A week after Una, my sister, and I visited San Francisco; Una and I headed over to Seattle for a vacation we’d planned back in the summer of 2022 — before my sister notified us that she’d be on the West Coast just one week earlier. The idea for a trip to Seattle came during the middle of an insufferably long Los Angeles summer. Not only was the weather hellishly hot — it was muggy and buggy. When I moved from the Middle West to the West, I thought I’d left mosquitoes behind me but in the past few years, particularly unpleasant mosquitos have arrived, uninvited and unwelcome, from across the Pacific. When it is hot like this, my febrile brain plots a move to somewhere where the weather is nice — somewhere chilly, rainy, and hopefully gray skied — in other words. I have read about human settlements north of the Arctic Circle and none are likely, any time soon, to be nicknamed “the Paris of the North.” As someone who loves both cold and big cities, I have struggled to find my paradise. The biggest city north of the Arctic Circle, Murmansk, doesn’t have any Thai restaurants, so that’s out. Lately I’ve been thinking about retreating to the top of one of our mountains — which sometimes remain capped with snow into early summer — but there is the question of what I’d do for work and — as a car free Angeleno — the commute from atop any local mountain to any of the cultural amenities below seems outrageously complicated. Is a mountain-forest railway (like they have in Japan and Taiwan) really too much to ask for? And so, until they day there’s mass transit to the mountains or Arctic science stations blossom into bustling metropolises, I just resign myself to going on the occasional vacation to cooler climes… like Seattle.
Like most cities, Seattle has several nicknames of varying degrees of preciousness, including City of Flowers, Emerald City, Jet City, Queen City, and Sea-Town. One of Seattle’s nicknames is “Rain City” (or “Rainy City”)– although it’s the sort of nickname reserved for Wikipedia entries and bar trivia. No one would ever say, in other words, “I’m heading to Rain City” and reasonably expect anyone to know where they were going. It is not the only city supposedly known as “Rain City,” however, nor is it the rainiest. Mt. Washington, New Hampshire is the wettest spot in the lower 48 — and is known for its funicular rail. Why have I not visited there, in other words? Someday, I would like to do a trip around New England and the Maritime Provinces. The rainiest cities in the Lower 48 are all in the South — something that will come as no surprise to anyone who’s actually lived in the South. But the hot, midday showers that blow in from the Gulf on otherwise sunny days, I suspect, “don’t count” in the same way that Los Angeles’s skyscraper-dwarfing mountains “don’t count” as a skyline. Lots of Seattleites, in my experience, will go so far as to say that it doesn’t really rain that much in Seattle — with rainy days only numbering 156 in the average year — a mere 43% of the year. Regardless of any of this, it rained everyday that we were there — but then, it was also raining every day in Southern California, where we’re often told that it never rains. And so that it rained felt slightly less special, as it wasn’t a break from the relentless sun. Still, a vacation is a vacation and we chose Seattle over Vancouver and Portland because Una had never been and it had been a decade or so since I had.
SEATTLE AND ME
My relationship with Seattle began when I was in elementary school — or at least that’s when I became aware of it. I had this thick book with a green book sleeve that seemed designed for kids with Asperger’s Syndrome. There were reproductions of automobile manufacturer logos. There were diagrams of towers, including the 184 meter tall Space Needle — currently something like the 165th tallest tower in the world — but at the time of its construction was the tallest tower West of the Mississippi (and East of Asia)™. I liked the idea of the Pacific Northwest in general, though. My mother’s fascination with the art and cultures of the Kwakwaka’wakw and Tlingit was passed down to me and I was obsessed with whales, including Orcas. In junior high, I had a copy of Public lmage Limited‘s Happy?, which kicks off with a tune called “Seattle” — although I didn’t really have much sense from it what it was that John Lydon didn’t like about it except that there, “what goes up, must come down.” Perhaps Lydon was mad that Green River, who’d opened for him there two years before the song was written, thrashed the PiL singer’s dressing room because he’d threatened to cancel the show. And he’d supposedly threatened to cancel said show because there was no La-Z-Boy recliner for him to rest in.
