The 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum, Tacoma

Last weekend I visited the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Tacoma in order to research a piece I was writing for Grit City. I’ve been interested in checking the place out from the moment I first saw its sign just off 19th Street a couple months ago, but I underestimated how moving the experience would actually be.

“Buffalo Soldiers” was a term given to African American soldiers in the late 1800s, reportedly by Comanche or Cheyenne Indians (there’s some debate among historians over which it was) seeing a resemblance between the hair of the soldiers and the tufts of hair between buffalo’s horns. Some sources suggest that the tribes were also impressed by the buffalo-like toughness that the soldiers displayed.

Whatever the exact inspiration for the name, the term “Buffalo Soldiers” became the widely used monikers for black Army units back when the military was segregated. The term persisted all the way up until the end of the Korean War, when the last all-black unit was dissolved.

I already knew about the Buffalo Soldiers before I went to the museum, but actually walking among the artifacts they used and the stories hit me a lot stronger than I expected it would. I’m a veteran, and it really bothered me to hear about the disrespect that those men had to endure while they were serving their country. As Colin Powell said it, “For a long time they served a country that didn’t serve them.”

It was difficult for me to not allow my anger to overshadow everything else in my experience. I didn’t want that to be my focus. Those men deserved to be honored, not pitied, and I made sure to keep my mind fixed on that outcome. Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t bothered by it.

It’s remarkable to think of the hardships the Buffalo Soldiers endured. The thing that stuck with me the most from the visit was something that the woman running the museum told me.

Her name is Jackie Jones-Hook, and her father, William Jones, had been a Buffalo Soldier and POW in the Korean War. The museum was stated in his honor.

When I asked Jones-Hook if her father ever talked about the racism he and his brothers in arms had to endure while they were doing something that should have been commended, she replied that he used to repeat the phrase, “We got this far by faith.” William Jones was a man of deep faith in the Good Book, and he lived his life by that standard.

Ultimately, Jones-Hook told me, her father and his compatriots served for their faith in God more than anything else. When their own country disrespected them, they went right ton serving, because they had faith that God would make things right some day. I found that notion moving and powerful, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot ever since, and it’s something I doubt I’ll ever forget.

It’s hard to fathom the strength of character it takes for men to persist in the way that William Jones and the Buffalo Soldiers did. I’m left humbled and awed by their example. Sincerely, I want to be a better person in light of their stories.

I also want to encourage as many of you as possible to visit the Buffalo Soldiers museum in Tacoma. The place doesn’t have a big budget and so doesn’t have a lot of advertising. Go there and tell others about it, if you’re so inclined. The place deserves to continue operating because the men and women it memorializes deserve to be remembered.

I’m not going to write any more about what I saw or felt there. I’m not that fond of talking about myself, but most importantly, I’d like to encourage you all to go see it for yourself rather than take my word for it.

It’s well worth the trip.

Talking Ghosts at Alfred’s Cafe in Tacoma

Interesting Conversation

One of the great things about being the Northwest Nomad is that I have a permanent excuse to drink beer and chat with strangers at bars. It’s what I call “conducting research,” and I’ve found all kinds of interesting informational nuggets out there that way. A couple days ago I had such an encounter at Alfred’s Cafe in Tacoma.

I’ve been to Alfred’s Cafe a few times before. It’s one of my favorite breakfast spots in Tacoma, in fact. On this day, though, I heard something very intriguing — Alfred’s is haunted!

I’ve ordered some books to see what I can verify about the restaurant’s paranormal past, but for now I want to relate what I heard as I heard it, because it was an interesting conversation for sure.

Alfred’s Cafe: The Woman in the Corner

My conversation with the bartender and the patron turned to ghosts when the lights in the building started flickering. They did so in two clusters, roughly five flickers each, set about a minute apart. I didn’t think much of it, but the bartender and the patron smiled knowingly at each other.

I asked what they were smirking about, and they proceeded to tell me that it was probably the ghosts at it again.

The nuts and bolts of the tale are the standard pictures-falling-off-walls and mysterious-footsteps kind of stuff, but one particular aspect of the tale lent it more validity than the typical haunting story.

At least two Alfred’s Cafe employees have quit the restaurant after seeing the reflection of a woman sitting in the corner of the eating area. The sightings occurred on two separate occasions, while they employees were shutting down at night.

Quitting one’s place of employment isn’t the sort of thing people normally do for a hoax, especially not a hoax that brings them no fame or fortune.

The Little Girl in the Window

Alfred’s restaurant occupies the bottom floor of one of the oldest buildings in Tacoma. That bottom floor has been renovated for the modern age, but the upper two floors remain as they were when the building was built. There’s a massive grand staircase that connects the top two floors (the employees told me about this). The staircase used to run down to the ground-level floor, too, but it was taken out a few years ago.

