Ye Olde Canterbury—a Capitol Hill Fixture Forever Changed

A story of love, loss, and growing up at a 15th Avenue bar.

Excerpted from the forthcoming anthology, Ghosts of Seattle Past (Chin Music Press, ed. Jaimee Garbacik)

Up in an unlit corner of the darker and more wooded end of 15th Avenue, there once stood an emporium of squalid and thoroughgoing inebriation called the Canterbury.

Entering, you found yourself facing a full suit of armor, which leaned forward, a boozy knight in need of some steadying. Otherwise, the place was dim and comfy, loosely Bavarian, with a glassed-in fireplace in the corner.

When I moved to Seattle in 2004, the air inside the Canterbury was so clouded by cigarette smoke that it was sometimes difficult to navigate to and from the startlingly cold and damp bathrooms. The cold was functional; it slapped you awake.

Now I should acknowledge that yes, it is true that the Canterbury is still there, strictly speaking. Or rather, there is a place called the Canterbury in the exact same space where the place that I’m talking about stood. But if you think that the Canterbury is still there, then you either didn’t go to the old ’Berry, or you haven’t been to the new one. If you have experienced both, then you understand. These are two different places.

Some purists will disagree, I’m sure, but I don’t think there’s anything especially wrong with the new Canterbury. I’ve been a few times, and the staff is nice; the food is fine; the bathroom is fit for human use. You can drink the wine without a Pepto chaser. By most measures, it’s a better place than it was. For instance, you no longer have to cover your drink with an old cardboard coaster to keep miserable fruit flies from suiciding themselves in those amber depths.

I never ate the old Canterbury’s food while sober—I don’t imagine many did. One particular line cook carpet-bombed his nachos with so many fistfuls of pickled jalapeños that you could see little else from above. It had no culinary precedent, so I thought it had to be some sort of message from the kitchen.

What’s different apart from the food? Well, among the memorable people who populated the older Canterbury—all now gone—was waitress Suzy, to name one. Suzy with her heavy sighs and the way she often sat down beside us in our booth to take our order. The intimacy was unsettling at first, but sooner or later you’d get the hang of it. Her blonde head so often tilted as if she didn’t quite believe all of this—what, exactly, was so unbelievable? I have no idea, but I adored that little flirtatious glint in her eye, like she might actually want to wait another minute while you consider the options on the laminated menu.

She brought to mind the bartender from Denis Johnson’s short story “Work”: “Nurse,” I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm.” You had to go down on them like a hummingbird over a blossom.

Patrick Duff, my steadiest companion at the old Canterbury, loved that story.

The small front room with the armor was by far the coldest and least hospitable. The only time I ever willingly sat in that room was the night after Patrick was killed by a tree in a freak storm in the autumn of 2009.

The night after he died, the rest of us gathered, involuntarily, it seemed, at the Canterbury. We took over that front room. We sat and waited for Patrick’s wife—his young widow—who is also, coincidentally, named Suzy. She’d been with him when he died the previous night.

What happened was they were walking their dog and a windstorm came in, very violent. They were in a park near their house, and the top of an enormous tree was sheared off by the winds, or else by lightning, and it fell on them.

What happened was that Patrick and Suzy had been planning to come meet the rest of us, so they took their dog for a walk, despite the storm. They were coming to meet us because a publisher had made an offer on my first novel, and we were all going to celebrate, but not at the Canterbury, because we were now real adults, or at least that was the idea. So we were going to meet at the posh and painfully twee Oliver’s Twist. The rest of us got together there, ordered truffled popcorn, and wondered aloud where Suzy and Patrick were. We speculated about whether Patrick was blowing us off.

What happened was that Suzy and Patrick went to walk their dog earlier than normal, ignoring the weather. They were going to be on time to this get-together. They were going to show up for me. Patrick was a writer, too, and this was a big deal. We’d both moved to Seattle to study in the UW’s creative writing program in the same small group of graduate students. Everyone who I used to hang out with at the Canterbury was part of that program; in fact, all of us had moved to Seattle to study in it.

What happened was that Patrick and Suzy went to walk their dog early, so we could sit around and talk about how nice it was that I had found a publisher for my novel, and then a tree fell on them.

When she entered the Canterbury the night after her husband died, Suzy smiled at the sight of us, and we all looked up at her and saw her black eye, the cuts on her face, and we saw how she glowed under the orange light.

We parted to make room for her, and she slipped in without a word. She was sitting beside me, as it happened, and I remember the warmth of her body there. I remember the wedding ring on her finger, and the ways her tears gathered, shimmering in the sepia light.

The windowpanes fogged up, and we drank our whiskey cheap, on the rocks. We crowded in, shoulder to shoulder. Whenever the door opened, we felt the cold rush in on us.

We didn’t discuss the past; everything that had ever happened before was too much to consider. We discussed the logistics of the funeral, of incoming family, and we discussed the present, the angry weather, and how the neighborhood was changing. The future, our jobs—we talked about anything but the past.

Most of us were sliding into our 30s by then, and hadn’t been to the Canterbury much recently, if at all, and I’m sure most of us would never return. That long melancholy note that hangs around the end of things—especially the things that you forgot to enjoy—the Canterbury always felt like a slightly dissonant melody in the key of that particular feeling.

Here’s what happened: We all grew up, and so did Seattle. People don’t like it, and why would they?

We look back at our youth, which appears carefree, riotous, and from this distance who is there to say that it wasn’t? We grew up and left the Canterbury behind. It was still there, waiting for us to become youthful again, for Seattle to become carefree again. It waited until it couldn’t wait any longer, and then it grew up, too.