MUSIC OF SEATTLE
Green River’s singer, Mark Arm, incidentally, was instrumental in forging the sound with which Seattle came to be associated — grunge. Contrary to what passes for accepted knowledge nowadays, grunge, in the mid-1980s, was the term applied by Australian critics and fans of bands like The Scientists, Beasts of Bourbon, and Crime & the City Solution — although the latter mocked the notion that they were grunge. Mark Arm, with Mudhoney, made music that fit in with those bands. In 1986, the seminal (mostly) grunge compilation, Deep Six, was released. It was followed, in 1988, by Sub-Pop-200. By the late 1980s, Seattle area bands like Tad, the Melvins, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, and Nirvana were all regularly fêted in the pages of Spin, Alternative Press, and the like, and the airwaves of college radio stations like KCOU, where I heard most of them and initially found them all a bit too rawk for my tastes. As with most genres, most of those labeled “grunge” denied that they were “grunge” but a few years into the 1990s, bands that strove to ride the grunge wave were regularly relocating to Seattle
It might just be a Gen X thing, but I still think mention of “Seattle” to this day conjures up thoughts of ’90s guitar rock in the minds of most before anything else. And while I used to feel a bit weird about all of my exhaustive and exhausting narrative diversions, I just finished Moby Dick a couple of weeks ago so indulge me and my Seattle playlist — which is poppy as possible but my God do people in Seattle still love rock. On our first night in town, Una and I popped into a gay bar. Not exactly a gay bar like Jeremy Atherton wrote about in Gay Bar: Why We Went Out — but a gay bar in the sense that it was a bar in a gayborhood, it was decorated with pride flags, and the bartenders and clientele were all seemingly not straight. And yet, the DJ was spinning Alice In Chains‘ debut, Facelift. until someone requested something else — which was also some heavy rock album. I like Alice in Chains, by the way, but the restroom — with its disco ball and house music soundtrack — felt like a refuge.
Naturally, there are plenty of Seattle groups who don’t fit in with “the Seattle Sound” (and many of those bands lumped in with “the Seattle Sound” weren’t from Seattle. Seattle acts also include surf group The Ventures, psychedelicist Jimi Hendrix, rapper Sir-Mix-A-Lot, ethereal act Faith & Disease, country singer Neko Case, and soft jazzer Kenny G — to name just a few. For that, there is a Seattle Playlist.
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
I graduated from high school in 1992 and applied at Reed College and the University of Washington where I intended to study Forestry. I got as far as being assigned a dorm room at UW, but my application from my guidance counselor hadn’t arrived before the application deadline, so I would have to start school somewhere else and then transfer to UW. Only I never did. I enrolled at the University of Iowa and ended up staying there — majoring in Film studies and minoring in English. Only the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas have less forestland than Iowa. In some strange coincidence, however, my sister ended up enrolling, for part of her college education, at UW, and I visited her there a couple of times over the years. Each time I liked it and yet, each time, I felt — somewhat to my surprise — that I’d made the right decision in choosing to live in Los Angeles.
I first visited Seattle on a road trip from Los Angeles back to Iowa City in 1998, where I still lived. Unless you have no since of US geography, you’ll know that this is hardly the most direct route. In fact, it nearly doubles the trip’s length — adding over 2000 kilometers to an already long drive. I’d gone to Los Angeles to drop off my college friend and roommate past-and-present, Seth. I don’t think that my sister lived there yet as I didn’t visit her. I remember walking around the International District and being smiled at by a girl at Pike Place. At night, I walked around Downtown and got a bit nervous because there were people shouting on the street. I remember looking through the windows of restaurants and — and this might just be my memory going — but everyone looked like Niles or Frasier Crane. Instead of staying in Seattle, though, that night I drove on to Snoqualmie, where I blew my entire budget at the Salish Lodge out of my love for Twin Peaks. After that, fueled only by fumes and over-the-counter drugs and a stop at Taco Bell when I crossed the Iowa border, I drove 36 hours back to my apartment in Iowa City.
The second time I visited Seattle was in 2001, with my college friend (and Seth’s ex), Drea. We visited my sister at an apartment near the university that I think has since been torn down. I don’t remember doing much except that my sister didn’t answer the door when I knocked because I’d died my then-long hair black and she hadn’t recognized me. Drea and I were on an even more circuitous road trip than I’d been the last time I’d passed through Seattle — bound as we were for Chicago via Vancouver. I told the suspicious border officials that we had a month — we left in September and were planning on getting to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. We’d spend a few days in Vancouver, a day in Calgary, probably not stop in Regina (no offense), do a bit of exploring in Winnipeg, and then head south at Thunder Bay. Our interrogators didn’t like our story. One asked, accusingly, “Do you know how long it takes to drive from Vancouver to Calgary? Like, eleven hours” I said, “Well, like I said, we have a month so we should be good, eh.” Confronted with cold, hard logic, they reluctantly let us go back to our car and drive through.
