Written by Xavier Clayton
May 18, 1895. Georgetown, Seattle
Through my bedroom window, I look up into the distant sky. Thunderclouds are forming and I suddenly see a flash of lightning. Moments later, a thunderous crash booms above me. I close the shades made of white lace and walk to my mirror. My pink ruffled dress fits nicely as I admire it on my 17-year old curves and start adding feathers to my hair. I want to look like a senorita tonight. Something exotic always earns me extra drink commissions beyond my 8 dollars a week. My small room isn’t much. Just a bed, a water basin, a long mirror, and an Italian dressing screen I saved six months tips for. Felicity can have her ballet slippers, I’ve got Roman Gods and Goddesses in my room.
Downstairs, I hear people talking, arguing, cards shuffling, and glasses clinking. After my husband and first born died of fever, I tried living on the little savings we had after The Civil War – But it didn’t last long. I thought of being a maid or waitress, but in Philadelphia one can barely survive on those wages… so I came out west. Carson City and San Francisco were possibilities, but Seattle and its new Gold Rush appealed to me more.
I put on my stockings and petticoat, and then start applying face powder and lipstick – even though the carminic acid in the powder always burns my skin. As I dress, I think of how it’s been a month since I last bathed and my arm pits start to smell like old leather boots.
In my “crib”, I think life as a saloon girl is not so bad. I wear fine clothes and have money saved. I was lucky that Sam took me on when I saw his colorful sign outside. It wasn’t for my wonderful singing voice, but rather because to many men I’m pretty. In two years, I’ve changed. I never before would have dyed my hair black back in Philadelphia. Let alone put on eye pencil and eye shadow. But both will complete my senorita look. They might even help me find a respectable man to marry.
The noise downstairs seems to be getting rowdier – “Time to work”, I think as I blow out my porcelain oil lamp and walk into the hallway.
My one-room apartment is the first room on the right at the top of the stairs. Next to my door is a poster of a horned half-goat half-man grabbing a terrified virgin in a garden. His red eyes glare at her.
I come to the top of the staircase and look down onto the noisy, smokey bar. Nick, the piano player, plays as Felicity and Constance are dancing with customers. Madame Dunn looks up at me from the side of the bar with first a “You’re late!” look on her face… but as she sees my makeup and dress, her look quickly changes approvingly. I look back at her and know that she and I are thinking this could be a profitable night for us both.
“Sam’s Saloon” is an upscale parlor house, even though the proper ladies in town still call it a “Hurdy-Gurdy House”. There is a long elaborately carved wooden bar with a long metal bar at the bottom of it to rest your foot on and a small wooden stage with thick red velvet curtains draped on each side of it. A soldier once insulted Felicity during her ballet performance and Sam made him leave at gunpoint.
There are also gambling tables and pool tables. Each one has its group of inner players and outer spectators. A large stuffed cheetah stands at the end of the room and there are oil lamps illuminating the brightly colored room. Above it all is a ceiling painting of virgins floating in the sky.
The bar is crowded with soldiers, ranchers, outlaws, and a politician or two. A long carved wooden mirror stands at the back of the bar with several bottles of beer, wine, and spirits aligning it. There is an unmissable painting of a nude woman above the mirror.
Every night, there is always the potential for violence. A group of vigilantes could show up. There could be someone accused of card sharping and a fight will break out. There could be a shoot-out because someone innocently asked a rancher about his cattle and got killed for doing so. Even two of us saloon dancers could get into a catfight over the attention of one of our more well-to-do clients.
There are two main rooms. Madame Dunn can keep an eye on both from her vantage point at the bar. Under the rounded arches, bow-tied waiters walk through the bat-wing doors carrying silver trays of Tarantula Juice, Tanglefoot, or Cactus Wine – all various liquors. Most of the men stick to rye, bourbon, or beer as they don’t want to be ridiculed for ordering a fancy cocktail.
In a corner of the room at the side of the bar, “The Soiled Doves”, as we’re called, sit behind a barrier and wait for men to buy their dollar-a-dance tickets to dance with one of us. We then take them to the bar to order whiskey, which will give us a commission we’ll split with Madame Dunn, 50-50. I always order Mule Skinners, knowing that Carey, the barman, will happily agree and then fill my shot glass with cold tea – 0,50 cents each.
In the second room, there’s a billiard table that has a wall full of thoroughbred horse paintings. Cigar smoke fills the small space and Don, the barber, has set up shop in a corner, should someone need a cut or a shave. In the corner, there’s a copper pot that men – and sometimes women – can spit their chewing tobacco down into. No wonder everyone’s teeth are rotten and black from it and coffee.
In this bigger chestnut paneled room, there are chaise lounges with upholstered pillows from Turkey, candelabras, and aquarelle paintings of women holding liquor bottles and smiling. A large oak grandfather clock next to the staircase chimes every half hour. Stained glass windows keep people outside from looking at the goings on inside.
