Cafe Racer Shooting
It's been a few days since the news vans stopped hanging around the block. A week since police with assault rifles swarmed through the backyards and alleys of the typically placid Roosevelt neighborhood looking for Ian Stawicki, who'd just gunned down five people inside Cafe Racer, a sixth on First Hill, and shortly thereafter would take his own life. But the steady flow of friends, mourners, and well-wishers calling on the cafe is unabated. Day and night, visitors by the droves come to pay their respects at the ever-growing memorial in front of the cafe. People who can scarcely afford it have flown in. Snaggletooth heshers from halfway across the country weep alongside yuppies from halfway down the block.
My brother, sister-in-law, niece, and two nephews live little more than 100 yards from the front windows of Cafe Racer, three doors down from Don Largen, the first victim of last week's shooting spree. I lived with my brother and sister-in-law in that house 10 years ago, when I first moved to Seattle. Six months ago, I moved back to the area. When I returned, Cafe Racer was the first place to welcome me in. I remember saying at the time to Leonard Meuse, the sole survivor of last week's terror: "I'm sorry to do this to ya, but can I get a hot toddy?" Len's reply: "Why the hell would you be sorry about that?" That's the kind of place it is. The bottom of the menu reads: "We take pride in the fact that we are a friendly place... If you want your food in 30 seconds, go to McDonald's. If you don't want anyone to talk to you, go to Starbucks."
Cafe Racer accepts just about anyone. Cafe Racer accepted people like Drew Keriakedes and Joseph Albanese—a couple of misfits from the vaudeville scene, brash men who weren't concerned with pleasantries but who had hearts of gold. They were fixtures at the place, Drew always with a PBR (poured into a glass from the can) and Joe probably with a coffee if it was before noon, probably working on a crossword puzzle. Cafe Racer accepted people like Don Largen, a land-use and urban-planning consultant who mostly just came in for an Americano and a few minutes of conversation. He'd always look you in the eye and make sure to acknowledge you even if he barely knew you. Cafe Racer accepted people like Kimberly Layfield, an aspiring actress who worked just up the street as a dental technician (everyone agrees she had the best smile known to mankind) but frequented Racer because she loved the crowd.
By most accounts, Ian Stawicki had been around the cafe, but some were wary of him. He'd been kicked out more than once. A few nights prior, Keriakedes had invited Stawicki to his home in an attempt to reach out, but he was ultimately asked to leave. By the morning of last Wednesday, word had spread that he wasn't welcome. Perhaps knowing this, Stawicki came to Cafe Racer, ordered a coffee, and was denied service. He sat down at a table and then, without warning, stood, took a .45 pistol out of his pocket, and started shooting, not stopping until everyone in sight was still.
A sizable gaggle is gathered in a front yard not half a block from the cafe, some looking on at the now locked front door, drinking beers, crying, laughing, hugging. Along Northeast 59th Street, neighbors and friends (many are both) are out in clusters talking, in shock, about the people who were lost earlier that morning.
Just before dusk, the police and firefighters strike the scene, removing the bodies and washing blood and gore from their boots and the sidewalk. As they leave, the television crews swarm in, and about 30 members of the group at the end of 59th all raise a middle-finger salute to the television crews. "You'll be missed!" someone shouts. Then someone says something about a penis, and everyone laughs. Poetically, the "We're Open" sign still shines through Racer's window.
Soon, a small band of friends has gathered instruments and starts playing. "I'm as good as I can be now that I'm here with everybody," someone says from a few rows back. When it starts raining, the band keeps playing. At first, the music is somber—just strings and what sounds like a lot of minor chords—but in minutes, it's grown into something more, with a full horn section, and bystanders are singing along whether they know the words or not. Others are dancing, cheering, or just passing bottles. By 9:45 p.m., more are dancing in the freshly falling rain and cheering. Neighbors are bringing food donated by local restaurants. It's become a defiant celebration in the face of tragedy. And judging by what we know of the fallen, it's just how they'd want it.
It's calm on Northeast 59th Street, where Don Largen lived with his partner, Glenna Wilson. If not for the television news vans and the dogs barking at them through the windows of the otherwise dormant houses, you wouldn't know anything was amiss—that is, until you reach the end of the block and the storefront of the cafe, where a huge memorial of flowers and notes and candles has been laid at the doorstep. Written in big black letters across a front window, above the shrine of flowers, candles, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, empty bottles of Jack Daniel's, and other various mementos: "God Bless Drew, Joe, Kim, Len, and Don. Kim! You were always my best friend and now that you're gone, know in your eternal soul I will always love you." And on the next pane: "Please be kind to your neighbors."
I take my nephew Eamon for a walk around the block, and a neighbor from further down the street recognizes him. I introduce myself, and she asks, "I was walking by Don and Glenna's house, and I wanted to ask, but I didn't see them home, if Don was at the cafe yesterday."
"He was," I say. "He didn't make it." And with that, she breaks into tears.
Word comes around that an alarm-system salesman is pitching door-to-door. I wait for him on my brother's stoop, half thinking I'll punch him in the face, but he never shows. Fox News is doing a segment in Glenna's front yard. I more than half think about punching them in the face.
Later I run into Nora, a bartender from Cafe Racer. She lives across the street from Don's house and invites me to come over and chat later. Then I visit her roommate and coworker Nick, author of the letter from Cafe Racer on page 19. Later, when Nick is in Cowen Park Grocery buying cases of beer, the family that runs the grocery asks how he's doing. They tell him that Don was always their first customer in the morning and that Kim was the last customer to hold their baby, who's always there with them behind the grocery counter. Back at the house, we fall into stories about Drew and his dirty jokes, Joe and his biting wit, and the void of tact displayed by television film crews.
The weekly improvisational music series called the Racer Sessions that normally takes place inside the cafe happens outside this week. There's an energy in the air. There are still a few television crews around, but when the first song takes 40 minutes to lull the alley behind the cafe into sedation, the TV people lose interest and retreat back to their vans. The song starts with just tones, no discernable rhythm or beat, and slowly grows and grows into a disarray of tangents and then finally cacophony. The neighborhood folks and yuppies slowly start to filter out. Just above the hairline of a guy standing on a concrete retaining wall at the back of the alley, a window to the back room of Cafe Racer hangs open ominously. Down in the crowd, empty plastic gallon jugs passed around are being stuffed with donations. No one's in charge of watching them, but then again, no one's worried about them getting stolen; the whole world is looking out for this place right now.
This story has been updated since its original publication.