My sister later lived in the University Plaza Condominium, a 24-story-tall tower. I’m beginning to get the sense that I never actually did much on previous visits to Seattle. I remember that nothing on television was more interesting than the live CCTV footage of her building’s lobby. We’d watch drunks stumble in the entrance and then take the elevator, visitors get buzzed in and then take the elevator… truly Must See TV. I’m sure I ate every time I was in Seattle — and yet my memories from previous visits or so vague or mundane. I think that was the trip over there that I took with my ex. She’d lied to her mom — telling her that she was in San Jose with a girl friend, instead of in Seattle with me. My car broke down on the way back. It was Tết and she was expected to be home. She called her mom to tell her that she was stranded in San Jose and her mom said that it wasn’t a problem — she could just take a bánh mì bus back to the San Gabriel Valley — only we were in actuality then stranded on the Oregon border. I looked in the mirror and saw my first gray hairs. Hundreds of dollars later, a small town mechanic named Pokey got my car running again by leaving a ballpoint pen underneath a wire underneath the back seat. That car never made another road trip and I sold it not long after. With age comes wisdom, as they say, but I sometimes take a little longer to get there.
UNA & I IN SEATTLE
I’m not sure why it took such a catastrophe to learn my lesson but whenever Una and I go on roadtrips, we always rent a car — and I haven’t owned a car myself in something like thirteen or fourteen years. Yes, I like driving… but I also like sailing and for some reason, I never thought that I needed to burden myself with trying to buy, own, and find a place to store a boat. Anyway, having recently flown out of the Hollywood Burbank Airport (note to reader: not in Hollywood, not bordering Hollywood, and not even in the same region as Hollywood) for my first time, we flew out of that small airport again. And again, it was a lot less unpleasant than flying out of Los Angeles International Airport.
FILM & TV
I watched Dune on the flight — well, part of it — because Dune is 2 hours and 35 minutes long. I know that there’s no such job as an in-flight entertainment curator but it would be nice if there was a warning when choosing a film that’s longer than the flight. If there were a curator, though, it would also be fun if at least some of the films were related to the destination. Thus, flights to Seattle might offer films like Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), Say Anything… (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Singles (1992), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Reality Bites (1994), Hype! (1996) Drag Becomes Him (2015), or Captain Fantastic (2016) — all of which I’ve seen and enjoyed to varying degrees. They would possibly include films like It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), The Night Strangler (1973), The Parallax View (1974), The Babysitter (1980), The Changeling (1980), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Frances (1982), No Retreat, No Surrender (1985), Black Widow (1987), Shoot To Kill (1988), The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), In the Line of Duty 4: Witness (1989), Unforgettable (1996), and The Ring (2002). They should, however, under no circumstances offer Little Buddha (1993).
GETTING AROUND SEATTLE
Even though every time I drive in a city I feel a deep sense of failure, I had heard (or more likely, read) things that led me to believe that Seattle is not easily navigated without a car. Walk Score gives Seattle a transit score of just 60 and it was not always convenient to take a bus or train, though. I didn’t want to rent a car, in other words, like some grass-chewing rube (except for our side-trip to “Twin Peaks”).
Not having a car predictably proved to be less burdensome than having one — although Seattle’s transit system, what there is of it, did manage to confuse us. When we exited the airplane, we did not have a particularly easy time locating the Link platform. As we hunted high and low for it, we joined forces with a family who were visiting from Irvine — one of Metro Los Angeles‘s most mass transit-deficient communities. The mother, understandably, said that she was eager to be able to use mass transit. With our five heads put together, though, it still involved a lot of wrong turns and confusion.
Seattle’s mass transit is fairly small, fragmented and somewhat confusing to a visitor. There are two lines of the Seattle Streetcar that don’t connect with one another — although there are future plans to rectify that. There are two Link light rail lines which also don’t connect with one another — although there are future plans to rectify that. There are two commuter rail lines, operated as Sounder. They actually do connect with one another. In fact, they’re really sort of spokes along a single route — just divided into the North and South lines.
