The Turf, a venerable downtown diner that is dear to my heart, passed away last month. The owner, a man named Greg Rosas who started at the Turf as a dishwasher when he emigrated from the Philippines 33 years ago, has changed the menu, raised the prices, and changed the name to Ludi's.
Why? Because many of the people who went to the Turf were poor, and the poor are getting so poor that they couldn't afford to go there anymore.
The Turf was a first-of-the-month bar, a place where people went to get their government relief checks cashed and buy themselves a beer, a grilled-cheese sandwich, and a couple of pull tabs. But those government relief checks and general-assistance payouts are evaporating, Rosas says, as is his clientele.
After Danny Westneat announced the change in the Seattle Times, some people got sanctimonious and derisive in the comment thread about the closing of the Turf and people using their welfare money to buy beer and grilled-cheese sandwiches and pull tabs. But those customers were buying something else as well: some comfort, some human connection, some feeling of society. And sometimes a little human connection is the only thing that keeps a person—lonely and poor, or just plain lonely—from going around the bend.
The first time I went to the Turf was in the late 1990s. It was on First Avenue at the time, closer to the Pike Place Market, back when the Mirror Tavern was still across the street and drug people called that strip, where they went to score, "the Blade."
I was a little bewildered when I first walked in—I'd never seen any place quite like it. (I think I was underage.) A vegetable-monger who worked at the Pike Place Market had taken me there for a roommate interview.
See, I wanted to move into the toolshed behind a house on Beacon Hill. A friend of mine owned the house but lived with two or three other people, all of whom had agreed on veto power over roommate choices. Fair enough. Everybody agreed I could live in the toolshed, except one person—the veggie-monger wanted to meet me for a drink before he gave his thumbs-up. So we went to the Turf.
The place was narrow and smoky and looked like something from Cinderella Liberty, the 1973 movie about old Seattle, back when it was a rowdy port city. The atmosphere was both depressed and juiced, like a cypress swamp with an electric current running through the water. The crowd was more wizened than what I was used to. Some were silent, and some were talking and laughing softly. The round woman behind the bar didn't ask for my ID when I nervously approached. She just gave me a big smile, called me "honey," and (if I remember correctly) reached across the counter to pat my cheek. My bartender-grandma. I followed the veggie-monger's lead and ordered a can of beer and a Crown Royal neat.
As he and I sat and talked—the conversation was boring and inconsequential—I noticed the Turf had a repeating, bifurcated parade. Every 20 minutes or so, a few guys would come through selling stuff: CDs, car stereos, an old Native American guy selling what he said were eagle feathers. Then, a few minutes later, two uniformed cops would walk through, look around lazily, and leave. It was like they were on a preset rotational schedule. Nobody paid any mind to the peddlers or to the cops.
The veggie-monger and I finished our conversation* and left. But I kept coming back, sometimes to sit and read (it was pretty well-lit—it's hard to find a good reading bar), or sometimes just to sit. It seemed like the kind of place where, if your money was green and you didn't punch anybody, you could do whatever you wanted. You could read a book, pick your nose, strike up a conversation with a stranger, holler at the television, stare into space, eat four baskets of french fries soaked in two bottles of ketchup—whatever you wanted to do, whoever you were, however you wanted to be. Just as long as you kept it peaceful.
There was a comfort, an almost Christlike acceptance of all comers that I've never felt in any other diner or bar. (I have heard stories from people who have felt distinctly unwelcome there, including the time three friends walked in and the bartender greeted them by glaring and loudly slapping a rubber rat on the bar. I believe those stories. I just never experienced that kind of thing myself.**)
It was also an unusually integrated place—racially, economically, age-wise. There were old white people and young Asian people and middle-aged black people. There were folks on their way to work, folks just getting off work, old ladies in their bathrobes, guys in tracksuits who wore sunglasses indoors, veggie-mongers from the Pike Place Market, dorks like me. Some people went to the Turf to be together, and some went there to be alone together. The Turf was a lot more than a place to cash your relief check and buy cheap food and booze. It was a haven.
As government services are being gutted on all sides, the official havens, the shelters and social services, are disappearing. Now the unofficial havens are disappearing, too.
Where will all those people go now?
Rosas says the place is calmer now, and that a lot of the regulars have drifted away. The nearby Starbucks used to send people who wanted to use their restroom to the Turf; now they're referring people there for lunch. And another thing changed in the swap to Ludi's—Rosas has had to retire his old joke. "People thought it was a dive," he says, "and I'd tell them: 'I don't even know how to swim!'"
* He vetoed my moving in, by the way, for reasons he never fully explained. At the time, my friend said he was just a capricious guy, a heavy drinker who made all kinds of weird, inexplicable decisions. But over the years, I’ve come to think he saw the youthful idiocy of my proposing to live in a toolshed. At the time, I felt a little hurt—but now I realize he was probably doing me a favor.
** The Turf has also inspired some embarrassing writing over the years: writers who overemphasized its seediness so that they could indulge in faux-Beat rhapsodies or writers who overdramatized how “intimidating” it was. I hope these memories do not contribute to that canon.