I’d been dreaming of spending an evening scoping out the few remaining drinking haunts in the International District for some time. However, 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 . . .
6:27 p.m. I decide to make my foray into the ID at Joe’s Bar and Grill. For anyone who thinks Seattle is being taken over by millennial brogrammers and the like, you need to spend a couple of hours here on any given night. 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 who brings your mail to the panhandler on the corner. Verbal abuse flies 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, 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 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 to $7, including Monday’s “Spagetti Dinner.” The pull-tab rules start with #1—Thirst Comes 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 more than 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 looks like Jackie from Risky Business with the big man hands and smells pretty, says hello to me and puts her hand on my leg. Fearing for both my sanity and safety, I flee to my next stop . . .
7:38 p.m. As I walk through the semi-full parking lot into Sun Ya’s cocktail lounge, I’m greeted by the smells of cleaning solution and seafood. The lounge is a ’50s-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 hasn’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 that one of them is the owner—or landlord, maybe.
The bartender, a woman by the name of Junk-o 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 Tsingtao and start to question her 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 ID, she says “Screw you! The last time I talk to someone from The 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 ages 40–80 and beyond. He adds, “Stop calling it the ID. Everyone that lives down here calls it Chinatown, man.”
8:12 p.m. The Dynasty Room at Four Seas has approximately 14 Caucasian people in it, all looking quite pleased (except the bartender, who was complaining that she was “slammed”). People are eating, while in the giant main dining room, three young dudes forlornly sit 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 Tsingtao, attempting to maintain sobriety in order to endure the balance of the evening. Three people at the bar are debating The X-Files pre- and post-Duchovny.
Shitty pop music blares through the speakers as an electric dartboard sits idle in the corner behind some boxes. I notice a pattern in the places I’ve been: For some reason, every one of them has boxes piled up in the bar. Maybe they’re supplies, maybe they’re 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 make a pit stop and discover 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.
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 category, which is why I enjoy going to very forgiving places to do it while surrounded by my drunken brothers and sisters. Like any karaoke bar, it starts slow like a shitty Mariah Carey ballad and then devolves into a mashup of Boy George and Rob Halford. Some Russell Wilson-looking dude with a faux-hawk walks in, 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 “Jumbo Beef Cutlets,” 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 forget immediately. I try to look busy as I write 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 been 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 Britney 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 stumble to my final locale for the evening . . .
11:52 p.m. I find Fort St. George, which has been described to me by many along my route this evening as “a Japanese yuppie bar.” Expecting vibrant flat screens filled with incomprehensible anime, I head upstairs to find what is truly the only upscale cocktail bar in the ID. 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 my story, he recommends I try three Japanese whiskies—on him. Bad choice.
Sitting beside me is some Fran Drescher lookalike arguing with a 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 in my notebook are “I’m now drunk as fuck,” “21 years in space,” and “Want to return home b4 I fall.”
I make the fortunate decision to descend back 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 wake up there the next morning with a message that a kind soul named Salim had deposited me there for a grand total of $18.38. I don’t know if there is a God, but if there is, his or her name might just be Uber.