Archive for July, 2009

For the record

The local temperature reached a crillion degrees yesterday, setting an all-time record high for Seattle and tying the record in several other cities around here. Actually, I think the official high reported by the weather station at Sea-Tac was 103°F, although Cliff Mass’ weather blog has lit up with comments about much higher temperatures reported by people’s car thermometers, measurements he has encouraged his readers to regard with a view to the added heat sweltering up from paved surfaces. Today we expect to set 99°F as a day-record for July 30th.

This much heat doesn't even fit on the chart (see Wednesday bar). Photo courtesy KOMO News.

This much heat doesn't even fit on the chart (see Wednesday bar). Photo courtesy KOMO News.

I just wanted to chime in and say “I was here”. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of an event that the whole city is experiencing and celebrating, especially since the building I work in has a well-functioning HVAC system. In fact it functions so well that even on hot days I often don my fleece while sitting at my desk, and it actually felt good (for a few minutes) to step outside for the walk down Western Avenue to my once-or-twice-monthly lunch at Planet Java Diner on Washington Street, a kitchy and air-conditioned establishment whose proprietor Patty and her daughter Ashleigh know me well enough to know I’ll probably order the Barbecue Burger, a crisp green salad, a cuppa decaf and my own little steel creamer of real half-and-half.* You can see I wasn’t suffering.

Planet Java Diner. Beatin' the heat on Washington Street.

Planet Java Diner. Beatin' the heat on Washington Street.

However, later in the afternoon when I left the office, the heat struck me like a heap of quilts. It was as though I were a bee and someone had suddenly put a large drinking glass over me and sucked all the air out. Even so, the worst of it for me was the bus ride home, and that’s mercifully short.

Home was painless because we have air conditioning. It came with the house. I don’t really like AC as an idea. We never had any AC around here growing up, not in houses anyway. You just sat on the sprinkler or found a leafy bower to hunker down in, or flopped in front of a fan. It seems bizarre to be shivering in my house on the day Seattle is setting an all-time heat record, to be putting on wool socks while thousands perish on the sidewalks beyond the large, closed front windows.

Seattle has a fever.

Seattle is running a temperature.

Maybe I exaggerate, but I just don’t feel completely comfortable being disconnected from what’s “really going on” out there. On the other hand, Angela has had several neighborhood moms and their kidly retinues over during these hot days, and those refugees from older, AC-less homes have been grateful for the respite from their cauldrons. Saving Wallingford lives we are, one BTU at a time. 

*unless I get the French Toast Combo instead, swapping out the bacon for a heap o’ hash browns.

A ghost of First and Madison

There’s a wall on the east side of the 1000 block of Seattle’s First Avenue between Madison and Spring. On that wall is a legend, painted in faded white, that no one can see. It’s likely that no human being will ever see this wall again, because of the particular way in which it has been hidden. I’ve seen this wall and the white painted lettering. I was among the relatively few who were lucky enough to see it when it was uncovered for a brief time a few years ago. The legend is not mysterious or important, or even very meaningful anymore. But up until the time I saw it, it had not been seen by anyone for a hundred years. This is the story I’m about to tell you.

It was a sad day in 2004 when they knocked down the Warshal’s buildings. I had just started working downtown again and was walking past the soon-to-be-destroyed Warshall’s Sporting Goods every day. For much of the 20th century, Warshal’s occupied two buildings on the northeast corner of First and Madison. Unless I am mistaken, the one directly on the corner was originally the two-story Hotel Louvre. The other one, nextdoor to the north, was the Wadsworth Building, an edifice of about six stories.* The Wadsworth Building had actually been registered as a historic landmark in 2001, but that didn’t prevent it from being knocked down to make room for the Hotel 1000.

This is the way Periscopic Map Co. viewed the situation in early 1903.

This is the way Periscopic Map Co. viewed the situation in early 1903.

And down it all came very quickly, in a day or so, all except for the northernmost wall of the Wadsworth Building. The Wadsworth Building was built sometime around 1902 and stood brick-by-jowl with the Schoenfeld Building, the next one to the north of it. Workers on scaffolds had to use caution in removing the bricks of the Wadsworth Building lest they damage the Schoenfeld Building. This took a week or more. As the bricks were slowly removed, I began to see a long-covered-up advertisement or legend reappearing on the Schoenfeld Building’s southern wall.

