Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Slow buses and a stranger: An unforgettable Christmas in 1975

A road leading down towards the water that dead ends at a building with a sign that reads "Public Market." 1970s cars are parked on either side of the road and the buildings lining the street include a couple taverns and a thrift shop.
Stephen Shore
Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York
Pine Street, Seattle, Washington, August 27, 1974. This is the street Nick and Lee walked down to get to the restaurant, just as deserted as it was that Christmas Day.

What makes a particular Christmas unforgettable? Maybe it’s a surprise guest or a perfect gift or some sort of event that becomes family legend. But for Nick Morrison, his most memorable Christmas happened because of slow city buses. Listen above or read the story below as he explains.

On Christmas morning, 1975, the sky above Seattle was remarkably clear—which made standing at a bus stop on 3rd and Union remarkably cold. But there I was, waiting for the Mt. Baker bus.

Earlier that morning, I had awakened with my girlfriend, at her apartment on Alki. Over coffee, she sweetly but firmly told me I couldn't spend Christmas Day with her because her mother was coming over. So off I’d gone. Buses were on a holiday schedule, so I had a long wait for a bus out of West Seattle. By the time I got to 3rd and Union, it was going on noon and I was looking at yet another long wait.

And let me tell you, being in Downtown Seattle on a Christmas morning in 1975 was kind of creepy. There was nothing and nobody moving. In fact, it was very much like the deserted downtown we experienced in the early months of the pandemic.

That being the case, I became immediately aware when some guy emerged up the street at the corner of 3rd and Pike—I assumed he was a street person so as he began to sidle my way, I began to feel in my front pants pocket for some change that he’d undoubtedly ask for. Which he did.

We were about the same age. He was a little grubby, stubbly and bleary but not bust-out wasted. More like maybe a factory worker on a three-day weekend bender that had gotten out of hand.

When he got close enough to talk to me without having to raise his voice, he started his pitch—said he was temporarily stranded in Seattle, that—he wasn’t gonna kid me, now—he was hungover and hungry and could I spare him some change so he could afford a meal.

Of course, my first thought was, ‘a meal, my aunt fannie. this guy wants a bottle of t-bird.’ so, instead of just handing him some pocket change, I challenged him,

“Tell you what,” I said, “if you know of a place that’s open today, take me there and I’ll buy us both dinner.” To my surprise, the guy lit up a little and said, “There’s a place right down around on First. But are you sure you want to do this?” And all of a sudden I was a hundred percent sure I wanted to do this.

“Let's go,” I said and off we went. Along the way we got a bit better acquainted.

His name was Lee. He said he’d hopped a freight somewhere in the Midwest to come to Seattle to surprise his sister with a Christmas visit. She lived in Ballard, was married to a guy he hadn’t met and they had a kid he’d never seen. So here comes Uncle Lee.

Of course by the time he rolled out of a boxcar in Seattle, he was hammered. And he remained hammered all the way to his sister’s doorstep, at which point the husband had unceremoniously given him the heave-ho. Never did see the kid and barely saw his sister—so here he was, among the aimless.

The eatery that was open was about what you’d expect for 1st Avenue on a Christmas Day in those days—a bar and grill that had long since seen better days, with its stale booze smells, cigarette smoke, worn-out booths, tatty, morose Christmas décor, country music leaking into the dining area from a juke in the bar and tough old waitresses—presiding over a roomful of castaways, mostly men, in varying stages of drunkenness.

We found a booth. An old waitress steamed by like a Mississippi river boat and threw us a couple of menus without breaking stride. The special was a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. I told Lee that I thought we should live it up and order the works—and he readily agreed.

Just before the scalding soup and wilted salads showed up, I popped into the bar and came back with a surprise—a couple of hot buttered rums.

I was pretty sure Lee would strike like a cobra when the rum hit the table and I was right. He polished it off in one tip. More amazingly, though, he then did the same with his cup of molten soup—all of it down the hatch, all at once. And then, as I was about to say something like, “Good lord, man, how’d you do that?” — Lee threw up.

It was a dark several minutes for both of us—well, all three of us, if we include the poor old rummy who was dragooned from the bar to come clean up the mess. Not that there was much to clean up. I mean, there just wasn’t much in his stomach other than the recently introduced soup and rum, all courtesy of me. Still, the poor guy was mortified and I was mortified that he was mortified.

I quickly suggested we just forget about that unfortunate lapse in decorum and start over. We decided to skip the soup but maybe try the rum again. Which we did, to much better effect. Then turkey, spuds, gravy, a mushy veggie medley, little paper cups of cranberry sauce and soon we sat back, satisfied young men with full bellies.

While in our after dinner afterglow, drinking beer and sharing a newspaper, I suggested that he and I take in a movie—specifically John Huston’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, which had just been released and was playing several blocks away. It starred Sean Connery and Michael Caine as two scheming, cockeyed British soldiers of fortune in 1880s India, who have a plan to go off and conquer a place called Kafiristan. All by themselves.

The movie’s got everything—Caine and Connery, stunning scenery, the spectre of Alexander the Great, freemasonry, battles, fabulous riches and—since it’s a John Huston movie—tragic folly. We went.

During the movie, I'd occasionally glance over at Lee to see if he was enjoying it. He really was. He seemed totally transported. I was having a great time, too. Not only was I loving the movie, I was loving being the kind of guy who would do such a thing—befriend a down-and-outer on Christmas Day and treat him to a meal and a movie.

But for as good as it all made me feel, I was also conscious of the fact I might also have been trying to pay the piper in advance. You know—collecting some good karma for a rainy day. See, there wasn’t that much difference between Lee and me. We were close to the same age. We were both kind of drifting through life, letting one thing lead to another, spinning the wheel again and again to see where the ball would drop. At that moment my luck was better than his—I had a job, a girlfriend and a place to live—but I could fairly easily see myself in Lee's shoes.

After the movie we walked back over to 3rd and Pike. At some point along the way I told him I'd better be heading back to my lonely post at the bus stop on Union before the holiday schedule made buses even more scarce. He said he, too, might throw himself into the black hole of the public transportation holiday schedule to take another shot at his sister’s doorbell. He thanked me for the meal, the drinks and the movie. I thanked him for his company and we went our separate ways.

That was the last I ever saw of him, but I hope his brother-in-law didn’t knock him off that porch in Ballard a second time. I hope he met his infant niece. I hope he made it home. I hope he made a home. And to this day whenever I watch The Man Who Would Be King (which had remained a great favorite) and see those two lunatic adventurers crossing the Hindu Kush to conquer a nation. I think of those two young men—boys, really—back in ‘75, with no real purpose in the world, walking down Pike toward First on a clear Christmas Day, just looking for places to get in out of the cold for a while.

Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.