Unexpectedly, I ended up in Seattle.
My bags were packed for a nice New York City summer weekend (shorts, t-shirts, flip flops) but instead I took off for Seattle. Wrong clothes, wrong place, though last-minute travel still carries a thrill of spontaneity, even when you’re flying cross-country for a funeral.
Everybody has at least one friend in Seattle. It’s that kind of city where you’re bound to find that personal connection. And yet I never realized so many people lived out there–enough to fill up every cubicle on every floor of every earthquake-proof skyscraper. Back on the East Coast we like to think we invented all of America’s big cities, but no . . .
I come from the other Washington–DC–where it gets unbearably hot and sticky in the summer; where men sweat through three-piece suits and women wear impractical shoes; where any day you might pick up the Post and know somebody who’s in it and everyday there’s some kind of vigilant protest brewing on the Mall.
West coast Washington is a little less uptight but a whole lot damper. The stereotype about Seattle’s drizzled, overcast skies held true for me and in spite of summer, the day’s “high” was a shoulder-shaking 52 degrees. Dark, unorganized clouds greeted me in the morning and I started to understand the whole coffee thing–how this one city had unleashed Starbucks on the rest of us like a misunderstood gift of the heart.
The day after the funeral, another friend I was crashing with whipped out a yellow legal pad and began making a list of things to see and do in Seattle. Mostly, he suggested I do a lot eating. We made plans to meet up for lunch at a popular Russian café; my friend slipped me the address as we walked downtown. I had no map and no idea how I would find him.“Just remember,” he panted, “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest.” He ran all the words together as one and it didn’t make any sense at all.
“It’s a way to remember the streets: Jesus is for Jefferson/James. Christ–Cherry and Columbia. Made–Marion/Madison . . . and so on, you’ll see. It’s easy–just follow the streets in that order. Be at Cherry and Third at one o’clock.”
“Jesus! Christ! Made! Seattle! Under! Protest!” he shouted out each word as he spun around the corner and marched uphill. Every street in Seattle goes up or down.
I didn’t expect to find him again, ever. Normally, I take pride in my sense of direction. I never get lost in new cities and if I do, I just pretend that I’m exploring. But Seattle was a little confusing for me–no matter how many American cities claim to be laid out in a grid pattern, they all have their idiosyncratic exceptions to the rules, like Germanic languages. In the other Washington, we take pride in our many exceptions to the rules–in naming streets and in running the country.
I found Pike Place Market all by myself–not so hard. I just followed the street until I could see the sea, or “the Sound” rather. The sun was thinking about maybe coming out–there was a bit of backlight that made the sky look less grey and bit more like a faded watercolor. I began to wander through the stimulus of the market, comforted by the colors or neon signs and bright vegetables. I bought English tea packed in happy little tea tins–the kind you keep even after the tea is gone. I sampled Rainier cherries and dried apples from Wenatchee. I waited alongside a pack of tourists for the handsome bearded fishmongers to fling some twelve-pound salmon through the air, shifting back and forth on my two feet and hugging myself from the cold.
When I was a teenager, Seattle was so cool–it was this whole abstract fashion concept from a faraway foreign city. Now suddenly, having finally made it to Seattle, all those grunge styles sported by midwestern mall mannequins in the 90s made perfect sense. Here I stood, in July, shivering in a T-shirt-longing for facial hair or at least a thick flannel over long underwear or a groovy knit beanie on my head.
Seattle was still cool, I realized. All the people looked so damn cool, all dressed and ready for battle. The guy selling cherries had giant black plastic horns pushed through holes in his ears and his hair cut like a vicious pixie. The bikers and skaters wore helmets with dancing flames on the sides. The girl scooping organic ice cream for tourists had a pair of matching red devil faces tattooed into her inner elbows, two evil grins flashing poisonous fangs back at me through the frosted glass. Such a pretty girl, I thought. Why devils?
And then I remembered: “Jesus Christ made Seattle under protest.” The premise was ridiculous–”What does that even mean?” I wondered. God loves everyone. I mean, He did hate a few cities in the Old Testament, too, as I recall, but I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover and Seattle is not listed once, anywhere. Also, there are actual things that Jesus Christ did protest in real life, like common hypocrisy and the gaudy merchandising outside the temple in Jerusalem.
A city built against God’s best wishes, belligerent to the core–a kind of unholy city whose streets spelled out this almost anti-Christian agenda. I wondered as I wandered back into the square-cut grid of downtown, trying to navigate myself through the streets: Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike, Pine. Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest. I kept walking south, ticking backwards through my friend’s mnemonic device: Pike–Protest . . . Under . . . Seattle . . . Made . . . checking each street sign until finally I came to “C”, Christ–Columbia–Another block and there it was, Cherry Street, and there was my friend and a window filled with hot piroshky.
That same afternoon I napped on a bench near the waterfront and when I woke up, there was sunshine-not warmth, but light, yes. Seattle is like so many northern places–one may moan about the lousy weather, but if and when the sun does shine, it’s simply glorious. Suddenly there were pretty pine trees everywhere, quiet silver waves slapping the shores of the Puget Sound, and snowy pyramid mountains in the background. If God ever did protest Seattle, it’s only because the city occupies some pretty divine real estate.
Not that God could actually have anything against Seattle. Some of His best friends live in Seattle, I thought, just like me. My friend’s funeral was still fresh in my mind, as were the lyrics of Nirvana’s song “Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle“–the song whose chorus moans, “I miss the comfort of being sad.” It’s a backhanded slogan for the city that gave us grunge and caffeine addictions but also a common feeling among all travelers.
As I travel here, there, and everywhere in the world, I still wonder: Are sad places just sad on their own or do we make them sad by arriving with our own carry-on sadness? Do we ever let the destination just be the destination or do we turn to our own ideas about what it should be, based on a lifetime of prejudice and teenage notions?
My own teenage notion was to go visit Kurt Cobain’s house on Lake Washington–the one the rock star died in. It’s become a sort of insider’s drive-by tourist attraction that overlooks beautiful Lake Washington. “It’s a nice drive,” my friend kept reassuring me, promising to take me. But then we never went: too little time, too many other things to do. After 36 hours in the Emerald City, I found myself waiting in line at Sea-Tac, boarding a red-eye home, neck pillow in hand.
Perhaps Seattle was better that way. Yeah, I liked Kurt Cobain like everybody else but I was still unsure about seeing that pretty place where the icon had died–I was still coping with the pretty city where my friend had lived. And that was enough.
[All photos by Andrew Evans]