Seattle is practically surrounded by water. To the east, there’s 65-meter-deep Lake Washington, which is crossed by the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, the Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge, and the Homer M. Hadley Memorial Bridge. To the east is Elliott Bay, a bay on the 283-meter-deep Puget Sound, a sound of the Salish Sea, which is a marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean. The sound is crossed from Seattle by two King County Water Taxi lines, lines lines of Washington State Ferry, and a couple of privately operated ferry companies — the Argosy Fast Ferry and Clipper Navigation‘s line to Victoria.
And then there’s the iconic monorail. One really can’t say too little about the famous monorail. When it opened in 1962, its route extended just 1.4 km after it was scaled back from 1.9 km. As early as 1961, there were proposals to extend to suburbs like Alderwood Manor, Kent, Mountlake Terrace, and Renton. Today, though, 61 years later, its route extends just 1.4 km — almost 30% the length of Detroit’s only slightly-more-useful People Mover. A trip on the monorail between its termini at Seattle Center Monorail Station and Westlake Monorail Station takes only thirteen minutes. Were one to walk that distance, it would likely take at least three — maybe even eight minutes — longer! In 2003, it was designated a Seattle Landmark. There are 482 of those, by the way — at the time of writing — so I’m not adding them to my map — but you can see them all here!
Here’s my digital map of Seattle:
Buses are probably the most practical way to get around the Greater Seattle area and King County Metro operates 237 bus lines. We didn’t take any buses, though, nor ride any bikes or scooters. That’s because we found central Seattle to be pretty walkable. The sidewalks were wide, well-maintained, and hosted a healthy amount of street trees. Walkscore gives Seattle a walk score of 74 and a bike score of 71.
Even with our umbrellas, we got pretty soaked by the heavy rains. I don’t think that my shoes, and thus my feet, ever had a chance to completely dry out. Perhaps that’s why so few other people seemed to bother with them or rain gear whether walking, cycling, or scooting on rain-slick streets. What’s the point in an umbrella if the water on the ground and the wind are just going to soak you anyway — and possibly break your umbrella? Seattleites seem to think that umbrellas are for tourists. I don’t know — they seem to have weird ideas about them. For example, following 1971’s Mayor’s Arts Festival (aka “Festival ’71”), they followed with a festival called, predictably, “Festival ’72.” In 1973, you might think they’d then have thrown “Festival ’73, but you’d be wrong. No, they began calling the festival “Bumbershoot,” because, um, “umbrella” plus “parachute,” needs a portmanteau or something if you don’t know what an umbrella’s actual purpose is.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEATTLE
The first humans arrived in the region of what’s now Seattle at least 8,000-10,000 years ago, during the last glacial period. Archeological evidence suggests that Seattle proper has been home to humans by at least 4,000 years — likely much longer. The Dkhw’Duw’Absh (People of the Inside) and the Xachua’bsh (People of the Large Lake) lived there when British explorer George Vancouver arrived in 1792. A group of American Methodists, the Denny Party, arrived from Cherry Grove, Illinois on 13 November 13 1851, when there were some seventeen villages comprised of permanent longhouses. The Dennys, a settler from Castleton, Vermont named David Swinson “Doc” Maynard, and a settler from Nashville named Carson Boren settled areas nearby. Doc Maynard reportedly suggested naming the town that arose after Chief Seattle, with whom he developed a friendship and who had pursed an approach of accommodation with the American settlers. Relationships were, however, not always cordial and many Americans seemingly thought nothing of murdering the region’s indigenous inhabitants. The governor of the Territory of Washington, Isaac Ingalls Stevens, offered a bounty on the scalps of “bad Indians”. Chief Patkanim, a leader amongst the Snohomish and Snoqualmie and rival of Chief Seattle, reportedly scalped his own slaves for the income. A smallpox epidemic killed half of the region’s natives in 1862. That same year, Governor Stevens died in a Civil War battle.