Men sit on leather-seat barstools smoking and drinking. Statues and standing lamps fill out the room. The heads of three wild boar hang above the arch and a painting of six naked nymphs playing with a centaur can be seen next to the main door. Venetian chandeliers hanging above our heads display Madame Dunn and, her late husband, Sam’s taste for finer things.
I’d say that most of our clients are on their way to or from Alaska. Seattle is a “Gateway to Gold”. But, we also have ranchers, miners, soldiers, and Civil War deserters. Since we never close many of the fellas stay a while. My job is to entertain them by singing and dancing. I’ve already gotten a lot of stares in my senorita dress. As I walk past the crowded poker table to say hello to Madame Dunn, a cattleman, a cowboy, and a suspected horse thief say “G’d Evenin’, Beth”… “Y’sure lookin’ good!”… “Let’s shake a rug, later!?”. I smile at them all, but cross the room to greet Madame Dunn first.
“Good evening, Beth. Nice dress”, she says.
“Thank you. I’ve already gotten compliments on it”, I say.
“Well tonight, Jan “The Dutchman” is coming and I want you to be very nice to him”, she says, “…and no fighting with Constance. You two just stay away from each other”.
“If she stays away from me”, I warn.
Two weeks ago, Constance and I had a catfight in the saloon. We grabbed each other’s hair and I broke a bottle a whiskey bottle against the bar and was going to slash her face. The men loved it. Recently, the Marshall’s wife died of consumption and he’s been coming to Sam’s more often. Madame Dunn would love for him to marry one of “her girls”. Now both Constance and I have our eye on becoming the new Mrs. Canton.
An argument just broke out at the poker table. Men grab the pistols in their holsters, but soon the dispute dies down. Thankfully. Tonight, it’s poker and poker chips are stacked high – but the same table is used for many other games; Faro, 3-card-monte, Chuck-a-Luck, and Blackjack.
We “Fallen Girls” brighten up the lives of these men. Before, I never knew how flirtatious I could be. Even more so now that there could be a tip included with my winks and low-cut dresses. I can see within 20 seconds of a man entering if he’s got money or if he’s a ne’er-do-well.
Before an Indian shot Sam, he was our protector. Blacks, Chinese, and Indians were not allowed in – partly by law. But still, there was a shootout and Sam died in front of his own saloon. I’ll never forget him.
Thunderclouds have turned into heavy rain. Suddenly, a mustached man in a long black coat enters, shaking an umbrella.
It’s Jan “The Dutchman”.
May 18, 1980. Georgetown, Seattle
Through my bedroom window, I look up into the distant sky. I see no clouds. No smoke pluming, but the radio announcer just said that Mount Saint Helens has erupted. I look in the mirror and quickly dress in a long blue polyester dress. Then I brush my hair and tie it back with a yellow rubber-band. I feather my bangs and spray hairspray on them, so they stay in place.
It’s been two months of waiting for this day and I’m scared. Everyday there has been volcanic updates on CBS, NBC, and ABC. The Seattle Times and The Post Intelligencer have had interviews with scientists and meteorologists about seismic activities and weather changes. My room has varnished hard-wood chestnut floors and posters of “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” on one wall. My books and homework are on my small desk next to my Rubik’s cube, Cabbage Patch Doll, and a few scratch and sniff cards. There’s a square “Bionic Woman” card board box filled with colorful pens and an R2-D2 pencil sharpener next to it. My knitted bedcover is a patchwork of black, blue, white, red, and orange. And next to my bed are past and current issues of “Tiger Beat” and “Teen” magazines. Next to my pet rock, there are framed Polaroid pictures of me with my Cleveland High School Volleyball team and a few track medals I’ve won.
Downstairs, I hear my mom talking on the phone and the TV blasting. As I put on my red and blue striped tube socks and tennis shoes, I hear how all the talk is about the eruption. Our lives have recently been dominated by the threat of this mountain exploding. We knew where, we just didn’t know when.
Dad worked the nightshift and will be back from the Boeing plant soon. Last night when I came home from practice, I took a shower because my arm pits smelled like old leather boots. Mom took my #23 red jersey to wash for practice today.
Everyone in my family is from Philadelphia. But dad unexpectedly got a job offer at Boeing… so we came out West. Chicago and San Francisco were other possibilities, but Seattle and its growing airplane industry appealed to us more. I dab on some Strawberry Lip smacker, quickly put on my green and yellow Swatch, and rush out of my room.
My bedroom is the first room on the right at the top of the stairs. Next to my door is an old and embarrassing picture of me smiling with my braces. It’s a school headshot I took in Pennsylvania before I got my contact lenses – so it shows me wearing a red sweatband around my head, a blue Members Only jacket, and these big, round clunky eyeglasses. I thought I looked cool, but… Uuugh! – No, I don’t. I’ve asked mom a million times to take it down, but she says she loves it.
