One evening, comforted by the womblike splendor of the mahogany bar, nicotine-stained landscapes, and melancholy strains of country music at Hattie's Hat, I fall to pondering how much this place and its people have come to mean to me. Maybe I am peering through beer goggles, but it suddenly seems important that I learn more about a community where so many aging, white trash, punk rock, starving artists are not only tolerated but embraced. Where, Hattie's co-owner Ron Wilkowski gleefully admits, politeness-challenged dot-commers are entirely unwelcome. After agreeing to meet me at a Belltown pub, he actually warns me that if this article attracts a lot of insensitive newcomers, Hattie's will happily hire a doorperson to actively protect the fragile ecosystem of his beloved hole-in-the-wall.
During our lunch, his wife, Kyla Fairchild, the willowy business manager for No Depression and also co-owner of Hattie's, diligently fills out her absentee ballot. "We used to hang out at Hattie's when it was a dive," she says. Wilkowski nods, "That was back when the Doghouse got destroyed. Then Ernie Steele's went. Now the Rendezvous is next. All the places we loved were being ripped down." Kyla chimes in, "And we knew that if somebody else got Hattie's, this diamond in unpolished form, they would simply ruin it."
With a commitment to preserving and not renovating (apparently the guiding philosophy shared by nearly everyone in the Ballard Avenue community), they bought the rundown bar and restaurant in 1996 with Dan Cowan (co-owner of the Sunset and the Tractor Tavern right next door) and Ed Beeson (owner of the now-defunct Backstage in Ballard). "Dan actually got a local glassblower to match three old lights over the bar. Anybody else would have ripped them all out and replaced them with some crap from Home Depot," Ron says between bites of his burger. "We kept the staff and did our best to keep the regulars. As long as they weren't being violent they could stay, no matter how dirty or drunk they were," Kyla says sweetly. Ron agrees. "We've given our staff full control over the guests. Frat boys, yuppies, and Pioneer Square jarheads are not welcome. But fishermen, dock workers, and old ladies always are." Kyla leans over the table. "You know, the person who holds it all together is Larry. He has a strong sense of community and the old-time aesthetic that means so much to us."
At charming Ballard Avenue pizza joint Madame K's, Hattie's general manager and well-respected singer/songwriter Larry Barrett confides to me, "Hattie's is a halfway house for local musicians going on tour and coming back--or not coming back." Barrett, who has released four CDs in Europe and regularly tours there as well as playing locally, has a grin that lights up his rugged face. "It's really fun at Hattie's, if not a little dangerous for my health. Everybody there is just a bit crooked in the right way. Did you know that Joe Bass is starting a gay pirate rock band called the Swishbucklers?"
It's daytime in Hattie's, and the watery light trickling in through the door reveals things hidden by the more forgiving night. Joe, a member of the soon-to-be Swishbucklers, as well as veteran of the Posies, Sky Cries Mary, Sunny Day Real Estate, and now Skyward, with his 16-year-old daughter Brette Howard, bristles when I tease him about being a rock star. "Rock stars don't work day jobs," he snarls. When I stop laughing, I ask if he enjoys working at Hattie's. He is uncharacteristically quiet for a moment.
"The staff and the people who come here are an older crowd and they're comfortable with their lives." I smile and take another sip of my beer. "When you're younger, you're self-centered, but as you get older you gain an understanding of helping others." He refills my glass and sets it down in front of me. Remembering the time I was bitching about being broke and one of the cooks suddenly offered to loan me 20 bucks, I can only raise a toast in agreement.
Everyone I speak to on Ballard Avenue emphasizes the same thing: This is no Capitol Hill style-scene. Like the alt-country and roots music these bars actively support, the gracefully aging punk rockers who hang out in them are as comfortable and unpretentious as a worn-in pair of boots. Crooked and defiantly working-class, these folks are by no means concerned with being cutting edge or even current. When you've watched the culture you helped create be repackaged and sold back to you in a Mountain Dew advertisement, it's time to hang up the plastic pants and remember how it felt when friends were family and the music really mattered.