Most of Seattle’s American settlers worked in the timber industry, felling 120-meter-tall, 2,000-year old trees to be shipped to San Francisco, then the metropolis of the US‘s West Coast. Trees were dragged down the hillside to mills via a road known as “Skid Road,” which is the supposed origin of the term, “Skid Row,” a nickname people liked so much for dilapidated areas of cities that people in cities across the US and Canada quickly began applying it to their own. Seattle’s original Skid Row was later officially named Mill Street. Everyone else kept calling their skid rows “skid row.” Mill Street was again renamed and is known today as Yesler Way, after mill owner and another town founder, Henry Leiter Yesler. Seattle incorporated on 14 January 1865. The city charter, however, was voided on 18 January 1867. The town re-incorporated on 2 December 1869. In the 1870s, a railway was built that connected to the coal fields to the east. In 1893, the transcontinental Great Northern Railway arrived, providing Seattle with a much-needed boost after much of it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1889. When they re-built, they seem to have gone for iron, red brick, and terracotta tile instead of wood.
The Klondike Gold Rush (1869-1899) in Canada’s Yukon provided another boost to early Seattle’s growth since it served, for many prospectors, as a supply station and jumping off point. As it grew into a city, more cultural institutions appeared, like the Seattle Symphony (1903), and frontier staples like red light districts, saloons, and corrupt ruling class businesspersons and politicians all began to feel squeezed by zealous Protestant reformers. The city hosted the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. Nevertheless, its economy remained primarily dependent on lumber and maritime industries until World War II, when Seattle’s Boeing Company, founded in 1916, rose to prominence and the Todd Shipyards and Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding factories employed tens of thousands, including many black workers who arrived in a second wave of the Great Migration. Some 7,000 Japanese Seattleites, at the same time, were incarcerated in concentration camps during the War.
After World War II, factories shut down and some 70,000 Seattleites found themselves unemployed and Downtown went into decline. Boeing, at least, rebounded as the world entered the Jet Age. Continued and expanded industry brought suburban sprawl, increased pollution, car dependency, and demolition of downtown neighborhoods in order to accommodate new Interstate Freeways. In 1962, eager to improve its image, Seattle hosted the Century 21 Exposition for which the iconic Space Needle was constructed along with the Seattle Center and the aforementioned monorail.
After the Vietnam War ended, Boeing again took a nosedive and by 1971, Seattle had the highest unemployment rate in the country. An unlikely beneficiary was Pike Place Market. Pike Place, before the internment, had been a mostly Japanese wet market. An adaptive reuse ordinance passed in 1971 helped transform it into what it is today — a hub of overtourism that fellow tourists will demand that you visit. Pioneer Square, too, benefit from adaptive reuse and long-abandoned buildings began to refill with art galleries, boutiques, cafes, restaurants, &c.
In 1979, Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved Microsoft from New Mexico to Seattle. By 1995, Microsoft was the world’s most profitable company, helping to catalyze the city’s “tech boom.” The World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999, at the same time, and the protests that greeted it, helped cement Seattle’s (and the Pacific Northwest’s) reputation for anti-globalism. It’s sort of fun, if reductive, to describe Seattle in binary opposites: mega-tech corporations and Antifa, Armani and flannel, Kurt Cobain and Niles Crane. Linda Barry and… I’ll get back to you on that one.
DEMOGRAPHICS AND DIVERSITY
I have, over the years, lost a couple of friends to Seattle. Sometimes they were from there and moved back (hi Dave and Maya). Just as often, though, they were not. My friend, Drea, with whom I visited Seattle in 2001, ended up moving there. A few years later, our friend, Natalya, told me that she was moving to Seattle because she needed to live somewhere more diverse than Los Angeles. I was incredibly confused by this notion. There is almost no metric imaginable by which any city can be characterized as more diverse than Los Angeles — certainly not in terms of climatic, ecological, topographic, or ethnic diversity. When I protested on these grounds, I turned to Wikipedia to make my case, which at the time included language in its introduction that said something to the effect of “Seattle is noteworthy for having the largest white majority of any major American city.” Natalya balked at these facts and armed with her own alternative facts, moved to Seattle… although years later she would characterize her pursuit for diversity in the Pacific Northwest.
Whatever else Seattle is, it is not especially diverse. However, nor is it as homogenous as its reputation suggests. After the Native people, who lived there for thousands of years, and the first white Americans, who settled there in the 1850s, the first Chinese arrived around 1860 (and yet they are still considered “international.” More on that in a second). Many more arrived as railway workers on the Northern Pacific Railway which, once complete, no longer had use for them as employees. In 1885, there were several anti-Chinese riots including at nearby Black Diamond and Coal Creek. Seven Chinese were murdered by a mob in Issaquah. In 1886, white Seattleites tried to ship 86 Chinese Seattleites out of town but the mayor intervened and martial law was imposed to maintain order.
