What the Cafe Racer was before the killings

May 31, 2012

In this first person piece, Ed Skoog, a Northwest poet and musician and a regular at the Café Racer, shares his impressions of the local arts and music hangout before the shooting on Wednesday that killed four and wounded another.

Skoog said Drew Keriakedes and Joe "Vito" Albanese, two of the victims, were well known at the café and that Drew especially was a raconteur character who was “always on,” always ready with a dirty joke and a gritty blues song from the ’20s and ’30s, with plenty of songs he’d created himself.

“He was a magnetic performer,” Skoog said of Drew.

Skoog said he’d seen the man identified as the shooter around the bar from time to time, hanging out in the alley “a little out of sight.”

“He was a freaky dude, but normal looking enough to pass,” Skoog said.

Here’s Skoog writing about the Café Racer and its vibe:

Café Racer is a storefront joint which can be a café, diner, bar or music hall depending on the time of day and who you are; it often operates as all four at once, with each room serving a different role: cartoonists with coffees sketching at their well-lit table upstairs, Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Cuong Vu warming up on stage, painters and poets elbowed up at the bar, neighbors eating grilled cheese and sipping tomato soup by the window, pharmacy students studying in the Obama Room beside Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” rendered in yarn.

The owner, presiding and fretting over the scene, looks like a hip Captain Kangaroo but is some sort of blood relative to Dr. Seuss. The café is full of art, as “Seattle’s Official Bad Art Museum of Art,” but the bar is set high for inclusion, and sympathy is extended to each artists’ bad decision—Café Racer celebrates the artistic impulse and the “Bad Art” designation is merely a gentle chiding. The window blinds are old pull-down maps from lost classrooms, the maps themselves out of date, showing the old borders, the old names, and have to be repaired regularly by the manger, Ben, with packing tape and a sigh.

Snowstorms bring in more customers, earlier, to pass the time and watch the cars slosh past on Roosevelt. The bartender will make you a boilermaker, a martini, or an espresso, whatever you like, and even if it isn’t cheaper than any of the other dozen fine bars and cafes in the neighborhood, it feels cheaper. Most everyone tips well. I usually just get drip coffee from the afterthought coffeemaker beside the very nice espresso machine, a machine that probably used to be a Vespa. Some days there are several fleets of scooters out front, parked closely like sheep at a trough. Often there is a dog, a small one on the counter, a larger one somewhere in the building, curled up, asleep and dreaming of fields.

The upstairs room feels like a basement rec-room, with some old soft chairs from which it may be difficult to rise. There is no need to. A stack of picture books will keep you pleasant, and a guitar only mildly damaged is usually within reach and you can strum “Down By The Old Mill Stream.” The kitchen is the size and complexity of a game closet, but quit asking, you’ll get your food before you starve, and it will be good enough. Have, perhaps, another Pike Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale while you wait. Did you come in here because you were in a hurry?

In the still photo from the surveillance video taken moments before the shooting began yesterday, the three musicians are as they should be remembered, laughing and telling either a story or a joke, probably a good one, at the garishly green swirled countertop. A woman (not clear at the moment if she was the fourth fatality) is reading at a nearby table. The cook is probably at the grill just beyond the shot. The bartender is preparing for the day, washing a glass. The shooter is present but forget about him. Forget what happened next. Celebrate instead the still and before, the bonhomie richly-textured and saturated, wry and wise, an artistic clubhouse without a password. 

Ed Skoog is a resident of the Roosevelt neighborhood and a former writer-in-residence at the Richard Hugo House. He is the author of a collection of poems, Mister Skylight (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).

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At Cafe Racer in Ravenna, Mr. Skoog reads "Moon Fragment". The Painted Poetess looks on in approval.