Patches Fifteen Below

I was lucky enough to have lived during the period when many US cities were still a bundle of ethnic neighborhoods and coffee houses were THE place. In the Turkish neighborhood you found coffee so thick and sweet you ladled it, instead of pouring it. In the Italian neighborhood you found ornate steam espresso machines, glistening on the back counter and reflected in the shining mirror. In the Polish neighborhood you often found fruit syrups to add to your coffee, cherry or orange or raspberry or strawberry.

But none of those places was the Coffeehouse, the home of folk music and rebellion, of ideas and dispute punctuated by musical interludes that gave you time to reflect and often a new perspective.

One of my favorite Coffeehouses was Patches 15 Below.

The entry was down 15 steps into the basement of an old building, a single light extending from a stanchion above the door. Patches, of course, was Spotty Lickle (fullname Jarrett Spotswood Lickle) and he and his wife Liz ran a place with no alcohol or drugs, but great teas, coffees and entertainment. On poetry nights I would get up and make a fool of myself but for the other days of the week, the fare was folkmusic and the occasional jazz.

Patches was one of the television pioneers, originally appearing as a buckskin clad singer and story teller, later after moving to WBAL and WJZ to end up with almost a dozen different children's programs. In this time before Sesame Street, Liz's hand puppets and Patches' stories were a staple.

The coffee selections were not that broad and you were pretty much limited to coffee or espresso, but the atmosphere, the heady nature of the place and time all seemed to work together. That was a time when lots of folk were doing the coffee house circuits and I remember a young songwriter named John Denver as well as a young singer named Emmylou Harris stopping in. Another kid that came by on his way to the Cellar Door in DC was Don McLean.

But folk music faded away and the coffeehouses disappeared from the scene for awhile. The newest rebirth as Charbucks and an internet portal may even have a broader selection, but the feel and warmth of the 50-70's Coffehouse is gone.