Any downtown worthy of the name should have colorful characters.
The old Downtown Boise had its share: Leo “Scoop” Leeburn, who roamed the streets with a humongous Speed Graphic camera, chronicling decades of growth and change. Al Berro, legendary owner of the Bouquet bar and a professional boxer. Luke Davis, who ran the shoeshine stand in the Owyhee Hotel and was never without a good yarn …
I used to lament what struck me as an absence of notable characters in the new downtown Boise. But that was before I met Ken Virden, voluble denizen of the Alia Coffee House, 908 W. Main.
For most of his tenure there, Virden’s table could be identified by a sign that read, “Here’s Trouble. Bad to the Bone.” The sign was made of paper and didn’t hold up, so Sri Galindo, Alia’s co-owner, made a new, improved version: “Trouble is now accepting hugs and kisses from tomatas.”
Galindo made the sign, but the wording was Virden’s idea. (A “tomata,” for those too young to have heard the expression, is a mispronunciation of “tomato” and in, his generation’s slang, an attractive woman.)
“The sign works,” Galindo said. “We see women go by all the time and give him a hug or a kiss. Other male customers are always asking how they can get a sign.”
“Trouble,” incidentally, just celebrated his 91st birthday.
He got the nickname from a waitress.
“She told me I just looked like trouble,” he said. “The name stuck.”
Its accuracy is debatable. Galindo calls him “one of our absolute favorite customers. Everyone knows him, and he greets everyone when they come in. He’s a fixture here, and we love it.”
Virden has been an almost daily Alia customer for about two years. He’ll talk to anyone who sits at his table, telling stories and giving direct, sometimes surprising answers to questions.
“What made you start coming to this particular coffee shop?” I asked him.
“I make lousy coffee.”
Over good coffee, he answered questions about his life. He was born in Decatur, Ill., and grew up in an orphanage:
“My dad died of TB when I was 11 months old. That left my mom with three boys. I lived with my grandparents until I was three and then went to the orphanage.
“It wasn’t my mother’s fault. It was the Depression. She made $1.50 a day cooking and washing dishes in a restaurant. I saw her maybe a dozen times while I was living at the orphanage. She was a good woman. It was just hard times.”
What was it like living in an orphanage?
“The first couple that had it was nice. The next guy was mean. He threw my brother down the stairs and tried to drown me in the bathtub. I told him I was going to join the army and he’d better not be there when I got back or I’d kick his butt. He took my advice and was gone when I got back.”
A month after his 18th birthday, seven months after Pearl Harbor, Virden joined the Army Air Corps.
“I volunteered for the paratroopers and they made a tail gunner outa’ me.”
A tail gunner? That had to be one of the scariest jobs in the history of jobs. You sat in a cramped, plexiglass ball in the tail of a bomber, with thousands of feet of nothing under you and enemy pilots shooting at you.
“The plexiglass wouldn’t have stopped a fly if it was mad. When they started shooting at you, your life expectancy was eight seconds.”
“Were you scared?
“Yes, but you couldn’t think about that. If you did, you wouldn’t survive.”
He survived 26 missions.
“You could go home after 25 but I told them I’d do one more. They said ‘now we know you’re crazy.'”
That kind of selflessness was typical of the Greatest Generation. Their war united the country in a way that hasn’t happened since.
“And we haven’t won a war since,” he agreed. “And we’ve been in some we shouldn’t have. We’re not the mother of the world. I hate war.”
He doesn’t have much use for politicians, either:
“Politicians are like diapers. They’re full of it and they need to be changed all the time.”
Virden spent 40 years in the military, some of them at Mountain Home Air Force Base. A widower and father of four, he worked at two funeral chapels and retired at age 87 as a resident coordinator, “dorm mother” as he calls it, at Yellowstone Park. At 91 he’s razor-sharp – he’s teaching a dyslexic man how to read – and physically fit. He walks everywhere he needs to go.
His advice to young customers who venture to Trouble’s table:
“Get your head on straight. Don’t do drugs and don’t get tattooed because you’re going to regret it. Treat everybody right and don’t think you’re better than anybody else. Live every day like it’s your last. For me, it might be. And I don’t care.”