November, December, Seattle. Typically, it’s raining and the temperatures hover around 40ºF. The sky is a dull, even gray that mutes all light and color. It’s miserable, by most measures, not cold enough to snow, but too cold to enjoy being outside without performance attire. Perhaps it’s the worst at the bus stop; cars roll by throwing water and wind, there is not enough protection in those shallow three sided shelters.
I am a California girl by birth. My childhood was spent up in a new suburb on the edge of an agricultural region that is now sprawling housing developments and shopping malls. But it used to be cornfields and fruit trees; the not quite relentless daylight was ideal for sunshine crops. During my junior and senior years at San Jose State University, I went swimming most days Afterward, I dried myself in the sun on the concrete pool deck. I rode my bike year round, sometimes climbing the coastal range before rolling back down into the fog banks of the San Gregorio coast. I have limited memory of California winter. There was — is — more sunshine in California than in Seattle. This is a fact.
In summer, Seattle is a hub for cruise ships heading to Alaska in summer. We’re a foodie destination and even though grunge is dead, we still get pilgrims seeking out the Crocodile and Sub Pop records — those who have done their homework know where to find the Black Hole Sun and the Sound Garden. Throngs of people choke the entrance to the flagship Starbuck’s. They block traffic at First and Pike as they photograph themselves with the neon over the entrance of Pike Place Market. Seattle is nothing short of stunning in summer, an ecotopia on the edge of Puget Sound. The long hours of daylight, the weather that is never too hot, the easiness of this city in the northwest corner of the US makes for an irresistibly appealing place to be — for three months out of the year.Making peace with Seattle’s winter does not come easy to me, even with over a decade of residency in the Emerald City, as one marketing campaign branded us. The darkness wears on me. A morning person, I have trouble getting out of bed, trouble staying up late. I own a “happy light” — one of those high wattage devices that’s supposed to help with Seasonal Affected Disorder. I now understand the value of a sun-break vacation, something I never even considered when I lived in California. My wardrobe is replete with Goretex and polar fleece and stocky footwear suitable for navigating puddles. And I have the cliched Seattle-ite’s relationship with coffee.
Still, there’s something slow and quiet about this city in winter, something cozy and inclusive about Seattle. When the cruise ships move to ports south, Pike Place Market opens up and is easy to walk through. The tone of the market vendors shifts, the “Where are you from?” conversation takes a completely different turn when the answer is “Here. I’m from here.” There’s a camaraderie, a “We’re all in this together” sort of feeling as we shake out our damp coats and shed the rain from our wooly sweaters.
Mid-morning at Alki Beach, in Pioneer Coffee, there are no strays from the water taxi, it’s just us locals. If it’s dry, we sit on the concrete steps of the beach promenade, watching the ferries slide back and forth between Bainbridge Island and Bremerton and downtown. Evenings, we sparkle in candlelight. We reflect our weird northwest brand of outdoorsy bookishness in glasses that hold bourbon cocktails, whiskey. We plan our escape while wrapped in the cognitive dissonance of being in this city that we love. Places that were promoted in Sunset Magazine and the AAA Journeys west coast edition belong to us again.
This last weekend, the husband and I joined a friend at the Seattle Art Museum to see Luminous, a stunning selection of work from the museum’s Asian collection. First we ate passable Mexican food in an nearly empty restaurant on the Harbor Steps, a stair climb that runs from First Avenue down to the waterfront. In summertime, the top of the steps is a popular spot for protestors and I have photos of my family standing in the fountain. On the Sunday, the wind flew up the slope from the Sound, hurling sharp rain into our faces.
After spending a few hours in the museum — where we did not have to jostle for space in order to view the artwork, we went back out to a nearby coffee bar. A football game was on the television but the volume was turned all the way down. Instead of sports commentators, we got Death Cab for Cutie as our soundtrack. We lolled for an hour, more, maybe, over mochas, mine with cinnamon and black pepper. We unraveled things, as people do in cafes. Where to go next (us, Vancouver, my friend to China for work), the user interface on a popular new video game, the mediocre writing on this season’s The Simpsons.
The rain had stopped. We walked back to the car, a block away, past a bundled up couple who were clearly not from Seattle in their stylish wool overcoats and scarves. “Chicago,” I said out loud — my husband had spotted them too. They looked cold but they were smiling, he had her arm tucked in his. “They’re lucky,” I thought. “They are seeing my city at its very best.” The late afternoon sky had turned the color of ripe mango and fire and the blue of a baroque palace ceiling. To the south, there was a tower of black clouds, another storm front coming in. I was irrationally pleased about this. I knew what would happen. The Chicago visitors would go back to their hotel. I would tuck into a bowl of pho at my favorite local place and the city, Seattle, would be all mine once again.
Photos courtesy of the author by UJ Sommer and Pam Mandel.