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Seattle Histories: The Coffee Messiah by Timothy White Eagle

Historic preservation in Seattle begins with community. The Seattle Histories storytelling project highlights the places, people, and events that have shaped the history of Seattle’s communities. These stories, told by community members, emphasize experiences and narratives that may have been overlooked or misrepresented in our city.

In this latest entry for the Seattle Histories storytelling project, Timothy White Eagle tells the story of opening and running Seattle’s Coffee Messiah and all the beautiful connections he made with artists and friends. The Coffee Messiah appeared on Seattle’s queer scene in 1995 and found its community in outsider artists and performers. This motley crew of regulars formed the long-running “Cabaret of Despair” – a late-night ruckus of strange and experimental performances. The Cabaret quickly became a sold-out event in which an awkward collection of punks, drag-things, and performance artists encouraged each other to experiment, risk failure, and get messy. On the door, Timothy painted the word “Sanctuary.” And, for many, that’s exactly what it was: a place to find community, to be creative, and to feel safe.

From Timothy: “Many warm thanks to all of the fellow strange travelers who came and went through the doors. Only a few are mentioned in this story, but our community had hundreds of friends and it was one of the best periods of my life. Thank you all.”

Video Transcript:

Hello. My name is Timothy White Eagle, and I’m here to tell you a story. In 1990, I moved to Seattle from Salt Lake City, Utah, where I had graduated with a degree in theater. And I explored the city and the theater scene, and it was a little boring and a little mainstream. I did find one corner of the theater world that I loved here in Seattle and that was On the Boards. And they were doing a lot of contemporary performance-art, a lot of experimentation, and one of the ethics of On the Boards was they were not afraid of failure, and they talked about that publicly, that they wanted people to be in such a place of experimentation, that it was okay to fail. And I was really taken by that idea, that you didn’t have to be perfect, that you could experiment in performance and risk failure.

As I continued to wander the city and try and get to know my place, I felt outside of the mainstream, I felt a bit like a misfit with the city. I didn’t find myself represented in queer-culture very well. A lot of the dominant queer-culture in Seattle in the ’90s was reaching towards assimilation and mainstreaming and everybody fitting into a prescribed little spot, and I had just never wanted to fit into a mainstream anything. As I continued to be in Seattle, I decided to open my own performance-art coffee shop and venue, and it was called the Coffee Messiah.

We opened in 1996 on Gay Pride… Oh excuse me, 1995. Gay Pride of 1995, we opened the doors. And on our first day, we had a “Get your picture taken with Jesus.” And back then, my hair was black, and I played the role of Jesus, and I had people sit on my lap and we gave them a keepsake photograph to take home. And I met Sister Hellfire and Dalmatian that day. And Sister Hellfire became one of my most regular regulars, in the shop almost every single day and had what seemed like an endless stream of really bad dad jokes.

Here’s an example of a Sister Hellfire joke, “What did the baby computer call his father? Data.” I didn’t think it was funny either, but it never mattered to Sister Hellfire that her jokes were not funny. And so every day we got another usually not funny joke from Sister Hellfire as they picked up their coffee.

So the shop itself was called the Coffee Messiah, and so I wanted to create something really unique. And so I created a very special bathroom in the coffee shop, and that bathroom was called the Coin-operated Discotheque in Hell. You would enter the bathroom and put a quarter in the box on the wall. Now, you’ve got to picture, the walls are blood red, and if you look closely at them, the entire wall, every square inch of it is a collage of hell. And so it’s all these images of hell from Hieronymus Bosch mixed in with pop-culture references done into this giant collage covering every square of the wall, it’s been stained red, the floor and the ceiling are black. There’s a strange chair in the corner that’s silver and looks like it’s made from the bones of animals, but it’s a chair. And up in the corner is a mirror ball. And when you take that quarter and put it in the box on the wall, the regular bathroom lighting transforms, the disco ball comes on and starts spinning, you hear an evil devil laughing and on a very short loop, the song Disco Inferno is playing. So all of this hit your senses at once, and for a quarter, you get three minutes in the disco.