Hattie's night manager Michael O'Driscoll, an accomplished painter and member of the band El Borracho, murmurs as much as I drain the last of my beer and stand up to leave the bar. "I keep a scrapbook of any mention in the papers about somebody who works here. I do it because I'm proud of the people I work with. The fact that they're achieving a level of success that so many people aspire to is inspiring to me."
One such inspirational Hattie's bartender is Greg Vandy, who spins American roots music every Wednesday on the popular KCMU radio show The Roadhouse. "The first time I went, I knew I wanted to work at Hattie's," he admits, showing up for coffee near his Queen Anne home, dressed more like a '60s golfer than an urban cowboy. "I was amazed at how many cool people came in there and how many of them were musicians. And Freakwater! Where else could I have heard Freakwater?" he enthuses, mentioning the morbid faux hillbilly band he often plays. "And now I've had the opportunity to get drunk with them after their show at the Tractor," he says in a voice still tinged with amazement.
"Our first 'hipster' show was a benefit for a dog that needed hip replacement," says Dan Cowan, possibly the single most influential player in the scene on old Ballard Avenue--partner in both Hattie's and the Sunset, as well as owner of the Tractor Tavern, the venue where Vandy and many others first see bands like Freakwater. Cowan laughs through the smoke of his Export A as we sit in a booth in the Tractor, cornstalks and tractor tire chandeliers hanging over our heads. He and his partner Eric Sumerall purchased the club in 1993. "We had a rough couple of years, but things have turned around. The old traditions have caught up with the hipsters and now we have alt-country." When I tell him that I have seen Freakwater, Fred Eaglesmith, Richard Buckner, and the Derailers (some of my favorite artists) in his club, he looks pleased. "The only reason you end up in Ballard is because you want to go to Ballard. Every single person at our shows knows why they're here."
"See that?" Max Genereaux gestures at a monumental stack of bottles behind the Sunset, the final bar I investigate and the newest one to the avenue. "Those rockabilly kids drink a lot of Bud, bless their hearts." He pushes open a garage door and we take a seat in a chaotic office, where his story tumbles out. "I was in advertising and had to get out, so I moved in with my girlfriend after three dates and lay around and grew a beard." He tucks his long red hair behind his ear and continues. "When she finally told me, 'Sweetie, you gotta get a job,' I took the worst job in the world, as dishwasher at Hattie's. Eventually they let me bartend. Pretty soon, I had Dan Cowan pushing me to open up my own bar, and he helped me buy Al's," he says, referring to his other blue-collar, dog-friendly tavern in Wallingford.
"Later, I was here getting drunk with an Old Ballard fisherman and he told me this place was going up for sale. I woke up the next morning, started making phone calls, and had the deal wrapped up in a week." Genereaux then spent months renovating this funky but homey bar where stabbings used to be more common than concerts. I ask him what he thinks the future holds for his club, and the street. "You know, they say that once you come to Ballard you never really leave, and I see the Sunset as a continuation of the scene at the Tractor and Hattie's. It's a place where you can grow old and stay punk rock."
As I wander back down to Hattie's on a crisp fall evening, leaves drop from the trees and blow down the sidewalk. Only the cars seem to be from this moment, for even the neon winks at me from the past. Back in the familiar warmth of the bar, where I am met with a pint and a smile, the front door flies open, producing country DJ and programming director for KCMU Don Slack, along with his brand new bride. They've just gotten married at the Tractor, with local roots band the Dusty 45's playing the reception. Don, in a Western suit, and Deborah, in a sunny lace dress, each wear looks of dazed happiness. Spontaneously, the entire bar bursts into applause. As I join the others in rising to my feet, I decide that if this is what growing old and staying punk rock looks like, then I guess it's all right with me.