I've flown in and out of dozens of airports around the country, a few in Europe. The gate numbers at Seattle-Tacoma are red neon. Does this say anything about the area?
It's colder here, in the 30s instead of the 50s. No rain yet, but I'm glad I decided to bring my fleece hat and full gloves. The Green Tortoise is great as hostels go: the usual odd people, funky smells, clean sheets, middling mattresses. My plan here is to stay at the hostel at least Tuesday night, crash either with family or someplace else Wednesday night (getting in touch with the family has been dodgy), and finish out by staying in a real hotel Thursday night. I'm still not comfortable spending money, even on vacation and when I can afford it: I'll buy neat stuff I see, and have at least a couple nice meals. Tonight, though, everything's closed pretty early, and I just eat at the average Indian restaurant near the hostel.
The signs for Pike Place Market are red neon. It's the middle of the evening, and I drink coffee anyway.
Today I start wandering, to get a feel for the place. I like wandering, seeing the odd corners and dingy neighborhoods, absorbing and understanding a city as best I can with the time I've got. (Once or twice when my high school choir toured in Europe, the conductor was surprised to run into me in some weird part of town off the beaten path with nothing there but thrift shops and some random wine merchant he liked.) The pulse of a city isn't in the tourist district; it breathes with the people who call it home and live there day by day. I'm particularly exploring Pike Place Market, which is always written about as "the heart and soul of Seattle", which I didn't believe until I read about it. The history is revealing and nifty, and it's not just rhetoric: the market is a populist sort of endeavor, and represents (now) a real commitment on the part of the city and the citizens to keep Seattle from turning completely into a lifeless forest of concrete and polished marble (as Denver seems to be). It's hard to express the sheer variety of stuff at Pike Place. I wish I could cook while I was there, so I could usefully buy produce.
In the morning I wander into Metsker Maps, because I love maps. As I come in, a girl turns away from me, and her profile looks like a girl I sang with in college. I wait for her to stand up, and when she turns around...it's my cousin. From DC. On vacation.
Okay, then. Nice to catch up, anyway. We have lunch the next day before she flies home.
Up to this point I have been taking notes and writing information in a large spiral-bound notebook that I have to keep in my backpack. Never again! Metsker solves my problem with the best eleven dollars I have spent in a long time: a Moleskine notebook which fits in my pocket. Sturdily made, with good paper, an expanding pocket in the back for mementos and business cards and things, a bookmark ribbon, and an elastic keep-closed strap, it is difficult to express the pure wonderful utility of the thing. It is so rare to have something at once quirkily aesthetic, perfectly utilitarian, and deeply retro: the thing is completely Indiana Jones, and it makes me jump for joy. Really. I bought this tiny little notebook, my trip is complete and I can go home now.
I decide to experience the famous Seattle coffee. In the four days I am here, I will drink more espresso than I have had in the previous two months. I wake up early, acquire a latte from Seattle's Best Coffee (it's outstanding), and decide to try out Le Panier, a French bakery around Pike Place. Bearing a bitter latte and encouraged by several overjoyed French people ordering large piles of baked goods, I get a pain au chocolate, whose perfection explains the happy French people. I've never had pain au chocolate in France, but this is so right, it could only be like this.
I have lunch with my uncle, who walks a decent distance to meet me. He's nice, and even more of a pleasant geek than I am, so it's nice to hang out. It's sort of a shame I haven't seen more of him over the years, but whatever. Here we are. I'll crash at their place tonight, and be impressed by the house and amazed by my uncle's commute. On the freeway towards his house, I see exit signs made of red neon.
We stop to get wood pellets to heat his house. Standing around waiting for the bags to come out of the warehouse, another customer wonders aloud how many pellets are in a bag. My uncle says you could count them; I say no, you weigh a handful, and figure out how many you'd need to make forty pounds. My uncle does cancer research, brightens up and says he'll bring some to the office tomorrow. I smile, for we are geeks.
I make my way to one of my destinations, the Elliott Bay Book Company in the Pioneer Square district. It is to Barnes & Noble as a Porsche is to a Yugo. The cafe below also serves good coffee. I page through The Fountain and the Mountain, a history and pictorial of the University of Washington campus. My notebook records my impression of the architecture as "formless flat modernism mixed with arbitrary French gothic"; apparently I don't need to go there just for its own sake.
This place shuts down early, around 5 or 6 PM. I sit on a bench inside the market, resting my feet, and two cops walk by. I notice that one of them has a very curious baton, made of lighter wood, maybe cherry, with a deeply grooved grip, like the post of a banister, a ferrule with a ring on it for hanging from the belt, and the pommel ending in something of a point. Hours later, looking for something to do, I find these same cops in a tea shop. I inquire about the baton, asking if it's department issue; it's not, of course, they're made by a retired sergeant. I say it's beautiful work, and the narrow end of the grip must be handy for pressure points. No one likes to be called on their trade secrets, and the cop says, "Well, yes, there is that".
