Friday, February 29, 2008

All roads lead here

So Erin very kindly suggested that I ought to write a memoir, which makes me laugh a bit. I don’t know that I can sustain being interesting beyond more than the intermittent blog entry. But I’ll admit that I’ve actually had the title for my nonexistent autobiography for close to 20 years. And in explaining it, I get to tell a story and take full advantage of all kinds of Internet linkery in the process. I am so multimedia!

Okay. The Dog House Restaurant, a long-lost old-Seattle institution, opened in 1934 and operated 24/7 for more than half a century. Legend has it they might have closed for a night when Kennedy was assassinated, but beyond that they were serving up diner fare and camaraderie and poor attitudes every hour of every day for 60 years, during which period three generations of my family alone appreciated its many merits. The Dog House was seedy in all the most magnificent ways. People could still smoke in Seattle restaurants, during the Dog House heyday, and did they ever: the air in there was tangible, fog-dense with grease and nicotine. It could have been a lovely afternoon in May, no matter: in the Dog House it was always dark as two a.m. I have a vivid memory of standing up in a booth there as a very small child, and discovering that what I had thought were simply large brown squares placed at intervals on the wall were actually pictures. Photographs of scenic Washington vistas, Mt. Rainier and Lake Chelan, already all but obscured under several decades of tar.

Raymond Chandler would feel entirely comfortable in the Dog House, as would Richard Russo, and possibly the entire cast of characters from Mad Men, slumming. I would bet dollars to donuts that Kurt and Courtney whiled away more than a handful of hours in there over a plate of fries. There’d be drunks in one booth, a family with little kids in the next, ironic hipsters perched beside weary salesmen on stools at the counter. I had several awkward dates there, and several post-dates, trying to recover some dignity over gritty coffee. For years, my family went to the Dog House for Christmas Day dinner because, hell, it was open. On holidays, the elderly hostess would wear an eye-popping red sequined gown.

At least half of the waitresses had been there since its inception: irritable septuagenarians with towering white beehive hairdos and, after a lifetime slinging hash, zero tolerance for dithering. You’d damn well better know what you wanted when they asked for your order, or you were unlikely to get asked again any time soon. There was an attached cocktail lounge, too—you could thus order a cheeseburger and a chocolate ice-cream float, or pancakes and a Singapore Sling. The lounge, which I somehow never managed to legally enter, also contained a piano bar. I can remember sitting with my family at dinner and hearing occasional bizarre gusts of inebriated caterwauling blasting from the bar, in the days before karaoke. The noise was awesome, in all senses of the word. I could not wait to grow up and get in there to see the source of that racket, to make some of my own. I still can’t believe that I never did.

Up front, next to the cash register, they had a glass case full of other items you might want to buy while settling your bill: Hershey bars, packs of JuicyFruit, lottery tickets, cigars. The vice of your choice. A classic diner thing, that glass case of sundries just inside the door. I can’t remember the last time I saw one anywhere.

Above the pass-through to the kitchen was a large 3-D mural, replicated on the menus, the Dog House’s raison d’etre: a map, of all the other vices and foibles that would inevitably point you diner-ward. “All Roads Lead to the Dog House,” it proclaimed, and then the various paths were labeled with the sort of circumstances that might get you there. Most prominent among these: Blondes, Brunettes, Redheads. Though other vectors were also mentioned: Night Clubs, Taverns, Lodges, Private Secretaries, Boozers, Marines. Nagging. Usherettes.

When they announced the Dog House was finally closing, Seattle openly grieved. People made off with the fixtures and pocketed the menus, and yeah…Sis and I each have one (I’m pulling those road-to-the-Dog-House labels off of it right now). On one visit, we got to reminiscing with one of the veteran waitresses. In the early 1940s, my grandmother had been a carhop at the Igloo Drive-In, a rival restaurant a few blocks from the Dog House (it hadn’t held out nearly as long). Grammy’s boss would send her over to the Dog House in her street clothes, on spy missions: she was to sit at the counter with a cup of coffee and commit their menu prices to memory, see if the Igloo could undercut them a little. “Oh my God,” said the Dog House waitress when Grammy mentioned this, laughing and laughing. Turns out her boss had been sending her to scope out the Igloo, 50 years before. The Dog House’s final hour of operation was broadcast live on the local PBS station, and my hand to God, I sat in front of the television and cried. I heard, after, that they’d had to go out and buy a CLOSED sign, expressly for the purpose of flipping it over in the front window.

It wasn’t long before a new (and, I’m sure, inferior) 24-hour restaurant opened in the same location—coincidentally mentioned on Seattlest just today. Apparently the lot is getting too valuable, and the replacement ironic-hipster dive will now suffer the same fate, though it probably won’t be so missed. I can’t say—I’ve never been. At any rate, the Hurricane Café hasn’t established multiple generations of clientele like its predecessor. I can’t explain exactly what it was that so captivated me about the Dog House, always, even when I was a little girl. It was like walking into a novel, every time: the regulars cheek-by-jowl with truckers and lawyers and street kids, the million stories in the naked city, circulating in the perpetual night-owl nighttime of the Dog House, over whiskey and coffee, Monte Cristos and liverwurst sandwiches. I’m looking over my stained and dog-eared (heh) menu now, and it’s a beautiful thing. You could get a Diet Plate, or a Shrimp Louie. You could get a veal cutlet or a glass of “Double Jersey Buttermilk.” In small print on the bottom of the right-hand page, it says: SINGLES IN BOOTHS MUST SHARE TABLE WITH OTHERS…and I cannot even tell you how much I want to travel through time, right now, to sit in a single booth at the Dog House, order a cheeseburger—the bun glistening with the line cook’s oily fingerprint—and see who the hell shows up to sit opposite.

Oh, right: the point of this. The title of my memoir. It’s another quote from the Dog House menu, actually, the tiniest possible text, probably six-point type, the legendary 60-year caveat printed beneath their $5.75 Rib Eye Steak (served with Tossed Salad, French Fried Potatoes, and Toast). Ready?

Tenderness Not Guaranteed.


chicklegirl said...

I'll be at the front of the line waiting for you to sign my copy. (Cuz, girl, you gotta gift!)

ar_kay_tee said...

Kim, you really should write a memoir. I always look forward to reading your new blog entries. I think you'd have a very rich collection of thoughts to put down on paper for others to enjoy.

By the way, I saw you at the gym last night and thought about saying "hi" but you were in the middle of your workout on the treadmill and I didn't want to interrupt.

Kim said...

Hi Reagan! Well, I'm famously oblivious to most everything at the gym; I think exercise constricts my brain cells somehow. But do feel free to get right in my face (necessarily) and say hi, anytime!

And thanks for the compliments, all. :)