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Most towns Up North have a local diner – that place everyone knows, where you can get a simple meal and a strong cup of coffee at a reasonable price.But diners are more than just a place to eat. Diners are places where the history of a town slowly unfolds over generations of conversations, and thousands of servings of chicken-fried steak.In a local diner, you can catch up with an old friend and soak in some of the character of a small town.That's what IPR News intends to do this summer as we visit diners all over northern Michigan. We'll be bringing you their stories in this series, "Order Up: Digging into northern Michigan's diners."

Order Up: Sometimes diner conversations get so heated, you need a 'safe word'

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Maya Kroth
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A group of retirees holds court almost every morning at Cops and Doughnuts in Clare.

At Cops and Doughnuts in Clare, classic tunes play on the stereo while customers line up at the glass display case, waiting to place their orders.

But Bill White isn’t here for the doughnuts.

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Credit Maya Kroth
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Patrons place their orders at the display case at Cops and Doughnuts.

“I never have a donut,” says White. “When you get old enough you can’t eat good stuff anymore. You have to go with fruits and vegetables.”

White has been coming in every Saturday morning, for years, even though he doesn’t partake in the doughnuts or coffee. In fact, White doesn’t order anything at all at Cops and Doughnuts.

So what does keep Bill White coming back several times a week?

“These reprobates here,” he says, gesturing at the five guys huddles around a round table near the front window. Most mornings, you can find White and his crew of retired pals right here at this table, chewing the fat. They say they’ve been meeting “since Moses,” but really it’s been about ten years.

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Credit Maya Kroth
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When the Clare City Bakery was in danger of closing after more than a century in business, a group of local police officers stepped in to save it.

“It actually started with the bakery that preceded Cops and Doughnuts, which was the old City Bakery,” says Mike Blouin.

Eight years ago, the historic Clare City Bakery was in danger of closing down after 113 years in business. A group of police officers pooled their money to save the place, embracing one of the most persistent clichés about cops. Their story made national news and was even featured on “Good Morning America.”

Bill White and his buddies are the diner’s most loyal customers.

“It’s something to do when you’ve got no place else to go and you want to talk to people,” says White. “You’ve got a group of ones you can pick on and have fun with, like the goofy car salesman.”

When they’re not razzing each other, the guys talk about all kinds of things, from golf to current events. But since the election last fall, they’ve had to choose their topics more carefully.

“Sometimes we try to stay away from politics, because that can be a little sticky,” says Blouin.

“You know how it is in this world, you see how the Democrats and the Republicans are fighting each other,” says White. “It’s the same thing in this group here. And you don’t have to do much wrong to have them mad at you for the rest of their life.”

The group even came up with a “safe word” to use when things got too heated.

“Orange Jell-O,” says White. “That means you change the subject.”

But orange Jell-O hasn’t been enough to save the group from all its disagreements about politics. Some members got so mad they quit coming altogether.

“There’s been people in this group that gets irritated,” says White. “They got thin skin, and if you make them mad, they go away and they never come back. Some of them will ignore you on the street when they see you.”

In Clare, as in America, the future remains uncertain. Will Bill White’s group manage to bur the hatchet? Will we as a nation ever bridge our differences and learn to get along? It’s hard to say, but if anything can bring Americans together, doughnuts aren’t a bad place to start.