Fifteen years ago, Sandra Bullock and I sat on bar stools with Chris and Jeff Price, wondering what we were doing in the Roanoke, a bar about a mile-and-a-half from the small apartment building we all lived in.
We knew of the Roanoke. Everyone did. Of all the bars in Seattle, none greased the wheels for college-aged partiers to grow into neighborhood regulars as smoothly. One minute you’re there to watch the Huskies in the Rose Bowl. A decade later, you’re paying your tab once a month. Picture “Cheer,” done up in full Seattle-style – equal parts snowboard, softball mitt, REI two-man tent and screaming punk rock. But what were we doing there?
I’m not sure when we started considering Chris and Jeff’s downstairs apartment an extension of our own, but it happened pretty shortly after we moved into the five-unit building at 723 Federal Avenue. Mornings and weekends were the predecessors of today’s Surrey Street stoop parties, barbecue optional. Back then, everyone was 30 years old. No one had any kids or money. Our motorcycles shared a garage behind the house.
“What do you think of this bar?” Chris asked us. Maybe she was wearing overall shorts. Or a gigantic sweater. Or both. Jeff and I were probably dressed identically. It was years before I made Banana Republic my personal walk-in closet and he started the process that will eventually leave each of his limbs entirely covered with tattoos.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we’re buying it.”
That was May of 1995. We’d been in Seattle for less than two years. Five years later, we’d be gone to San Francisco. By then we’d spent hundreds of hours in the Roanoke, which eventually became shorthand for all the things about Seattle I was surprised to miss when I grabbed at that Golden Gate-colored ring ten years ago.
Under Chris and Jeff’s stewardship, the Roanoke did not become the hottest ticket in town. It still drew a combination of college students and old guys, filling in spots in-between with people from the neighborhood, friends and people from the neighborhood who became friends.
Weekday afternoons you’d find a lineup of guys who’d graduated years before from Seattle Prep, the Catholic high school two blocks away. On not-so-rare occasions, some member of Seattle rock-and-roll royalty would slip in, take his place at the bar and drink anonymously. Kim Thayill of Soundgarden was known to stop by. The fat guy from Blues Traveler also showed up once when I was there.
When Sandra Bullock got pregnant, there was no question that the baby shower would take place at the Roanoke, on the deck by the ping-pong tables. That one of my college friends, now a non-babysitter-inclined parent, took great umbrage to this was his problem, not ours. The party turned out great. In my family’s photo albums are pictures of my parents sitting on plastic chairs in the sun, out back at the Roanoke.
After the Jawa showed up, it got harder to stop by the bar. Usually, it was either Sandra Bullock or me. On the rare occasions we both went, we always got nachos, flying gleefully far under the foodie radar, thinking anyone stupid enough to order nachos somewhere else deserves to be disappointed.
Then we left town.
Last weekend marked 15 years of bar ownership for our friends Chris and Jeff Price. Since that day we sat there, casing the joint, we’ve produced three kids (and two dogs) between our two families. Though we now live 800 miles away, they will still command reserved seats at the table of honor, come the Jawa’s Bar Mitzvah. In the past decade, while we’ve been tilting at windmills here in San Francisco, the bar has become the center of the Price family, a stubborn constant to both treasure and curse.
While the rest of us are sitting in cubicles, banging away on keyboards, Jeff Price is at the Roanoke. He doesn’t go to the bar after work; he goes to the bar TO work. You come in, there he is. He treats his employees better than most, which – along with the fact that no fewer than eight of them have coupled up and married during his watch – earns him their undying loyalty. Though not the most outgoing of men, his bar is a comfortable place where the walls are covered with photos of patrons sporting Roanoke sweatshirts while in far-off lands.
Which is why when, last Friday, they received an email telling them that they had 60 days to vacate the premises, everyone acted like someone had died.
It’s not just boom economies that bring change. Their landlords freaked and sold the building. The new owners want to run their own bar. Or find someone else to run a bar. Or knock the whole thing down and build condos. Nobody knows for sure. All we know is that there’s been a bar in that building since about 1938, it’s been called the Roanoke since 1982 and Chris and Jeff have poured 15 years of their lives into it only to receive a 60-day vacate notice in return.
We were up in Seattle last weekend for what was supposed to be their 15th anniversary party. I was sitting in their front yard with Chris when the news came. After two months of back-and-forth with lawyers, the hammer finally came down. She laid back on a wooden bench under an unseasonably warm sky and said, “This feels like it’s someone else’s life.”
Jeff came roaring up on the motorcycle he still rides (mine is long gone), got the news and said, simply, “Well, I guess that’s it.”
According to Washington State liquor laws – some of the strictest in the country – they now have 60 days to find a new location, outfit it to function as a bar and open their doors. If they can’t get it done by July 14, they lose their liquor license. 15 years becomes not an investment but a lark. Jeff Price, a film major at Central Washington University, graduated and worked at a bar owned by his father, who sold it to a retired guy whose son was an All-Pro kicker for the Oakland Raiders. Then he bought his own bar. What’s he supposed to do now?
All things being equal, Chris and Jeff’s spirits seemed okay. “We’re taking turns being depressed,” Chris told Sandra Bullock and I Saturday morning.
That night, the party went on not as all as if nothing had happened. The celebration was just a little bit off, as if someone had removed everything and replaced it with exact an replica. One-by-one, customers and present and former employees came by to share their regrets and rant about how they were going to track down there new owners, formulate a plan and then ruin them. If wishes were ammunition, those new owners, whoever they are, would be pulling buckshot out of every square inch of their bodies right now.
“I have an idea who it is,” one employee told me. Some would-be buyer from 1995, he said, who’s harbored a grudge against Chris and Jeff for 15 years for beating him to the punch. “I can’t be certain,” he continued, “but that guy shouldn’t underestimate how vindictive I can be.”
The night ended with two live bands, an unusual set-up for the bar. Both included friends of the family. The first band played crowd-pleasing covers and a dance floor emerged. Chris hit the parquet with a group that included our very own Sandra Bullock, whose low-key yet dead-on rhythmic dance steps have wowed me for close to 20 years.
Jeff stood off to the side, his customary spot being the end of the bar furthest from the front door. Everywhere, it seemed, were big guys in shorts with shaved heads, big black eyeglasses and tattoos: the Jeff Price look. A fine testament to their uneasy leader.
The second band didn’t come on until midnight. By then there had already been a noise complaint. The Roanoke has sat, since 1982, in an otherwise almost exclusively residential neighborhood.
I know Jeff didn’t pre-screen band #2. They launched into their first song and I swear half the bar contorted, pushing themselves as far from the wall of caustic sound as they could manage without either bursting through the back door or spilling out onto 10th Avenue. I took a seat at the far end of the bar, next to another longtime bar employee, who met her husband here while working for Chris and Jeff.
“This is what it looks like inside of Jeff’s head,” she said off-handedly. I nodded. Jeff Price is far too polite a guy and not nearly untethered enough to do it himself, but the minute the lead singer of that second band climbed on top of the bar and started screaming, the Roanoke delivered a brash, defiant middle finger to landlords, rich new investors, neighbors who complain about noise, the Washington State Liquor Board and everyone else who took something absolutely right and shut it down long before the music was over.
Everyone’s ears rung until the middle of Sunday. By then, the Prices had already begun driving around, looking for “For Lease” signs.