As of 2010, Seattle had a population that was .4% Pacific Islander, 2.4% “other” race, 5.1% mixed race, 7.9% black, 9% Latino of any race, 13.8% Asian, and 66.3% non-Latino white. But “race,” what story it tells, is barely a story at all and often masks ethnic diversity. Seattle includes substantial numbers of (in descending percentage) of Seattleites of German, Irish, English, Norwegian, Chinese, Mexican, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, Colombian, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Indonesian, Laotian, Cuban, Guatemalan, Pakistani, Salvadoran, and Thai ancestry. A plurality of Seattleites are not religious. Those who are include, in descending order, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, and Mormon. In 2019, it was estimated that fewer than 30% of Seattleites were even born in the state of Washington. And it may’ve had to do with that we stayed, for our first nights, in Capitol Hill — and that Seattle is generally so neutrally-shaded — but I saw a lot of rainbow Pride flags in often very unlikely places.
Seattle is home to a Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Saigon. It was historically home, too, to a Manila Town. They are collectively known as the International District — a toothlessly designation that erases distinctions with almost meaningless vagueness. There are, after all, nearly 200 nation states so “International” is about as vague as saying “Non-Native Town.” Chinese Americans, after all, are no more “international” than Norwegian or English Americans.
I don’t know why “International District” was chosen. Perhaps the word “China” is controversial. I know that in Orange County, there were those who opposed the name “Little Saigon” because some Americans don’t appreciate being reminded of Vietnam. Opponents offered “Asia Town” as an alternative — one almost as meaningless as “International District.” In Los Angeles, too, Asia Town could apply to the majority of the cities enclaves, including Cambodiatown, Chinatown, Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Bangladesh, Little India, Little Manila, Little Osaka, Little Seoul, Little Taipei, Little Tokyo, Tehrangeles, Thai Town… and even Little Arabia and Little Armenia, if one is sufficiently pedantic. In Metro Los Angeles, Little India was officially named the “International Shopping District” — even though no one refers to it as such — because it’s known for its Indian businesses. Greektown was re-named the Byzantine-Latino Quarter, which doubtless made residents with roots in Byzantium and Latium feel seen. Little Seoul was named the “Korean Business District” — because, you know, one doesn’t wish to get on the wrong side of someone from Busan. And Little Osaka became “Sawtelle Japan Town” because there are people there with no connection to Osaka. Never mind that by that same logic, Little Tokyo should be renamed “Downtown Japan Town with Lots of Koreans,” and Chinatown the “Ethnically Chinese But Often Actually From Cambodia and Vietnam Business District.” Anyway, in Seattle, “International District” seems to have stuck — or at least it’s shortened form, The ID.”
An internet search for “Seattle Cuisine” yielded under 2,000 results — and yet, presumably every Seattleite eats at some point in their lives. There is a somewhat more widely recognized Pacific Northwest Cuisine — although I didn’t see any places advertised or described as such. Searches for places to eat in Seattle turned up a few national cuisines, including Indian, Italian, Japanese, and Lebanese. The most common result, however, is the word “seafood,” which is another “so broad as to be almost meaningless” term. Imagine if a restaurant said that it specialized in “land food.” 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by “seas.” I enjoy some seafoods including arame, hijiki, kombu, nori, sea grapes, and wakame, to name a few. I’m down to try carrageen pudding, ceviche de cochayuyo, laverbread, or mozuku… and yet I know, that “seafood” actually means sea animals — and I can’t go for that. I did, however, overcome (just barely) the anxiety that arises from being around swarms of tourists to try Pike Place Chowder’s vegan chowder, and although it was tasty, I can’t really compare it to its bivalve-based brethren since I’ve never eaten a clam and don’t plan on ever doing so unless there is literally nothing else to eat on Earth.