We get a late start on the day, and I'm still on the tail end of being sick, and have no energy to truck out to the Asian Art Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden, or the Espresso Vivace coffee shop, all targets northeast of the main downtown area. Instead I swap the plan around and take the monorail the two miles to Seattle Center, to see the Experience Music Project. (One of my young-adult books when I was a kid took place in Seattle, and I was always very disappointed that "Springfield Center", or any other "Center" one saw on a highway sign, was really extremely boring compared to what I read about Seattle Center.) Did they really need a monorail? The whole thing seems like overkill, right down to the funktastic Frank Gehry architecture.
But ah, the EMP. One of the first things to greet me on entering the ticketed area? A display showing off One Hundred 7-inch covers of "Blowin' In the Wind", with buttons so you can listen to sixteen of them. They're mostly awful, with Marlene Dietrich's German version probably taking the prize, though the samba version and one or two others are asking for it. At the main Bob Dylan exhibit, there's a typewritten letter Bob wrote to Joan Baez's mother (in Joan's name) while he and Joan were dating, as well as the handwritten cover letter Joan wrote to send with it. They're hilarious, and I laugh long and loud as I recognize in the letters the odd sense of humor and enjoyment of being (and of being together) that I and my friends share with each other.
Beatles girls, mostly in modest knee-length skirts, though with the occasional risque glimpse of mid-thigh. Cats-eye glasses. Is there a name for that haircut?
It's pouring rain, I've checked into an actual hotel, and I need the Internet. I learned while sailing that libraries are a good bet for free Internet, so I try the Seattle Library, a thrusting assemblage of glass and girders surrounded by hotels and office buildings. Inside it is open, all light and translucence, lit neon green plastic, illuminating from within the gearing of the escalator, gaps in the walls with sound and moving projections. Metal stack shelves with hazy plexiglass end covers continue the theme. I feel the place is art, with some kind of coherency; not always pleasant or interesting, but a vast experiment, maybe like a very talented college student un-tempered by experience and history, with great skill, but lacking focus or finesse. And the internet requires a library card.
There's coffee here, of course, a cart used as a job skills training program for underprivileged youth. I consider it a social contribution to have another latte.
Tonight I go to Mashiko, a highly recommended sushi restaurant in West Seattle. West Seattle is not really near Seattle, but the buses are excellent and I get there without trouble. I get omakase, a Japanese word most efficiently translated as "an extended course of whatever food the chef feels like making for you". I eat strange things, including geoduck, and the only good octopus and sea urchin I've ever had. Maybe I would like the place better if I ordered more specific foods that I like, instead of being at the mercy of the chef; it's a good place, at any rate. I eat ice cream and go back to my nice-ish hotel room, where I spend the evening in, reading books and watching TV. On my vacation, I free myself from having to do anything.
Talking to the chefs and customers at Mashiko, a fairly close-knit community in West Seattle, I start to understand this city. I've seen movies like Reality Bites and Singles, and remember the music of Nirvana and Pearl Jam (though I've only recently begun to listen carefully and understand it), and now I'm starting to get the pulse of the city to put all those things into context.
On the bus to and from West Seattle, I see more of the signs I've come to expect. Was red neon invented here or something?
I navigate the bus system to go to the Asian Art Museum. Well, I try to navigate the bus system. I fail, and I get lost, deciding to get off the bus in a run-down part of town (just deteriorated, not crime-ridden--I'm not stupid, but between being big and the various effects of aikido, I'm not really an easy-looking target, so I'm safe most places) and find my way from there. With my map and compass, I start heading toward the Tea Garden and the museum. The Garden is closed, but after the museum and a nice lunch at Cafe Europa, I head back towards Espresso Vivace, which I've been assured has magnificent coffee. I can't find it, but keep looking, wandering around the Broadway area of Seattle, where I found the "grit" I look for, the area coming up soon on the list of places to be gentrified. Espresso Vivace is worth the trouble it took to find it. It's just east of Broadway, by the way. You can be smarter than me and spend less than a half hour getting there.
This area explains Seattle for me. In much the same way that New Orleans has a slow, powerful, throbbing hum of a heartbeat, Seattle is full of youthful energy, without direction. It seems a place where people in their twenties come because they need someplace to be, and this is a nice city where they can find work in bookstores and cafes and restaurants and be with other people in roughly the same boat, everyone spending two or three or five or ten years just passing through, trying to figure out who they are or what they want to be. And it seems that for a lot of people, they just want to be here, and they don't particularly want anything else; and that's fine.
I'm tired and sick, and it's time for me to go home. Would I live here? What would a life here be like? Would I know these people I pass on the street? I feel ungrounded, adrift, exploring this different city without actually connecting anywhere. I have love and friendship waiting at home, and I no longer feel why I came here, after days of walking and being back and forth between presence and awareness, and all these pretty girls who are themselves with their own lives, people I will never know and whose faces merely feed my fidgety, discontented imagination. I am so carefully constructing my life, to be what I want, to get what I really want with honor and openness...but those seeds are growing in their own time, and not in this place, this city of young, scattered chaos.
The coffee here is phenomenal. It's so universally good, in fact, that I decide it's not the beans, since we have quality beans in the Bay Area, but the baristas: some higher plane of skill in those who make the coffee drinks. As a last experiment, at the end of all this journeying, I decide to try Starbuck's. Even here, Starbuck's is mediocre.