Thursday, August 4, 2011

O Kupie! My Kupie!

  "Double soft-swirl, please" is what I would ask the serious looking man from across the counter-top. Within minutes of this exchange, the man hands me my ice cream, I walk away smiling as he greets the next customer.

This is mostly what I remember of Kupie Cone.

With it's diminutive size, and sometimes long lines, this gem on SE 39th and Holgate was a borderline legendary little place for Portlanders in the know. Even when things and the neighborhood changed around it (The Hobbit, The Beard auto body, etc) it tried to remain the same. It was not only a treat to go, it was refreshing to know it, or at least it's sign, would always be there.

That's what we thought at least.

Like a beacon on Holgate, I loved this sign. It's now being restored.

  I don't know a lot about the history of the old Kupie. What I do know is that it served the neighborhood for generations.  There aren't a lot of places left like Kupie Cone in this country. They have all been replaced by built in a day spaces with the personality of a bag of frozen peas. In this case a brick building with a couple shops, including a Starbucks, who undercut the folks that wanted to hold onto it. So much for the little guy, so to speak. It isn't about convenience, so I don't always buy into that either. In some cases it's nothing but plain old greed. But, I digress, yet again.
  As I have said before in this blog, it's easier sometimes not to look at it with youthful eyes. Although this place was hard no to. It stings a little less now, but hurts in a different way. It's little square frame just sitting there on the corner. As though it called to you from afar. Like it actually might have felt a little sad if you just drove by. Like you had neglected it for some reason. Poor little thing.

Just look at it. How could you say no.

  I tried to do a little investigating on the owner I remember. The gentleman I spoke about earlier. The serious man who had a bold laugh when it arose. I wanted to try and find some kind of history and stories associated with Kupie Cone. In searching I came to find out a bit more about a great person than I did a memory from my youth. The man who stood behind the counter through all my years there was sadly, like Kupie Cone, gone.
  His name was Don Cahill, and he loved this place. He put his heart and soul into Kupie Cone. As the world around him started to come in on him, he maintained himself and the restaurant for the good of, not just his own worries and stresses, but the communities and regulars that had come there for years and years. Some could say Don was dealt a bad hand. Most people might have folded, packed it in and chucked the restaurant away as well. Don not only kept playing, he held on strong and played through. I would have thanked him for the mile high soft serve, great shakes and grilled cheeseburgers as it is. Oh, and the tater tots. How can I forget Kupie's tots?

Don would sit here and read the paper when he wasn't cleaning, repairing or taking a deserved break to read the paper. 

