Of Characters and Cream Pies -When Salvation Was Just Down the Street
Updated: Jan 7
Fryer’s Quality Pie Shop - circa 1980s
By Harry Cummins
In 1992, despite a fevered cult-like following, Fryer’s Quality Pie Shop on the corner of Northwest 23rd and Marshall shuttered its doors forever. Once a neighborhood’s all-night therapy and redemption emporium, it has remained vacant ever since. Some say society’s current ills can be directly traced to its demise, and to places just like it all across America.
To true believers and searchers alike, this brightly lit coffee shop with the rotating sign out front was a spellbinding beacon in the Northwest night, a veritable lost and found department for the human spirit. For over 50 years, the “QP” was a place where people found much more than the marquee or menu claimed.
What follows is a retelling of a true account, first appearing in the pages of the NW Examiner 33 years ago. It describes an all-night odyssey, an assignment filled with characters and cream pies, and if it weren’t for my stained reporter’s notebook in front of me, I could not actually swear it really happened in just the way I am about to tell.
I walk through the front door and notice a man with a flashlight peering into a plastic cage. Like Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer,” I know straight off that I am onto something. “What are you looking for?” I ask. “Plastic balls,” says a guy named Joe. “Find the little ball and win the big bear,” he says, already holding an armload of stuffed animals.
I ask what he plans to do with them.
“I’ve got over 200 of them at home. See that cab outside? I’ve been driving it for 20 years now. I keep these animals in my cab for my fares. Kids mostly. This time of night they are usually going to the hospital. It brings a little comfort to them.
“Me too,” he says.
I find a table near the back of the restaurant. Buffy, my waitress, pours me a cup of coffee. “Heard you were coming. You’re gonna have a good time tonight,” she says. Later, during a lull, Buffy slides into my booth and talks a bit about herself.
“Been waitressing for 27 years, all over—California, Texas, Oklahoma. This is the best job of the bunch. It’s my whole life right now. I’m glad for this job. I’m recently divorced and this Thanksgiving will be my first without family. I just hope I get to work. It will be better if I do.”
I ask Buffy about her children. “Have two of them, Paris and London.”
I ask why she picked those names.
“Heck, I had to name them something, didn’t I?”
Buffy moves on and I am left imagining nights of passion in a pair of European cities. Or Paris, Texas, perhaps.
Bert is sitting at the counter, munching slowly on a bright orange muffin. He lives in the neighborhood and drops by twice a day. Sometimes more. He talks openly about his bouts with alcoholism and mental illness. “I don’t have another recovery in me,” he shares. “Nice meeting you, but it’s past time for me to go. I have no business in here during the peak stress periods.”
Wondering about those “peak periods” ahead causes me an apprehensive moment.
Mike and Kenny are playing table hockey in a nearby booth using two spoons and a quarter. They are part of a large group of adolescents clustered around the restaurant. “We are all recovering alcoholics, this is our clubhouse. Right now Kenny and me are just looking to meet some nice girls in here. Maybe you know some?”
They say they want women who demonstrate non-addictive behavior, carry large amounts of credit cards, wear Ralph Lauren glasses and don’t have a mother.
I wish them good luck.
Maurice Shahtout, one of the owners, drops by my table and talks of better days. He tells me he has just given chase after two drunks fled in tandem toward Wallace Park with an oversized tray containing 20 dozen of his cookies.
“People told me I should close that door to that truck,” he says. Shahtout is clearly a man who can take things in rapid stride. He works 15 hours a day, overseeing a combined bakery and coffee shop operation that turns out over 1,000 pies and 2,000 cookies a day, employs 72 people and operates 14 vehicles.
“We never came here to operate the most sophisticated establishment in Portland,” understates Maurice. “We’ve been successful because we leave our customers alone to do their own thing. If they want to eat with their fingers, there is no pressure here. People come here looking for certain things.”
“People call this place lots of things, but dull isn’t one of them,” says Lea, a waitress at QP for the past five years. “Look at this, would you,” she implores, waving what looks like a .38-caliber pistol in my face.
“I was at the cash register just now and this guy comes running out of the restroom pointing this thing at me. Turns out he had found it in there. It’s only a cap pistol, but you could have fooled me.”
