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North City Lounge’s Brenda Black Quit Drinking and Bought a Cadillac

The oldest bar in Shoreline is "a small, little place with a 7-Up sign" with a big-hearted bartender who's seen it all.

Renata Steiner

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Welcome to the Cocktail Week 2014 edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.

North City Lounge has been around since 1927, and some of its patrons may have come in just after. The oldest standing bar in Shoreline, it's the kind of dive that makes you want to put in the time to be a regular. One added reason the boldly decorated bar is so popular is Brenda Black, who's been pouring "the usual" for 10 years. Brenda keeps conversations going and drinks flowing with the whole bar simultaneously, and her no-nonsense attitude and years behind the bar keep everyone on their best behavior—most of the time.

Considering how much Brenda has become a part of her customers' lives, it might surprise folks to learn she first got into the industry on a bet with her now ex-husband. She recommends coming to the Halloween party, which she's decorated for extensively, but don't expect any fancy food, because that's not their thing.

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So, you've been here quite a while. How did you start?

I started as a bartender because I got divorced and I needed to get a job. I wanted to go to school to be a nurse, but this was more lucrative. Well, I was married at the time and my husband dared me to get a job. And I got a job, and left him three months later. I've been bartending ever since. I was working at a Mexican restaurant for 10 years and then I found this place, and I started working here and down the street at Harvey's, which was the owner's other place. He let the other place go but it's the same clientele as I had there. They followed me here. That's customer service for you.

I'm writing a book about my bar experience, actually, and it's called Life Behind Bars: Just One More, since that's all I ever hear, is "just one more." I have complete documentation of the last 10 years. I don't know anything about writing a book but I know a lot about timelines.

I've been bartending since I was a kid, though. My dad, he's passed, God bless him, he was a great bullshitter. He would call me in from outside and say, "Brenda, change the channel, and fill it on the two," meaning two fingers of Dewar's. So, I'd pour my dad a drink, at a very young age. Everyone loved my dad. And bartending is a bunch of bullshit sometimes, so it's kind of like I learned from him.

If the lights are out at your house, we're open. If there's snow on the ground and you're snowed in, we're open. We're a last call bar.

You've spent a lot of time in this place. How much are you here?

I've had the same shifts since I started, which is Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights. And every time we lose somebody, I usually end up working Fridays.

We're open every day of the year, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas... We never close. If the lights are out at your house, we're open. If there's snow on the ground and you're snowed in, we're open. We have backup lights and we're always open. We're a last call bar.

Who are your customers?

I have, like, three different sets of customers. I have my irregular regulars: people who aren't regular enough to be regulars, but who I see at least once a month. I have my 9 to 5ers, that I see everyday. I have my industry people who get off work and I see after 11 o'clock, and my pool players. There are some fascinating people. Karaoke is great. We have some remarkable singers, some people who are internationally known—or at least think they are.

Do you sing?

No, my husband sings; he has a beautiful voice. I used to sing when I drank, because everyone thinks they can sing when they drink. I sang Carole King, "You're So Vain," you know, all those songs.

All the customers love you, but do you have a favorite regular?

Danny Hammond, because he's nice and if I need a keg changed, he'll change it. He's my friend. He's just a really nice, genuine guy.

One of the fascinating things about this bar is that it's like a family, and we're all really close; it's a community. It's been like that since the day I walked in. But everyone's really accepting, open-minded.

There was this guy Frenchie -- he's passed-well, since I've worked here, 21 people have passed. They drink and smoke and do drugs... it's a bar, for godsakes. But Frenchie, he had a fascinating life, though no one would really know it... But he would steal the cigarettes out of the canister outside. And I'd say, "don't do that, it's so bad for you," and buy him a pack, buy him some coffee, welcome him in. Well, then everyone kind of adopted him. A little bit of kindness, a little compassion goes a long way. We helped him get food stamps, get in programs, and he ended up having a nicer TV than I ever had. Doing something nice for someone else makes people think, "he's worth it."

We have a whole board of our friends who have passed; obituaries, pictures... I always say, "this is where alcoholics come to die."

You mentioned that you don’t drink. Was it something about working here that made you want to get sober?

In February, it will be six years. But no, it was something about drinking too much, not this place (laughs). I'm sure I wasn't an alcoholic to a lot of my customers, and it was never, like, I couldn't control it. I just wanted to see how long I could go without drinking. I got tired of trying to be an alcoholic. I'd always get sick, or blackout, or spend too much money, or do god knows what, or this, or that... I never lost control of maintaining my house or my car or my family, but I got tired of it.

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Photo: Renata Steiner

You mentioned you got divorced right after you started working here, but that's a pretty nice ring. So, you got remarried?

Yeah, three years ago, actually. 76 of my regulars came down to the ceremony in Vegas. I kind of did it as a joke, trying to see how many of my regulars would come. And it's Vegas, you can drink anywhere; you can drink at my wedding... I never expected such a big group to show up. It was really very sweet. And the next day we got on a plane to Hawaii. Well, my husband and I, as a surprise for him. He had no idea.

Did you meet him here?

No, actually, I knew his mother. But he was the karaoke host here until recently as a matter of fact. He'd been doing it for 10 years. My plan was, when I turned 50 years old, I was going to stop bartending and go work for the Washington State Liquor Stores. But we all know how that turned out, with Costco. So now I have to bartend until I'm 70, another 18 years.

What do you think is the most frustrating part of being a bartender?

The most frustrating part of working at a bar is that people change so much when they're drinking and they think it's me who's changed. I've been consistent the whole night. But they'll get here and be one way, and change throughout the night. I'll see every part of their personality, all the good, all the bad.

Everyone reacts differently, whether it's getting shy, introverted, outroverted... Whatever happened that day, it gets escalated when they're drinking. And they'll act like I've changed, but it's them. I'm not drinking, I'm still the same person I was when I got here. The good thing is, I can tell them the same joke over and over again.

Anyway, I told myself that when I quit drinking, I'd save money for a car. And now I drive a brand new Cadillac.

What's the weirdest thing that's happened at North City Lounge?

Well, this is in my top 10 list. One night I came in and I'm setting up and heard murmurs about there being crabs in the bathroom. And at the time, our bathroom was disgusting, so you can only imagine what I was thinking was in there. Well, it turns out there was a live, real, blue crab, that isn't even indigenous to this area, and someone had put him in the urinal and everybody was peeing on him. So, I rescued him and put him in some water, but he died of course. He was a blue soft crab.

It took me three years to find out who did that and he did it as a joke, of course, but I finally found out. It's like running an adult day care.

Do you guys have fights in here?

When I first started working here, we had a lot of fights. But I haven't had a fight here in a long time. I don't tolerate any shit. No one's going to come in here and be a bully. I have no problem cutting someone off, which new bartenders have trouble with, but I usually know everyone who comes in here. I take it as a challenge to get people to come back. It's a small, little place with a 7-Up sign, but we're a family.

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