If you were a little different, a little weird, a little queer, or just down for something completely unexpected, the best place to find all that and everything else in Seattle was Re-bar.
Located just a little bit off-center in the Denny Triangle—that strange Venn diagram of Capitol Hill, Belltown, and Downtown—for more than three decades Re-bar rode all the ups and downs of the constantly changing landscape and skyline of Seattle. Re-bar has always looked like that house in the Pixar movie Up, smashed between the massive skyscrapers that seem to grow from the ground like weeds.
Back in February, Re-bar celebrated its 30th anniversary without realizing that it would also be dancing its last dance. Once the world started to unravel and Governor Jay Inslee declared shelter-in-place rules, Re-bar closed like so many other small businesses.
On May 10th, via Instagram, Re-bar’s owners broke the news that they would be closing their doors for good. Perhaps, they said, they might open again in the fall of 2021 in a new but still undetermined location. Either way, my heart is broken. Re-bar was like another home to me in a rapidly changing city that offers fewer and fewer places where it is possible to hold on to some of what once was. That’s important even when you’re as young as I am.
I have been part of the spoken-word community here since I was 13 and a member of the Seattle Poetry Slam family since I was 21. Back in the day, SPS hosted poetry slams every Tuesday night at Re-bar, where I performed and hosted more slams than I can remember. And after much nagging on my part, they even let me DJ on a few evenings. I’ll admit it now, it wasn’t a full DJ gig; I just played the walk-on music before and after each performance. But still, the yet-to-be legendary DJ Rose Gold had her debut at Re-bar.
The beauty of Re-bar is that it wasn’t just a spoken-word venue. No two nights were alike. Walking in there on any given evening you could encounter a different grab-bag of shenanigans of epic proportions. One night you’d find a hilarious and super-raunchy drag show so good that it might even have helped Mike Pence discover his inner freak. And the very next day there would be a gut-punching, beer-throwing wrestling match. But in true Re-bar fashion, those two wildly different shows would often attract the same crowd.
Re-bar was a refuge for the strange but open-hearted and tolerant oddballs that Seattle has always been known for harboring. It was a safe place for everyone, a welcoming space for the LGBTQ+ community (who were always happy to welcome everyone else), and one of the few places in all of Seattle where people actually used the dance floor for dancing. At Re-bar you could create a funky ruckus under your armpits by letting go in the mosh pit. Or if you were the shy retiring type, you could get free relationship advice from the incredible bartenders who worked there.
I realize that Re-bar was much more than its location. But like many other places in Seattle that have been forced to change or adapt to the newly gentrified reality, I also know that wherever the new Re-bar opens again, it maybe be better but it won’t be the same. Like Hugo House.
I had the pleasure of living out my angsty teenage years hanging out at the old, original Hugo House. Back before its long-overdue makeover, when every visit to the restroom was an adventure and the entire audience would wander outside between sets to smoke cigarettes on the steps, I spent many memorable evenings performing with my fellow local poets on that cramped and funky stage.
Years later, when I stopped by to visit the newly remodeled Hugo House, I was happy to see that Seattle writers can now write and perform their work in a beautiful and spacious venue where the bathrooms are in a better location and the tables don’t wobble. But I still get the feeling that something has been lost. It’s just not the same.
I know that a new layer of patina will slowly emerge to replace the slightly sticky original one at Hugo House. And over time, with the weight of enough creators and lovers of literature pacing across them, the floorboards will begin to squeak again, and someone who is laughing too hard will spill some wine on a carpet, and a little paint might even chip off the wall. And no one will mind because that’s how it’s done.
I’m sure that wherever Re-bar ends up, it will land on its feet. When it reopens it may be shiny and new but hopefully, that will wear off because that look has never been on-brand for Re-bar. I mean, what’s a Seattle drag queen without smudged lipstick and a few runs in her stockings? Once we figure out what going out will look like in the future, I’ll promise to show up wearing a rhinestone mask and ready to attack the dance floor like it owes me a stimulus check.
We humans tend to stress too much about aging. We curse time for what it does to our bodies while forgetting what quiet comfort it gradually builds up in the places that surround us. Now that Seattle is updating more often than our iPhones, we should try to appreciate the wear and tear of yesteryear. Right now, we could all use a little more nostalgia.