It said, “Standard Furniture Co.”

Not very surprising, since this legend and many others had appeared on multiple walls around town as businesses grew and changed locations. But I was intrigued. The sign had been entombed for more than a century. I wondered if would be possible to see this particular legend on this particular wall in historic photographs from the turn of the 19th to 20th century. The paint was faded now, but I imagined it blazing white among many such exclamations of the contemporary downtown brickscape.

The same block ca. 2007. Hotel 1000 at the south end, Holyoke Bldg. on the north end, and Schoenfeld Bldg. in the middle. Photo copyright Microsoft Virtual Earth.

The same block ca. 2007. Hotel 1000 at the south end, the red-brick Holyoke Bldg. on the north end, and white-fronted Schoenfeld Bldg. in the middle. Photo copyright Microsoft Virtual Earth.

The construction of the Hotel 1000 took place shortly after I bought a ’40s-era 4×5 Graflex Speed Graphic camera. This is the kind of camera you always see in old movies when the press is snapping photos — it’s a huge thing with bellows. This camera might have been the one that captured Jack Ruby doing in Lee H. Oswald, for instance. It’s unwieldy and once you load the film, you can’t see through the lens to line up or focus your shot. Despite this, it was designed for action photography such as sports and on-the-spot news coverage. I lugged my Graflex down to Madison Street during the winter of ought-four and ought-five, while the wall was exposed, and took a shot, because I knew this view was a rarity that would soon disappear again. (When I told my cousin this story, he likened this wall to Halley’s Comet. Touché.)

First Avenue runs through the right side of this ca. 1901 photo. The white lettering of the Standard Furniture Company is visible just above center. The Colman Building in the lower right foreground is still there, unlike the distant Washington Hotel and the hill it rode in on. Photo courtesy of Paul Dorpat. Click for larger image.

I’ve always been a big fan of Paul Dorpat‘s “Now and Then” articles, which have run for years in Pacific Northwest Magazine and always include an old historic photograph (“then”), a little history of what the view depicts, and his best attempt to reproduce the shot (“now”). He’s assembled many of these essays into a series of books, and on the introduction page of Seattle Now and Then Volume II, which I had bought and read years ago, I found what I was looking for. It’s a panorama of the cityscape shot from a rooftop on Western Avenue. In the middle panel of it can be seen the south wall of the Schoenfeld Building and the legend “Standard Furniture Co.” No photo credit was given nor any other information except that it was taken “ca. 1901″.

Recently I started thinking I should track Paul down and ask him where I could get permission to reproduce that photo for my blog. After all, he lives in the neighborhood. Last week I emailed him asking about the photo. He not only emailed me an electronic copy of that middle panel, but also emailed later in the day with an even better shot that was taken in May of that same year. When I asked whose they were, he said “mine.”, and he went on to say that I could use them as long as I told my readers that he intends to treat of the subject matter in these photos himself someday, when he gets around to it. (Lou, Kip, Marni…consider yourselves informed.)

May 1901. The Wadsworth Building was erected shortly after Major John Millis (or Mills?) took this photo and obscured Standard's legend until it came down in 2004.

May 1901. The Wadsworth Building was erected shortly after Major John Millis (or Mills?) took this photo and obscured Standard's legend until it came down in 2004. Notice that General Arthur Cigars has tagged a few walls in this scene. Photo courtesy of Paul Dorpat. Click for larger image.

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I won’t go on frothing at the mouth about it, except to say that I consider it an honor and a privilege, to say the least, that Paul would let me publish some of what he calls his “ephemera” before he does.

The last piece of the story is my own photograph. I took my film holders to Panda Lab, the only place in Seattle that will develop black and white 4×5 sheet film anymore. It was among the very first shots I’d taken with the Graflex, and I wasn’t at all sure it would turn out. With the ubiquity of photography these days, it’s likely there were many photos taken during the winter of 2004-2005 that show the exposed wall. But for all I know, this may be the first publishing of a photograph showing daylight on this wall for the first time in a century. I never got around to printing it, but here is a scan of the contact sheet, dust and all:

The legend lives on.

