One of my favorite bars in the world is the Bar Antic ("Old Bar" in Catalan), on the second floor of a rickety building down a narrow cobblestone street in a crumbling Spanish textile town. It is a speakeasy—not so much because its largely Muslim clientele prefers hashish to beer, but because those Muslims are mostly illegal North African immigrants, and cannot congregate in any public place without becoming a police magnet. I was also an illegal worker when I frequented the Bar Antic—just an under-the-table English teacher, nothing exotic. I'd play cards with Lucky (an illiterate 16-year-old poker prodigy who once asked me if Seattle was closer to Mecca than Barcelona) and Adil (a sub-Saharan African who had long, curved tusks for teeth) and Hassan, the Moroccan barkeep. It was comfortable, friendly, and, most importantly, nobody asked to see your visa.
Where there are prohibitions, there are speakeasies, from ramshackle juke joints in southern "dry counties" to after-hours hideouts in Chicago. Speakeasies had their heyday during Prohibition, when the Eighteenth Amendment (b. 1917, d. 1933) chased drinkers underground and gave rise to a whole culture of secret knocks and criminal chic. Once Congress repealed the foolish amendment, American speakeasies became rare and precious curios.
But this is a new era in Seattle, one of incremental prohibition. The smoking ban and its 25-foot clause, the four-foot stripper rule, the mayor's Joint Assessment Team (a party of fire, building-code, health, transportation, and other inspectors that has been busting clubs for picayune infractions like illegal sandwich-board signs and "unregistered amusement devices")—whatever their virtues, they threaten to strangle our gritty, fecund, and necessary civic underbelly with a tangle of tape measures and permits.
They are also laying the groundwork for a speakeasy revival.
Opening a speakeasy in reaction to these restrictions isn't just financially smart, it's a public service. Illicit desire equals profit, and adventurous entrepreneurs can be cultural preservationists and make a killing at the same time. Seattle is full of potential customers who want to smoke a joint and play a friendly round of Texas Hold'em while burlesque dancers without pasties undulate in the background—or even watch a new play. Increasing tax burdens and building-code requirements have wounded and killed off several small theaters in the past few years, tempting institutions as innocent as playhouses to go off the grid. Some already have.
A few speakeasies are already open for business. Somwhere in Seattle, there is a nondescript building hiding a goth club. Patrons in black clothes and whiteface bob and grind to industrial music, drink cocktails, chat with friends. Asked what clubgoers can do here that they can't do in any other bar, James, a regular, thinks for a minute before citing the dress code. "The ladies can dance with their nipples showing," he said. "And they don't have to worry about being hit on by stupid frat boys." (Or getting shut down by the Liquor Control Board for a "nipple infraction.")
Somewhere else in Seattle, in another nondescript building, "Jack" and "Jill" run The Fort. The couple started their speakeasy to have a semiprivate, low-overhead theater to host plays, concerts, and film series. There isn't a secret knock or password, but Jack and Jill guard a strict invitation list. I slipped through the cracks a few months ago when a friend invited me to The Fort. The building is a decaying shell hiding a stage with proper lights, modular theater seats and couches, and a bar that rivals many above-board clubs. (Jack and Jill are booze hobbyists. They infuse their own vodkas and invent drinks—of course, they can't legally serve them without jumping through a prohibitive battery of hoops.) I hardly made it through the door before Jill ran up in a mini-panic.
"You write for The Stranger, right?"
"Raise your right hand."
She made me swear to never mention The Fort and never, ever write about it (I got permission before I wrote this article). I thought she was a bit hysterical, but after becoming a semiregular, I realized how valuable their speakeasy was to the cultural landscape. Theater is finally beginning to learn what rock 'n' roll figured out long ago—to go back to the garage. Hosting illegal house shows is more fun, and sometimes more lucrative, than playing in a bona fide venue.
"We wanted a place where our friends could do shows without having to think about economic viability or critical scrutiny," Jack said. "We can do one-off events and have a targeted invitation list, so we don't get pegged as just a fringe theater or just a place to see band X. We don't have to advertise and can completely reinvent ourselves." I have seen several productions at The Fort, from an evening of one-act plays to a concert where the bands and audience had a barbecue together, and every one has been spectacular. The whiff of conspiracy spikes every event with an extra dose of pleasure—you laugh a little harder at the jokes, listen a little more closely to the songs. "People are sitting in this sweaty, secret space with the strongest drink pours in the world and they're loving it," Jack said. "It's an improbable moment with an eclectic crowd. It's more valuable because it's ephemeral."
Anybody with space and gumption can start a speakeasy. "We're regular 9-to-5 people who pay our taxes," Jill said. Speakeasy managers, like any good hosts, should be responsible—buy fire extinguishers, make sure you have clear exits, don't serve 14-year-olds—and usually are, cultivating a community of friends and regulars instead of random assholes off the street. Your speakeasy might even be legal if you don't demand a door charge and list "suggested donations" for drinks. "What's the difference between The Fort and Bill Gates having a couple hundred people over to get soused who voluntarily pay to offset costs?" Jill asked.
Good question. I asked Karen McCall, in the licensing department of the Washington State Liquor Control Board. If I offer private entertainment on my property with a donation bucket, but don't demand payment, am I breaking the law? "I don't think so, if it's not open to the public," McCall answered. "You can try and narrow these things down, but people still have rights in their homes—putting up fliers, of course, is something else."
Still, if the liquor laws don't get you, the building codes will. "We don't know all the laws," Jack said. "And frankly, we don't want to have to find out." I don't know how they could find out without getting busted. After calling the Department of Planning and Development several times and sitting on hold for over an hour, I figured they didn't want to be reached for comment—another reason to go the speakeasy route. (Update: the DPD finally called me back, saying that a speakeasy would trigger a variety of fire, occupancy, "home occupation," traffic, and Americans with Disabilities Act problems. Doesn't exactly make you want to rush out and get a permit, does it?)
The times call for adventurous lawbreaking. Seattle could use a potheads' "smoke easy" and a whiskey-and-lap-dance juke joint. All it takes is a little seed money and chutzpah. And, if you play your cards right, you can attract the most interesting folks in town, make a pile of cash, and help save this city's soul.