The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Self-proclaimed ‘Old Coots’ offer life advice at farmers market. Their slogan: ‘It’s Probably Bad Advice, But It’s Free.’

Self-proclaimed "Old Coots Giving Advice" from left, John Lesnan, Lou Borgenicht, Gus Wheeler, Tony Caputo and Rich Klein. (Heather Aagard) (Heather Aagard)

The group of retired friends who meet every Saturday morning at a Salt Lake City deli were growing tired of the same conversation each week.

Sure, they were solving the world’s problems. But they wanted more excitement in their Saturday morning. They wanted to share their wisdom beyond their friend group of seven. As a lark, they set up a card table at the nearby Salt Lake City’s farmers market and told people they were dispensing free advice.

“We were sitting outside, bored stiff from talking to each other, and I said, 'You know what? I’m going to get us a booth across the street at the farmers market, where we can give advice,” said Tony Caputo, founder of a deli with his namesake where the group usually meets.

Caputo even made a large banner and hung it up: “Old Coots Giving Advice — It’s Probably Bad Advice, But It’s Free.”

It was mostly for their own entertainment, a way to give a boost to their coffee klatch. But to their surprise, people started showing up and sharing their problems. A lot of them.

“Where can I find someone to love?”

“Why does my cat pee on everything in the house?”

“Have I put in enough time at my new job to take a one-week vacation?”

Quickly, they realized how much people need a sounding board. They took the responsibility seriously.

“People ask us, ‘Are you guys qualified to do this?’ and of course, we have to say no,” said Caputo, 69. “But neither was Ann Landers. Hopefully, we won’t mess people up too much.”

Each Saturday since the summer, the “Old Coots” have taken on the issues of about 30 to 40 people who come by seeking their advice. It’s a way for a person to get an outside opinion from somebody who has nothing to gain, he said.

"It started as a joke, but it's become a phenomenon,” Caputo said. “Somebody told us the other day that we're the most popular attraction at the market. We always listen carefully and don't give gratuitous advice."

Sales are booming at Manhattan typewriter store, mostly thanks to young people (and Tom Hanks)

Besides Caputo, group members include Lou Borgenicht, 75, a retired pediatrician, Gus Wheeler, 67, a former elementary school teacher, Rich Klein, 73, who used to run a kitchen countertop business, John Lesnan, 69, a retired human services manager, and Carol Sisco, 70, a retired journalist who is the only female “coot.” Chris Vanocur, 58, a former local television news reporter, also shows up now and then to offer advice as a “coot in training.”

“Tony was going to call [the group] ‘Old Guys,’ but I nixed it because it sounded sexist, although he didn’t mean it that way,” said Sisco, who suggested that “Old Coots” would be a better fit. “I told him it had more of a ring to it,” she said.

She said the most common questions are from young people who want to find a partner but don’t know how to meet someone. They’ll usually steer the lovelorn toward activities they might enjoy, like hiking and book clubs so they can meet people they have something in common with.

"Everybody wants to have somebody in their lives,” said Lesnan. “Sometimes, I wonder if we should become matchmakers.”

They also field questions about how to keep romance alive, said Klein, who has been married for 27 years.

"I always tell people that the first thing you do is put down your phone and start talking,” Klein said.

Only two topics — religion and politics — are off limits, although the group does keep a pad of voter registration forms handy to encourage people to vote in November.

On a recent Saturday, the coots listened carefully to Jane Riley, 57, who runs a property management company in Park City, Utah, and wanted tips on communicating better with her husband. They told her it was important to “listen, be kind and laugh together.” Riley smiled and offered her thanks.

"The daily grind is stressful and can take a toll on a relationship,” she said. “I really appreciated chatting with the Old Coots.”

The group gets unusual queries as well, including a question from a man who wondered what to do about the ghosts he saw in his house.

"We wondered if he should move, but he said that the people followed him wherever he went,” Caputo said.

Ultimately, the coots suggested he seek therapy and hire a medium to find out why the spirits wouldn't leave him alone. The man agreed.

During another discussion, a girl said she was scared of her dolls (Sisco gently suggested that the mom put the dolls in a taped-up box for a while and store it in the basement). And in another, an elderly man told them he was going blind and asked where he could seek help. The group suggested that he get a guide dog and referred him to the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind.

That session was followed by one with a 14-year-old girl whose mother wanted her to become a professional chess player so they could travel and compete together. Through tears, the teen told the coots that she didn't want to give up her school life and friends to satisfy her mom's dream.

Borgenicht and Sisco talked about ways that the girl could convey to her mom that she loved chess, but also needed time for her own life and schoolwork.

“I told her, ‘Enjoy this time of life — this is not about your mother, it’s about you,’” recalled Borgenicht.

New York library lends out ties, briefcases and handbags for job interviews

Wheeler said he was surprised one weekend when a woman asked him for advice on whether to vacation this January in London or Tanzania. Wheeler had just spent an hour online looking into airfare to Tanzania for a vacation of his own. He told her to go to Tanzania, telling her how much a flight would cost and added: “Who wants to go to London in January?'"

“That’s incredible, how do you know this stuff?” the woman asked. Wheeler shrugged. “It’s just what we do,” he told her.

Although group members don’t offer each other advice (“Who would listen?” noted Caputo), Vanocur said the group does provide a young “coot in training” like himself a second family.

For better or worse.

“In addition to us teasing each other mercilessly, we’re also genuinely dysfunctional,” Caputo deadpanned.

He and the other coots will fold up their banner and card table when the farmers market ends for the season later this fall, but they hope to return next year, coffee cups in hand, advice at the ready.

“To be truthful, I’m not sure that any of us can claim to have much wisdom,” said Lesnan, “but it sure has been a lot of fun. Maybe all of us coots really do have more to offer than we thought.”