The legend lives on. This was taken in the winter of 2004-2005. Notice the ghosts of original windows and doorways in the wall. Photo by Matt. Click for larger image.

*There’s an enlargeable photo of both the destroyed buildings that looks to me like it was taken in the ’40s in a Seattle Times article by Steve Warshal, chip off the original block, that was published online in 2007. Note that in that photo the Wadsworth Building advertises itself as the “Geo. V. Heringer Building”.

Update: 30 June 2009

I walked round there today with a digital camera and got a current photo matching the viewpoint of the one immediately above, the final word on this piece, you might say.

Looks like curtains for this particular graffito.

Looks like curtains for this particular graffito.

A hot time in the Heelands

How I could spend all day surrounded by kilts and other clan tartans and not come away with a single decent photo showing one is beyond me.

We’ve been looking forward to the 63rd Annual Scottish Highland Games and Gathering of the Clans at Enumclaw. I’ve a bit o’ the Celt in me on me mum’s side. Mom’s maiden name will here remain nameless, but it is a derivation of the storied appellation of Clan McDougall. If there was a broohaha my mom’s ancestors marched with the MacDougalls and fought under the MacDougall colors. In return the “Lords of Lorn” provided a measure of neighborly security.

If I was a better Celt this sign would have made me hungry. As it was, I imagined a rugby team.

If I was a better Celt this sign would have made me hungry. As it was, I imagined a rugby team.

My family drove down to see “the Games” a few years in a row when I was a teenager and I was captivated by all of it — the tartans, the pasties (pronounced with a short a as in “pasture”), the musicians and storytellers, the games themselves (caber toss, hammer toss, haggis toss, etc.), the girls dancing above the swords, the booths where you can pick up a kilt or a claymore with which to cleave the skull of thine enemies — the whole Celtic enchilada. I once bought a MacDougall tartan necktie, which is tomato red and goes best with a white shirt and a kilt, or maybe a black shirt and a kilt, or maybe even a dark green shirt and a kilt. I never owned a kilt (don’t have the knees f’rit), and so never wore the tie. I also talked to the MacDougall clan representatives and learned that, at the time, the clan was led by a chieftainess, and that the clan’s headquarters was in Oban, Scotland. I was told then that I would be welcome at any MacDougall gathering, and that if I was ever in Oban I should drop by. I never got there.

We thought Mara might be intrigued by girls just a little older than herself performing the traditional sword dances in colorful traditional garb, and so today we borrowed Lily, Mara’s friend from nextdoor (also four years old), and headed south. We’ve had a drought this year. It stopped raining in April, three months earlier than usual, and now we’re heading into a heat wave. The Games take place at the King County Fairgrounds, which I don’t think has a single tree on it. The dance and piping competitions take place in huge, open, fields of grass, the athletic games in a huge, open, field of dirt. By the time we got to Enumclaw the sun was swelteringly hot, and by the time we got from the car to the Avenue of the Clans, Mara and Lily looked as though they’d been marched across the Sahara.

We met up with my folks, who had driven down from their home in Issaquah. Dad was a sport to subject himself to so much walking in this heat, but he came with a shady hat and a good attitude. My mom was excited. She has wanted to get back to the Highland Games for many years, but it has always been the same weekend as the West Coast branch annual reunion (really just a potluck picnic) of my dad’s (English and German) side of the family. For various reasons, the gathering of THAT clan, which has taken place at Matthew’s Beach for the last 15 years or so, was not observed this year.

Not the photo I wanted, but these lads were stepping high, wide and handsome. And they're really girls.

Not the photo I wanted, but these lads were stepping high, wide and handsome.

