I’ve been going to the Waterfront for years. Nearly every time I’m there I see Lori. She greets me cordially and is quick to get me a drink. She is my unofficial best bartender in Bellingham. I usually go to “the front” (as I call it) with a friend so I never get a chance to talk extensively with Lori. I’ve always wondered what her story was.
I finally got the chance to sit belly up to the bar on a slow evening and chat with her. Lori grew up in Bellevue and Kirkland. In 1978 she moved to Bellingham with her parents and siblings. She was attending Juanita High School and needed to escape from the “open concept” learning environment which had the school designed without individual classrooms nor enough teachers. I also attended Juanita but after it was converted back to a traditional school with separate classrooms.
Lori’s dad passed away a few years ago. Lori’s mom lives in Bellingham at the James Street Estates. (For those of you who have yet to visit the Estates during Christmas time, please check it out.)
In her free time Lori likes to play video games and walk. She joked that her last Comcast bill was $300. “We’re now on a terabyte plan,” she laughed. “Gotta have the internet.” She enjoys Warcraft and has several friends across the globe that she knows on-line. One of them lives in Montreal. She talks to them regularly but has never met them in person.
Lori is allergic to alcohol. If she wants a drink, she’ll sip on a Coors Light. “I don’t like feeling altered,” she said. When she does have a drink she simply doesn’t feel well. No wonder she’s such a good bartender.
Lori has four kids, three live with her now along with a nephew. They range in age from 19 to 31. They pay rent as they’re older except the nephew. But the nephew pays by fixing up the house. She lives in town and usually walks to work.
Lori loves Bellingham and Whatcom County. She loves the public spaces including the trails. She is particularly fond of the new Birchwood Trail under I-5 near her mom’s house. The trail is accessible and an oasis with Squalicum Creek meandering next to it. It provides quiet access for her to go on walks with her mom. She is proud to live in Bellingham due to its civic pride and care toward public spaces. “It’s a great place to raise kids. We’ve got the mountains and the ocean,” she said. “Then, you can go over the pass and you’ve got desert.” In fact, her last speeding ticket was in Twisp. “They need their revenue.”
Lori got the job at the Waterfront from a friend’s referral. She previously worked as a bartender at the old Cascade Pizza on Lakeway and the Guide. The Lakeway location later became Sol de Mexico and she stayed on until the position opened at the Waterfront. She didn’t miss a day of work, telling her boss at Sol de Mexico she quit and started work the next day at the Waterfront. That was 17 years ago. She generally works the evening shifts Tuesday through Friday. Her hours are generally 5:00 p.m. to midnight. She’ll keep the bar open to 2:00 a.m. if there are enough customers. I ask her what she’ll do tonight (as there were only five customers) and she said she’d see how it goes.
The Waterfront draws many for its dart boards. Tournaments happen on Monday and Thursday nights which are usually the busiest nights. Thursday nights are also busy as kickball games happen at Maritime Heritage Park across the street. Friday nights there are monthly concerts with a cover charge. During Seahawks games there are drink specials. They have some of the best fish and chips in town. My favorite is the captain’s plate shared with friends.
The Waterfront is the last remaining Old Town building on piers. Holly Street from Champion to B St used to be a wooden pier. The building was built in about 1910 and was always a bar. It had various side businesses including a barbershop, tobacco shop, card room and seafood restaurant. The basement at water level used to be a grocery and sundry store with access docks for fishing boats to resupply. It is now a storage room. “We store the old pull tabs there for three months for the state auditors,” Lori explained.
The Waterfront has a lore that many serial killers were served there. The Beltway Snipers were confirmed to have been there in the 2000s before they moved to D.C. The others including Ken Bianchi and Ted Bundy are rumors which may have come from a regular named Wally. This doesn’t bother Lori. “It’s a safe place. It’s very rare to meet violent people,” she said. When I asked her about her strangest encounter she did say she stepped in front of a fight where a man wanted to scalp another guy. She said, “Yeah, the other guy was asking for it, but you can’t do that here!” Others asked her if she was scared. “The guy wasn’t after me,” she said matter of factly. “They were just drifters.”
Another strange night occurred in the summer of 2016 after a freak wind storm. Power was out and it was a fundraiser night. “We had candles burning and little kid flashlights around our necks,” Lori described. “We kept up with the drinks and did all the tabs by hand.” Years before she had to kick out a woman performing a lap dance in the bar. “Sorry honey, we don’t have a cabaret license here! You gotta go!”
Previously, I witnessed her quickly refuse service to a person. She recognized the situation before it started. In a matter of fact way asked the man to leave. He left right away. “Yeah, the worst part of my job is having to cut people off,” she said. “But, if you see someone getting aggressive, you gotta act fast.” Indeed, Lori is quick to investigate a situation. As I was sitting there she politely shewed out a Shiatzu that wandered in. I admire her inquisitive demeanor and her brave yet humble nature.
The Waterfront is the only bar I’ve ever been to where someone has said, “a round for the house.” Like an old Western movie, freshie beers were poured and we cheered the person that called it. Both times it was a fisherman and fisherwoman returning from a long stint in Alaska. “That happens a couple times a year,” Lori described. “Usually it’s after a long haul on a boat.” And, yes, both times the bar was pretty empty which I think contributed to the call.
Lori loves her job. “It’s about the people. We have a tight, hardworking crew. They’re like family,” she said. “Any time you have an operation this small, you have to like who you’re working with.” She’s worked for the same owner for her entire 17 years at the Waterfront.
Sometimes it can be hard. “When there’s a rail full of regulars, it can be tough, but it’s fine. I don’t get worked up. People are all idiosyncratic. They all want certain things. Just don’t snap your finger if you want service.” Lori goes on to describe a “newly 21” who thought it right to snap her fingers for service. The newly 21’s friend was so embarrassed she shut the newbie down, obviously more experienced in waiting her turn. “No finger snapping unless you want a PITA tax.”
I ask her what’s the weirdest drink she’s ever made someone. “One time there was this bartender in training that came in with his new girlfriend. He wanted this drink that had six types of alcohol. It was annoying. I had him help me make it. I also charged him for it,” she described. “No matter what bar you work at, if someone’s a pain or asks for a fruity drink, there’s a PITA tax,” she announced proudly. She said nearly all the drink orders are a simple drink.
As my night ends two regulars came in. Lori knows them by name. I said, “She’s the best bartender in town.” One of the regulars listening from afar replied, “She’s got my vote!” Lori knows a lot of people in town. She works hard and enjoys what she does. She’s a caretaker. She’s my best and favorite bartender in town. I admire people that do their jobs well. I admire Lori’s honesty. And yes maybe I romanticize what being a bartender might be like. Regardless, Lori is one of a kind. Our community would not be the same without her.
Got an idea for someone you’ve always wondered about? Maybe you already know them but think they deserve some lime light. I’m looking to get to know others that make our community a better place, a unique place, maybe even a stranger place. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.