  Don was the youngest of four, and learned to cook from his mother. He was raised on a 30-cow dairy farm, however he went to Oakville High School, graduating in 1944. During World War II, he tried to enlist, because all of his older siblings were serving, he was turned away for being overweight. After he lost the weight, Don served in both the Merchant Marine, then the Army, where he served on a ship, as a medic, giving shots for syphilis, gonorrhea, and other contagious diseases.
  He and Joanne Walsh first met at Woody's Nook, a big dance hall between Olympia and Centralia, Washington. The couple fell madly in love and married in 1947. Right after they got married, Joanne contracted rheumatic encephalitis. She was ill for a year. Don, of course, was right there. They went on to have four children in five years. 
  Don, who did not want to be a dairy farmer, worked in management for several trucking companies over the years including: Johnson Freight, Best Way Freight, Willamette Valley Transfer. In 1964, he decided to leave trucking and bought Kupie Cone, at Southeast Holgate Boulevard and 39th Avenue, it had already been a Southeast landmark for years. It was especially known as an after school "hang out" and place to meet up. 
  Don had fought cancer off and on for 19 years, first lung, then prostate, which later spread to the bone. So the meaning of struggle and hard work were not strange to him. By cooking burgers in a tiny grill area, Don did well enough to put his kids through college and buy their first beach house in the 1960s, which was about $3,650. Kupie Cone was part of his life from the time he bought it in 1964 to 1990 in one way or another. 
  Joanne and Don raised their children in Cully and later they bought a duplex in Rose City, then a triplex, a fourplex, and another duplex that was nearby. Joanne turned 48 in 1974, her youngest child was 19,
 she had been taking German lessons and was trying to branch out and find other things she really enjoyed. She had returned from a wedding in Bremerton, with what she thought was the flu. It turned out to be encephalitis different from the earlier one. This one destroyed her current memory. The devout quiet lady became quite talkative, sometimes sweet and sometimes screeching and hollering. She never did remember her children or her husband. She was still Joanne to all of them though. A wife and a mother. 
Don made her meals. He ironed. He hosted holidays. He kept Joanne looking grand: He shopped her favorite stores like Frederick and NelsonNordstrom, and of course Meier and Frank. He also bought her bras and Clinique makeup. He shaved her legs. He curled her hair; he took her to the beauty shop. That is who Don was. He loved her. He was her husband, he always would be.
  It really bothered him when people excluded her, or didn't address her directly; and he appreciated it when people spent a few moments with her. Later, he shopped for wedding dresses with daughters, and became both grandmother and grandfather. As grandpa, he had little sympathy for whining about a tiny hardships, like a cut or scrape. His response often would be, "Get over it. I've got a bigger pimple on my butt." Whining for something? "People in hell want ice water," he would say. He loved his grandchildren like nothing else. 
He took Joanne to grandchildren's athletic games, hand in hand, got her food and a drink. Looking for great antiques became a passionate escape. There was the thrill of the hunt: searching for the perfect green McCoy vase or old frame or unique wood chair at an estate sale. He knew a good bargain, and never left empty-handed. It reminded him of simpler things. It took him away from heartache, if only for a while.
 Don found and got a little Kaiser respite care for Joanne 10 days each month. Once a week, he volunteered for Kaiser Sunnyside. He became friends with most of his fellow hospital volunteers. 
He took Joanne to her Mass on Sundays, often to the Downtown Catholic Chapel. Don was not a devout Catholic, however it is what Joanne wanted. It was what they did. First though, he made sure her lipstick was perfect and she wore a snappy outfit. She liked to dress up and feel ladylike. 
"You wouldn't happen to have some hairspray, would you?" he would sometimes ask. "I want to fix Joanne's hair before we go to church."
  Privately he often said, "People don't realize that I really, really love her." Don learned to think for a couple, and both mother and father to his children, with little patience for being upset about the little troubles. "Just get over it and get on with it," he said. He developed a sense of humor to lighten the situation; he sometimes cried; he talked about it; at times he was lonely. But he was not unhappy. He tooks trips with his children or friends. He enjoyed his Arch Cape beach house - clam digging, eating a mess of razor clams, drinking Tangueray on the rocks. He never sat. "You rest, you rust," he said. His big worry was who would take care of Joanne after he was gone: He knew what a consuming job it was. He hoped he would outlive her. "I wish we could both go together," he said, just a few days before he died Feb. 19, 2008. 
He was 81.
 Joanne is now 85, and last I knew was living with one of their daughters.
 So, as you can see, upon investigating a little in what I thought was a Southeast Portland restaurant icon of sorts, I found proof of the a real icon that held it down so many years. Serving the community even when it was hard. Making wise cracks to the older patrons and giving the children's cones "a bit extra, champ" as he topped it off with a wink and smirk. I found that the icon itself after all these years, was behind the counter. So after all this time, I no longer wonder why Kupie Cone is gone as much as I did. We were lucky enough that Don had enough heart in him to give to everyone. He did for as long as he could. He would have done it longer if it were up to him. The sign me be in a garage somewhere being restored and stored. There may be a boring bag of frozen peas standing where this place stood. Sure, the insult of tearing it down and renaming the corner "Kupie Corner" with a unassuming, plastic, lit sign, was crappy to deal with. However, I imagine Don would say "Get over it, we've got a bigger pimple on our butt."

I'll try.
Don Cahill behind the counter at Kupie Cone with a coffee, ready to greet the day. Thanks, champ.
  These little places have stories to them. These "mom and pop" places are just that most times; they remind us how inviting people can be. It's personal not only because of the scale, it's personal because sometimes it just really is. Simple as that.

A special thanks to family and friends of the Cahills and Jerry Casey.
Thanks. Until next time.
Play Nice.

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