Grey Matters: Calling the Shots

As Knute Berger sees it, whether by whiskey, espresso or pistol, Seattle

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As Knute Berger sees it, whether by whiskey, espresso or pistol, Seattle’s Wild-West days are making a dramatic comeback

Calling the Shots
Humans supposedly have an evolutionary advantage because our brains make us adaptable. If we face a problem, we can think of a solution that doesn’t take generations of genetic mutations for us to adapt.

But we’re also forgetful. As a species, we learn stuff, then quickly forget it, like last week’s Twitter feed.

Forgetting has an upside, I suppose. It keeps us from getting stuck in ruts. On the other hand, our memory banks are often wiped clean. Here’s a local example: In the Wild West days, towns featured 24-hour saloons, and manly men wore six-guns everywhere, settling their differences with showdowns in the streets. Seattle was that kind of place: notorious (and popular) for vice. Our next big business after the first sawmill was a brothel, and some of our town founders (like David “Doc” Maynard) were heavy drinkers. In fact, one reason you can’t get around Seattle easily, according to historian Paul Dorpat, is that Maynard, who owned much of the nascent city’s business district in the 1850s, showed up drunk the day they surveyed the plat. The result: Our downtown street grids don’t match, going off at odd angles.

Which means the best way to find your way around Pioneer Square even today is to imitate a 19th-century town drunk, as many people do.

Seattle was a violent town—a kind of Deadwood on the Bay—with shootings, stabbings and lynchings. But most Wild West towns worked at becoming “civilized.” Ladies, like Seattle’s mail-order Mercer girls, arrived and tamed the men. Bars required patrons to check their guns, or at least stop brandishing them. Over time, Seattle the frontier town became a city of quiet Boeing engineers who appreciated order and civility. We limited the hours of bars and taverns, we gave control of the liquor business to the state, and we stopped showing off our guns. Seattle became more peaceful, more civilized—and boring. 
Now, some of the hard-won knowledge about how we attained boringness is apparently ripe for review.

The nightlife business no longer exists on the margins: Bars, restaurants and music clubs are considered part of a vital, 24-hour urban economy. The old rules—that bars stop serving by 2 a.m.—seem so bush league now. There’s a new proposal to change that, in the name of public safety. And it has the best name ever for an alcohol-consumption plan: staggered closings.

Proponents like new city attorney Pete Holmes say the police are simply overwhelmed when the bars all let out at 2 a.m. They argue that if drinkers are time released, like pain medication, cops can handle them better. It also means more drinking more of the time, and more bar hopping. And you will have to avoid the road drunks all night instead of just during the 2 a.m. surge.

Staggered closings could get interesting if paired with another growing libertarian protest movement. “Open-carry” activists are starting to assert their right to carry guns out in the open, gunslinger style. They have been testing Starbucks cafés around the country, and the company has placated Second Amendment advocates by saying if a particular state says it’s legal to wear a pistol in public, then Starbucks will allow them. Have gun, get coffee.

In Washington, you can carry an unconcealed weapon almost anywhere on your person if you don’t threaten or intimidate people with it. Gun activists consider us to be “open-carry friendly.” So, ordering a macchiato with a Magnum should be perfectly legal, even in a city trying to ban guns from its city parks.