by Joey Wieser
Former Café Racer owner Kevin Hansen opens up about gun-violence, the press, and explains how the Café Racer community helped breathe life back into his second home.
On May 30th, 2012, just before 11 A.M., a man with two .45-caliber handguns entered Café Racer and brought four lives to an end. Joe Albanese, Drew Keriakedes, Kimberly Layfield, and Don Largen were killed inside the café, and the gunman’s fifth victim, Gloria Leonidas, was killed 30 minutes later on First Hill in downtown Seattle. Don, Drew, and Joe were friends of former owner Kevin Hanson as well as members of the Café Racer community.
I met Kevin at an Edward-40 hands party on Beacon Hill in the middle of winter quarter. With bottles of Olde English strapped to our hands, there was a difference of opinion in regards to gun ownership in America—specifically guns involved in mass shootings. After a few minutes of stale arguments, Kevin broke his silence and gave a fresh perspective on what he went through during last May’s dreadful shootings inside the University District’s Café Racer.
Even though he transferred the ownership title to his friend Kurt, Kevin still spends most of his free time at the café. Over the bartender’s choice film for the night, 1981’s horror-comedy film Full Moon High, Kevin and I spent hours talking about last year’s tragedy.
Throughout the night, pieces of our conversation were relegated to hushed tones and whispers. Understandably, there were a few people uncomfortable with the presence of a “journalist” poking around and asking questions. Last year, those who knew the victims personally or had any emotional investment in Café Racer were vehemently bombarded by the press. Cameras, recorders, and insensitive questions had come charging at them from different directions; one reporter even tracked someone down the street. “I was super defensive because I had been approached by the press so many times,” Kevin told me. “I told them to f*** off. The only comment I made was that I am trying to get my second home back. Period.”
Kevin is not the only one who treated Café Racer as a second home; the café was literally built by the support of its regular customers. Don Largen, who was killed at Café Racer, was one of those regulars. Don was an urban planner and lived a half a block away from the café. “I met Don here,” said Kevin. Kevin drew the original floor plan of the space, but half of the layout consists of Don’s drawings and notes. “The day before the shootings, a buddy of mine and I came in here for a coffee. Don was outside on his way to buy paper towels,” Kevin told me. In the matter of a day, Kevin would hear the tragic news. “I got a phone call 15 minutes after the shooting,” he said.
Surveillance camera footage shows that the man who shot up Café Racer took 45 seconds to kill Joe, Drew, Don, and Kimberly, and critically injure Leonard, Café Racer’s baker. Even after the forensic staff finished cleaning, evidence of a disaster still remained. For Kevin, the starkest indication of desolation was the odor that was left behind.
“The smell was around for a long time. It smelled like acid. It was very pervasive. The first couple of weeks, you had to have incense burning …
This room was completely gutted. There was so much blood that a lot of this floor had to be torn out by the forensic cleaners. The fire department hosed the blood out to the sidewalk and into the gutters. When I first walked in, about a week after— right after the cleanup—there were huge patches of floor missing…
There were flowers all over the sidewalk. Walking through that into here where everything was decimated, trying to come up with any kind of plan was overwhelming.
This was like the hardest job I’ve ever done in my life. To walk into a place and see a few spots on the floor where there’s no tile and it’s like, one of my friends’ bodies was right there…”
Most establishments take at least six months to reopen after any kind of shooting. Most of the time, they don’t reopen at all. In the wake of tragedy after the murders, reopening the café seemed difficult if not impossible.
In the weeks that followed, however, groups sat on the sidewalk outside the café every night of the week. Before the shooting, Café Racer hosted different community groups almost nightly. On Mondays, a computer group taught each other computer programming; an entire soccer team came in for drinks on Tuesday nights; Wednesdays, a group called the Bureau of Drawers came in and shared comics and drawings with one another, and Thursday nights were reserved for singer/songwriters.
The overwhelming community support was the driving force that gave Kevin and Kurt the confidence to envision a future for Café Racer, and the motivation to begin the long and gruesome repair process.
‘I know it from the bottom of my heart.’
