Thursday, April 30, 2015

In America, Part 1: Up the Hill

A trans-Pacific flight is not so much a flight as you normally take as it is a vortex. Upon leaving, you are at the mercy of the pilot, the cabin staff, your fellow passengers for half a day. Maybe you try to sleep, with the help of the complementary box wine or with a Vicodin hastily swallowed before hitting airport security. Maybe you watch a string of movies, or episodes of some dumb comedy. You do whatever you can to negate the experience of being somewhere up there, losing all sense of time as your day is severed by the International Date Line.

And yet, after that long flight from Seoul-- muddy palace grounds, warm cups of pine needle tea to beat the pounding, frigid rain-- we come down from the clouds over the Skagit Valley, to a landscape where sun hits the snows of distant mountains, reaching down to an immaculate, blue fjord. And it was then, in a return to the city I called home for three years, that I felt that I was where I should be at the moment.

I was experiencing it, this time, more or less as a tourist. “Where you visiting from?” the market vendors asked. And at least in some areas, I still felt like a tourist. A wine tasting here, a plate of excellent local Virginica oysters there, a long, meandering walk along the waterfront. “Oh, used to live here, but just seeing old friends in town,” I'd tell the lady at the fruit stand or the Quebecois tourist I was sipping wine with.

And I could do the tourist-guide description. I could talk about the beautifully fresh salmon, the great view from Kerry Park, the artfully arranged soaps and artichokes in the Pike Place Market, my favorite dive bars. But, like all tourist guides, that says nothing about the actual experience of being in the city, its shapes and textures, especially when you've lived there.

So I went deeper, and did what I used to do every Saturday-- leaf through old books in the library, grab a cup of coffee, and begin the long, steep, lonely walk up Capitol Hill, through used-car lots and past the old shipping warehouses where countless 30 year-olds with startups imagine themselves as nascent Bezoses and Brins.

Sure, there were a few of my old haunts. The shitty bar where I did my regular trivia night. The pizza place where I read Borges as I tore into two-dollar slices of Mediterranean. The bookshop where, on cold, dark nights I could step in, just for a bit, to read a Raymond Carver story that reminded me to keep on.

But, those bright spots aside, not only had things changed, they had changed radically. Whole blocks were torn out, replaced with cheap trash that reached for “industrial aesthetic” but just reminded me of a school gym in New Jersey. The grotty boutiques staffed by grumpy grunge-era rejects were closed or closing. And saddest of all, the neighborhood has an increasingly short supply of the bars it used to specialize in, places where you could be anyone, a fat transsexual, a college professor reading French philosophy, a streetwalker taking a quick five, a scuzzy lurker with a shitty arm tattoo and a whole litany of lies to tell, places where all the pariahs and weirdos and a few putatively model citizens could share a round of boilermakers.

It is, of course, common to blame the tech industry for these developments. It's both easy and fun to lay the blame on a business world that rewards the sort of fucker who thinks it's OK to act like Don Draper as long as he rides a longboard to work.

Yet while there is a certain truth to that-- or at least, there seems to be, based on the sorts of businesses popping up all over the Hill-- there's also a certain inevitability to this. Any group of freaks, artists, and their attendant sycophants and wannabes knows that the neighborhood dream is fated. As soon as that repulsive label for geographic locales-- “creative”-- is applied, a wealthier clientele will move in, and the previous residents will move to other places, areas further out or more dangerous or in some other way less appealing.

A phrase like “you can't go home again” was probably a cliche even before Thomas Wolfe made that the title of his final novel. Hell, it was probably close to a cliche when Heraclitus said “ever-newer waters flow on those who step in the same rivers” around the turn of the 5th Century BC.

However, regardless of how many times and in what ways the sentiment has been expressed, it was still unsettling to wander around the web of my own memories, see my own particular desires, my own projections onto the built environment, supplanted by those of others.

And then, dejected, I walked down a hill and up another, to the warm place where I knew I could count on a cat, a good book, and a beer, three things that have rarely failed to disappoint me. And when I flew out on the redeye to Detroit not long after, I knew that Seattle and I had had the conversation we'd needed to have.