And so that was the… The back corner of the coffee shop, we had purple velvet looking walls. I did a hand-texture on the walls that made them look like purple velvet. And we had velveteen Jesuses around the room and artwork from local artists, and over the cash-register up near the ceiling was a doll. And the doll had wings and held a little coffee pot. And it looked like a punk-rock baby-doll angel with these wings and would hang up near the ceiling, and every time somebody opened the door, a cord would move and the doll would drop down to just over your head, if you were standing at the cash register. And so then somebody would shut the door and the doll would go back up to the ceiling. So there was this constant kinetic movement as people came and went from the shop.

One of my first employees was named Eros Beox hyper-core. And Eros was extremely creative and lived in this amazing loft in Pioneer Square, and his whole space he shared with three or four other people, and they had like, I don’t know how many 1000 or 2000 square ft that they all split-up into little spaces, but every square inch of that environment was art or things to make art or weird objects or things that inspired them or things that they found on the street. So their whole loft was filled. And I remember he had this mannequin that he had lighted the breasts of and given it a kind of robot Borg-Mad Max face.

And he loaned me the mannequin to have in the coffee shop, and so we set it up with a little cup of coffee and a coffee pot. So this crazy mannequin would greet you as you walked into the shop.

Another one of our regulars in the shop was named Frederick, and Frederick lived right around the corner from the shop, and he had a great studio apartment in a building called the Biltmore. And Frederick would bring over regularly his scrapbook, and in his scrapbook was nothing but articles and information about Chanel, and so it was the Chanel scrapbook. There were a few things like a little piece of Chanel lace or a receipt from a Chanel store for some small object that Frederick had bought, and so page after page of wider information about Chanel and Fredrick specific relationship to Chanel. So he was happy to show his scrapbook to anybody who happened to come in. And he was obsessed with The Carpenters, and so whenever I wasn’t looking, he would hop behind the counter and put the carpenter’s CD and I would come out of the bathroom and all of a sudden The Carpenters would be playing again, so he was obsessed with The Carpenters and Chanel, he was very focused on those two things. And he also was extremely helpful in the shop, he never actually worked for me, but he often volunteered and did all sorts of things, he would bake cookies, he would make cakes, he would sweep up, he would greet people at the door and say hello, and he just loved to be participating in this little shop, this little bakery that we had going.

We were his hobby, you could say. And I remember for Valentines, he made these beautiful little handmade Valentine cards for every single customer, and so as people would come in, he would say, “Happy Valentines,” and he would say, “What’s your name” while they’re getting their coffee, and then he would run over and customize one of the valentines that he had made and then bring it over to them, so as they left, they had a little Valentine, and that was very much his spirit to do handmade things and to make them as an offering from his heart, not for any money, it was kind of like the den mother who loosely took care of the scene. Another of my regulars was named Marcus, and Marcus and I would joke about pop culture and occasionally share a tabloid and read it together, and he would also just read good books a lot. And I remember he was reading Berlin Diaries, which is this Christopher Isherwood book about Berlin in the 1920s, and it features a lot of scenes that happen in these cabarets, these very decadent environments in Berlin. And so Marcus said one day, “What do you think about hosting a cabaret here?” And I thought, that’s a great idea.

And Marcus said, “But it has to be decadent.” And I said, okay. And so we agreed that the show needed to be decadent, and so we decided that the show would start at 2:30 in the morning. Now, in Seattle in 1990, almost everything was closing at 2:00 in the morning, so even on a Saturday night, there is very little to do after hours. And so we decided that was the perfect time to start our show. So our show would start officially at 2:30 AM, and so folks would come over from the various clubs and hang out with us into the wee hours of the night. Officially, the show was an open mic, so people would come in, sign up, and we always had hosts, and the hosts would usually do a theme and have a couple of numbers lined up. We would rearrange all of the furniture in the coffee shop, and if we did it just so we could fit exactly 54 seats in the shop and so that became our performance venue. And we had a series of regular performers and hosts. It started with Jackie Hell. Jackie Hell was one of the strangest performers I’ve ever known.

