Cheap coffee. That's why Laughn Elliott Doescher comes to the Burger King on upper Aurora Avenue North: one buck for 12 ounces of pick-me-up.
On a Monday morning, just after 9 a.m., Doescher, 62, slid into his booth. Known to some in the area as the "Mayor of Aurora," Doescher stared into the caramel-colored liquid, eyes glistening under droopy brows. His fingers, nearly each one adorned with a ring -- tiger's eye, turquoise, silver -- caressed the paper container. He lifted the coffee cup and took a slow draw.
Waltzing up behind him came Kathy M., a thin woman with Kewpie doll eyes. She carried a laptop case and an orange Tupperware container that resembled a tortilla warmer. She tossed the case in the booth behind Doescher, slid the container on the table, then went to the counter to order.
Minutes before entering the Burger King, the pair had ambled out of Doescher's RV, a six-wheeled behemoth that took up four spaces in the parking lot. Doescher lives in the motor home, moving it each day throughout the neighborhood to stay on the good side of parking enforcement.
But just about every morning he embarks on the same pilgrimage from side street to parking lot, parking lot to BK booth. A regular, he's noticed something about this particular fast food restaurant: "There are a lot of homeless people," Doerscher said, looking around.
A lot: That's a relative term. But people who admit to being homeless, or look like they might be, can often be found at the Burger King at 13201 Aurora Ave. N. Sometimes there's one person, sometimes two, maybe seven. A tide of people with oversized clothes and torn-up backpacks, their numbers ebb and flow.
The mix of men and women, young and old, white and black, tends to fall into broad categories you won't find in an ethnographer's handbook.
There are the "beeliners," the men and women who enter the side door, dash into an unlocked bathroom, only to leave minutes later, the door whooshing closed behind them: They never venture to the counter.
There are the "sit-a-spells," the men who, hauling big backpacks or duffel bags, venture in to camp out at a booth or table, often for hours at a stretch. Perhaps they order coffee or cheeseburger, their coins spilling on the counter; perhaps they bring their own repast, a small carton of milk or cookies wrapped up in a napkin.
There are the "revolving doors," the people who walk in, talk to someone, grab a seat, scan a discarded Seattle Times, get up, bum a smoke, leave, then return 10 or 15 minutes later to do it all over again.
And there are others. Not so many their presence overwhelms the place, but enough to make you notice and wonder: Why, of all the fast food restaurants in the city, do homeless people come to this one?
Doescher can think of one answer: They're accepted.
The staff will toss people out if they catch someone drinking in the corner or shooting up in the bathroom. "But they're pretty tolerant if you come sit and warm up for a couple hours," Doescher said.
Or if you have a nicotine fix.
After tossing the computer case in the booth next to Doescher, Kathy M. placed the orange Tupperware container on the table, then flipped off the lid. Inside sat loose tobacco, a number of cigarette filters attached to empty cigarette tubes and a small, rectangular device called a pocket cigarette injector, courtesy of Rizla, the rolling paper company.
Kathy M. opened the top of the injector, dropped in some tobacco, attached an empty cigarette tube to one end of the injector and closed the top. Then she slid the injector's top over the tube, her thin arms struggling with the effort until, voila, a full cigarette.
After Kathy M. completed hers, Doescher filled his own. "The only thing wrong with Burger King is they won't let you smoke inside," he said, smiling. "Actually, that's a good thing." Leaving the Tupperware of tobacco and the laptop case on the table -- "Nobody will bother it," he said -- he stepped outside for a smoke.
But a light. He didn't have a light. John Eagan did, and he held a flame to Doescher's cigarette. They stood apart, smoking, while someone dashed in the door and made a beeline for the restroom. Before Doescher had stubbed out his smoke, the beeliner left the restaurant, his mission complete.
