Watch This: Journy to the Center of Joe's

Illustration by Mary Anne Carter for Jetspace Magazine.

An ongoing search for forgotten parts of the Seattle Underground led my friend Jack and I to Joe’s Bar on King Street. The bar was first described to me as “the bar you go to the night you get out of prison,” though I’ve had nothing but pleasant interactions with employees and patrons alike. It looks like an old west saloon, the “beer backs” are schooners, the bartenders call you “hun” regardless of their gender, and you always see something fascinating like a glittery purple vibrator in a doorway or a guy getting punched by his mom.

Jack and I came by at 10 am, as a bartender told me that would be the most convenient time of day for a look at the basement. A few regulars were already there, watching football and chatting with the bartenders.

The owner, Jim Davison, who’s worked there upwards of 20 years, told us in the 20s the place was a tavern called Helen’s, serving only beer and wine. To get a cocktail you’d go to the greasy spoon on the ground floor of the Publix Hotel (still standing) next door, which could legally serve alcohol because there was food. In the 60’s, Helen’s became the Redline, also a tavern, and then in the 90’s the current owner bought it and a more comprehensive liquor license. On one bare wood wall where wild west gunslingers may well have leaned is an ancient, dusty sombrero rumored to be from the building’s first incarnation as a Mexican restaurant.

The owner generously let us into the basement, escorted by a bartender. He warned us to watch our step—recently a guy who had been drinking and playing pool decided to open the hatch and fell into several feet of mud and pulltabs.

During the Denny regrade, the street level in the International District was raised a story, so Joe’s basement, like many others in the neighborhood, is cavernous—nearly 30 feet from floor to ceiling at the deepest point. Thousands of used pulltabs and cobwebs as thick as English Ivy shone in the beams of our flashlights like constellations.

Our guide warned us not to walk too far—the mud, he said, was like quicksand, and we’d likely sink up to our chests. Given that foundations of the ID and downtown Seattle rest on tidal flats, we took that warning seriously.

While Jack and I didn’t find the tunnel entrances we’d hoped for, I left feeling refreshed. At breakfast afterward we enjoyed a lively exchange of stories. I thought of the particular intimacy of visiting lovers’ childhood bedrooms, and the back rooms and kitchens of restaurants and movie theaters where I’ve worked that conceal the mechanisms of businesses familiar to employees but mysterious to clientele.

It was an adventure just to breathe the air beneath a floor where very few people have stood.