I walk out of my room into the hallway. As I hurry to the staircase, I pass several framed pictures of my mom, dad, my sister, our grandparents, and me on the half paneled/half green-striped crepe-papered walls. When I get to the top of the staircase, I look down onto my mother watching the news in our open living room/dining room/kitchen. We were so lucky to find this place. Both mom and dad love antiques and when they saw this house, they instantly fell in love with it. It had been a hotel for a lot of years before the owners went bust and abandoned it. Before that, it used to be a saloon. Mom was so excited to find the dusty “Sam’s Saloon” sign in the cellar. She lovingly repainted it and now it hangs high above our kitchen stove. I often wondered who Sam was and what it was like to be in this saloon a hundred years ago. A lot of cowboys and saloon gals, I imagine. Dad has a lot of theories about our home’s history.
A couple of things have survived since our house was a Saloon – The painted ceiling, the long-carved bar, and the archway are all intact. Gladly the hotel owners kept them. They used the bar as their front desk and now we use it as an island in our kitchen. Renovations took 15 months. Mom and Dad even had a faux stone fireplace put in their bedroom.
I walk down the carpeted staircase. One wall has floor-to-ceiling mirrors and the others are wallpapered with a patterned print. There are two brown leather stuffed sofas on the right and a brass chandelier on a mirrored table between them. Our boxy TV-set is on channel 7 and an Atari game set are on the left of the room. A Hi-Fi Stereo Sound System is placed on glass shelves in what used to be a stage of some sort and a stack of board games (“Grease”, “Star Wars”, “Trivial Pursuit”, and “Happy Days”) are piled under it. We have throw pillows on our rattan furniture and a glass coffee table full of books and magazines stands in the middle of the room.
Mom is wearing legwarmers. She’s put ferns, wicker chairs, and Himalayan Salt lamps in the living space. Part of a back wall has been knocked out to let more light in, but we’ve kept the antique stained glass windows, although they sometimes get hidden by our window blinds.
In a corner of the room at the side of the bar, there is a desk with a cane wood and chrome chair. The desk has an electric typewriter that Dad uses to write his reports. He’s got a cassette player there too and some green metal filing cabinets.
“Several people are missing and ash falls like snowflakes over Eastern Washington”, a NBC announcer exclaims. I think of the folks that refused to leave even after weeks and months of warnings from Rangers and Park Officials. Mom covers her mouth with her hand as we watch the mountain erupt and see the sky-high clouds of ash, lava, flying stones, and fire spewing into the air.
As I do each morning, I go to the back wall of the kitchen and reach into a cupboard for a Tupperware bowl. Then under the breadbox, I look in a drawer below it for a spoon. I get the half-empty box of Capt’n Crunch cereal and then open our white Whirlpool refrigerator for milk – But, I can’t eat. Our light-blue push-button telephone is at the end of the counter. Its chord is curled tight because Mom walks around the living-room with it all the time.
“Schools will be closed today. We advise everyone to stay home”, a radio announcer says.
“Mom, do you think it’s coming this way?”, I ask her.
“Let’s hope it isn’t, Kate”, she says, “For now, the winds are blowing in the wrong way”.
“Imagine”, I say, “we’d be covered in ash!”
When our house was a hotel, they changed the saloon’s billiard room into a sitting room for their guests. A place where they could meet visitors. But we’ve closed it off and now it’s a garage. Mom does the laundry in there too and there’s a table for her sewing machine.
The phone rings. It’s grandma in Pittsburg. Mom talks reassures her we’re all fine. But still grandma wants to hear everyone’s voice – including Steph’s.
“Stephanie!!”, my mom screams up the staircase.
“Coming!”, we hear in the distance. Then a moment later, my 19 year-old sister comes down the staircase. She’s wearing bell bottom jeans and a slap bracelet with a Zodiac motif. Steph has a phone in her room and is a law student at the U-Dub. I guess when she entered The University of Washington, mom and dad thought she was old enough for her own phone – with its own number! I’m jealous.
“Come and watch the reports with us. It’s terrifying!”, mom says to her.
“I’ve been talking with all my friends. Everybody’s scared”, Stephanie says tearfully.
“So many people… died today”, I say shaking my head, “It’s crazy”.
The phone rings again. It’s for me. Coach Bittleheimer. Practice is cancelled. I understand but am still slightly disappointed. We have a winning all-girl team this year – a mixed group of seniors with Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans… and for the moment, we’re undefeated. He says, “Stay safe”.
The “Sam’s Saloon” sign looks down on us, as rain starts to sprinkle outside. I remember when it was dusty and faded. Maybe the Seattle rain faded it? Today, I am glad it has been saved from the Saint Helen’s ash.
Suddenly, a mustached man in a long black coat walks in, shaking an umbrella.
He pulls off the earphones connected to his Walkman. “Did you hear about the volcano?”, he says.
“Yeah! How could we miss it?”, mom says.