Thirteen Coins for Breakfast
The Elephant Car Wash still washes cars but the Big Pink Toe is no longer where Lincoln tows the cars. At least for now, Seattle is a two newspaper town and the PI writers produce their copy beneath the revolving globe. But there’s a sense of change all over the city; the sounds of change. Every day in Ballard brings the sound of single family residences being demolished. There’s a distinctive crunch as the claws grab the walls and crush the timber and plaster unto rubble. It feels like Chicago after the fire or San Francisco after the earthquake. I happen to live in a house that’s still standing. But for how long? What is our fire?
I don’t take any place for granted anymore in Seattle. One day the Twin Teepees were there, another day they were not. The sign for Thirteen Coins Restaurant, off Denny on Boren had long struck me as another example of an abandoned icon. An old-fashioned sign all that was left of an institution that was long gone. So I was surprised when a visitor from Berkeley, California suggested that we meet there for breakfast. He said the food was good and there was parking. As I made my way between the Seattle Times employee parking lot and the main offices I realized that I had never driven on that particular street before. After eighteen years in Seattle I often wonder what percentage of the streets have I traversed, five percent, maybe even eight? There was the restaurant itself that I had never actually seen.
A heavy-set man was also entering and he held the fortress-like door open for me. I had the impression that I was crossing back in time by two or three decades. I felt slightly out of place as a single woman, probably because I felt like was entering a dark bar that would have been off limits in childhood. Outside it was a cloudless day, 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in May. Inside there was just a hint of daylight, as though the interior was waiting out the daylight hours the way that you await the freedom of the evening cool after an unbearable hot day.
There were oversized coins on the restroom doors and a framed explanation by the posted menu of the story behind the thirteen coins on each table. Along the long bar fronting the line chefs there were swiveling, studded, high-back chairs lined like thrones or torture chairs. The chairs looked like they had been designed for the knights of the round table. Along the “window” side there were booths divided by walls that connected with the ceiling. The hostess and manager were both very pale. Not meant to be seen by the harsh light of day.
My host was late. I toyed with the idea, “Stood Up at Thirteen Coins” and felt regret that I might not have an excuse to stay much longer. But then Alan arrived and we were shown to a very private booth. There were absolutely no sounds from other patrons; just an occasional exchange between wait staff and the hiss as beaten eggs hit the surface of a very hot skillet. Our meeting was to discuss the success of the academy model in Seattle Public Schools. UC Berkeley was wrapping up years of support and preparing a final report. I don’t think any other venue could have seemed as distant from public high schools. With its dark leather and dark walls, Thirteen Coins still seemed shrouded in smoke. The high-walled booths seemed to brag of their clandestine histories, the assignations and reporter meetings with informants, the long martini lunches with baked potatoes and sirloin steaks served rare. Thirteen Coins seemed to be its own island within the myth of the outdoor, friendly city of Seattle. Its darkness boasted that Seattle could have its own share of mafia moments, its own political machine, its own dark side. There was no sound from the outside world. For the first time n months I didn’t hear construction or demolition, freight trains or airlifts, jets or sirens. I was at Thirteen Coins for breakfast and if the city was crumbling all around me, I wouldn’t have known for as long as I stayed within its fortified doors.