The author of the famed “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” has a new novel out, and yet again it’s set in a Seattle of the past. Here are the true stories of some of these places, which still stand today.
On the wall of a fluorescent-lit dental office, a coin’s toss from the corner of Third and Washington where horse-drawn carriages once lingered, hangs a story. The building, which housed a brothel a century ago, has seen many lives; just a bit of them has been preserved, in the form of a peeling rectangle of wall. Framed off behind glass, it’s a quiet collage: multiple layers of printed wallpaper — softly faded roses, still-bright grapes, Victorian froufrou — at times giving way to peeks at the original bricks below.
History is like that; you peel away at layers of time, seeing what lies beneath. Jamie Ford, author of “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” and his new book, “Love and Other Consolation Prizes” — both set in a Seattle of the past — knows a bit about history. He joined me, on a sparkling morning last month, for a stroll through the Chinatown International District and Pioneer Square, visiting the real locations that inspired his fiction.
We began with tea at the historic Panama Hotel (605 S. Main), a quiet place where history seems to whisper from every corner — and which played a key role in “Hotel,” a tale of love and friendship between a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl in 1940s Seattle.
The author of “Love and Other Consolation Prizes” will be at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 16 He’ll also appear at Tacoma Public Library’s Wheelock Branch at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, and at South Kitsap High School’s Win Granlund Performing Arts Center at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23.
Ford’s new novel takes place both earlier and later, during two World’s Fairs: 1909 and 1962. It was inspired, in part, by a Seattle Times clipping from long ago, which announced that an orphan baby would be raffled off to a lucky winner at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition
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Time has forgotten the fate of that real-life baby, whose name was Ernest. So Ford imagined a story for him, making the boy an immigrant from China (like Ford’s own great-grandfather, Min Chung — who changed his name to William Ford). In the novel, he was renamed upon his arrival in the U.S., “won” in the raffle by a notorious Seattle madam, and as a young teen worked as a houseboy in “the mysterious part of Seattle that lay south of Yesler Way.”
Ford, an avid historian who grew up in Seattle and now lives in Montana (“I think writers write about what they lament,” he said), loves to use real places in his fiction. That building on Third and Washington — our first stop — plays a key role in the “Love and Other Consolation Prizes.” We pause at the corner to squint at a plaque reminding us that this once was “Lou Graham’s Sporting House.” Graham (1857-1903), a famous Seattle madam, was the model for the book’s Florence Nettleton (a name Ford says he found in city records).
A tall, narrow building that seems to peer down the street with inquisitively raised eyebrows, the house was built just after its original structure was destroyed in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889; you can imagine Ernest hanging out the window to gaze at smart carriages passing by. (The house served, the plaque reminds us, “the carriage trade.”)
Now it has a far different purpose: The house has served as a Union Gospel Mission for many decades, and its basement — once the saloon — is now a dental clinic for the mission’s clients. It’s not generally open to the public, but the staff (who’ve been tipped off to our quest) kindly show us around. Little is left of the building’s former elegance, but we lingered for a long time at that wallpaper collage, wondering what became of whoever chose those delicate patterns, and what kind of life she or he might have had.
A few blocks away, we pay a quick visit to King Street Station, whose lavish wedding-cake décor dates from the same era as the 1909 Exhibition. Across the street is the former Publix Hotel, at Fifth Avenue South and King Street. The book’s more contemporary sections — set in 1962, with an older Ernest looking back on his life — are based here, where Ernest lives in a one-room apartment on the third floor.
In the novel, the 1927 building is described as “an old workingmen’s home, a tobacco-stained hideaway where lost individuals found solace.” Now, it’s been shined up and renovated, though its chic lobby still shows off the curving staircase, tile floor and soaring ceilings of its early days. (A 387-square-foot studio now goes for $1,325/month. Seattle has, indeed, changed.)
Osami’s Barber Shop on Sixth Avenue South, where older Ernest and his friend Pasquale regularly pop in for a shave, is now Pioneer Barber Company (offering, according to its website “clean cuts / hot shaves / cold beer”; something Ernest might have liked). But the sign erected by the Osami family — in business since 1948 — still sits above the doorway, and the interior, newly fitted out with antiques, feels like yesteryear.
Ford, outside the door, tells me of “a little Easter egg” in the book. In an early chapter, a pair of young boys come running in to the barbershop “with stubby pencils tucked behind their ears,” bringing a pad of paper with grids to fill in lottery numbers. Ernest’s friend fills in 10 sheets, flips the boys a tip, and as they’re rushing out the door, shouts, “Hey, Donnie, if I win that ten thousand dollars … I’ll give you each five — no, ten percent, eh?”
Donnie Chin, the longtime manager of the International District Emergency Center, told Ford that story about how he and his friends would make a little money by running lottery tickets. Chin was a beloved I.D. community leader who was shot and killed in 2015. He was still living when Ford wrote that passage; it remains, as a tribute to him.
A couple of doors down on Sixth — unfortunately closed at the moment, as they don’t open until dinner — is Maneki Restaurant, in business since 1904. It’s the oldest continuously operated Japanese restaurant in the state, Ford says, and it’s where a character in the book got a job as a waitress.
Nearby, just around the corner from the Panama’s entrance, is the doorway to the hotel’s sento baths, where young Ernest took a blissful soak. Closed since the 1950s, it’s a rare example of an intact traditional Japanese bathhouse, where a community once gathered.
Hotel owner Jan Johnson, showing us around, points to something she found there recently: a label, with the words “You are instructed to report ready to travel on” printed on it, and the date “Sunday noon, 5/10 — ’42” added neatly in ink, as are a name and a “family number.”
It’s a poignant reminder of one of Seattle history’s darkest shadows, when Japanese-American families in the Pacific Northwest were rounded up and sent to detention camps during World War II. The 75th anniversary of that internment order was observed earlier this year; an exhibit commemorating it, “Year of Remembrance: Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner,” continues at the nearby Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, through February 2018.
The baths, with the separate areas for men or women (men, it should be noted, had a much bigger tub), are still intact, though it’s now eerily quiet in that basement. A worn-soft sign, in English and Japanese, reminds visitors to “Please put used towels here.” A tin pan — used, Ford’s book notes, to scoop water from the main bath to scrub up before entering — hangs from a nail; Ford brushes against it and the clatter is startling, in a place once so bustling.
Back on the sidewalk, as Seattleites hurry past us going about their day, Ford spoke of how the neighborhood invigorates him. His grandparents met at the Wah Mee gambling club here in the I.D. during the days of rumrunning; they were, he said, a croupier and a coat-check girl. (It’s a past Ford drew on in his second novel, “Songs of Willow Frost,” set in 1920s/’30s Seattle.)
Though the streets where his grandparents walked have known much struggle, Ford said, the district now seems to be finding a new chapter. “I walk around and see the community vibrant — my heart fills up,” he said, of the neighborhood he first knew as a child. “I get joyful.”
Later in the day, I take out my phone and slip through the photos I took during our walk, pausing at the one in the basement dental clinic. I didn’t notice it earlier, but Ford is reflected right in the middle of that wallpaper; he’s floating there, a little indistinct, like a ghost from the past.