--a young guy had to be ejected. He went out on the highway and was run over by a pickup truck and killed.

"I swore right then I would never serve liquor again, never ever.

"That's when I got the idea for a coffee shop. A non-alcoholic place where adults could stop in and chat over coffee. No music, no entertainment. I opened last February and thought of it as an idea that might be copied all over the country."

Easy to Miss

You would miss Dad's if you didn't know where it was. It is in a business complex just off Main Street but hidden behind a video store and a bank and squeezed between the Wah Yaon, a Chinese takeout joint, and the My Place Pizza parlor. Wasley has a deal with the pizza parlor. If one of his coffee customers wants a slice it comes via a pass-through cut in the dividing wall. Wasley jacks up the price a nickel and serves it.

The front windows of Dad's are curtained and on the front door, also curtained, is a sticker that says "Say No to Drugs and Alcohol." A sign says "Must Be 18." "I card 'em," says Wasley.

The inside is well lit. Wasley did the carpentry himself, a nondescript U-shape counter surrounded by 30 nondescript plastic-cushioned chairs. The waitress one recent afternoon, a blonde named Natasha, was not at all nondescript and was certainly diverting and seemed to enjoy chatting with the customers.

There were only four at the time, all men in their 30s or 40s who managed not to stare. One, in fact, was reading a newspaper. Natasha did not appear at all self-conscious. The conversation was about the start of school. Natasha said she had just got her elder daughter enrolled in a school for kids with learning disabilities and was greatly relieved.

She also said, with a sigh, that she hoped business would pick up after 5 when the men got off work and were thirsty for coffee. "Tips have been pretty scarce lately," she said.

Natasha, are you entertainment?

"Not here," she said. "I am at my other job. I dance. Here all I do is serve coffee."

Bathing Suits

When Wasley first opened Dad's the girls wore bathing suits. "A rumor got started, probably by some of my former go-go customers, that my waitresses were topless. I decided, if that's what they want, why not?"

Tina Wanis, 20, who is Wasley's fully clothed office manager, points out there is good money in the topless business although she would never do it herself. "I just couldn't," she said.

"We pay our girls $10 an hour. When we were going good they made another $50 to $60 on a six-hour shift in tips alone.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World