A man who tells me he owns the entire earth is sitting at the counter, looking a little disheveled for someone with such vast holdings. “Must have taken you quite a while to acquire the whole earth,” I say.
“Let’s just say I’m older than Mother Nature,” he deadpans, rubbing the stubble on his cheeks.
Back in my booth, Lea pours me my third cup of coffee.
“He’s not so strange. A while back, a lady was in the outer lobby with her bags packed waiting for her spaceship to come pick her up. I’ve been waitressing for over 40 years and haven’t seen no place as crazy as this.”
By now, I am losing my tenuous grip on reality. Truth has now become a tease. Searching the coffee shop for a way to get back in touch, I strike up a conversation with a woman wearing heavy makeup. She immediately starts talking about nasal sprays and cobra snakes. I go back to my table and order a piece of coconut pie.
We are entering the “high-stress period” that Bert had warned me of earlier.
I step outside for some fresh air, perhaps now looking for my own spaceship. A young man eating from a pint of Ben & Jerry’s White Russian ice cream asks me to follow him home for “philosophical studies.” I thank him and decide I have had enough fresh air.
Back inside, a man with a black cape has just launched a paper airplane. It lands close to my coconut pie. “Viking Jet, it flies,” says the pilot who has come to retrieve his projectile.
By now, I am convinced this whole place could fly if there were only a way to get it off the ground.
A large group moves through, heading toward the rear of the dining room. They are led by someone named Kingdom Herald, who is clothed in full-length garb, a sack of stones tied to his waist. He is followed in order by Lady Pegasus and another woman named Ya Leah.
Ya Leah says she is the group’s medium to the mundane world.
She thus agrees to talk with me. The conversation centers on gold keys and black kettles. My mind races to keep up.
QP is standing room only. A line is forming at the front door as it often does once the area bars have closed. I am sitting next to a woman who is wearing a braided headband decorated with huge fake pearls. She tells me she is taking voice lessons, karate and sign language.
“You can never learn too much,” she says.
I tell her that I think some nights you can.
Three young men—Shawn, Kip and Byron—enter arm in arm. Kip has dozens of buttons pinned to his jacket. I look out the front window and see a striking young woman in formal dress standing guard in front of a white Cadillac limousine. I go outside to meet Dawn. She is chauffeur to these three young men inside.
“These nice boys have rented this limo for five straight nights,” says Dawn. “Last night, we were at the coast.”
Inside the limo, I notice a computer dashboard, VCR and phone. It costs $50 an hour for a ticket to ride.
The three men return to the limo and ask if they can take my picture with Dawn. “Fine with me,” I say, giving the chauffeur a little squeeze. “I used to work for the feds,” Dawn informs me.
I loosen my grip slightly.
I say hello to Victoria and Wanda, two art students from Portland State who are sketching together in a booth. I notice the black swirls on their pads. They say they are doing loose drawings.
“Perfect place to do it,” I reply. “Plenty loose in here.”
I am sitting with Jack at the counter. He tells me he’s past his 80s already and afflicted with sore feet. Jack has trouble sleeping. Maybe two hours a night is all he gets, he reckons.
“I got jungle rot in WWII in the jungles of Panama. I’ve had my toenails removed lots of times but they just grow back worse. I worked all my life ’till recently. Sometimes it hurts a man worst not to work.”
Jack tilts his head and sighs heavily. “The doctors tell me there is no cure for what I got. Can you believe it, that in all of medical history no one has found a cure for jungle rot?”
Outside I can hear the whirl of a street sweeper and see the first TriMet bus of the day stop in front. A vacuum cleaner hums as a busboy has started his side work.
A friend walks through the door and finds my table. “So you survived the night, huh?” Her familiar face renews me.
It is time to leave.
This night of preposterous and compelling encounters is swaddled in the soft glint of a new day. Walking the deserted sidewalks home, I think about Bert and Buffy. Lady Pegasus and Dawn. And about the Man Who Owned The Earth. I wonder more about their lives. About lovers who have left them. Sons and daughters that had made them proud. Regrets they could not speak and places in the night where they sought refuge.
Tough and tender get inexplicably mixed up in some people. So, too, in some places.