The upper two floors are today used only for storage, giving plenty of time and space for the ghosts to scamper about at will.

One of the entities living up there, I am told, is a little girl who can occasionally be seen looking out of one of the top-story windows. But how did she get there in the first place? Well, the story behind that little bit is rather interesting.

Prostitutes and their Daughters

The reason why ghost is a young girl and the other is a grown woman lies in the history of the structure.

The building that now houses Alfred’s used to be a brothel. This much I was actually able to verify with some internet sleuthing.

Brothels were notoriously dark and violent places in early America, and the legend is that some ugly, ugly things went down in the building that now houses Alfred’s — things as ugly as murder. Does this mean the woman’s ghost is some ill-fated prostitute? We can’t be sure, of course, though evidence leans that way.

As for the little girl, the Bull’s Eye indoor shooting range across the parking lot from Alfred’s was supposedly once a school for little girls. The prostitutes working the brothel would send their daughters over there during the “work” day.

Well, according to legend, decades ago that school burned down, killing seven girls.

So, perhaps the woman and the little girl are mother and daughter?

Or, perhaps there’s a whole host of women and little-girl ghosts there, singing and crying to each other. Maybe the many sightings have actually been of multiple different people.

There’s no way to know for sure, but I do intend to find out.

Let the Paranormal Adventure Begin

The Alfred’s conversation has inspired me to add a new section to this blog and a new mission to my travels. I’m going to begin covering paranormal destinations in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ll get to the bottom of this Alfred’s thing soon enough. I’ve got my books coming, and I’m going to do some gumshoeing.

So, stay tuned, friends. Also, please do let me know if you’ve got any tips on this or any other Pacific Northwest paranormal story.


Where to Stay in Downtown Tacoma: Hotel Murano

When it comes to choosing deluxe downtown Tacoma accommodations, the Hotel Murano is pretty much a no-brainer.

That line sounds kind of like a slimy sales pitch, but the Northwest Nomad is no one’s peddler! In this case, it’s just the fact of the matter that the Murano is heads-and-away the most distinctive, unique, and classy hotel in downtown (probably in all of Tacoma, really).

When I first visited Tacoma over a decade ago, one of the sights that most branded itself into my memory was the enormous, decorative “swoosh” sculpture that stands outside the hotel. It was a sunny day and the light caught that green glass just right, and the sculpture looked captivating. I decided then that the next time I visited Tacoma, I’d stay at the Murano. I did, and I was not disappointed.

That first experience was many years ago, and today I actually live right across the street from the hotel. I see a lot of the crowds they get for their conferences and other events.

The Murano is beautiful, inside and out. The lobby is full of beautiful Native American artwork and unique glass sculptures, and the place never stops exuding energy. I walk or run by their main lobby often, and there are always guests hanging around just outside the lobby enjoying the vibe.

The location is about as good as it gets in the city. Stay at the Murano and a you’re a short walk or a free link ride away from great sushi, several art and history museums, country line dancing, the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, the Weirdest Building in Tacoma, and too many other places to list here without creating an absurdly long post.

The Murano’s prices generally aren’t as high as you might expect, but they are a bit higher than some of the other downtown-area hotels. The sheer convenience of the location more than makes up for that, though. It also doesn’t hurt that the Murano is a few steps above the other hotels in terms of personality and quality. It’s also an establishment distinct to Tacoma. There are La Quinta’s and Holiday Inn’s everywhere, but only Tacoma has the Murano. It’s the city’s signature place of lodging.

Oh, and if you’re a potential Tacoma visitor weighing whether or not you want to visit the city, check out my thoughts on that. I’ve traveled every nook and cranny of the Pacific Northwest, and I fall in love with this region over and over again, but Tacoma’s got a unique combination of energy and grit that I’ve found nowhere else. Downtown Tacoma rose from the ashes in the 90s and has been growing nonstop ever since. The vital energy of that transformation is palpable on every street corner.

As always, feel free to contact me for any insights I might be able to share. The Northwest Nomad loves to talk shop.

(Featured image courtesy of Provenance Hotels. I am not associated with the organization in any way; they just happened to have a beautiful picture of the establishment, and one a few steps above what I could provide.)

The Weirdest Damn Building in Tacoma, Washington

I have no idea what the place is.

I have no idea who built it.

I have no idea what purpose it serves, if any.

I only know that, just outside the south side of the Tacoma Dome parking lot, north side of Bull’s Eye Indoor Shooting Range, there stands a building advertising dentistry for 25 cents.

It is, in short, the most beautifully bizarre and weirdest thing in the city of Tacoma. The only possible competition I know of, in fact, is the mysterious suspended bike of Ruston.

As you can see in this photograph, there’s a blue door, a tooth promoting 25 cent dentistry, and a dental chair perched atop an overhang. I don’t know whether the dental work is done on that chair or whether it’s purely ornamental (I hope for the former).

