Karlen's Karma

An oral history of a single drink at ice cream haven Sebastian Joe's

Sebastian Joe's Ice Cream Cafe
1007 Franklin Ave W., 612.870.0065

In a world where the remarkable often goes unremarked, where history flits through with as much moment as a spider slipping under a sill, where unknowing and unseeing are too often a way of life, it has come time to ask: What is the deal with Karlen's Karma? I mean, the $3.25 vanilla ice cream, espresso, and caramel drink at Sebastian Joe's?

Sebastian Joe's, of course, is the beloved local ice cream powerhouse that sells fancy sorbets in flavors like orange-basil, or rich ice creams with an Italian accent, like danza di limone and chocolate amaretto. They also were one of Minneapolis's first coffee shops. And they also sell what I think is the Twin Cities' only drink named after a living writer--a living writer who has not only written a lot of books, but has written a good number of the pages within them while inside of Sebastian Joe's. And so now, in the grand American tradition of, say, people at the Algonquin Roundtable documenting each other, and before some snot-nosed American-studies major beats me to it: the deal with Karlen's Karma, the story behind the coffee, and a little bit of oral history of this little corner of the world we live in.

"I moved back here in 1989 from New York," Neal Karlen told me. Karlen, the Minnesota-born baseball nut, is the author of quite a lot of books, including an estimable biography of Henny Youngman, written with the King of the One Liners, and a recent book on the Saint Paul Saints, and he is also my friend, and so he told me these things on my sofa one evening. "I moved back here after I got kicked in the head when I was mugged. I came to have medical tests, and to chill out, and then I thought, 'Hmm, I like this. This Minnesota. I think I'll stay.' I was living across the street [from Sebastian Joe's] in the Belmont. All my stuff was still in New York, but the Belmont was an old vaudeville hotel, so you could actually get a furnished apartment.

"There weren't a lot of coffee shops in those days, so everyone would come through Sebastian Joe's. And because of where it was, on the intersection of Kenwood and Hennepin and the Wedge, which was then one of the most diverse places on Earth, you had this intersection of wealthy, Lake of the Isles people--those people who you had to climb a hundred stairs to do a college interview with, you know? And right next to them would be people in the worst band in the world, and then yuppie-business guys in their BMWs, and then guys who looked like they should have been in a sideshow carnival.

"I didn't know anyone in town, everyone I knew from growing up had fled, so Sebastian Joe's became my Cheers. And like Cheers, you only know a little about someone--their role, what they want to tell. I got married and divorced, and nobody there knew it. Because it's not a high-irony state, I had to train them. I'd come in in the morning and abuse them: 'My God, you look like Charles Starkweather this morning.' It took a while, but soon enough they were nice Minnesota Lutherans giving New York Greek-coffee-shop banter: 'Oh, you got out on parole even after that letter I sent?'

"So I'd up the ante, I'd start putting them in stories for the New York Times, like this thing I did for the Arts and Leisure section, on guilty pleasures in music. I went through Sebastian Joe's and asked people. This woman actually whispered 'Axl Rose' to me. So I put all that in, I called the manager a slacker in the New York Times, and he was deservedly pissed. But it was like--Gotcha!

"It was a very specific time. Courtney Love was like the 74th person from that corner to get famous. She was living [in Big Trouble House, on Colfax off Franklin, next to the liquor store parking lot] there, and the Mondales were living five blocks in the other direction.

"And whenever anyone was mad at me about a book, I'd go into Sebastian Joe's, and they'd say, 'We still love you.' Karma, that's what I talk about all the time. You better be nice to people because you're going to see the same people on the way down that you saw on your way up. Don't you hate people who are nice to people who have more power than them, and mean to people who have less? Karma: Leave big tips for tired waitresses, wink at old women, or flirt with old men, don't lie to your friends, and never talk to a reporter--including me.

"One day I came into Sebastian Joe's, and they were like, 'Congratulations! We're naming a coffee drink after you.' They worked on it for a month. They thought there should be espresso in there, because I'm really wired, and caramel, because they swore I ordered it when I first came in. I don't think I did, but I'm not going to argue about it. Here, where coffee is king, when people don't ask you if you want a cup of coffee, but a pot of coffee, I felt like, 'Finally, I belong. Yes, I do belong.'

"Then they spent a month coming up with a name and ingredients that matched my personality. I still have the very first one they made, the glass from it. I have it on a shelf between my check signed by Meyer Lansky in 1938 and my 1955 Topp's Sandy Koufax rookie card.

"It's a pathetic statement about my personal life, but I feel like it's the greatest achievement of my personal life. I basically spent my thirties in Sebastian Joe's, and that's why I'm a panicking a little lately. In there, I was living in a little toy-train-set world, and now I'm at this age where to be a single Minnesotan you should go be up on a platform in a sideshow, because that would be an appropriate place for you in your freakish state.

"Anyway, I may be living under the Washington Avenue Bridge one day in an old refrigerator box, but if my coffee is up there I'll have been somebody. Sometimes I hear stories about who it's named after, that it was some reporter who was friends of the family, and was killed during the Cuban Revolution.

"I go in there two or three times a week just to make sure they haven't taken it down. Sometimes I'm there and people order it, and it's the greatest highlight of my life."

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