American Sabbatical 032: 10/14/96


10/14.. Re-entry.

We approached our next urban experience in easy stages. After an interlude at the border we cruised south on the interstate through rain and sun showers until we struck Bellingham, where we pulled off for to feed our faces. Then we drove down to the landwash and followed the coast road. Route 11 clings to the sides of precipitous sea cliffs and we found ourselves staring out through the tops of 220-foot firs at Puget Sound, far below, and the San Juan Islands lumping up the horizon. Our geographic sense, as always, gets turned around by islands, and we realized that what we’d been seeing as the Olympic Peninsula was probably the San Juans or Vancouver Island itself. This seascape is so mountainous it’s hard to tell the players without a scorecard. I keep finding myself transported back to Argentia, Newfoundland, another lumpscape by the brine.

Along this shore the sun settled down under dark stratus and splashed golden dazzle on the sound. We eventually debouched onto flat farmland at Edison, and checked into a cheap motel in Burlington.

Seattle from the Gasworks

10/15.. Seattle.

On Monday we caught the tail-end of the morning rush into the Seattle exurb. From the north you have no indication you're approaching a major metropolis, except for the multiplying lanes and the thickening automotion. You are still in the tall timber right into the city limits, at least that’s the roadside view. We were staying with friends in the north end, so we jumped the track at 45th street and plunged into the burb.

Narrow streets in rectilinear grids climbing and spilling over the hills. We were early, so we stopped on a commercial artery and ducked out of the rain into a teahouse. How civilized. Pots full of exotic teas, with caddies and strainers, and a pile of mags and rags to peruse. The teahouse was attached to a map and travel book store. Some sort of trekkers’ idyll. We idylled away an hour or so. Discovered that the bronze statue of Lenin in Fremont had fallen down, but was being re-erected, and other important civic news. I pursued my map and geology discussion with the storekeepers, and found there IS a landforms map of the US which truly reveals the mountains and the rivers without the obscuring overlay of manforms. Put out by Raven Maps it is only $40 (black and white, without names) or $60 (color, with). I could feel the wallet-o-suction of the city beginning to tug, but the idea of folding up a $40 map and stuffing it under Red Owl’s wing was more than my Scots blood could bear.

After a short confusion with side streets we found our way to Katie and Carita's house, and another refuge from the road. What a spot. Wallingford, the district they live in, is perched on the hills overlooking downtown from the across Lake Union and the canal. Step into the middle of the street and all the soaring boast of skyscraping Seattle is at your feet. But the street is barely wide enough for three cars abreast, which means two rows of parking and a game of you-first down the middle. Cars every whichway, and every whatever. Antique autos and Nissans, 60’s Microbusses and 90’s subcompacts. Washington roads look like Maine used to before the rust ate the oldsters. If transportation tells a tale, this is a very egalitarian urb.

The houses in this neighborhood tend to the modest two-story bungalow (if that’s not self-contradictory), all cheek-to-jowl on tiny lots. But there’s no sense of crowding, because each house sits up on an embankment above the sidewalk and is buried in greenery. The luxuriant foliage, masses of flowers, and exuberant vegetation climb to the eaves and bury everyone in verdant privacy. You walk the narrow ways under overhanging hedges, lunging trees, and groping greenstuff. And people are walking, or jogging, everywhere. There are one-lane traffic circles at alternate intersections to slow the motor traffic, and the pedestrian atmosphere is very much like England before it got run over.

Katie and Carita elementary school teachers whose kids are grown and gone, and whose marriages have dissolved long since. Now their lives revolve around grandchildren and schoolkids and caring for each other.. and taking in wayfaring strangers. Well, not complete strangers. Katie used to live and teach in Maine, and Peggy was in a writing group with her for 5 years. Katie developed a method of teaching elementary reading and writing called “Doing Words” (you may have heard her anecdotes about kids’ writing on NPR in the 80’s). She gets kids to write about their passions and concerns, giving them the words they ask for to tell their own stories. Those of you familiar with the teachings of Sylvia Ashton Warner will recognize the approach.

Katie does consulting in schools around the country and has a regular part-time gig in a public school in Seattle, as well as writing books, and Carita teaches full-time at a private elementary school. They are both adept at finding survival niches in an uncertain economy for older women, and the discussions about education fly fast and furious with Peggy in the mix.