I imagine an old man with a twisted spine and a lab coat two sizes too small for his body scrambling up to the chair at night and performing dental surgery by moonlight. For all ailments, the same solution: removal of every tooth in the mouth.

And yes, that is an enlarged toothbrush just above the door, as well. Let’s not forget that bizarre piece of evidence.

The door is always locked and, far as I can tell, gives no indication as to what is inside.

Also, on the broad side of this most bizarre of buildings is another strange sight, facing an alleyway with a crumbling warehouse on the other side.

Several “windows” are marked out with blue tape, but no actual windows are there. I would say that the tape had been put there as outlines for carpenters to cut actual windows into, but that doesn’t make sense. You don’t cut windows into a building from the outside, far as I know.

Besides, these tape-windows have been on this wall for at least three years. I recall first seeing them that long ago.

There’s no way this oddity is accidental. Somewhere out there is a beautifully mad surrealist who has turned this building into a work of psychotic art.

I’m throwing this story out into the Supreme World Net to see what kicks back. Someone out there, surely, knows the story behind this place.

Contact me. Tell the Northwest Nomad from where this strange place comes, and why. I’ll buy you a beer, and if I buy you one, it’ll probably become twelve.

Is 25 cent dentistry any good? I must know.

Until then, thank you, Weird Architect, Builder of the Strange, whoever thou art who made this mystery a reality. Tacoma owes you a debt of curiosity and wonder.


The Tacoma Book Center: So Many Corners

A tousled-headed man wandered into the horror section of the Tacoma Book Center with an armful of books and a chagrined look on his face.

“Jeez,” he said, looking around the stacks, “another secret room? This place has so many corners, I keep getting lost.”

His turn of phrase struck me as strangely poetic. So many corners. It’s the sort of vaguely surreal wording you might find in a Borges poem, or a Tom Waits song ­ – the sort of thing that simultaneously hints at multiple layers of meaning and no meaning at all.

“I find something new ever time I come here,” I said. “I think this place grows at night.”

We shared a chuckle. He looked at the book in my hand, Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show. “Is that any good?”

“This is a great book,” I said. “I’ve read it three times already.”

“You’re browsing a book you’ve read three times already?”

I busted up laughing. The irrationality of what I’d been doing hadn’t struck me until he stated it, but even funnier was his knowing grin – the smile of man who understands the hopeless absurdity of being an out-and-out book nerd.

It was an encounter that encapsulated all that I love best about the Tacoma Book Center.

In age where the big bookstores have all the soulless glamour of a Las Vegas casino, the Center has character.

I’ve always thought of it as the Eric Hoffer of big bookstores, rough hands and an aching back, muddy boots, but way smarter and more vital than the well-manicured University guys could ever hope to be.

I can imagine the Tacoma Book Center standing on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, just down the way from Lee Chong’s grocery.

Far as I’m concerned, there are few-if-any places in the world as magical as libraries and bookstores. And the Center isn’t just a bookstore; it’s a good bookstore, in the parlance of Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s got soul.

It also happens to have 500,000 books.  Yes, you read that right: half a million books. You can get lost in its stacks. I have gotten lost in its stacks.

Every time I go to the Center, I find myself wondering how many people have browsed those shelves before me, exploring all those sleeping worlds waiting to be born inside reader’s heads. Where will their ghosts go after the building is gone? I don’t know. Nobody does.

The sad truth is that the store will someday be gone; or at least will house something other than books. Larry, the Center’s owner, told me the other day that, while the rumors of the death of print have been greatly exaggerated, the industry is having a hard time finding young blood willing to take the business up. The great old stores are dying with their founders.

The fact is that less people are reading print, and when they do read print, they buy their books online. So, even if the books themselves survive, the old way of selling them in physical stores may not.

Well, in response to that I will borrow a line from E.E. Cummings and ask: who cares if some one-eyed son of a bitch invents an instrument to measure Spring with?

Maybe it’s true that the brick-and-mortar bookstore has already been given a death sentence, but, as of today, at least one still stands. It’s on the corner of East 26th and East D Streets in Tacoma, within spitting distance of Freighthouse Square.

I love the store and everything it stands for. So do many others. I run into them every time I go there, this ragtag band of literary devotees. For us, the magic has never faded.

Even if the books are dead, their bones still sing to us from the catacombs.

Bah, that’s a bunch of fatalistic nonsense. Those attuned to the frequency of the Word know what the analysts cannot, which is that no good thing can ever die (thanks Mr. King).

Check out the Tacoma Book Center. You can find books online, but character? Soul? Supplies of that have been running low for years now, and nobody’s restocking the shelves.

Besides, you just might find some good conversation while browsing the stacks. Look for it in the horror section…if you can find it.

First edition hardback copy of Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree.
My favorite novel ever written. Tacoma Book Center has a first edition of this baby. Gaze upon it, children, and dream.