Mike West likes to watch for someone from out of town to walk by on Tukwila International Boulevard. He leans out the door of the auto shop he's occupied since 1971.
"Hey, you want to see something?" he asks.
He's semi-retired now, so he has a lot of time for this kind of thing.
Once they're inside, West shows them his collection of novelty taxidermy. “Yeah, that’s a squirrel with a gun. That’s a pickled cobra. That’s a walrus penis.”
A lot of visitors are surprised by the dead animals on his walls, the appearances of which have been altered for humor or shock value, like some P.T. Barnum curiosity.
“That’s a nice little three-headed duck,” he says.
Then there’s his fascination with antique medical devices. “See that spark right there?” he says, after turning on the "violet ray machine." The device's maker once claimed it could cure everything from hemorrhoids and cancer. As if you could cheat death so easily.
His collection seems to fit in on this part of what was once highway 99. Death has always had such a presence here. In the 80s, the Green River serial killer ruled this area. Mike West still remembers when a police officer first brought a poster into his shop.
“And it said, 'Have you seen these women?' And there must have been 20 pictures on there,” he recalls.
Later they would show up as bodies near the river.
In the '90s and early 2000s, the strip was ruled by pimps and drug dealers. This road’s character was shaped by their violence and cruelty.
“I used to refer to this as the combat zone," he says.
Living next to all of that left its mark on West and his late wife.
“So, it’s part of your world," he says. "You may not be getting killed. But you’re living it.”
"And I suppose," I ask, "if you hadn’t had a sense of humor, you wouldn’t have been here since ’71. You would have left.”
“That’s right. I absolutely would have left," he says. "If you take everything that happened on this road 100 percent serious, you’d be crying all the time.”
He adds: “We always took it as a challenge. That it was our world and our property — and we were here to protect it and to clean up this boulevard.”
So the Wests spent their decades here scaring off johns and picking up garbage. People affectionately called West's late wife "the queen of trash." News reports estimate the couple picked up 17 tons of garbage over the years. There's no estimate on the number of johns deterred.
Decades later, the crime and violence are still here. But it’s getting better.
“Some people get so disappointed and discouraged," West says. "They want instant change, and when it doesn’t happen, they get up and leave. Well, it doesn’t happen that way."
Recently, West had an epiphany. “I was getting in my truck, and I looked down the boulevard, and I looked up the boulevard. And I thought, God, I’d hate to leave here. Really. I would.”