Jackie’s makeup looked as if Tammy Faye Bakker had taken a pillow and smashed her face in the pillow and then took it away, it was just this smudge, and Jackie would pad herself to be big and unsightly and she would sing very strange, mostly improvised songs, and dance around and often talk in a weirdly deep voice. Her co-host was Ursula Android and Ursula Android was a kind of fembot, robot, industrial craft work, early new wave, kind of severe German, almost like of Claus Normy we’re alive in the 90s, he might have been headed this way. So Ursula was actually Marcus. So you know Marcus, who was reading the Berlin Diaries. So Ursula and Jackie were our first hosts of the show, and side note, Jackie worked across the street at the deli, at the city market, and their job was to fry the chicken and make deli sandwiches, and I used to get such a little kick out of going over to the deli, ’cause of course, it wasn’t Jackie cooking at the deli, it was David and David would be at the deli, and I used to… It used to make me laugh, like if only the people who ate sandwiches knew the other side of David and what he looked like at 2:30 in the morning on a Saturday. I have no idea what Ursula did for a job in that era, but they did something. I know later they were a bartender, so Jackie and Ursula were the host.

We also down the line had Isabella Pagawini, who was a brilliant, brilliant with wigs and hair and make up. And a perfectionist, everything would be flawless and they played Rock-and-roll guitar and were often stoned as fuck. So they would be, “dunn dunn dunn,” like very stoner vibe, but in drag regalia with an electric guitar. It was a thing, for sure. And then there was Sylvia O’Stayformore, who at the time, worked in an office and was always having to leave events early. And so her name became O’Stayformore because she was like, “Now I gotta go home and go to bed. I have a day job.” And so Sylvia was one of the hosts later, but her persona was one of an aunt who loves you no matter what. And so she… Her drag was kind of 1960s housewife, fabulous housewife, but everything in its place, and very much the hostess, and Sylvia always had a way of making you feel loved and accepted, and that was the goal of the character and that was what Benjamin did with that, he really made you feel loved. I was part of the show as well, let’s be clear.

I was sort of the MC, voice-of-the-house. I would make announcements, I would introduce the show with Jackie and Ursula to get the ball rolling. I would usually perform once or twice, kind of depending on the night. And I did a series of things, but my very favorite thing I would do, which is, I would do whippets. Do you know what whippets are? They’re laughing gas. And I’m not encouraging anybody use laughing gas, but… Okay, it was in the 90s, I was using laughing gas.

And so I’d… I would take a big hit of laughing gas and then do stream of consciousness Poetry for the audience gathered. And so I was called the Whippet poet, and every night I would… Or not every night, every Saturday night there would be at least one round of Whippet Poetry, where I would do laughing gas and then tell stories and I would be making announcements.

Frederick would be sweeping around hostessing. And then every once in a while Frederick would surprise us and he would show up in his authentic Chanel suit. And then we knew it was on because that meant that we were gonna get an extra special drag number from Frederick, and it would always be a Carpenters song. But what was amazing about those numbers was, imagine if you knew somebody who rehearsed a number for a decade and then gave it to you. And that’s what these songs were to Frederick, he loved The Carpenters so much, he listened to them all the time, and he would sing them and lip-sync them all the time, and he had for years. And so when he would do The Carpenters, it would slay because he was living every syllable of the song in such a deep way because he rehearsed it so much, it was inside his body. And so it was always amazing when Frederick would come in and he was in the Chanel suit. We just like… The room would elevate a little, because we knew something special was gonna come. And even though we knew it was obviously gonna be The Carpenters, but we knew the energy of it was gonna light up the room.

My personal favorite, Ricky Rebel. Ricky Rebel was a punk-rock, Satan-worshipping, anarchist folksinger who was obsessed with popular-culture. And Ricky would come to the shop and every performance would start the same way. He would turn away from the audience and then he would slowly look at the audience and stage blood would drip down his face and on to his shirt, and occasionally he would spit blood into the air. And then he would take a square of Top Ramen noodles and smash them against his head. And the noodles would explode and spray all over everyone ’cause he would do it like… Pretend you’re the audience, he would take a brick of Top Ramen and smash it like that, and it would just blow out of his hair, out of his hand all over the front row. And then he would proceed with a beat-up old guitar that may or may not be missing a string, to do a love song to Isaac the bartender, or an erotic ballad that features himself and Godzilla. So whatever pop-culture thing was running through the mainstream, Ricky would turn it into a homoerotic love song and he would present it. Every week at the cabaret there was new homoerotic content from Ricky Rebel.

