Sailing the Mayflower to West Seattle

By Kim Nichols

Last week, at the age 46, I was prescribed glasses for the first time. Not Walgreens reading glasses, but “you’re-getting-older-and-can’t-see-very-well” glasses.  I have spent seven days trying to get used to my new “progressives”, which I think is a diagnostic term meaning: “lot’s of the world will be blurry, but some parts will be clear”.  As I drove through the “Big Junction” as we used to call it (the “Little Junction” meant California Avenue at Morgan Street), I began to see things I hadn’t seen in a while.


I stopped reading the neon signs and just started to imagine many of the old businesses that I had known as a child in West Seattle.  These places are more a feeling than a vision.  I noticed an enormous mortar “bucket” with its moving pestle high above Morton’s Drugs where Easy Street now stands. As a child I missed many light changes by staring at that giant piece of “marble” go round and round grinding up an imagined powder.


From there it’s only a glance across the street to the north east corner of California and S.W. Alaska, and I can see the wonderful windows of La Grace.  Behind the large picture-windows was a march of monochrome mannequins all wearing knit dresses and hats; all of one hue, usually in red or pink.  I was too young to shop there, but I knew it held an important place in the junction’s landscape.


A couple of doors to the north and the “Center of the Junction Universe” comes into view- it is J.C. Penney.  This was a mandatory stop for excited children in September before school started, this was us anxiously waiting at the Dutch door to pick up brown packages in December.  It was here we picked up our swim suits in late spring;  this single building that promised us so much, including an impending warm summer at Alki or the Colman Pool.  Now, do I actually remember the cashier up in the loft of J.C. Penney’s who would send us back our change through a simple pulley-system?  Was that my own memory or was it borrowed from my mom and grandma who reminded me of it during every visit? No, I hear the bell from up in the loft so clearly, I know this memory is my own.


I travel around West Seattle as the images come into focus again… pink donut boxes on the counter of Blake’s Bakery, The Junction Feed and Seed where the Tru Value sits now, Shakey’s Pizza welcoming you to West Seattle with a flurry of banjo players on stage.


I’m spinning now, me and my poor vision, and things aren’t where I remember them; Groucho’s Burgers seems too close to Pizza Pete’s, and there’s a hospital both above the People’s Bank and also on 35th Avenue.  The West Seattle Hospital, on that chunk of land just before the hill on 35th gets fun, where we would try to get air in our first cars and lift our stomachs into our throats.  That’s it, right near the cannon that’s aimed at my dentist’s office.  Here I would peer over my Highlights Magazine as I studied Goofus and Galant, so hopeful that the cannon would not go off before I got my “sucker on a string” for a dentist visit well done.  That’s right, dentists gave out candy, back in those times.  Right?  That was real, right?  Wasn’t it?


Now I’m remembering how there was a strange breakfast place in West Seattle about a block or so south of the five-way stop at Erskine Way and California.  My sight is blurry, was it an odd pink building? Yes, and I remember being perplexed by the little boy on the sign who was chasing a tiger while balancing a plate of flapjacks, or was the tiger chasing him? I rarely use the phrase “politically correct” because I can’t understand what is “political” about Jim Crow Laws, sexism, or any other prejudice.  I didn’t know much as a kid, but I did know that eating at a place called, “Lil Black Sambos” was something not to mention on Monday at school.  Up until the end of my grandfather’s life, he and I could find very little to agree on, politically or otherwise.  But, we both loved the outdoors, pancakes, and crisp bacon.  And so, as we ventured toward our outdoor trips, we would share a secret breakfast at a very peculiar “concept restaurant”, and then be on our way, not speak of it to others.


Now I begin to realize that my childhood memories of West Seattle are like my eyes, sometimes clear yet other times dilated and blurry.  Could there really have been some Paul Bunyon-sized jeans hanging up at the Wigwam?  Wigwam?  My friends and I have a rule about “in-jokes” so that no one ever feels left out. We may tell all the in-jokes we’d like, but if just one new person is present at the group, the rule is: “it must be explained”.  Many is the time that the person who explains the joke the best and with the greatest enthusiasm and flair, was not even there at the joke’s inception.  That’s the point, a person gains immediate “membership” once they are told the story.  My dad, George, calls this the “Mayflower Effect”.  He maintains that if all the people who claim to have relatives that sailed over on the Mayflower really and truly did, then there would have been an armada of 2000 vessels at Plymouth Rock.  That’s how it seems when you live in West Seattle, once you’ve lived here, you are a part of the collective memories.  If you know any part of the history, either with clear or dilated eyes, you are a member.  You were with us on the Mayflower.