Category Archives: Wandering Around With a Notebook

The First Time I Laid My Eyes upon Mount Rainier

I’ll never forget the moment I stepped outside the Fort Lewis barracks door and saw Mount Rainier on the horizon for the very first time.

I’d been brought into the base the night before, fresh off the Ranger Indoctrination Program. It was first time ever in Washington,Northwest Nomad sitting on a rock with Mount Rainier in background. but I’d been dreaming of going there for years. Being an outdoorsman, and also being a product of the 90s grunge generation, the state was almost a mythic place to me. There was no way, however, to be prepared for the awe-inspiring sight that is Mount Rainier.
I’m not alone in this. I’ve talked to many people who told me that the first time they saw Mount Rainier was practically a religious experience.

From that moment on, I knew the Pacific Northwest was my home. One could even say the Northwest Nomad was born that day.

Nearly 15 years later, and still there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t look at the mountain in awe and gratitude. This excludes the many days when it’s not visible at all (which as we Northwesterners know is pretty damn common), but when it’s out, I’m as in love with it now as ever before.

So, here’s just a little letter of appreciation to the mountain. I’ll never forget ye, nor the day I first laid eyes upon you.

Anybody else out there in the ether remember the first time they saw Rainier? Got a story to tell? Please do.

Aberdeen, Washington: Not the Lying-Down Kind

The city’s bridges sag over rivers
like hunchbacked men carrying too-heavy loads
for too long.

On the streets, tired,
dim-eyed cars float into mist
as a foreign country’s nighttime
overtakes the city’s sleep.

Orange lights glow in pub windows,
buildings thus resembling cooling embers from a scattered fire.
They’re the secret hearts of this world carved out of fog, those pubs.
Their walls thump with rock, pop, and hip hop.

A tortured, mewling voice echoes faintly through the alleyways.
“Come as you are,” it says,
“and then be gone with you.”

The whole of Aberdeen sleeps on the threshold of yesterday,
dreaming of beds.

In the warm thump of the secret hearts the people laugh.
Nothing said ever lasts.
Every word fades into fog rolling down mountains.

Yet, for all their subtracted voices,
the people stay,
and in staying they honor a history of hard work and tough family.
Their’s is not a surrendering sadness.

No, it’s not that kind.

Triumphant and proud,
it laughs.
It harvests life out of the hollow,
it doesn’t give a damn for lying-down things.

Aberdeen is a mother nursing her baby
after a double shift.

Aberdeen is a grim lumberjack,
hands numb with callouses,
laughing with abandon as his son tickles his stomach.

Sometimes hobbled,
but never cowed,
Aberdeen is the people
of Aberdeen.

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.


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.