Everyone contributed what they could to the café’s recovery. Though the fifth victim, Gloria Leonidas, was not affiliated with the café before the shooting, Seattle Lighting, the company she worked for, happened to be the supplier of Café Racer’s lighting fixtures. After the shooting, Seattle Lighting donated hundreds of dollars of equipment to the café’s remodel.
Leonard “Len” Meuse, Café Racer’s baker who was shot in the face and torso—who still managed to call 911 before he passed out—came rushing back to the café as soon as he got out of the hospital. “He was here every day,” said Kevin. “After he got out of the hospital, he was here every day.” Len was their kickstand. He would go out and buy Kevin and the volunteer crew food, beer, whatever they needed.
Racer volunteers were not the only ones to donate hours of their time. Taste of India and Sureshot Espresso, two local businesses in the area, provided free meals, coffee, and treats to the helpers during the repair weeks. Christine Fouty, a painter from Miller Paint, repainted the café’s logo and motorcycle image while other Miller Paint employees painted the entire outside of the building. Fouty also spent a lot of time entertaining Clara, Kevin’s 7 year old daughter.
During the restoration process, Kevin spoke to Glenna, fiancée of Don Largen who was killed in the attack at Café Racer that Wednesday morning. Don and Glenna were getting ready to get married, retire, and move to Costa Rica to grow chocolate. On the day of the attack, Don suffered fatal head shot wounds and was pronounced dead at Harborview Medical Center. “The thing is, if Don hadn’t been here drinking coffee that morning, he’d be helping rebuild the place,” Kevin told Glenna. “I know it from the bottom of my heart.”
Even as Café Racer was being rebuilt, the staff never turned off the OPEN sign- creating an illuminating indication of hope. On July 20,2012, six and a half weeks after the shooting, Café Racer was ready to celebrate its reopening party. Disheartening news, however, hit the Café Racer community that morning. Hours before they opened, the story broke of the theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado where 12 people were shot and killed. Since Racer volunteers had worked so hard to rebuild the place, they carried out the celebration in light of the tragic irony. The day was full of ambivalence, delight and despair. “In six weeks, we were all still mourning anyway,” said Kevin.
According to The Washington Post, Café Racer shootings account for 6.4% of deaths by mass shootings in America in 2012. “I was obsessed with guns when I was a kid,” Kevin recalled. “I would never own a gun now. I think gun control is a huge part of the solution.”
‘The song has ended but their melody lingers on.’
Three of the victims—Don, Drew, and Joe—could be seen at Café Racer on any given day grabbing a coffee, playing an instrument or performing with their band. Drew and Joe both played in a band called “God’s Favorite Beefcake.” A memorial room was created in the upstairs area of the café to honor their lives. In a clad little lounge with a compassionately warm hue, photos of victims Kimberly, Joe, Drew, and Don decorate the walls. Gus, who was very close with Drew and Joe, who also played alongside them in the band, described Café Racer to me as a place that is constantly morphing and changing, but always remains honest to itself. Drawings, guitars, and donated trinkets are respectfully placed around the room, and a dedicatory inscription can be seen on a plaque above the shelves. It reads: “The song has ended but their melody lingers on. In loving memory of Kim, Joe, Drew, and Don.”
“Has it gotten any easier to cope one year down the road?” I asked Kevin. He quoted something he heard Gus once say. “It doesn’t get any easier,” Kevin told me. “It just gets further away.”
Though the lives of the community are forever changed, Café Racer has regained speed. Sometimes, Racer hosts opera cabaret performances with flashes of burlesque; sometimes, Racer holds series of jazz performances known as Racer Sessions; Café Racer was featured in the New York Times in August of 2010 for their homegrown jazz. Other times, groups of musicians meet up at Racer—as old as 21 and as young as 70—and sit in a circle while playing guitar and singing folk songs.
The Café Racer family serves to remind the city of Seattle that no roadblock, regardless of size, should ever hinder your ability to keep moving forward. All you need is a little bit of hope, a lot of love, and unfailing community support. “This place exists because of community and nothing else,” Kevin admitted. “It’s a labor of love.”
As the old saying goes, you don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there. In a time of deep-sinking sorrow, Café Racer’s head was held afloat by its kick-ass clientele. “You couldn’t copy this place. It’s made by the customers. It just is,” said Kevin.