Monthly Archives: June 2005

Another Thursday Night In Tacoma

“Down these streets the fools rule
There’s no freedom or self respect,
A knife’s point or a trip to the joint
Is about all you can expect.”

-Bob Dylan, Band of the Hand

Last night less than a mile from my apartment a 51 year old Randy Kaskin stopped at a check cashing place. He was giving his wife’s caregiver a ride to cash a check. They got out of the car and were approached by a woman who asked for a ride. They refused, went in to cash the check, but were unable to. When they came out, the girl again asked for a ride but this time she had two men with her. This time she also asked for money. They again refused and got into thier car. One of the other men also got into his car. A fight insued ending with the other man shooting the driver in the head. He then pistol whipped the caregiver until she got out of the car and the three left her and Randy Kaskin’s body in the street, driving off into the night in a red Mitsubishi. The car was found a few hours later in a South Tacoma neighborhood.

This happened at the intersection of Sprague and Division. Across the street from the check-cashing place is Jason Lee Middle School. Within a mile of this spot there have been other murders, police shootings, robberies, and muggings. That particular intersection has not been considered ‘safe’ in my adult life.

Tacoma street murders like this are not uncommon and they are rarely solved. I once asked a Tacoma homicide detective about the murder of a friend that had been shot by a man trying to steal his car. The man replied with more expletives than a Tarantino movie and said “Christ, the only f*cking person who isn’t a godd*mn suspect in that sh*tty neighborhood is the f*cking vic.” Needless to say his murder was never solved.

In the early 90’s, when gang shootings were so rampant that I had a side hobby of collecting shell casings, the Tacoma Police Department formed an anti-gangs unit to deal with the problem. Crime on the Hilltop and all around Tacoma dropped. In response to this, the Tacoma Police Department disbanded the unit. Since then, gangs have increased along with violent crime. Evidently the bean counters do not understand that a good police force is pro-active rather than reactive. Disbanding the anti-gang unit because crime is down is a lot like not wearing a seatbelt anymore because you haven’t been in an accident lately.

The thing I have learned in my lifetime in Tacoma is that the police will not save you. Not in this city and likely not anywhere. Given some luck and an absolutely stupid criminal they may solve whatever crime you are the victim of, but do not expect them to make dangerous streets safer.

When I worked in police records in Tacoma I had the chance to test a theory of mine. The theory was that in every crime there was at least one stupid person. It became a game. Every report I tracked down, I tried to ‘find the stupid one’. Whether it was a victim who left the keys to his car in the ignition or the criminal who robbed the place he was fired from the day before, there was always someone doing something stupid.

As a citizen living in Tacoma you can’t really protect yourself from a stupid criminal. Because a stupid criminal will shoot you in front of witnesses. He will not listen to reason. He will make too much noise when he steals from you. He will for lack of a better word, be stupid.

What you can do is try your best to not do anything stupid because criminals are watching. If you walk down a dark alley alone, if you leave your car windows open at night, if you cash a check in the middle of the night, or walk through a park alone, you can’t call it unexpected when something bad happens to you.

Let me be clear here. I am not blaming the victim for the crime and in a better world, you’d be able to leave your windows open and walk in the park whenever you like. What I’m saying is that the number one thing that helps criminals commit crimes is creating an opportunity to commit them.

Having said all this, I’d also like to say that I still do not believe Tacoma is a bad city. Yes, bad things happen here all the time, but they happen in your city too. Much more often than you likely think they do. That’s the nature of a city. Miracles and tragedies happen all around you and if you stick around long enough, you’ll encounter them both. The trick is to remember the miracles during the tragedies.

-Jack

Tacoma Little Theatre

Tacoma Little Theatre

In 1913 there was an auto repair shop at 210 North I Street in Tacoma’s North End Neighborhood. They eventually grew to become Tacoma Motors. In 1940, they sold the building to a group calling themselves the Tacoma Drama League. And Tacoma Little Theatre was born.

The Tacoma Drama League had been together since 1918 using the First Congregational Church as a performance area and using the name Tacoma Little Theatre long before they had a building of their own. After all as any theatre person or Shakespeare fan can tell you, ‘the play is the thing’.

During the 1940’s they used surplus parts from a Army railroad roundhouse to create a thirty-two foot turntable on the stage, making it possible to change play settings quickly and offering a unique play-going experience to the public.

In the early 1990’s Tacoma Little Theatre entered my life. I had a group of friends that put on a weekly improv show and in 1994, on Saturday nights, you could find some of the best live comedy you were likely to see anywhere. I almost joined them, but found that my calling wasn’t to be on stage, but behind it. Every Saturday night I would open doors, tear tickets, and do whatever else needed to be done.

