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Originally published May 11, 2013 at 8:02 PM | Page modified May 13, 2013 at 2:01 PM

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A year later: Cafe Racer lives on

A year ago, violence erupted in a quirky U-District cafe that to its eclectic bunch of regulars felt more like ‘everyone’s living room.’ Since the shooting, survivors have struggled, grieved and rebuilt their lives and the little cafe. Their rallying cry: Racer Love

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The wooden bar had seen better days. The brass rail behind it tended to wobble. The place itself could seem haphazard, as if its interior decorator was entropy.

That’s just the way things were at Cafe Racer, and nobody seemed to mind.

Owner Kurt Geissel has always been a creative type at heart, a guy with a crazy mop of white hair who’s done sculpture and video art on the side. Part of the counterculture, if you can still call it that.

There was no grand plan. His marketing scheme seemed to be simply that oddballs attract. Geissel’s artsy friends drew musicians who overlapped with university profs who crisscrossed with scooter freaks and on and on until the place became a salad bowl of subcultures — a sort of Island of Misfit Toys, where all were welcome and eccentricities were embraced.

“They would kind of hug you in with open arms,” said Ryan Hunter, who lives just down the street.

On any given day in this little U-District cafe, beer-for-breakfast bumped into improvisational jazz that snacked on homemade pies that ran into raucous circus singalongs. There were gray beards and students, fedoras and tie dyes, cowgirl boots and nerd glasses, all part of the Cafe Racer family.

“I don’t have any idea what makes that place feel like everyone’s living room, from that big a spectrum,” baker Leonard Meuse said. “But it does.”

And so it was one day last May, when Geissel and three regulars — Donald Largen, Joe Albanese and Drew Keriakedes — sat down after putting in a new floor. Geissel counted five groups that night who called the place home.

“Japanese students upstairs,” he recalled. “Cartoonists downstairs. A couple of musicians playing in the corner. And I thought, this is awesome. It was perfect.

“And the next morning, it was over.”

One year ago this month, Cafe Racer became a scene of mass murder. Turns out one of the oddballs was a deranged man with an arsenal. He killed five people and wounded one more.

No person can bear witness to that and not be changed forever. Neither can a cafe.

“I don’t know what normal is anymore,” Meuse, the surviving gunshot victim, would say that summer.

Geissel considered just shuttering the place. “Your friends just died there,” he explained.

In the coming months, the broad cross-section that is Racer would struggle to relearn and to rebuild — both their lives and this little cafe.

For a time, some could barely function. Yet they would ask themselves profound questions about identity, about priorities, about their differences and, most of all, about the force that binds us all together.

In the end, Cafe Racer would celebrate life in a way that one man’s actions could never defeat. How do you respond to firepower, to rage? The same way you do to oddballs: with open arms.

Even still.

“Excessive rudeness”

A note stuck above the cash register read: “5/25 crazy conspiracy man got kicked out again today on account of excessive rudeness.”

Ian Stawicki was weird, even by Racer standards. One minute he’d be chatting, the next he’d be ranting and raving. But Keriakedes really tried to make him feel welcome — that’s just how Drew was. He’d invited Stawicki to his house a few days before the shootings, but when the visitor started babbling about eating cop’s livers, he was asked to leave, according to the police report.

Stawicki came back to the Racer on May 30, armed and angry. The three men who helped put in the floor were shot dead. Hunter’s girlfriend, Kimberly Layfield, was killed as well. Meuse “won the medical lottery.” He was shot in the head and the chest but survived — somehow managing to call his boss and 911 as he bled.

Leaving the cafe, Stawicki made his way south. Gloria Koch Leonidas, a Bellevue wife and mother of two, had the misfortune to catch his eye as she parked near Town Hall. He killed her, too, and then screeched off in her SUV. Five hours after the first 911 call, he knelt on a West Seattle sidewalk and took his own life.

There was grief, of course. Shattered psyches, too. Survivors say the sensation is one of being disconnected. Tara Sanders, an office manager at HP, said it felt like being loaded up on way too much cold medicine. She was having breakfast at the cafe (her first visit) while her Volvo was being repaired down the street.

Geissel says the next few months were a blur. He watched in astonishment as people continued to go about their daily lives.

“How can you when such horrible things have happened?” he wondered.

Grief, mementos

It’s a sad fact of modern life that people often bring mementos to the scene of a crime such as this. The response at the Racer was something more. Part of it was that people knew Keriakedes and Albanese as musicians in popular bands, but it wasn’t just the music crowd who mourned. Strangers were drawn to the place.

“I think it would have been very different for all of us if it was a Starbucks on the corner where I happen to get coffee every day,” Sanders said.

People left poems and paintings, guitar picks and kazoos and harmonicas, filling windowsills, then the sidewalk and on up the telephone poles.

“The bigger the memorial grew, the more it valued that experience: come and gather and connect with people,” said Nancy Neyhart, who was a manager there.

That weekend, a band played outside as hundreds listened.

Sitting vigil for days, the mourners examined the mementos that had been left, laughing over some, puzzling over others. One in particular stood out. It was addressed to Keriakedes, a pierced, one-of-a-kind character who told dirty jokes and sometimes performed as his alter ego, Shmootzi the Clod. He’d often walk around still wearing remnants of his clown makeup. To the straight-laced father who left the note, Keriakedes was freakish — and alluring:

“Worlds of experience separate us,” he wrote in the note. “Or do they?”