We arrived just in time to see young girls competing in the sword dances. This is like ballet meets Celtic faerie kick-boxing. The leaping scissory kicks — all performed with arms raised wreathing their heads — seemed impossible in this temperature. I wish I had gotten a photo of it but we didn’t tarry there long. Mara and Lily watched interestedly for a few minutes, but the sun baked us on the bleachers and they began to fidget. And I didn’t get any shots of the marching pipe bands, either. The heat and the crowds, through which it seemed to require both of my hands to navigate even one of the four-year-olds, disinclined me to drag out the camera. I kept thinking I’d do it later, after we’d found shade, food, and the bathrooms. But the quest for these things seemed to take up the entire day as the heat just got worse and we seemed to be moving in slow motion. The crowd was a river of sweat and Royal Stewart plaid flowing by in all directions. It seemed that even the visitors all had their “plaidies” on.

The “Scottish Farm”, usually a shed full of kid-friendly animals, turned out, by dint of a compounded fiasco, to consist this year of a single cow. Fine. We turned to go look at the rabbits (shady, inside, cool less hot), but the rabbits turned out to be a red herring. There were no rabbits. The “RABBITS” sign I had espied was just a permanent sign for the fairgrounds that I had mistaken for something particular to this event. We moved on to something we were anticipating called “the Isle of the Wee Bairns”, which sounded promising but turned out to be just an opportunity for small children to toss the caber. The caber toss is where you pick up a telephone pole , run with it standing on end in the palms of your hands in front of you, then hurl it end over end. In 90 degree heat. I couldn’t see Mara and Lily raising the testosterone for this.

Colin Grant-Adams, balladeer and right regular Scot

Colin Grant-Adams, balladeer and right regular Scot

By then we needed food, so my folks and I got pasties and the girls got hot dogs. While waiting for balladeer Colin Grant-Adams to sing and play guitar, I found the MacDougall clan booth and talked for a few minutes to Martin “Mac” MacDougall, the Northwest Commissioner for the clan, and learned that the clan at large is chiefed now by the niece of Caroline (I think he meant Coline), who was the chieftainess when I used to come to the Games. The niece now presiding lives in London, of all places, but goes up to Oban for special celebrations and ceremonies. She has a son and a daughter. According to a time-honored tradition, the son will accede to the position when his mother passes, but Mac says there is a debate of some heat raging on the East Coast (of the U.S.) because some folks think that the son, a computer enthusiast, isn’t really chieftain material. Mac doesn’t think that it’s really any of our (statesiders’) business. Mac told me also that when he visited Oban, he was fortunate to lay his eyes upon the Brooch of Lorn, which some MacDougall of yore tore from the cloak of Robert the Bruce in a skirmish from which the Bruce barely escaped alive and his assailant did not. The brooch has been a clan treasure for centuries. I found all this interesting and wished I could have chatted longer with him.

We didn’t even get to see the games. We listened to Mr. Grant-Adams for a while, who had the decency to play in a large shady tent. Mara and Lily twirled around to his guitar and lilting vocals and did the hand motions to “Sam the Skull”. Both girls fell and scratched themselves up on the pavement, and after getting Lily’s wound dressed in the First Aid Hut (!) we headed for the parking lot, stopping only long enough to look at some dancing laddies in sailor suits, who Angela later informed me were not lads at all but in fact lassies. All in all, one of the most disappointing outings I’ve ever been on, considering what fun I’d had there in the past. I’m sure the kids loved it, though, and I’m sure my mom was happy to attend this event again, despite the heat. She bought the girls each a flowered hairband with trailing ribbons.

Sadly, my best shot of the day was inside the First Aid Hut. Lily gets a bandaid.

Sadly, my best shot of the day was inside the First Aid Hut. Lily gets a bandaid.

Crouching spider, leaping tiger

Our house is on a hill. Off of the kitchen is a second-story deck that hangs on the high side of the house overlooking the neighbors down the hill and our patio and back yard. Our cats hang out on this deck, enjoying the dulcet breezes of summer evenings.

The orange cat and Tillie enjoying their perch on top of the barbie. Sudden loud noises are apparently the last thing they expect.

The orange cat and Tillie enjoying their perch on top of the barbie. Sudden loud noises are apparently the last thing they expect. Photo credit Angela.