On August 5, 1995 I appeared on the stage of Tacoma Little Theatre for a different kind of performance. I was dressed in a black suit with a thin black tie. I walked down the aisle to the tune of George Baker’s “Little Green Bag” and got married. This wasn’t an original idea. To my knowledge there have been five other weddings at the theatre. None of them have lasted more than two years. This probably has more to do with theatre people not being the most loyal and traditional sorts than any possible curse on the place.

Today, I live a few blocks away from Tacoma Little Theatre and see it every day. It’s still in operation and holds the distinction of being the oldest operating community theater group west of the Mississippi.

-Jack

Top of The Ocean

I grew up in a lower middle class family living in South Tacoma. My dad was a welder. My mom was a nurse. I have a brother, two years younger than me. Occasionally we would go to Chuck E. Cheese’s and eat pizza and play video games or sometimes Godfather’s Pizza or even Pizza N’ Pipes (more on that later). But more often than not, when we went ‘out’ to eat, it meant going to any given fast food place, ordering at the drive-through and parking on the waterfront down on Schuster Parkway and eating in the car as we looked out on the waterfront. In the water there were these pylons in the water where some structure once stood. My parents told me there used to be a restaurant shaped like a boat here called The Top of The Ocean.

The Top of the Ocean Restaurant (pictured below) opened on December 15, 1946. With incredible food, a great view, and top notch entertainment, The Top of the Ocean was a good place for a romantic dinner or a formal party. Masons, Rotary Clubs, and business leaders made it a point to use the Top of the Ocean anytime they wanted an impressive celebration.


In the fifties the Top of the Ocean was arguably the best restaurant in Tacoma. It wasn’t uncommon to have difficulty finding a parking space. Any given night you’d hear live music coming from inside and a lively time being had by all.

By 1976 the Top of the Ocean had seen better days. Over the years many more waterfront restaurants had popped up (though none with the style of the Top). The Top of the World was then sold to Mark and Dave Mitchell. In 1977 Tacoma lost another landmark when the Top of the World Restaurant burned to the waterline, leaving only pylons. It was found that this fire was one of a string of arsons that took place in the late 70’s under suspicious circumstances.
-Jack

Harry Morgan's Place

Whenever I travel and mention that I’m from Tacoma people tend to mention Tacoma’s reputation for crime. In the late eighties and early nineties the gang problem in Tacoma was rivaling that of Los Angeles. We averaged a drive-by shooting every other day. During the mid-nineties things cooled down a bit but the last couple years have seen a return of various forms of violence. Just last weekend there was a shootout on South 48th street that left a gunman dead and a cop shot in the leg.

It’d be nice to think that the reputation of Tacoma as a crime-plagued city is a recent event but crime has been a major component of Tacoma since it began and the first big name in crime in Tacoma was Harry Morgan.

Harry Morgan was said to have arrived from Maryland at the age of 34, though there are no records to that effect. Morgan arrived in Tacoma on a February morning in 1884 to find a rising unemployment rate and a falling economy. In looking over the town he saw what was missing: a decent saloon.

Morgan’s Board of Trade Billiard Hall and Theatre Comique (a picture of the place can be found to the right) wasn’t just a place where you could get a drink. The waitresses also sang and danced and would meet you in one of the secluded booths for other services as well if you had the money for it. There were also card rooms and gaming tables. Most of what went on at Harry Morgan’s place wasn’t legal but his infractions weren’t anything you couldn’t bribe away. While other gambling and prostitution establishments seemed to get raided on a regular basis, Morgan’s place grew more and more popular.

Only a couple blocks away from the Tacoma Hotel the closest entertainment to be had was Morgan’s Theatre Comique. Every week there’d be a new show. A tight wire act, comedians, singers, you never knew what might be on the stage.

Not everyone appreciated Harry’s place. The Ledger, the local paper, frequently condemned the place and the man himself. There were many stories of swindles, graft, and corruption but few ever stuck. When an associate of Morgan’s was convicted on one of these cons, Morgan’s lawyer appealed it on the grounds that women were on the juries involved and won, getting his associate off and dealing a blow to women’s rights.

Harry Morgan died in 1890 at the age of 40. There was talk that his estate was worth over a million dollars. It was said that Morgan’s place averaged a take in of $20,000 to $30,000 a month, but the combination of payments to employees, law enforcement officials, lawyers, and more than a couple bad investments had dwindled his fortune to less than $28,000 in the end.

Morgan’s death didn’t end the crime and corruption in Tacoma and it wasn’t until the 1940’s that anything was done about the easily bought Tacoma Police Department.

-Jack Cameron