It doesn’t look likely to come to that anytime soon and I had no problem finding alternatives to animal-based dishes. Everything we ate in Seattle was good — and most of it was quite good. Our first meal, if memory serves correctly, was at Biang Biang Noodles — a Shanxi (or Jin) restaurant near where we stayed in Pike/Pine section of Capitol Hill. We shared a dish which consisted, I kid you not, of just three noodles. They were the width of a belt, though, and about as long — and one and a half noodles each, was sufficient, as ridiculous as it may sound. Una grabbed desert from Hot Cakes and twice from Pie Bar whilst I grabbed “dessert” from an impressively bleak liquor store around the corner. We also returned more than once to Sankaku Onigiri Cafe & Bar on account of its tastiness (and inclusion of vegetarian seafood items). And we had a vegan meal at Plum Bistro.
After we relocated to the Pike-Market neighborhood for the end of our stay, Una wanted to go to Biscuit Bitch for biscuits. Now, I love biscuits as much as — probably more than — the next person. One of the last animal-based meals I had before going vegetarian in 1989 was biscuits and gravy on a Sunday morning after church. I remember it well, because I had not until then realized that biscuits and gravy are not normally vegetarian and I honestly questioned whether or not life without them was worth living. Eleven years of emptiness and regret followed until I visited a vegetarian soul food place on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard (I can’t remember the name) in Portland in 2001. That having been said, I’m not waiting 45 minutes for anything — not even a biscuit with vegetarian mushroom gravy. And so I wandered off to a place called The Hart and the Hunter where they had delicious biscuits (no gravy). I was wearing a marinière, not knowing that that was the restaurant’s uniform. The staff joked about it — asking when my break ended, &c. I tried to get serious. “What’s the deal with biscuits in Seattle?” I asked. “Did they come with the Great Migration?” No one knew. One of life’s great mysteries.
Coffee has almost as strong an association with Seattle as grunge. I’m not exactly clear on why. My mom’s family tried to sell “gourmet” coffee with their Shivvers Coffee brand back in the 1970s — when most Americans’s were content with Brim brewed in a plug-in percolator. My mother drank instant coffee. I started drinking coffee when I was eight or nine — although I began with General Foods International Coffee — which was barely coffee at all, filled as it was with more cream and sugar than the average mug of hot cocoa.
I don’t remember when I first heard of Starbucks, which was founded in Seattle in 1971, and originally sold coffee brewed with beans from Peet’s Coffee & Tea, but I associated the name with Lieutenant Starbuck of Battlestar Galactica until I read a Classics Illustrated adaptation of Moby Dick. In the 1990s, there was an explosion of coffee shops in Iowa City that all looked like they were decorated by the set designer of Friends. They had punny names like Ground Zero and Common Grounds… and un-punny names like Mingle Place. People who’d previously been content with powdered creamer-tamed cups of scalded dish water from gas stations and Hardee’s suddenly found themselves unhappy unless they were sinking into overly-plush love seat under the weight of a giant mug of cappuccino. I think people refer to that as the Second Wave or something. I’ll leave that look-up to someone else.
Maybe those ‘90s coffeehouses were inspired by Starbucks but I am still capable of surprising people with how little I know about many massively popular things. In fact, I took home Starbucks coffee from the market for the first time about a month ago. There was a breakfast blend and some kind of dark roast. I’m not a coffee snob but this was, without a doubt, pretty much the worst coffee I’ve ever had. There are Seattleites who will proudly describe themselves as coffee snobs, on the other hand. They will insist that, actually, Seattleites hate Starbucks — as they should, based on my experience. They hate it so much, apparently, that there are only 130 locations there. Why anyone would patronize them is yet another of life’s great mysteries. There is truly better coffee all around, now, and cafes that are more pleasant than America’s second-most popular fast food chain (and yet one, which clueless right-wingers think patronizing makes one a “hipster.”) That said, Starbucks’ headquarters, built in 1915 are worth a visit for the architecture, I reckon (lest I be accused of “not saying anything nice). The building’s first tenant, Sears, Roebuck and Co., was there until 1990. after which Starbucks moved in.
