My terrifying journey through the watering holes of Seattle’s International District…
I’d been dreaming of spending an evening scoping out the few remaining drinking haunts in Seattle’s International District for some time when the night finally arrived. What I thought would be a journey down Seattle’s memory lane turned into a bender of epic proportions.
Somewhere during my tenure at the fourth bar – time and space no longer meant anything to me. It was neon sign after neon sign with frightening roasted animals hanging in windows and colorful dragons looming overhead. The whole scene felt like a weird booze-fueled Twilight Zone episode starring Ray Milland. And so it goes…
Beginning the night at Joe’s Bar and Grill
6:27 p.m. – I decided to make my foray into the International District by starting at Joe’s Bar and Grill. For anyone that thinks Seattle is being taken over by Millennial brogrammers and the like – here’s the news: you need to spend a couple of hours here on any given night to get your mind right. Joe’s has been owned since 1964 by some guy named Jim who gave the place its name as a spot for the average Joe.
Its denizens include everyone from that guy on the bus to the dude that brings your mail to the panhandler on your corner. Verbal abuse flies like monkeys across the bar. ‘Hey – you got my fuckin’ quarter?!’ and ‘I’m unsanitary? You’re unsanitary bro!’ are some of the things I think I might have heard.
A communal phone charger is plugged into the wall and classic rock tunes play loudly and clearly – complete with air guitar, out of tune singing and dancing for the equilibrium-challenged. It’s a scene. Bartender Drake, replete with a Seahawks logo tattooed across his bald head, tells me that Joe’s is a ‘totally divey local bar – maybe one of the last left in the city.’ The place also offers nightly food specials in an affordable price range from $5.25 – $7 including Monday’s ‘Spagetti Dinner’. The Pull Tab rules start with #1 – Thirst is First. Indeed.
I like this place in a weird way and I’m welcomed just like every other average Joe. It’s like an old worn out sweater or an ex- you can always go see to get laid. After a couple of Redhook drafts, I ask bartender Carmelita, who also has a Hawks tattoo inside her ear and has somehow managed to survive working here for over seven years – What’s the most fucked up thing you’ve ever seen on the job? Her response – “I once saw a guy drive a stolen ambulance into a building across the street and then walk in to order a rum and coke. He’d been arrested and taken to Harborview but didn’t want to go inside.”
Just then, a gal (maybe a guy?) who looked like Jackie from Risky Business with the big man hands and smelled pretty, said hello to me and put his/her hand on my leg. Fearing for both my sanity and safety I fled to my next stop…
The Sun has Set on Sun Ya
7:38 p.m. – As I walk through the semi-full parking lot into Sun Ya’s cocktail lounge I’m greeted by a combination of smells from both cleaning solution and seafood. The lounge is a 50’s-style tarnished red enclave with squeaky red pleather chairs covered in packing tape and a fondue pot-colored orange wood burning stove that looks like it hadn’t been lit in 25 years. Sitting at a table in front of a faded big screen TV are four old Chinese dudes gambling on basketball and drinking vodka. I’m told later that one of them is the owner – or landlord maybe. I don’t know.
The bartender, a woman by the name of Junk-o (sp?) grunts at me asking what I want. I notice that all booze is the same price except for Southern Comfort which is $6.25 and considered ‘top shelf’ here. I order a Tsing Tao and start to ask her a few questions about the place. Before I finish she says, ‘Who are you and what do you want?” When I tell her I’m a hack writer putting together a story about drinking in the International District she says “Screw you! Last time I talk to someone from Stranger they lied. All lies!!!”
After she exits the bar I get a ‘regular’ to talk to me who tells me that the place is mostly filled with folks from age 40-80 and beyond. He adds, ‘Stop calling it the ID’. Everyone that lives down here calls it Chinatown, man.’
On my way out I spy three pieces of ‘art’ hanging on the walls. I think they are of the DMZ or some other dire landscape. They’re still wrapped in plastic with cardboard corners attached. I elude Junko fearing of pent up retribution against the pseudo-journalists who preceded me and head up the street to…
This Dynasty is Over at the Four Seas
8:12 p.m. – the Dynasty Room at Four Seas has about 14 Caucasian people in it all looking quite pleased (except the bartender who was complaining that she was ‘slammed’). People are eating food while the giant main dining room has three young dudes forlornly sitting at a single table. The bar is covered in old school wood paneling and, to my surprise, has some higher end booze on offer. I get another Tsing Tao attempting to maintain sobriety to endure the balance of the evening. Three people at the bar are debating X-Files pre and post-Duchovny. What a stupid thing to argue about.