Mr. Rags was another musician who performed regularly at the cabaret. He had a straggly goatee and worked as a chef, and he played the bass guitar and did Spoken Word and accompanied himself as he did his spoken words. And he and Ricky formed a friendship and became a band which was called, The Slaves of Sylvia, and they started putting out music together. And it’s sort of an angry, punk-rock/heavy-metal, scream kind of sound.

Very quickly, the shows became popular. And we would often sellout and there would be people standing out on the street waiting for a seat to open up at intermission. As our notoriety grew, some of the newspapers and things wrote about us. And so before long, literally, we had little notes in the Seattle Weekly and in the Stranger, in the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer. Usually, they were sort of like, “Oh, this crazy thing is going on,” the show, The Cabaret, was an open mic so everybody was invited to perform. And so we posted that publicly and some of the papers would pick up on that and post it. So we started to get a really wide and amazingly colorful collection of people from outside our immediate circle coming to perform at this weird show at 2:30 in the morning.

I remember one night a man who loved cows came to perform, and he had one of those cheap Halloween cow costumes on, the ones that have the udders on the front, like rubber udders and little bad cow gloves and a little cow hat with ears, and he played the banjo. And he had, in total sincerity, written songs about how cool cows were. And you got the feeling that maybe his other way of performing was for like 5-year-olds, ’cause it was very, “Hi kids,” kind of vibe. And it brought down the house. It was fucking amazing. He stole the show, he was so interesting and odd. And then he left and never ever came back, but I knew he lived in Seattle so it was such a surprise. But he never showed up again. In that same era, I became really, really into the performance-art that was happening in New York. And I was seeing shows over at On the Boards and a lot of times, On the Boards was bringing shows in from the hub of experimental theater, La MaMa in New York. And that’s an off-off-off-Broadway theater company. And so these shows were coming out from La MaMa, and there were people like Spalding Gray and John Kelly who were doing experimental performance and I just thought they were incredible.

And I went to see a John Kelly show when it came, and it was brilliant and it was multi-faceted and there was a French cabaret singer in it and an Irish tenor and it was just this big show. So I see that show on a Friday night, and Saturday night, I go to do The Cabaret. And no, John Kelly did not come to The Cabaret, but the next best thing happened. The Irish tenor and the French chanteuse singer both showed up for our little open mic and they were incredible, incredible, professional level performances. And they were so generous with everybody in the room and so supportive of all the weirdness that was going on. And I remember specifically that I was doing Whippet poetry that night and I sucked. I don’t know what was off, I could not find my vibe, I was terrible. And I remember the French chanteuse being in the front row, and I remember her just being so generous and being like, “You can do it, you can do it.” Like she was on my side 100%. And I remember that feeling of, “Oh, she’s on my side and I suck and I really wanna impress her ’cause she knows John Kelly.” And it was a moment for me that I’ll never forget, that feeling of recognizing how important it is that it’s okay to fail and that it’s okay to experiment.

And while you’re doing that, to support others who are doing the same. And as I look back, I didn’t have a master-plan when we were building the shop about what I was doing. I knew that I wanted to find people like me and I wanted to find a place of sanctuary. And so when we opened, I painted sanctuary on the side of the door, so that was the first thing you saw as you came in. And we created this little cauldron where we could experiment and make mistakes and have fun and also have triumphs. And so that’s what we did. One of my favorite parts of every Cabaret was how we ended the show. I would step up as the conductor of the Chaos Orchestra. One of our rules was that no matter how many people signed up for the show, we would stay there and let every single person perform. And what that meant was, sometimes we were performing literally when the sun came up the next morning. That was not all that uncommon. And at the very end of every show, we would do the Chaos Orchestra. And what the Chaos Orchestra involved was handing out noise-makers to every single person in the audience. So it might be two sticks of bamboo or a rattle or a tambourine or literally a pot out of the kitchen with a wooden spoon.

So every single person had something they could make noise with. And we also encouraged them to use their voice any way, any sound. “Hop! Hop!” Whatever they could do to participate in this communal revelry. And so we would start off and almost every Chaos Orchestra started with total chaos, just messy, sloppy, weird, bombastic boom, boom, boom. But when you’re in a room with people for a couple of hours and it’s late at night and you are isolated from the rest of the city, you kind of start to gel together and without realizing it, we would gel together. And as we would get into the chaos of this orchestra things would start to move, and these amazing moments would happen at the end of the night with the chaos. And it would gel into a kind of stream, a stream of rhythms and voices, and different people might speak up. Some of our spoken word folks might add a line or two to the stream. Some of our musicians might grab their instrument to perform a baseline. And then often, I would step into this role at the end as the voice of what had just happened, and I would speak about community. And I would speak about how we had each other.

