Nickeled and Dimed

Closed twice, Hard Times Cafe battles on

In the late afternoon of October 8, 1999, Minneapolis Police Officer Sara Metcalf took her first trip to the Hard Times Cafe on Minneapolis's West Bank. Metcalf was not in uniform. She was working incognito, trying to fit in by wearing a pair of baggy jeans, a flannel shirt, and a bandanna. The youthful officer also carried a backpack. Police reports would later say that Metcalf was conducting an undercover narcotics investigation. But on that first day at the café, near the intersection of Cedar and Riverside Avenue, she encountered nothing more serious than two kids loitering on the sidewalk.

Since opening in November 1992, the Hard Times--a member-run collective--has developed two distinctly different reputations. Housed in the ground floor of a two-story brick building near the University of Minnesota, the café's colorfully painted façade, adorned with freeform lettering (not to mention the macramé plant holders inside) recalls the West Bank's reputation in the 1960s as a bohemian enclave. Behind the counter hangs an award from the glossy city magazine Mpls.St.Paul: "Best Place to View Pierced Body Parts." For some, the 24-hour vegetarian coffeehouse is an oasis: a cool center for the countercultural to hang out; one of the few all-night venues in town that offers a place for underage patrons. Police and many city politicians, however, have come to view the Hard Times as a den of unsavory characters, interested in little more than idleness and petty crime.

On January 26, 2000, in the wake of officer Metcalf's undercover operation, the Minneapolis Police Department raided the café, and drug charges were filed against five men. On June 9 the Minneapolis City Council voted to revoke Hard Times' licenses to operate a restaurant, sell tobacco products, and provide live entertainment for a year. Attorneys for the café have appealed the decision and, for the moment, the café's future is in limbo. Until the Minnesota Court of Appeals makes a decision later this year, patrons will still be able to buy those cranberry-apple vegan scones that go so well with espresso.

Lawyer Larry Leventhal contemplates a café and its hard times
Craig Lassig
Lawyer Larry Leventhal contemplates a café and its hard times

The confrontation began brewing last spring after Ofcr. Kevin Bakken of the MPD's CCP/SAFE (Community Crime Prevention/Safety for Everyone) unit began hearing complaints from neighboring businesses about loitering and alleged drug dealing inside and outside of the café. He forwarded this information to higher-ups in the MPD, who decided to launch an undercover operation. Council member Joan Campbell, whose Second Ward includes the café, says she had been hearing similar complaints from businesses and residents alike for "several years," but that she only learned of officer Metcalf's stealth investigation shortly before its completion. Robert Dildine, Hard Times' longtime attorney, claims that neighborhood concerns were never brought to the attention of his client. "They would have taken care of it. The café has always cooperated with the police," he says.

During her three-month stint as a would-be dope smoker, Metcalf typically showed up at the café between 4:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon and stayed until 8:00 p.m. According to police reports, nothing much happened on the officer's first five visits. A drunk asked if she "liked to get high." Metcalf discussed an upcoming "Free Mumia" rally with other patrons. She observed "many people coming into the café looking around and then briefly meeting with others before leaving."

Finally, on November 10th, a former employee of the café asked Metcalf if she was interested in some "good weed." The next day the officer scored for the first time, when two other patrons sold her a baggy of marijuana for $20 (3.4 grams, or not quite an eighth of an ounce, according to the police report).

Over the next two months, Metcalf--along with other officers who were eventually assigned to the case--bought drugs a total of ten times. Typically, they purchased small amounts of marijuana, ranging from 1.6 grams to 4.7 grams at a time. In one instance, according to police reports, the cops scored some crack cocaine for $40, after haggling with a seller who had wanted $45. Another time they bought 3.9 grams of hallucinogenic mushrooms for $30. In early January Metcalf and Sgt. Jeffrey Miller watched people near a window in an apartment above the Hard Times pass a pipe back and forth.

On January 14, at about 10:30 p.m., Officer Metcalf approached Marty Johnson, who at the time was listed as the vice president of the Hard Times collective, and said she wanted to buy marijuana. According to the police report, Johnson led officers to an apartment above the Hard Times, which the café had originally rented as a business office, and sold them roughly six grams of marijuana for $40. The purchase from Johnson marked the first and only buy the police had made from anyone who worked at the café. It was also the last purchase they made.

At 2:00 p.m. on January 26, police arrived with search warrants for the café, the apartment above, and Johnson's apartment in south Minneapolis. Two Hard Times customers were cited and released for having open bottles of booze. According to the investigation's summary, "a small amount of marijuana" was found in what the police believed to be an employee locker, "a small amount of marijuana" was discovered in the upstairs apartment, and a "one-hit pipe" and a "pocket scale" were unearthed in Johnson's apartment. The police report noted that it was unlikely the results of the search would lead to any charges. At the time, Lt. Scott Gerlicher of the MPD's downtown command told the Star Tribune "we weren't expecting to find much."

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