I did drink coffee and tea whilst in Seattle. I don’t remember what brands or exactly from where — it was mostly consumed in hotel rooms and diners. If it’s not obvious, much of this piece was written under the influence of coffee — yet none of it was bad enough to make a negative impression on me so I can safely assume that none of it was from Starbucks. I was on vacation, though, and if I was sufficiently awake and it was after noon, I was more often in the mood for alcohol than caffeine. The weather and season made me want to drink stouts and porters — or ciders — because they seemed much more prevalent in Seattle than they are in Los Angeles and I am a cider-loving man. Seemingly every bar in Seattle has cider, though, and so I tried a few — along with other drinks — at Locust Cider, Life on Mars, and maybe a place or two that I forgot about because their names didn’t begin with the letter “L.” At Smith Tower’s observatory and bar, they have both cider and mead (almost as rare as perry or jerkum in Southern California) and yet I opted for some type of suitably old-timey cocktail that tasted like medicine — because it seemed appropriate. More appropriate than the music that was playing, at least, which didn’t fit the retro Chinoiserie vibe even half as much as some classic shidaiqu would have.
STROLLING AND SMITH TOWER
We opted to visit Smith Tower because one day whilst Una binge-napped-watched 환혼 in the hotel room, I went for a fairly long, aimless stroll — still pretty much the best thing one can do in a city. I walked over to the Space Needle. I like Googie architecture and surely the Space Needle is one of the greatest examples of what the future was supposed to look like according to Earthlings of the early 1960s. I didn’t go up, though, because what sort of guy would do that knowing that his partner is binge-napping-watching K-Dramas? Besides, as one of the characters in Howard’s End says, “It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven.” The same, I think, could be said for tall buildings. Who wants to pay good money to ride an elevator just to have a bird’s-eye view of endless parking lots below? The Gold Rush era buildings of Pioneer Square, the romantic shipyards, and shiny Downtown skyscrapers viewable from Smith Tower seemed a much better — and cheaper — option.
After we left Smith Tower, we hailed a car to take us back to our hotel. Our driver — judging by their appearance, accent, and the unmistakable scent of frankincense that filled their car — was Somali. It was still raining pretty hard. We talked a bit about the weather — mainly how it was pretty much the same in Southern California. They managed to complain about the rainy weather in a way that sounded cheerful. Getting back to the airport was easier than figuring out how to get out of it. We had a bit of downtime at the airport to watch planes taking off. I drank another cider or two, for good luck. And once back in the sky, I finished Dune — even though it would be better reserved for a trip to Caladan or Arrakis. Two thumbs up! And goodnight, Seattle, we love you!
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7 thoughts on “Where Fools Fear To Tread — A Snapshot of Seattle”
After reading one ridiculous error, it was hard to move on to the rest of the piece. The Norwegian place you mention is not even in the top 10 most populous cities above the Arctic Circle.
I found 2 typos.
No one says Rain City, it’s the Emerald City
Locals don’t say International District, it’s Chinatown.
Agree, Seattle mass transit sucks.
Only a small percentage of Seattleites are homegrown, the majority are transplants from CA and the east coast. The originals have moved out of Seattle.
I loved Seattle when I visited! Eric, I’ve learned of your blog since your Korean Film Festival in LA post back in 2010 and been an infrequent yet always inspired visitor! I see that you’re writing a book about LA currently. Keep up the good work!
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Having lived in the Seattle area since 1984, the amalgamation of outside influences over the past four decades has certainly tragically changed the landscape in numerous ways. One that hasn’t, however, is what is referred to as “The Seattle Process”. It is such a slow and painfully deliberate approach that it is actually retweeted in Wikipedia. This is one of the main reasons the mass transit system is so deplorable.
In the 1990s, the US Department of Transportation earmarked an obscene amount of money for Seattle to upgrade its transit system. All it had to do was come up with a plan. The process was so fraught with naval gazing and acrimony that the DOT threw up its hands, pulled the plug, and reawarded to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic games.
I have an employee who reports to me that we just hired from the City off Seattle. He confirmed – in graphic detail – that the pain is still indeed very real.
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Hullo Jini and thanks for the encouragement!
I had to look up that post. So long ago! I hadn’t yet seen a film by Hong Sang-soo — who’s now one of my favorite filmmakers. That must’ve been written right around the time I learned about the free screenings at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles — which I haven’t returned to since the COVID pandemic.
I will HOPEFULLY be done with book number one in October. Hopefully, I have more than one in me.
The building where Starbucks
has its HQ was not built by Sears. It was built on spec by the RR that had its terminus there on the line from Chicago where Sears Roebuck had its HQ. The RR bet, and were right, that Sears would need a place to wear house the goods they sold on the West Coast. Inside the building, along it’s long maple-floorefd corridors, guys on roller skates used to retrieve goods that were ordered by customers.