Like Heath Ledger before it, The Buckaroo Tavern in the Fremont section of Seattle is about to meet its untimely demise. Being dead, Ledger—who can be seen playing pool at The Buckaroo in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You—wasn’t able to stop the unfortunate, Greek tragedy-like chain of events that led to The Buck’s immanent shuttering: under-the-table real estate deals and heartless yuppies crushing the dreams of publicans, bartenders, and alcoholics alike. On September 17th, one of the last remaining true dive bars in the Seattle area will be closing its doors forever. This is a pity, because The Buckaroo is no poser biker bar, with t-shirts and silk-screened beer mugs for sale in the gift shop. It’s the real thing, a welcome throwback to times when Seattle was less upwardly mobile and gentrified. The bikes regularly parked on the sidewalk are not thirty-five thousand dollar Harleys owned by software designers, who bought a pair of leather chaps from HarleyDavidson.com for weekends. The Buck shines a grimy light on pretense, but does not exclude: Bikers, Vietnam vets, construction workers, college students, and, yes, software designers all frequent the bar, and do so in relative comfort.
The place, however, ain’t Applebees. On occasion, events have transpired that live up to The Buck’s legendary reputation as a hard-core dive bar. One night in the late nineties, while sharing a beer with a college chum of mine, I was treated to the greatest bar fight I have ever witnessed. Two drunken, black-leather clad, bearded bikers entered The Buck with great effrontery and belligerence. In doing so, they knocked a mild-mannered patron off his bar-stool, caring not one whit for the consequences. They should have, as the consequences arrived in the body of the mild-mannered patron’s pal, who was playing pool in the other room. A pal-to-end-all-pals, he burst into the bar area at full-speed, knocking down two other patrons in doing so, and lambasted both bikers while pushing them out the door and onto the sidewalk in about five seconds’ time. I distinctly remember the shorter, fatter biker yelling from the sidewalk where he was laying, “Come on out and kill us, then.” Shamed, the two would-be hell-raisers mounted their bikes and rode away. Pal-to-end-all-pals, who was wearing brown mechanic’s coveralls, apologized to the people he knocked down, bought them beers, and returned to his game.
Owner Donna Morey asked (ironically or seriously, I don’t know) that I not photograph the bathrooms when I went to take pictures of the soon-to-be-comet-struck dinosaur. So I didn’t, but it’s a shame, as they tell a lot of the story. A trip to The Buck’s bathroom is like a ride on a shoddy county-fair roller coaster operated by a toothpick-shaped carny with more tattoos than teeth. It ain’t pretty. Keep your extremities as close to your person as possible and be glad when you return to your loved ones. It is, after all, a waste-receptacle, and one shouldn’t squander time there peering into the smoked-glass mirror at your beautiful mug in a place like The Buck. Do your business, get out, and have another beer.
This place has funk, and over the last 72 years, The Buckaroo has been serving a wide variety of beers (25 on tap, 39 bottled; categorized as either “cheap” or “good”) as well as popcorn to a wide swath of Seattle’s populace, 365 days a year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, when they serve potlucks for regulars. For decades, people have called this bar home. More any other tavern in the Seattle area, the Buckaroo has built a respectable following of regulars and devotees. It isn’t a place to be seen. It isn’t a place to meet girls. It’s a place to go when there’s little in the fridge and you’re hankering for a beer. The bartenders are always friendly, and the clientele diverse. Although frequented by many that might be considered ruffians, The Buck seems to have a calming effect on nearly everyone, as if creating a ruckus here would be akin to pissing on your own mother’s favorite rug. It’s dusty, and the Adam’s Family pin-ball machine has been shoved over by the bathroom for decades. You wouldn’t bring your mother-in-law to The Buck the first time she came to Seattle, but you sure as shit would go after you’ve dropped her off at the airport.
From the bar’s sign, a neon cowboy atop a bucking bronc, to the carved-up wooden benches, to the bent pool cues, to the drugstore zinc and vinyl stools, every square inch of The Buckaroo is Seattle dive-bar history. A history that is about to come to an end. Get there before it does. After twenty-five years of ownership, Donna Morey has committed the final week of Buckdom to a seven-day, every-ounce-must-go beer removal festival, promising to open again, this calendar year, in a new location. “I’m going to scrape the paint off the windows,” she declared, vowing to leave nothing for the building’s new owners that so much as smells of The Buck. And smell it does. Washington State has only been “smoke-free” for ten years, but the linger remains. Stale beer and ancient tobacco and the offal of generations. Oh, sweet dive bar! She has the support of the people as evidenced by a massive grass-roots “Save the Buck” campaign. Over the last three months, the campaign has been voicing the story of The Buck’s demise in local alternative newspapers such as The Stranger and Seattle Weekly. But the effect has been minimal, and, for a few more days, anyway, Donna still has her legendary spot on the corner of 42nd Street and Fremont Avenue — and thousands of dedicated drinkers.
4201 Fremont Avenue North Seattle Washington 98103 (206) 634-3161 buckarootavern.com