And then, sadly, “I’ll never get to overcome my fear of your weirdness to see if we’re brothers.”

Theme of love

One night, some Racer friends walked down to a defunct hot-tub business nearby with a wall that had become a favorite of graffiti artists. As a blog later recounted:

“When the spray paint ran out, they fetched leftover house paint. They had no brushes, so they painted with their hands. When they were done, they gave us the simple phrase that names the only thing that’s kept us going through such heartache:

“RACER LOVE.”

It would become a theme.

You didn’t need to be a Racer regular to feel it. As the crowds continued to gather, and the music played into the night, neighbors felt it, too.

“They just really held us and didn’t make us take it down a notch or say, hey, you can’t do that,” Neyhart recalled. Neither did the police.

When some victims’ relatives were struggling with airfare, Neyhart enlisted friends to donate frequent-flier miles. She found places to stay for other out-of-towners and made sure they were fed. When Layfield’s mother, a proper Southern matron, was trying to figure out how to get her daughter’s cats home to Georgia, the Racer jumped in to help.

Arriving in town from Florida, Keriakedes’ father, Logan, said he was overwhelmed. “I had no idea any type of community like that existed,” he said. Long retired from the Air Force; he didn’t exactly fit in with the Racer crowd. Of his son, he said simply, “I don’t know how he got that way.”

At one gathering, a stranger approached him with a poster-sized photograph of Drew performing in a flamboyant gold vest and striped pants.

“He said, ‘Some people want you to have this,’ ” Keriakedes said. Recalling the exchange, his voice began to break. “I would, I would say that was love.”

He paused.

“I would dearly love to come back out there, crawl up to the bar at Racer, tilt a few, and talk.”

Decision to go on

As the days unfolded, Geissel was learning something. Reopening the cafe wasn’t necessarily his decision alone.

“You go through life, and you think you’re all alone and you’re doing your own thing,” he said. “I had no idea Cafe Racer meant that much to so many people.

“I think it really showed we are all connected.”

A few days after the shooting, he went to Meuse’s hospital bedside and asked him what to do.

“He gave me the middle finger,” Geissel recalled with a laugh. “I knew what he meant.”

Clearly, there was work to be done. Fresh paint, inside and out. A new bar, new art. A fresh start.

“People just knocked on the door and asked to help,” he said. There must have been 50 or 100 volunteers. Businesses donated paint and coffee and even bar stools.

If the cafe hadn’t reopened, Neyhart said, “it would have been murdered that day.”

The trick was whether they could recreate that magical feeling — a feeling that hadn’t been planned out in the first place but had grown organically.

By that measure, it worked. Most of the regulars are still there. A lot of newcomers have checked out the place, too. It still feels like someone’s weird living room.

There are difficulties, of course. Hunter, who lost his girlfriend in the shooting, hasn’t come back. Tom Leonidas, the husband of the Town Hall victim, says just the idea of setting foot inside has been too painful. Besides, his focus is on caring for his daughters.

“You pretty much need an all-terrain vehicle to get through this,” he said. “One thing we know is we miss Gloria.”

There are new tensions at the cafe, as well. The idea of welcoming in everyone — regardless of how odd — has its obvious downsides.

There are days when a band plays one of Keriakedes’ or Albanese’s songs and the tears begin to flow. At a birthday celebration in January, one woman collapsed.

Meanwhile, there was a question of how to honor the dead yet avoid turning the place into a shrine. Ava Shockley, a hairdresser who hung out at the cafe, came up with an idea for that. She and others gathered up all the mementos left behind and tucked them in a trunk. It’s upstairs in the cafe, for anyone who wants to look.

Still moments of pain

Moving beyond tragedy is a choice. It’s one that victims’ family members say they have to make every day.

“The choice of not moving forward, it has some pretty bad consequences on life,” Leonidas said.

Sanders said she feels spikes of anxiety. She recalls trembling uncontrollably in a movie theater after the shootings in Aurora, Colo. There was the freak-out on a lake cruise. But she keeps plowing ahead.

“If I say I’m not going to the cafe anymore, not going to movies, what’s next? I’m not going to go to the grocery store? To work? I’m not going to leave my home?”

Mostly, she’s grateful to be alive. “As weird as it sounds,” she said, “I think life is better since then.”

Meuse, the baker who was shot and miraculously survived, still works at the cafe.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me they’re shocked that I’m not a trembling mess,” he said. “I guess I forced myself to live it and accept the facts.”

The facts are these: He lost four friends. He underwent surgery. A bullet shattered his jaw, tore his tongue; he lost some teeth and has years of dental work ahead of him. He still has the sense he’s drooling and slurring.

He has become an inspiration to others.

“Just that I am there and I am doing better is all they need,” he said.

And, in turn, the Racer helps him, a philosophizing Harley rider with a braided beard.

“Knowing that so many people are there for you, it’s mind-boggling,” he said. “Powerful.”

Moving forward? It’s simple, he said. But not easy. His advice:

“Love. Love more than you can. The more you love, the more you put out, the more it’s going to come in.”

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

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