Shitty pop music blares through the speakers as an electric dartboard sits idle in the corner behind some boxes. I noticed a pattern in the places I’d been – for some reason every one of them has boxes piled up in the bar. Maybe they are supplies, maybe they are empty – I don’t know. They’re just there. And almost always there’s some old desktop computer in the way. Why?
On my way out I made a pit stop and discovered what may very well be the last porcelain pee trough in the city of Seattle. Gone are the days when even the humble communal urinal could be both classy and classic at the same time…
Accidentally Getting Drunk at Bush Garden
8:56 p.m. is when things start falling apart. I walk past a giant, cartoonish fish stuck in a tiny aquarium at Kau Kau. Is it talking to me? What’s he saying? I don’t know. I plow on to Bush Garden which was high on my list for the evening. Why? Karaoke. Let’s face it – you can either sing or you can’t. And unfortunately I fall into the latter group. Which is why I enjoy going to very forgiving places to do it while surrounded by my drunken brethren and sisters.
Like any karaoke bar, it starts slow like a shitty Mariah Carey ballad and then slowly devolves into a mashup of Boy George and Rob Halford. Some Russell Wilson-looking dude walks in with a faux-hawk hairdo wearing green plaid golf pants and a buttoned up Polo covered with a giant horse cameo. He sings ‘All by Myself’. I feel complete.
The dining room is both giant and empty. When you’re advertising things like ‘Home-Aged Steak’ it’s not hard to figure out why. It’s also a reminder that booze can subsidize a restaurant for a very long time. An evil, impish bartender called ‘Sid’ begins to liberally pour me gin and tonics while some Vietnamese character pounding Glenlivet tells me stories that I forgot immediately. I try to look busy as I’m writing a grocery list. Then I think I buy him one hoping that the alcohol will make him forget how to speak. Or me how to hear.
I then see server Susie who is about six feet tall with long blonde pigtails reminiscent of Heidi, Girl of the Alps. She’s a kindergarten teacher who has been moonlighting there for 20-plus years and happily tells me about the glory days of Bush Garden when the second floor was open and the tatami rooms were always packed full. Some post-sorority glory-days chick sings Toxic by Brittney Spears. A Hawaiian-shirt wearing fat guy sings Tiny Bubbles. A woman beats me at a game of hangman and I stumble onto the street after maybe four G&Ts – I’ve lost count. And they were all doubles. Seeing double, I roam to my final destination for the evening…
I Left My Face at Fort St. George
At 11:52 p.m. I find Fort St. George which has been categorically described to me by many along my route this evening as ‘a Japanese yuppie bar’. Expecting vibrant flat screens filled with incomprehensible anime playing; I head upstairs to find what is truly the only ‘upscale’ cocktail bar in the International District. And it’s packed.
I somehow flag down the bartender who looks an awful lot like James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins and order another gin and tonic. As I talk to him about the subject of my story he recommends I try three Japanese whisky’s – on him. Why not? Bad choice.
Sitting beside me is some Fran Drescher-lookalike arguing with some guy who is clearly being kept in ‘the friend zone’ – much to his chagrin. I think they are talking about the Royal Tenenbaums but who cares – I hate all Wes Anderson movies. What I care about is my rapidly deteriorating cognitive skills and the fact that the last three things I’ve inexplicably written are ‘I’m now drunk as fuck’, ’21 years in space – WTF?’ and ‘Want to return home b4 I fall’ in my notebook.
I make the fortunate decision to descend back down to street level through a waft of ganja smoke and find a curb to sit on before fumbling around on my phone to electronically hail a cab. I know I made it home because I woke up there the next morning with a message that a kind soul named ‘Salim’ had deposited me there for a grand total of eighteen dollars and thirty-eight cents.
I don’t know if there is a God but, if there is, his or her name might just be ‘Uber’.
*Portions of this story originally appeared in Seattle Weekly