Back inside, Eagan, 46, sat in a booth. He carried a 3.5-ounce tin of Top tobacco full, not of tobacco, but of dozens of small packages of salt, pepper and sugar, plus a half-empty bottle of non-drowsy cold and flu medicine. He spread his wares out on the table, making himself at home
Like Doescher, Eagan makes regular visits to the Burger King. "Once a day, just to get coffee," he said.
He became homeless, he said, after his wife died almost two years ago. He couldn't keep up with the mortgage. Tucked away in a camp not far from the restaurant, Eagan said he made a regular route of his camp, his storage locker and the Burger King.
He came everyday, he said, because the place was convenient. "And nobody gives me a hard time," he said.
Moments after he spoke, an employee wearing a Burger King visor walked into the dining area. He sprayed sanitizer on empty tables and wiped them down. Customers entered, ordered food, filled their soda cups and balanced their trays in the search for open seats. One or two raised an eyebrow at Eagan's condiments spread on the table, another stared as Doescher typed away at the laptop, using the restaurant's free but spotty Wi-Fi.
No one bothered the homeless people. People ate, typed, rolled cigarettes, counted change, emptied trays. Everyone got along.
Or maybe not.
A dilemma for some
Mark Escamilla, managing owner of the Aurora franchise, said sometimes, homeless people hanging out in the restaurant have created tension. "We understand they're people," said Escamilla, "but on the other hand, some of my guests find it uncomfortable."
Part of the tension, he said, arises from the use of bathrooms. Locals in the area frequent the restrooms because they don't require a key or password. But sometimes customers find the bathroom locked. They take their complaints to the employees behind the counter, he said. "It's my guests who pay my bills -- wages, building. I do have to listen to their concerns," Escamilla said.
Unlocked bathrooms can be a source of trouble everywhere, but the alternative can be worse. In San Francisco, where Escamilla worked previously, locked bathroom doors in restaurants created their own problems. It's better just to leave bathrooms accessible, he said.
When customers have a complaint, about the locked bathroom or anything else, they don't have to voice it to employees. After paying for food or drinks, customers receive a receipt that encourages them to share their thoughts about their visit at mybkexperience.com. The online survey requires a restaurant number, listed on the receipt, which identifies each outlet. Anyone can log an anonymous complaint.
Complaints aside, Escamilla said, he wants everyone -- customers, staff, homeless people -- to feel safe in Burger King.
"At times," Escamilla said, "it creates a dilemma."
But if Sandy McDonald had it her way, there'd be no division between homeless and others at the restaurant.
A regular who ventures to the Burger King three or four times a week, McDonald, a retired psychiatric nurse, said she's not bothered by homeless people. She said there's one man with a big beard who is usually there when she shows up. "He's always polite," she said.
And so is the staff, which might be why homeless people feel comfortable there. "It's safe, and they're not going to be hustled out," McDonald said.
While she knows that some people might complain, McDonald said everyone should be welcomed there. Taking a nibble of her cheeseburger, she said, "We all need a place to stay."
Change is coming?
After waving to the employee who wiped down the tables, Doescher headed out to his RV. Warm and cozy, thanks to a propane heater he keeps running, he settled down in a chair, the Burger King visible out of a side window.
He pointed out a woman with long black hair who hurried into the restaurant. "A working girl," he said, "just got out of jail." A couple minutes later she walked out, licking a vanilla soft serve.
A homeless man who had been in the restaurant earlier, one of the revolving door types, talked to the woman. They laughed. Then he went inside. Within minutes, he came back out and started walking through the parking lot.
Doescher said there are other places nearby where homeless people can go -- there's a Starbucks a couple doors away with unlocked bathrooms -- but most of the time, they get pushed out of them eventually. Again, he said Burger King staff was nice and didn't harass anyone.
At least for now. Staff at fast food restaurants turn over, which could mean a shift in how the Burger King treats homeless people. Doescher said that didn't worry him. "That's life. Change is inherent," he said.
Besides, he said, there are other places for homeless people to go.
He pointed out the RV's window, indicating a fast food rival on the corner of Aurora Avenue North and North 115th Street: "There's a Jack in the Box up the street."