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Saturday, August 11, 2007 - Page updated at 02:04 AM

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Hard times at 1st and Pike

Special to The Seattle Times

As the Pike Place Market observes its centennial this year, many consider it Seattle's most popular attraction — a must-see for out-of-town visitors.

Personally, I wouldn't dream of taking a guest there. The place dredges up too many painful memories of childhood poverty and insecurity — of sharing a single day-old pastry for lunch, of a grandfather living in a Market flophouse.

There aren't too many of us left who grew up in Seattle during the Great Depression. What surprises me is to hear someone say, "Oh, I suppose we were poor in those days, but we didn't know it."

Those who were really poor knew it.

Really poor kids, like me, wore funny-colored corduroys, courtesy of the Rainier Valley WPA sewing room where my mom, Roberta Duncan, worked. To save trolley fare, she'd walk six miles to the sewing room, then walk back to our rooming house on Beacon Hill. She sold artificial flowers outside Husky Stadium on cold, wet Saturdays. She gave me "commodity stamps" to take to Piggly Wiggly market to buy dried milk, flour and bricks of cheese.

Mom and I shared a bathroom with the landlady, who lived in the basement, and a single woman across the hall. I rode on the back of friends' bicycles. Shortly before lunch every day at Beacon Hill Elementary School, kids trooped to the teacher's desk to plunk down 3 cents and be handed a half-pint of milk. When the last one had been served, the teacher announced, through clenched teeth, "Now those who are getting free milk may come forward!"

The embarrassed shuffle of the "really poor" kids was not unlike that of the men who stood in soup-kitchen lines or queued up for rare job openings.

I don't recall any romance associated with the Market. No fish flew through the air to entertain customers. The puddles on the concrete floor were like small lakes to a boy whose only pair of shoes had a hole in the sole.

On Saturday mornings, Mom and I boarded a No.12 trolley at Beacon Avenue and Hanford Street and rode down to Third and Pike, from where we'd walk past a white-haired "newsboy" who never seemed to sleep (Seattle had three daily newspapers back then), glance in the windows of Kress and Woolworth's 10-cent stores, breathe the tantalizing aroma of Buddy Squirrel's Nut Shop and make our way down to the Market, which catered to those who watched every penny and stretched every dollar.

Mom, who stood a shade under 5 feet in heels, always walked on tiptoes, like she was running in an Olympic event. She'd be carrying an empty shopping bag and a purse containing a couple of dollars and a few trolley tokens. In her pocket would be a carefully folded list of things she hoped to buy.

One dollar would buy a shopping bag full of fruits, vegetables and calves' liver. Mom was sure the last, coupled with a daily dose of horrible-tasting cod-liver oil, would overcome my anemia and "put some meat on your bones."

Shopping finished, Mom would haul me off to the nearby Security Market, where her friend Ethel worked in a little coffee shop. We'd sit up at the counter and Ethel would bring a cup of coffee for Mom, a glass of water for me and, if the manager indicated it was OK, reach under the counter for a stale pastry. We'd cut it in half. It would be our lunch.

Near noon, we'd trek back to the Market and stand at the foot of the stairway that led to the Leland Hotel. My maternal grandfather, Robert Metz, lived there in a cramped little room with an iron bedstead, a hotplate, a sink and a single light bulb that hung from the ceiling on a long cord. A very small, very dirty window overlooked a fire escape. The window was stuck shut. Almost all tenants shared the bathroom at the end of the narrow hall.

Soon Grandpa would hobble painfully down the hotel stairway for our brief weekly visit. He had severe rheumatoid arthritis, caused, my mother told me, by his misspent youth. Mom was death on smoking, drinking and wild, wild women.

Grandpa was white-haired and a bit stooped, but he had a nimble tongue and an air of dignity, enhanced by a threadbare but well-pressed suit, a neatly knotted tie held in place by a stickpin he swore had a real "diamond chip" in it, a brown hat set at a rakish angle and shoes that always shone as if he'd just taken a cloth to them. Mom guessed he used the bedspread.

Grandpa hadn't always been dirt poor. His once-thriving little beanery, Bob's Place, in Columbia City, had gone under when the Depression hit a couple of years earlier. Penniless, embarrassed and in constant pain, he found refuge in Georgetown's "Poor Farm," where he slept in a dormitory filled with other poor old men waiting to die. When it became apparent he was too stubborn to die in a place like that, he'd been given a couple of dollars and sent out to find a place to live. He wound up at the Leland.

When we returned to Seattle from a short stay in California, we roomed briefly with Grandpa in his $10-per-month room at the Leland. The three of us ate in Grandpa's room, seated on the bed. Grandpa and I slept in the bed, Mom on the floor. Going to the bathroom was traumatic. I'd grab a roll of toilet paper and hurry down the narrow hallway, dodging tottery old men who often smelled of alcohol, and overly made-up women who patted me on the head.

Back in the 1960s when a big "Save the Market" crusade was under way, a Seattle Times editor told me to visit the place and write "one of your nice human-interest stories." I told him I wouldn't be much good at it and started to offer excuses. He said simply, "Do it!"

A young woman, dressed to the nines and smiling sweetly, stood near the stairway to the Leland Hotel, handing out literature extolling the wonders of the Market.

"You want to save the Market, don't you?" she asked cheerfully. I replied, "I'm certainly not opposed to it, but I'm really not all that worked up about it, either."

The woman looked at me as if I had, like some cowboy sitting around a campfire in the Old West, just uttered a "discouraging word." I felt she deserved an explanation.

"Have you ever shopped here?" I asked. "I mean have you ever shopped here when all you had was $1 to buy what you needed for a week? I have, along with my mother."

Warming up, I added, "Have you ever been in that place behind you — the Leland Hotel? My Grandpa lived there. I actually lived there for one of the most miserable weeks of my life."

The young lady hadn't signed on to listen to some nut talk about hard times. She turned away quickly to offer literature to another person walking by.

I stood there, looking at that stairway, wondering if I had the courage to walk up those stairs, past what had been Grandpa's door and down that narrow hallway to the hated bathroom. I was as close to crying as I had been in years.

At the end, I shrugged and walked away. There would be no nice human-interest story that day, just a few words under a staff photograph.

Given my druthers, what I most wish had survived in downtown Seattle were Buddy Squirrel's Nut Shop, the ornate movie houses, and those wonderful department stores — J.C. Penney's, McDougall & Southwick, Frederick & Nelson and Rhodes. At the last, you could drink tea on the balcony and listen to the pipe organ and almost forget you were poor.

But happy 100th birthday anyway, Pike Place Market.

The way they're tearing things down in the old town, it's nice to know something's still standing that's older than I am.

Don Duncan is a former Seattle Times reporter.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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