And then… Well, it’s Seattle and things change. We had a moment here and it lasted about five years altogether. And rents started going up. This was the the first high tech boom back in the late ’90s. The dotcom industry boomed in major ways, and they started buying up all of Pioneer Square to convert it into offices. So folks like Eros lost, their loft and had to move. They moved down to Skyway with her boyfriend, they bought a house. The building behind the coffee shop, the Biltmore where a lot of our regulars lived, announced a rent increase. Overnight the rents went from $285 to $485. And in that era with those rising rents and other factors, you could just… For me, I just felt something shift in the city, and I start to see some of my friends having to go off and find cheaper housing in cheaper neighborhoods. So they couldn’t get into the city as much as they used to or right into Capitol Hill, or I saw many friends having to get second jobs in order to pay their rent. And so there was less time for creativity and my own path took a turn. I met an indigenous elder and I became his protege or his student. And so I continued to work with him to this day, but in that era I just didn’t have time to do everything and so I decided to sell the shop right near the end of the coffee shop.

Sister Hellfire got sicker and sicker. And even though the HIV drugs was doing a lot of good for most folks, they weren’t a miracle for everyone. And so sister Hellfire became sicker and sicker and she started to lose her eyesight and she was still coming into the shop with her cane. And I remember, she still told horrible jokes all the way through to the end. And I remember she came in, burst the door open and announced loudly, “Why can’t a blind person eat fish? Because it’s seafood.” And that was sister Hellfire through to the end. Bad jokes all the way. Jackie and Ursula had moved on to hosting a very popular bar night called Fobang, which was actually across the street from us, but it was bar hours. No more late night. Isabella Paquini moved to Portland and started doing a lot of yoga and actually became Mr. Portland Leather about seven or eight years ago. Sylvia O’Stayformore, well they continue to do their own show called Bacon Strip, it’s still running today in 2021 all these years later, and they became a real estate agent. So they have a secure day job and a show that usually wraps up by 12:30.

And so Sylvia is alive and kicking. Well, and Ursula, after Fobang, they started their own bar. They were the creative force behind Pony. Mr. Rags and Ricky Rebel reunited online a couple of years ago, and through the miracle of the internet started recording together and released a new Slaves for Sylvia album, which is on SoundCloud. I encourage you to go check that out. As for myself, I still work with that indigenous elder. For about the first 10 years with him, I was spending so much time on the road and with him and trying to make a living in Seattle and then going off on adventures with him that I didn’t really have time or energy for creating art. But then after I settled into connection with him about 15 years ago, I started making art again. And I started performing and creating installed space. I would consider the whole coffee shop to be my first installed space and especially the Disco Tech inferno in hell. So I continue to do work like that to make environments that I can perform in. I recently got back from New York where I did my first off-off-off-Broadway show at La MaMa. That theater company that inspired me so much in the ’90s invited me to come out and present something I’d been working on there. And not long ago, I found Frederick online, and he appears to now be the owner of his own coffee shop on the East Coast. And I saw this image of Frederick online on his Facebook page making valentines for all of his customers. I will always be grateful to all of the community that came together. And I’ve mentioned just a small number here, there are literally hundreds more amazing, energetic, unique, creative people that were part of our family, really. And I am blessed to have lived that experience. I do worry a bit about our future. When a city becomes so expensive that you have to work all the time and there’s not enough time to create and play, well then that city loses something very vital, in my opinion.

Timothy White Eagle is an undocumented Indigenous artist and ritualist who has been exploring ritual practices in his work throughout his career. Known for having created Seattle’s performance art coffee house, Coffee Messiah, his numerous works include a celebrated collaboration with photographer Adrian Chesser, which resulted in the book, “The Return.” Timothy received a “City Artist” award in 2019 and the Western Artist Alliance/AIP Launch Pad fellowship.

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This piece was commissioned by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The opinions expressed and information contained herein do not necessarily reflect the policies, plans, beliefs, conclusions, or ideas of the City of Seattle.