The consensus is that we have one school system all across America. Katie encounters the same complaints wherever she goes. The death of literacy, the unmanageable disaffection of kids, the frustration of teachers, the boneheadedness of administrators, the drying-up of funds. But the kids are still kids, and these ladies can’t help but love them amid the confusion. Of course it’s easier when you’re on sabbatical.

Feeling like a fifth wheel, your intrepid reporter called a high school classmate to see if we could meet for a beer. Bruce Wylie lit in this town in the 70’s, was a founding member of the Seattle Mime Theater, and has been with the company ever since. One of America’s preeminent mime ensembles, SMT tours all over the world, and I was lucky to catch Bruce at home. We didn’t know each other at all in school, but we both turned up at our 25th reunion, and I was so stuck by the things Bruce said in group discussions, and by his presence, that I wanted to know him better.

Glad I followed my instincts. It’s enlightening to talk with other artists turning 50. We know we’ve made nutty choices, and that it’s too late to go straight. We realize we have to keep reinventing ourselves, reconceiving the work, redefining the process. We all suffer periodic doubts about our sanity, and our ability to sustain the necessary energy level, so it’s reassuring and reinvigorating to swap war stories from opposite shores. Bruce and I agreed that having worked at our crafts for 25 years we are pretty good at what we do, but the content has to evolve or we become caricatures of ourselves.

The ensemble hasn’t sunk itself in infrastructure, gone into real estate, or otherwise trapped itself in an institutional edifice, as so many successful troupes did in the 80’s (only to weep in the 90’s), so they can focus all their energy on performance. It’s good to be reminded that the work itself is what matters, not the trappings.

And we swapped yarns about other classmates. All that old school ties stuff. Bruce has absolutely no nostalgia about Andover. His revulsion shivers down the years. But having, as he put it, walked through fire together, we have the same scars.. a basis for mutual recognition. It was good to find a stranger I knew well, somehow, in Seattle.

(Memo #30)


Who? settled by families from Illinois

What? Seattle, gateway to the Northwest USA from the Pacific

Where? city on Puget Sound

When? 1853

How? growth from lumber, aerospace industry (WW2), then computers

Topics: urban planning, eastern v. western cities, European influences

Questions: What is aSkid Row and where was the first one found? How are cities organized? How do cities in the west differ from cities in the east?


We have been in cities on our trip (Cleveland, Chicago, Cedar Rapids, Missoula), but we seem to have kept more to the countryside. Partly this is because we try to avoid superhighways. Secondly, with our worldly goods stuffed in a car, we hesitate to leave it on the street or in a parking garage.

In one day we toured Vancouver, B.C., and then drove south to Seattle. Our time in these two places has made me think about cities and how they are organized. Both Seattle and Vancouver are port cities, on Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, somewhat away from the Pacific Ocean yet both dominated by water. For the United States and Canada respectively, they’ve served as gateways to the northwest, centers for shipping from the Orient, and centers of shipbuilding and aviation.

Both are very beautiful, set between mountains and water. The light in the Northwest is different, the skyscrapers are hardedged and crystal in the light. Mountains rim these two cities - huge and dark (wilder around Vancouver) - and the water edges and divides in bays and canals and lakes and rivers. People boast that in some seasons you can ski in the morning and be at the beach in the afternoon. Both cities get huge amounts of rain so there are gardens and large trees everywhere. Seattle has a glorious huge rose garden and even small round garden islands in the middle of intersecting streets. People raise and eat lot of vegetables(!).

Two basic forms of cities are GRID cities and RADIATING RAYS cities, which reflect different European influences. The French favor cities with boulevards radiating from the center (like Paris of course), so Washington D.C. (designed by a French architect) follows that pattern. The English favor the grid, so New York (apart from the first Dutch built section) is a grid. Western cities were made to the grid plan (especially easy and obvious on the flat dry plains). We’ve found many streets named after trees (Oak, Elm etc.) and - surprisingly - a lot of college sequences (Dartmouth, Yale, Wells). The keystone avenue is usually First or Main. The western cities we’ve visited have numbered streets; 182nd Street or 341 Avenue on the outskirts descending to low numbers downtown. Seattle and Vancouver are grid cities complicated by waterfront. Seattle is divided (as is Washington DC) in N/S/E/W and NW/NE/SW/SE.

