Hotel Universe — 1975
In 1975, on one of those hot May days in Seattle that sucker you into thinking its summer, I went with my friend Hippie No. 1 to The 4700, a classic dive-bar near the university. It was Friday afternoon and we were a bit early for a party in a nearby group house called the Hotel Universe. Hippie No. 1 was from New York City and had gone to Canada to avoid the draft and worked in logging camps in British Columbia. By some subterfuge he had gotten back across the border a few years before and was now living under an assumed name, off the grid, in an old farmhouse out in the county, doing odd carpentry jobs and farm work for cash.
The barroom was shielded from the street the by a louvered screen affording privacy to the patrons. As we walked around the screen, Hippie No. 1 greeted the bartender by name. He’d spent some time here. Hippie No. 1 had contacts in the area, having once been the super of an apartment building in the neighborhood, before his SSAN was discovered to be a fake.
I looked around at the the room’s artless decor: a few beer signs, paintings of big-eyed girls and nudes on velvet that were popular at the time, a dart game whose light also lighted a velvet nude. The long U-shaped bar had a door to the walk-in fridge and kitchen at one end and the cash register at the other. On Friday’s the bar put on a smorgasbord to pump up food sales to make their food to liquor ratio legal. It was cheap and attracted some of the older students. A few hip professor types sat along the bar and a few post-college women sat with their dates at tables scattered about the room. A waitress in jeans and a halter top bustled back and forth between the bar and the tables. She was working hard. Sweat glistened on her back and she wiped her forehead with a bar towel now and then.
Sitting at the bar was Susan, a robust good-looking blonde of 27 who was a sailor and played piano. She had come to the city to take classes at the community college to get a union seaman rating and had sublet a room at the Hotel Universe. She had got a gig playing with a contra-dance band because she could really knock out the bass line with her strong left hand. She had until recently been skipper of the the mail boat on the run out to one of the outer islands.
The Hotel Universe had long been home to artists and activists and had little turnover, hence the sublet. Hippie No. 1 knew them all from his time as super of the apartment next door. He had invited Susan, along with the other folks that lived at the Hotel Universe, out to the farm for a country weekend when I lived there. We had hit it off the moment we met.
I sat down next to Susan. Hippie No. 1 chatted up the bar tender. Self possessed and an inch shy of six feet, Susan had no worries about unwanted male attention, yet she was the sort who attracted it and had made the acquaintance of one of the regulars. As my gaze drifted along the back wall, it stopped short under the light of a beer sign.
“Susan, do you know that guy sitting under the beer sign?”
“Only by his nickname. Halftrack.”
Like an animal in its natural environment was a man I’d sat with many times in bars along Saigon’s Tudo street. Halftrack Mike sat with a nice-looking woman with long, straight hair. Though he was pretending to look at Susan’s bright bush of blond hair, I could see his gaze drift downward toward the cleavage Susan betrayed below the top button of her chambray shirt. It had popped open under the strain. His gaze snapped up suddenly as he spotted me sitting next to Susan.
“Hey! Tom! You slacker. How long you been AWOL?”