Blue Moon Tavern (Seattle): A Reminiscence by James Knisely

  • By James Knisely
  • Posted 11/26/2007
  • Essay 8339
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James Knisely contributed this reminiscence of Seattle's renowned Blue Moon Tavern, located in the University District on NE 45th Street. The Blue Moon has been the favored watering hole of poets, bohemians, politicos, artists, and writers, including Knisely,  who was born and raised in Seattle. He studied writing at the University of Washington with Theodore Roethke and David Wagoner, and more recently with Jack Cady and at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. His novel Chance: An Existential Horse Opera was a finalist for the 2003 Washington State Book Awards. He wanders from time to time through the Moon.

Wandering the Moon

Some nights the wolves are silent and the Moon howls. --Pat Clary of the Blue Moon Tavern

Dylan Thomas drank there. So did Ginsberg and Mark Tobey and Kenneth Callahan. Tom Robbins. Theodore Roethke, and Richard Hugo. No Dick Hugo am I, though; a poor wanderer I am and nothing more.

The Blue Moon is a dive. And not just murky, sticky, and dense: it's ugly. Ugly to the studs. It's beautiful.

The bar, the booths, the ceiling are all of some snuff-dark substance reminiscent of wood. Layers of ancient varnish seem to hold the place up. Photos and posters and clippings hang everywhere, some very old, and Gus Hellthaler's hockey helmet dangles over the bar. The bar is not so much a horseshoe as a pen, a haven for the help from the press of a sometimes lively clientele -- and a natural barrier between east and west.


I wander in, as into the Bohemian Quarter, and veer instinctively to my left, to the west. To the left live the lefties: former Communists (no one at the Moon claims to be a Commie any more), new-millennium Democrats, latter-day anarchists, and many who no longer give a damn. The booths and tables along the west wall were old when they were installed long ago. Books and encyclopediae festoon the shelf above the booths and are oft used, misused, borrowed, stolen, and sometimes even replaced.

An omnium gatherum of humanity inhabits the booths -- a lanky electrician with a tam and a white goat-beard, a manic physician grinning from bifocals, a burly day laborer with a Ph.D., a post-gonzo journalist or two -- from all of whom the place draws its energy. They squeeze together to share pitchers of the swill du jour and talk the idle babble of the Moon. As I wander past, a powerful bulldog of a man reaches for a dictionary to settle a noisy dispute.

Past the booths and up two steps I drift into the Blue Room -- the legendary back chamber of the Moon -- as if into a brave new precinct. Tonight the Blue Room is empty -- but on Friday nights it becomes the scene of Jack Oram's Sleaze Club, a melange of med-school researchers, musicians, and cultural hangers-on who have met there every Friday for 20 years to drink and shout and be ... well, sleazy. They used to smoke (tobacco, before the ban) and still argue their research and agree on their politics and throw peanut shells on the floor to justify jobs for two or three of their own.

But not tonight. With no one in the Blue Room, I venture down the back hall to the can. The hall is a dangerous alley, narrow and dimly lit between impinging walls; brave men have withered in passing through there. Yet nowhere is the Moon's reputation more justified than in the men's can. The crapper and the urinals have leaked for generations, so the floor is always soggy. But just as well. The perpetual funk serves as a reminder not to get too familiar with the men's room floor at the Moon.

The women's room is different, a lovely oasis for the gentler sex (I've seen it for myself). It's the aberration that proves the rule.

I wander out of the can (the men's) and into the dark side of the Moon. The east side. The back room here, at the top of the steps, is the neighborhood's empty lot. But on weekends it doubles as the stage for live music, some of it pretty good -- bands like the Shmoes (sic) or Doug Parker and the inimitable Pep Tides. A honkey-tonk piano stands at the back of the stage, and against the far wall rests the original bathing-beauty-on-a-sliver-of-moon sign that once warned generations of the degeneration within. (The new sign outside features the nude and uncannily identifiable bartender Mary McIntyre -- a painter in her own right -- by the gifted artist and Blue Moon custodian Mike Nease.)

Down the steps I come to the parallel universe called Felony Flats. The University crowd doesn't much hang out here, except to shoot pool. The bohemians and the artists and the self-styled intellectuals don't sit here. The people of the night loiter on this side of the Moon -- and they are welcome. They are a neighborhood, too, and everyone who behaves is welcome at the Moon.

Oddly, it's here on the felony side where the house art is hung: a towering Nease portrait of Roethke; vibrant new work by McIntyre; other work that comes and goes as it is made and sold -- and some of it damn good.

While two rough-and-ready hombres play eightball, a 50-something man with dreadlocks talks in a booth with a gaunt-faced woman who doesn't appear to know where she is.

Few of my friends are here tonight. Since the smoking ban, there are slow nights at the Moon. Dark nights. Times may change, and business may pick up, and maybe once more Gus will give happy hour prices to the Sleaze Club. We'll see. Meanwhile we can only pray (those of us who do) that the Moon will be forever Blue.

I have a beer with Andy at the west end of the bar, then decide to go home and get some dinner. I do not wander out, though, as I wandered in; one may bound out or stagger out or be thrown out, as need be -- but no one ever wanders out of the Moon.

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