I decided to come to AWP for the conference and to spend time with my pack of wacky wordsmiths, but also because I’m severely lacking in transcontinental travel experience. I’ve been to Miami, like everyone else, and Austin and California and Las Vegas, but other than that, my US adventures have generally been contained in the perimeters of a small island I like to call Manhattan. I’d heard that Seattle is the capital of grunge, and that there’s a Space Needle. I also knew that it wasn’t known for having good weather, but after three months of the shittiest winter ever, a little rain was far better than – you know – a polar vortex. Thus, yesterday, with the rest of my cohort either en route to New York or in far-flung parts of Seattle, and the conference finally over, I decided that an epic walk was in order to figure out just what goes on in the Evergreen State.
The first thing I noticed about Seattle is that people do not cross against the light. I had never heard of this concept, so let me explain. Imagine the pedestrian sign has the little orange man and not the little white man, but there are no cars coming in either direction. The intersection is so car-free that even if you were to hobble across the intersection blindfolded with your legs tied together with a rope, you’d still have time to stop in the middle and light a cigarette. Still, these Northwest nancies stand on the sidewalk in an orderly fashion until the orange man disappears and is replaced by the white man.
In a city that supposedly celebrates Native American heritage and culture , Orange man says stop, white man says go, and we all obey. I’m not too keen on an analysis of racial hegemony before ten AM, but I think there could be something there. I am, however, keen on talking about the absurdity of this reticence to cross. At a certain juncture, an older woman yelled at me: “You know, they give TICKETS here!” To me, that’s statement is similar to young children being told be their parents: “If you don’t behave, Santa is going to put you on his naughty list and you won’t get any presents.” I have seen ONE policeman. One. In a yellow mesh vest. He was riding a bicycle. As long as no one is harmed in the crossing of a street, I will continue to do it whenever, and wherever, I please.
Another thing that I’ve noticed is the bums. As someone who lives in New York, I’m no stranger to homeless people. I celebrate them. I weave them into the fabric of my daily life. I think they’re funnier than most househaving people, and I hope their je ne sais quoi remains if and when they find a place to live. The bums in Seattle, on the other hand, are terrifying. Their eyes are death eyes, their hands death hands. Ever been to Port Authority? These people are those people on crack, figuratively, and on meth, literally. Homeless people in New York live and act in a way that makes you realize that you could be in their position very easily. On February 12th, I had seventeen dollars to my name. On February 13th, I went into work and made $300; on February 14th I made $300 more. If I had gotten sick on the 12th and not worked that weekend, I cannot tell you what my current situation would be. I think a lot of homeless people in New York are homeless because of money. Looking at these Seattle bums, who are belligerent and run up in your face and leer and curse and spit and block the sidewalk, I know that I could never be like that. They are sheer terror.
During my six-hour rain walk yesterday, I walked from my hostel near the Pike Place Market – awesome – down First Avenue, a thoroughfare with late 19th Century architecture that matched the weather perfectly, gilded clocks from now-gone banks, nearly faded paint signs stenciled on bricks, a shuttered Mission building calling people into the fold. I avoided Pioneer Square because there were terrifying bums and wandered uphill a neighborhood where, as far as I can tell, all the non-white people are lumped together under the title “International District”. Unlike in New York, where Sunday is the day to go window shopping, brunching, and wandering, most of Seattle seemed to be taking the day off. Couple that with steep hills and rain, and I was pretty much the only demento walking around.
There’s something refreshing about walking on empty streets during the day time, getting lost in a place about which you know absolutely nothing, and so have no expectations or fears. For all I know, I was in the Beheading District.
I chanced upon the library, one of those architectural behemoths that you don’t know whether to love or hate aesthetically, but can’t help but be amazed by structurally. It’s an incredible space, with hundreds of tables and computers so that people – even tourists – can sit down and work in a quiet space. It’s impressively quiet. The roof, diamond-paneled windows, was being assaulted with rain, and so I sat and waited for it to dissipate. I sat for an hour or so, writing and marveling, being generally intimidated by the number of published books in one building.
And then I walked some more. Down (up?) Fifth Avenue to the Seattle Center, where more modern marvels towered over me. I walked to the Queen Anne district and then back towards the Market, through Belltown with bars and restaurants. Though it got later, the population of the streets never increased and I was able to carry myself through the city without the pressure of smiling or speaking to anyone.
My coat soaked into my skin and I shivered. There’s nothing like a rainstorm when you’re traveling without a lot of money to make you realize just how alone in the world everyone is. At the moment of death we will be utterly unattended, and this is why I think traveling is important. It’s important to eat pretzels for dinner and be really uncomfortable.
Around 8 o clock, I wet outside and guitar music in a bistro, the nostalgic echoey kind that filmmakers put in the background when someone is about to have a realization, or fall in love, or lose something dear. It was a candlelit place where a single rose floated in water on every table, and an orange glow had been painstakingly achieved through dimmers and lampshades. The musician plucked out Beatles songs that sounded both the same and different on his steel strings. I had a tea, and was that person I loathe – the person who sits forever and orders nothing.