A Voice From the Winthrop: David Miller

David Miller’s past is intertwined with the former Winthrop Hotel.

His late father Pat and 83-year-old mother Ailene were married in a church two blocks away and spent their honeymoon night in the former hotel — a bulky, 12-story, 84-year-old building that blocks out the afternoon sun and casts a long shadow on the corner of Ninth and Commerce in downtown Tacoma. As a boy growing up in Tacoma’s Highland Hill neighborhood, Miller was once fitted for glasses in one of the street-level storefronts that ringed the building. Like most adolescents in the late-1970s, he waited on line at a downtown movie theater (then the Roxy, today the Pantages, and located across the street from the Winthrop) to see Star Wars. And as a young man in his twenties, he attended a friend’s wedding reception at the Winthrop’s Crystal Ballroom.

“It was kind of like my fate to live here,” says Miller with a laugh. “Maybe when I die, I’ll be a ghost in the hallways.”

Miller has lived in the Winthrop, now an apartment building for low-income residents, during two separate periods: about 18 months in the early-1990s and, beginning in 1999, the past 10 years. His residence is a studio apartment on the eighth floor — a corner unit that overlooks the antiquated Pantages Theater sign and marquee, the pillared skyline of downtown office buildings, and a distant stream of traffic along Interstate 5. He shares the apartment with a shy, long-haired cat named ‘Little Bit.’ “It’s a nice apartment,” he says. “I can see downtown and it’s really kind of pretty at night.”

Faded posters of old rock-and-roll and folk icons (The Who, The Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel) are taped to the walls. They only hint at Miller’s massive record collection. The dusty and frayed covers of albums by Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Doors, and Bob Dylan are arranged on the floor in neat rows next to a turntable. Miller is lean, energetic, and wears a Seahawks cap, red suspenders, a T-shirt with silk-screened superheroes, and blue jeans; he looks a decade younger than his 43 years.

Miller is the latest subject of the Tacoma Daily Index‘s series of interviews with Winthrop residents.

He has always been drawn to downtown Tacoma. As a youngster with his mother, he would visit Payless Drug Store, the shops in Court C, Peoples Department Store (where his father worked for a stint), and Woolworth Department Store. “I was lucky enough that when I lived in the Winthrop the first time, in 1993, Woolworth’s was still in operation,” he says. “I used to go in there and have coffee or pie.”

Many people have quick opinions on what to do with the Winthrop. Some want to see it restored as an historic hotel; others point to the building’s track record as a magnet for crime and emergency service calls, and want it shut down; and still others want city leaders to find alternate housing so residents aren’t concentrated in one location. In May, Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) announced that it was asked by Prium (the current building owner who had originally planned to convert the building into a four-star hotel) if it wanted to purchase the building. THA is currently mulling over that offer.

If the Winthrop is a hub for drugs and criminal activity, Miller hasn’t seen it from his eighth-floor perch, where his rent is less than $200 month and he lives on income assistance from a mental illness for which he takes medication but doesn’t wish to discuss. “That’s not my experience,” he explains. “I don’t do drugs or alcohol. People who are doing that are really hurting themselves. They’re not hurting me. I’ve been sober nine years and I have a sponsor I’m working with.”

Here is what Miller had to say about his life and experience living in the Winthrop.

“It’s ironic that I ended up living [at the Winthrop].”

I was born in 1966 at Tacoma General Hospital and raised in Tacoma. I have three sisters — Janice, Diane, and Charlene — who are all older than me. My father, Pat, did various types of work. Years ago, he was in the Navy. He served during World War II. My mom and dad met over here at Urban Grace Church, then it was called First Baptist Church. They married and spent their honeymoon night at the Winthrop back before it was apartments. I have often wondered what room they stayed in. My mom, Ailene, didn’t really know. I’ve seen pictures of what it looked like. It was quite a grand lobby. Also, there used to be a bar in the Winthrop called the Saber Room. My dad used to drink there. But that’s all gone. It’s ironic that I ended up living there.

“I ended up getting a job at the carnival. That was kind of wild.”

When I turned 16, I got a job up at Tower Lanes Bowling Alley. I was a busboy. I wanted to work my way up to be a dishwasher. I remember that was a goal — to be a dishwasher. I became a dishwasher. I kept that job even after I graduated high school. I was still living at home then. But then I also had various jobs here and there. I got a job as a dishwasher at the Tacoma Dome Hotel. I worked at the Harvester for a little while. The carnival came to a local parking lot. I was going on the rides and met some of the people there. I ended up getting a job at the carnival. My mom and dad weren’t too happy about that. That was kind of wild. It was pretty easy to get a job. I traveled with them from Tacoma to Sedro-Woolley to Olympia to Enumclaw and then to Ferndale. I kind of laugh about it because it was kind of a crazy job. It was a way to make a buck. Actually, it helped me because after that job, I ended up working at the Puyallup Fair. That was throughout my twenties.

