It was on the wrong side of the water—in Fife, of all places—but the sign stuck to the door of the Poodle Dog's Pup Room told the story: "We Support ILWU." That stands for International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and judging by the graying, beaten-looking men supporting themselves against the bar like they couldn't stand up otherwise, the sign was no mistake.
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Duck Dodge: The Seattle Free Walking Tour
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The goal was to uncover where Port of Tacoma blue-collars seek refuge for an after-work buzz, presumably somewhere near the water. It's not as easy as one might have expected: Several tips lead to boarded-up windows and empty parking lots, while some assumptions prove flat-out wrong. But nearly everyone says the same thing when prodded: Old-school Port of Tacoma guys can consistently be found drinking at the Pup Room. In Fife.
The Port of Tacoma and all its rails and massive cargo-hauling sea vessels sits between Fife and Tacoma proper, not unlike a taint. It's a place better left unseen by anyone aside from those paid a living wage to venture there. Each day, shifts of weary men bleed into this grittier-than-normal part of Tacoma like Commencement Bay bleeds into the land that surrounds it. After work, these men want a drink. And some of the most tried-and-true land at the Poodle Dog's Pup Room to find it.
The Pup Room is an institution. It doesn't draw young longshoremen, full of spunk and tribal tattoos. It draws the vestiges. The old-timers. The haggard, alcoholic faces you think of when picturing longshoremen in a town like Tacoma.
The dark wood paneling, rows of Monarch-brand booze, and complimentary peanuts give the Pup Room an unassuming vibe. The aging woman in the Hawaiian shirt behind the bar, whom Poodle Dog employees call "Mama," pours well drinks that burn your nose hairs. A group of five, covering their tab with paychecks earned in towering lifts, loading huge container ships, or navigating rumbling semis through the faded industrial landscape that surrounds us, sits at the right of the bar. There's a fireplace in the wall behind them, below a sign proclaiming "It's Miller Time!"
Tonight's conversation, audible throughout the small room, swings from tips on beating speeding tickets to how old Jerry Lee Lewis' cousin was when he married her. (For the record, 13.) One of the men goes by the name Big Al. Still another wears a white T-shirt with a multicolored salmon on it.
To be safe, I ask Mama if she knows where old-time Port of Tacoma longshoremen go for a drink after work—on the off-chance there's somewhere else . . . somewhere not in Fife.
"Some of them come here," she tells me.
"Is there anywhere else?"
"I don't know," Mama says dryly while delivering another drink. "I'm always here."
Three stools down, the conversation turns to Seattleites. "They're all worried about bike paths and shit," one man says.
"They're all tree-huggers," says another. "I love trees, don't get me wrong. I got one I hang my fucking boots on when I come home."
The men get a big laugh out of this, while Mama makes sure everyone has enough to drink before sliding out for a cigarette.
THE PUP ROOM AT THE POODLE DOG 1522 54th Ave. E., Fife, 253-922-6161, poodledogfife.com.