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Sunday, January 23, 2011

#1301 #S782 - Mel's Tavern, Seattle, WA - 11/25/2010

Update: Mel's closed in late 2012


After a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house overlooking the I90 bridge across Lake Washington, we rolled the car southward on a slushy Rainier Avenue, hoping to find an open bar that was not already on my list.  Mel's Tavern did not look particularly promising. The OPEN sign was lit, but it looked completely dark inside.  When we walked in, the only person there was Mel himself, sitting under the few lights on behind the bar, with paperwork and his medications strewn out across the bar. But Mel's was open, and for a lover of old dive bars and old bar stories, it turned out to be an exceedingly agreeable nightcap.

Mel opened Mel's 41 years ago. He's owned some other places in town: He owned the Alaskan Bar on 1st Ave for a couple of years (but didn't own the land, which he describes as an important early lesson); and he owned the building that now houses Lottie's Lounge. That building was constructed in 1892 and was once the Hotel Dakota and then the Columbia Hotel, which hosted the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody and other big names. But Mel wasn't aware of that -- it was the Bright Spot tavern when he bought it.

Mel remembers when there were five other bars in the area around his current place -- The Black Sheep, Friendly's, the Holiday Inn, Guy's.  Mel's Tavern itself is the sort of hodgepodge of miscellaneous parts, assembled over many years, that characterize any dive bar of real personality.  The rubber flooring under the bar stools is from Boeing Surplus and an old 747.  There are two old furnaces from estate sales that sound like someone kicking in the door when they kick on.  The big screen TV is from the auction of Ballard's Sunset Lanes.  A cubist sort of painting is there because his wife didn't like seeing it in their house.  The numerous large clocks on the walls were bought cheap in various places ("I got that one for five bucks at the Midway flea circus"); he gives them to Goodwill if he can't fix them.

Milton "Mel" Roe is 71 years old now, and he just re-opened the bar four weeks ago after a seven-month stay in a convalescent home after injuries from a fall from a ladder.  He moves achingly to retreive another beer from behind the bar, but notes "I'm getting around pretty good now."  He's had some other tough luck recently.  His two brothers died, and his wife is now in a nursing home.  He is on the edge of choking up each of the six or seven times he mentions his wife's state in our conversation.  "I think her days are numbered," he says, "I hope not."

But despite encroaching mortality and the darkness that enveloped us as we sat at the bar ("This place has a pretty big lighting bill," Mel explains), Mel's has always done pretty well for him.  And with his English teacher wife's brains and Mel's frugality and sturdy industriousness, they've done pretty well for their family, with multiple properties and three children with advanced degrees.  There's a house in Mexico where his sister now lives, one two blocks from Lake Washington with a large swimming pool, and an apartment above the bar that Mel himself built and where he now stays since it's harder for him to get around these days.

And the bars have helped Mel and his family go some places.  He sold a lot next door years ago to help put his son through medical school (his son is now the team doctor for the Cleveland Cavaliers).  After selling the Bright Spot, he rode a tug boat around the world -- to Australia, around the Cape of Good Hope, on to Europe.  He hopes to soon visit a Samoan friend he met in the Air Force.  And he hopes his daughter, who now works for Microsoft in Belgium, will be able to make it back for Christmas like she thought she would.

He even holds out hope that he'll see his wife out of the nursery home sometime.  "I think she's in there for good," he says, clenching his face just a little.  "I hope not."

Before we leave, Mel quizzes us on the odd, cubist painting he rescued from his wife's disdain.  "Can you tell what it is?" he asks us.  We walk closer to examine the jumble of triangular, painted shapes, trying in vain to discern the distorted subject matter.  But with the darkness of the room, and fatigue setting in after a lavish dinner, we both give up and have to ask him for the answer.

"It's anything you want to be," says Mel.


5717 Rainier Ave S, Seattle, WA 98118
Seattle Weekly

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