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cause celebre facade

In 1981, I landed a job at a worker-owned collective, the Cause Celebre Café. The Cause was a Capitol Hill vegetarian restaurant, located at 524 – 15th Avenue East. Monies received from serving breakfast, lunch and dinner went toward financing worthy causes such as saving the environment and old growth forests. In addition to offering soup, salad and sandwiches, the Cause served really great espresso. This was decades ago: the joint had a manual machine which required operators to pull a handle to produce a shot; thus we were known as “steam pullers”.

vintage manual espresso machine

While the food and espresso was popular with the neighborhood clientele, what really brought people in the door was the super-delicious ice cream the collective made, on-site. There were few if any Ben & Jerry’s stores in Seattle in 1981; there was a dearth of small-batch, high quality ice cream in general. But the Cause had it. They had Mexican Chocolate, Vanilla Bean, Fresh Blueberry, Tie-Die Mushroom Swirl (I made that up); oh heck – all varieties of flavors. Forgive me for not recalling more of the flavors, which often were given colorful names.

ice cream

In retrospect, I honestly think that ice cream sales did an awful lot to keep the cash register ringing. It would be too punny to say the ice cream was a cash cow, so I won’t. But suffice it to say, we often had long lines at the ice cream case. And no one ordered just one scoop! Bear in mind that it was very important for the café owners to keep their cash flow going, as they were definitely committed to giving as much funding as they could to the work they supported. They were happy to live on subsistence wages in order to do this.

save the owls

While the café was a collective, the members hired extra workers, myself included, who were known as “substitutes”. We did pretty much the same work as the collective members; but we were salaried. We received whatever the minimum wage was.  We were also somewhat looked down upon, maybe because we were not seen as committed enough to want be actual collective members. But I shared the members’ concern for the environment, gay rights, and other issues of import. Also, I enjoyed interacting with our out-of-the-mainstream clientele, including the scruffy, unshaven staff of the Seattle Sun, which was located upstairs in the beautiful old house which was our home. (The café was known to some as “Capitol Hill’s Living Room”.) And, although I was a “substitute”, I took a proprietary interest in the business. I was aware of what it took to run a restaurant, having first worked in one in 1967. Considering what subsequently happened at the Cause, I can say that I may have known more about that than my bosses did!

I was 32 years old in 1981, while the majority of the collective owners were in their early 20’s. I referred to them as neo-hippies back then. They were too young to have been in the original batch; but their hearts (and minds) seemed to be in the right place. And while they were often a somber lot, focused on their activism, they did like to take their minds on adventures from time to time!

wall freezer

I recall an incident which occurred during one of my last Cause Celebre shifts: In need of supplies, I made a visit to the stockroom, which was located down a flight of stairs.  — The huge, wall-sized ice cream freezer also happened to be located downstairs. As I descended the stairs, I heard the sounds of laughter and gaiety, such as I rarely encountered at the Cause. Soon, I gazed in awe and horror at the site of the collective members, and at what they were doing. Higher than the highest kite, they were engaged in the most bizarre behavior. While laughing hysterically, they were extracting the king-sized tubs of hand-crafted gourmet ice cream from the freezer, and emptying them all over the old, cracked cement floor. They apparently had been at it for a time, as some of the ice cream was beginning to melt, slowly spreading over the floor. I opened my lowly “substitute” mouth, and asked, “What are you doing?” One or two of them answered, “We’re on mescaline!” I replied, “I know that, but what are you doing?” With fists raised, they all shouted, collectively, “We’re liberating the ice cream!”

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The Cause Celebre collective folded two weeks later, bought out by one of its former members, a gent known as “Coz”.

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