Sunday, March 10, 2013

High as a Kite

The Pine Street Coffee House occupied this spot from 1872-1914 when the building was torn down. A few months later it reopened in the new building and remained in business for several years.

             Coffee houses have been an important part of Portland’s cultural scene at least since the 1870s. Early in that decade the Pine Street Coffee house opened its doors and soon had the reputation for serving the best coffee in town. Not long after they started serving breakfast “Jack’s German pancakes” and “two cackles and a grunt” – their colloquial name for ham and eggs – became legendary up and down the coast. According to Oregonian reporter Chester Moores, newcomers to town were often told, “It doesn’t matter where you sleep, but you haven’t eaten until you’ve had breakfast at the Pine Street Coffee House.” There is no record of what the Zellers, the Swiss family who ran the coffee house for more than two decades, or any of the previous owners paid for such valuable advertising, but it worked.

             By the 1890s, when the Zeller family took over, the Pine Street Coffee House was crowded most mornings. The familiar cry, “Here comes another millionaire,” shouted by the Bunch – regular customers – whenever a prominent banker or businessman joined them, earned a new name for the popular coffee house – The Millionaires’ Club. Prominent Portlanders such as William Ladd, Edward and James Failing, Henry Everding and the Corbett boys regularly had breakfast and coffee at the Millionaires’ Club. In 1914 the old building on Pine Street was torn down, but the Millionaires’ Club reopened in its old spot as soon as construction on the new building was complete. The popularity of coffee houses in Portland had nearly passed by then, though.

            The popularity of the Pine Street Coffee House had caught on and by the twentieth century there were busy coffee houses in several locations on both sides of the Willamette. Many of them were run by Greek, Serbian or Italian immigrants. A prostitution scandal in 1913 involving women working in several Greek coffee houses inspired a City ordinance banning the employment of women in such establishments. When the Great War started Serbian coffee houses became a focus of violence from Portland’s Austrian community, culminating in a near riot in a North Portland café in December 1914. In 1916 Prohibition came in and coffee houses saw a small boost in popularity, until it was discovered that many of them were selling illegal booze. Three scandals in a row ended the popularity of coffee houses in Portland and they virtually passed from the scene until the late 1950s.
In 1958 the Cafe Espresso brought a little sophistication to an ungrateful Portland. Karl Metzenberg is in the background. Photograph by Allan de Lay from the Oregonian.
            In 1958 Karl Metzenberg, a 1954 Reed College graduate, who “lived by his wits,” opened Café Espresso on SW 6th Avenue. Metzenberg had bummed around the northwest as a freelance writer and a dabbler in radio broadcasting since he left college and wanted to settle down in Portland and “jerk coffee” for a while. He spent about $10,000 to remodel an old restaurant and buy an Italian espresso machine. Seattle had three successful coffee houses at the time, but Portland had forgotten its coffee heritage. The Oregonian called Metzenberg’s new place “Portland’s first and only coffee house.”
            Metzenberg had hoped to attract an after-theater crowd, but other than on symphony nights, the theater-goers stayed away. Instead he became popular with a young intellectual crowd, especially college students. He told Oregonian staff writer Joe Bianco, “At Café Espresso you will discover a relaxed atmosphere conducive to, nay – designed for quiet conversation, the game of chess, and similar therapeutics.” 

            The Café soon got the reputation as a “beatnik” joint and was shunned by more respectable Portlanders. The young and eccentric flocked there to sip coffee and discuss race prejudice, Freudian psychology, religion and things that “were not meant to be discussed.” Sarte, Hemmingway and Ferlinghetti were popular, but it was considered ostentatious to carry around a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. Baroque music and folk guitar were popular, but the crowd would not abide the Romantics, much less vulgar Rock and Roll or Jazz. 

            Metzenberg insisted that there were no “real” Beatniks in Portland. “The Beatnik…is a person who has lost faith in nearly everything,” he told Joe Bianco, “My patrons still have some faith. They are students still going to school…. We do get the extremes on occasion. The scion of the west hills, the divorcee and mixed couple make irregular visits.” Disdain for the middle class was taken for granted. The middle class only knew the round world through the square picture tube of the “one-eyed monster” in their living room. That’s why they called them Squares.