“I remember I was pretty excited about having my own place.”

The first time I moved into the Winthrop was in 1993. I just happened to be downtown, I needed a place to live. I remember talking to a guy at a bus stop who lived there. I went in and filled out paperwork. I got in real quick, it was pretty easy. Before then, I was living out in the Steilacoom-Lakewood area. I lived out there with a roommate for about a year. I decided I wanted to have my own place. So I moved into the Winthrop. The building was really pretty much the same. Managers have changed, owners have changed. It’s always been a low-income place, and that’s what I liked about it. I lived on the seventh floor. I didn’t live there very long — a year-and-a-half. Maybe two years. I remember I was pretty excited about having my own place. There used to be a little thrift shop in there. You could buy and sell things. I remember I sold my Nintendo to somebody. I moved out of the Winthrop because an opportunity arose where I had the chance to live somewhere else out in Lakewood. When I moved out of the Winthrop, I remember thinking, ‘I would like to live here again someday.’

“My mom thinks I have a pretty neat little apartment. I think so, too.”

Later, the opportunity arose where I wanted to move. I moved back down to the Winthrop because I knew it was affordable rent. Now I’m on the eighth floor. My mom thinks I have a pretty neat little apartment. I think so, too. It’s just a studio. It’s nice living at the Winthrop. I try to keep to myself. I know some of the people. I’ve had different neighbors move in and move out. Some people have been there a long time. My income is $1,005 per month. My rent is $185 per month. When I first moved in, my rent was $150 per month. It’s gone up. But being that I’ve been there 10 years, it really hasn’t been a whole lot. I don’t work right now. I receive Social Security Assistance.

“All the kids are grown, but we come around and help [our mom] out.”

My average day in the Winthrop, I usually wake up, have coffee, smoke a cigarette. Sometimes I’ll watch television. I play records. That’s kind of one of my hobbies. Mostly classic rock. I’m a collector. I got into fishing. An old friend of mine got me hooked on that. Sometimes we go to a lake down in Olympia. Last time, I went to American Lake and actually got one. I’ve been skunked there a few times. I’m also a Seahawks fan. I went to that game last year where we beat Brett Favre. That was fun, that was a rush. I’m a Mariners fan, too. I also visit my mom. As a matter of fact, after this interview I plan to go up and see her. I help her out. Mow the lawn, whatever. She still lives in the same house where I grew up. She has put some money into the house, which I think is wise. All the kids are grown, but we come around and help her out. She’s 83 years old now. My dad passed about a year ago. That was really tough.

“I just wanted so much to be rid of myself and my old ways.”

I go to Alcoholics Anonymous to keep myself sober. I know if I wasn’t sober I wouldn’t have what I’ve got. I’m very grateful for what I’ve got. I wouldn’t have none of that if I was drinking. Before, it was kind of depressing. I laugh about it, but it was depressing. It was pretty sad. I mentioned that carnival job. I was drinking then. It was rough. I would drink and get drunk, I would get into fights. That’s how I lost that job. When I’m sober, I think I’m pretty level-headed. I started going back to church the second time I moved into the Winthrop. I even got baptized. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not, but someone invited me to go to church, and I just kept going back. Really, a person only needs to be baptized once. But I’ve been baptized more than once. I just wanted so much to be rid of myself and my old ways. I just hated my old life so bad. The drinking. Being baptized was really cool. I felt like a new person. It felt good.

“I do my best to live my life the best way I know how.”

To me, the Winthrop is an apartment. It’s a place to live. I do my best to live my life the best way I know how. As far as living downtown, it is kind of nice. You have all walks of life down here. I don’t have a car. You have the transit center right over here. I can go just about anywhere I want to go. It’s kind of cool that way. I have friends in the building. I think I have at least one friend on every floor. I don’t feel like moving. I really don’t feel like I need to.

"It was kind of like my fate to live here," says Winthrop resident David Miller with a laugh. "Maybe when I die, I'll be a ghost in the hallways." Miller shares a studio on the eighth floor of the former historic hotel in downtown Tacoma with his cat 'Little Bit.' (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

To read the complete series of interviews with Winthrop Hotel residents, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.