Vancouver has spectacular Stanley park that covers an entire peninsula downtown with everything from trails through old growth forest to bowling greens to several narrow beaches. Small Granville Island has been developed into a huge market, craft shop, and eatery area. Seattle has the Pike Street Market where you can buy vegetables or seafood or funky earrings and the Pioneer Square area where streets have been closed off and walkers find art galleries and boutiques. Seattle’s pride is its coffee (Starbuck’s started here). Latte is found in every kind of neighborhood and business. Even car dealerships advertise latte. Huge storefronts and tiny stands offer coffee. Coffee shops help you through the gray season, I was told.

Both cities were rollicking sea towns with rough sections the seamen used. Logs were “skidded” down to the Seattle waterfront and “skid row” now is a generic term for a city’s seediest and toughest area. Seattle has the honor of the first skid row.

10/16.. Seattle redux.

Civic Art
Tuesday Peggy and I caught an articulated double-bus into downtown and strolled the city center. Seattle is an architectural delight. Virtually all the big buildings are new, and half of them are playful extravaganzas. Prismatic towers of black glass, creamy stone deco wedding-cakes, truncated geometries, wavy-topped wonders, embellished facades, post-modern hodgepodges, lots of blue-glass and chrome, and the wickedgood space needle to crown all. The streets are clean, often brick-paved, and all unclogged at mid-day. We saw two taxis the whole time we were there. Downtown is full of parks, pedestrian malls, and civic art. Every blank wall has a mural (good, bad, and indifferent), and the place is filthy with sculpture (ditto).

It was a damp, chilly, blustery day, and we discovered why Seattle is the coffee capital of the western world: there’s nothing like a hot cafe on every corner to restore your circulation on a dank and dismal day. All the jokes about latte and Seattle seem understated in a town where you can get espresso-to-go with a shoeshine. Lots of ops for the latter, too, as this burg has maintained its reputation as a bummers haven. The homeless are very visible here, offering a shine, selling “Spare Change” ( the street paper), or shambling about with all their worldly goods. It’s a bit disconcerting to realize that the ‘bo with all his overcoats and cartsful has about as much stuff as we do. Festivites reflect. Are you only a tankful away from Skid Row?

We roamed the Pike Place Market with its mounds of produce, crafts, bargains, books, and bedlam. The mingled smells of fresh fish, wet vegetables, Chinese dumplings, cinnamon buns, and (you guessed) coffee keep you drooling. But we were determined to hang onto our wallets, so we feasted on aromas.. just like the bums.

Seattle must be the mappers mecca. Maybe it has to do with being the gateway to Alaska and the Pacific rim, a town that looks far afield. It sure has the best map stores. I engaged in converse with a geologist who works in one such, who agreed about the need for a landforms atlas and text, and thought she should write it. I made encouraging noises. We hunkered over big US maps and she described the geologic history of places we’ve been. But the maps were too dear, and we moved on unguided.

Right into the gallery section. We bypassed the Art Museum, despite its reputation and northwest coast collection. We are simple mused out (and grumbly about fat entry fees). I wanted to see some Morris Graves paintings on Gallery Row, so we ventured into the rarefied air. Geeze Marie, galleries are pretentious. Yes, all those empty white walls make a painting important (and pricey: up to $150,000 apiece for Graves), but the intimidation factor.. maybe Peggy is right about selling my wares in more egalitarian, more mass market settings. I had to go outside and kick a pigeon to cool off. Incidentally, the crows and the pigeons flock together in Seattle, and fight for scraps. Just like galley owners.

We clambered up and down the blustery hills in the city canyons until mid-afternoon when our premonitions sent us looking for the bus to Wallingford. We had just gotten back in the door when the skies opened and it beat down hail and deluge. We were so smug. Later, after tea and smoozing with Carita and Katie, Bruce and his wife Sally picked us up and took us back downtown for dinner. Mexican. The craving of northwesters for the hots seems insatiable. These hots came with a pair of strolling musicians who sang syrupy ballads is Spanish to quivering guitars. It was a joy.

Sally is an English dancer, and the two of them are a striking couple. We effervesced in their company. Bruce and Sally have done, and are doing, a lot of work in schools, and Peggy’s enthusiasm for dance and theater in the classroom met kindred spirits over burritos and margaritas. We ambled the Avs after, then along the canal in Fremont, where they live (two houses from the big cement troll under the bridge). It was like finding old friends, and we rode home in their microbus like aging hippies in the wee hours.

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