            Karl Metzenberg approached life with a sense of humor; the sign on the front door of his café said, “English Spoken Here.” He also had a deep respect for others. He believed in Albert Schwiezer’s dictum that all living creatures have a right to life and that every other creature is obliged to recognize that right. Richard Abel, who ran Reed College’s bookstore and occasionally employed Metzenberg said he was “a very thoughtful and mild person. The only reaction I have ever seen to difficulty or crisis is a more or less whimsical attitude.”

            The so-called “Beatnik” café drew negative attention from the community including harassment. One night in May, 1959, shortly before midnight the negative attention created a crisis that Karl Metzenberg couldn’t shrug off with a whimsical attitude. It was about to become May 15th and there were about a dozen people in the café. Metzenberg was looking forward to closing up. Jean Paul Pickens, 22 and his wife Mary Ann sat at one of the tables with Gary Kilpatrick, 24 and an unidentified young woman. They were finishing their coffee and conversation when three young men burst through the door.
Larry Bolton was a football star at North Bend High School before he graduated. He was taking "bennies" the night he died.
            Larry Bolton, 19, a former North Bend High School football player, had been taking “bennies” – Benzedrine, a form of amphetamine – when he and Thomas Richardson, 20, and James Tucker, 23, entered the café and began to loudly harass the customers. Bolton yelled, “I’ve just been to an H party and I am high as a kite!” Richardson soon homed in on the table with Pickens and Kilpatrick. He insulted Mary Ann Pickens, who was six-months pregnant, and her husband began to argue with him. Soon Richardson backed down and the three rowdies left the café.
            Metzenberg was closing up. He cashed out his register and put his over-under two-shot Derringer pistol in his pocket as he always did when he had to make a night deposit. When Jean Paul Pickens and Gary Kirkpatrick left the restaurant they found Bolton and his friends waiting on the sidewalk. Bolton backed Kirkpatrick up against the building waving a “box-cutter” utility knife at his throat. Richardson said, “Not that one” and followed Pickens who had ducked back into the café.

            Richardson jumped on Pickens and wrestled him to the floor. Bolton and Tucker followed him into the building, Bolton brandishing his utility knife. Metzenberg, confronted by the knife-wielding young man pulled the small pistol from his pocket. Bolton laughed at the tiny gun, saying, “That little gun won’t stop me. Put it away and fight like a man.” Metzenberg said, “I don’t want to fight like a man or any other way.” He started to put the pistol back into his pocket when Bolton lunged at him with the knife. Metzenberg raised the pistol and fired one shot. The bullet hit the young man in the forehead killing him instantly.

            Stunned by the gunshot the wrestlers stopped their fight.  Metzenberg told his waiter, Edward Barns, to call the police and backed Tucker and Richardson into the storeroom, keeping his gun out so they wouldn’t leave the building before the police arrived. Metzenberg was charged with second degree murder for killing Larry Bolton, but he was acquitted on a plea of self defense.
Karl Metzenberg was acquitted of Second Degree Murder, but he had lost his taste for the coffee business and for Portland.
           Karl Metzenberg returned to the café, but he no longer had a taste for the coffee business or intolerant Portland; before the end of the year he accepted a job in Los Angeles in his brother-in-laws ribbon factory and left town for good. It took a couple of decades for the espresso coffee craze that was sweeping the west coast to regain its foothold in Portland.


Blogger Ken Goldstein said...

I'm on my way to a coffee house now, but I'm not bringing any weapons.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Luloo said...

How can I contact you? I have some questions about the Starry Night Killer; Larry Hurwitz.

10:19 PM  
Blogger jd chandler said...

You can email me direct:

I would lovee to discuss Scary Larry.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Yours Truly said...

Karl Metzenberg is a friend of mine. He is a great guy, and wouldn't hurt anyone unless his life was threatened. Thank you for sharing this story - I had never heard the details. All Karl told me was that he once killed a man in self-defense.

6:55 PM  

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