While Angela was in the middle of a sentence tonight, her eye chanced to fall upon a wolf spider of unusually large proportions crawling along the carpet next to the wall, about to enter the kitchen from the living room. Her face contorted and her voice went all gutteral and high.

Freaked.

Me.

Out.

I saw that her gaze was fixed on a particular spot directly behind me, and the adrenaline began to shoot outward from wherever it comes from into all my limbs. I braced myself for horror unspeakable, maybe the icy hand of Death on my collarbone.

Angela jumped up from her chair, almost by involuntary convulsion, and I turned to see the monstrous arachnid flapping its huge legs as it approached. It was as big as a volkswagen.

“I need a shoe,” I said, looking around frantically, but I was in the cul-de-sac of the kitchen, and we don’t keep any footwear in there. Angela was by the hallway, though, and managed to duck out to fetch a hefty sole. The eight-legged invader came on, threatening to cut me off from Angela’s return route, but she appeared again quickly.

“I brought you two different kinds!” she said, handing over one of her dance shoes and a slipper.

I chose the slipper — more flat surface area, a bit of give for an even slap — crouched low, took aim. You don’t want to muff a shot like this, because these bastards can really haul.

I paused, reflecting on the fact that I was about to terminate a life.

The slipper came down with a sharp, firecracker-like pop. Outside on the deck, our new cat started and fell off the railing. We didn’t see this happen, but no sooner had the slipper slapped the floor and issued its percussive report than we heard a quick and unsuccessful clawing at the corrugated fiberglass deck siding as the cat slid past it and hit the compost bin down below on the patio.

The “orange cat” (as I call him because I don’t like the name he came with which the girls are now using despite the fact that we all agreed to rename him Willoughby) has never been outside the house in the two and a half months we’ve had him. Suddenly he was catapulted into another world. I went down to look for him, and busted him out by the patio furniture. Although the spider did not survive this strange bifurcated event, the cat was fine.

We’ve been breaking out in snorts and chortles all evening over this.

Acknowledgment: The title for this post was Angela’s idea.

Walter, Walter everywhere…

Walter Cronkite has died at age 92. The newspapers are reporting the fact that during his decades anchoring the nightly news he was regularly voted “the most trusted man in America” in opinion polls, and the fact that after President Lyndon B. Johnson watched Cronkite’s reporting of the infamous Tet story, he apparently said “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America” and decided not to run for reelection. They also report that so synonymous with the news is “Uncle Walter” that in Sweden and the Netherlands news anchorpersons are called Kronkiters or Cronkiters.

Walter Cronkite’s voice and visage were  certainly part of my daily childhood experience. He and Harry Reasoner and David Brinkley were the three names I knew practically before I knew any others. But Walter’s name meant something more than the news for me. And I mean literally, his name. I have a memory and it goes like this:

It’s summer, an evening just like tonight. Cool after a hot day. Or — whoosh, the memory alters, and maybe it’s very cold and I have a warm jacket on. At all events, it’s after dinner and I’m standing in the street in front of and a little north of my house. I’m waiting for Bill or Chris to come back out and resume playing, for lo, each child went unto his home and ate of the food there. I remember where I was in the street because in my mind I see the slightly humped band of smoother pavement that crossed the road in front of 1646. There were three of these bands on our street at about equal intervals of 150 feet or so. These oddities in the pavement were there through my early childhood but disappeared sometime in the ’70s when the street was repaved. Now that I think about it, they must have been the result of some digging for the addition or repair of sewer lines.

Anyway, I was standing in the street, on or near one of these little anomalous hillocks, and I was repeating two things out loud, the name Walter and the word “water”. I said them slowly several times, first one, then the other.

“Waaaaaaallllllter. Waaaahhhter. Waaaaallllllter. Waaaaahhhhhter.” 

I had heard Walter Cronkite’s name for the milliionth time as we were finishing up dinner and now I was trying to figure out what made Walter and “water” sound different. I was having trouble doping it out. This was before I could read or write, and I could tell that the two words were differentiated only by something really small, but something very real, too. I remember probing my tongue up toward the back of my teeth while I said Walter, then saying “water” to see how the tongue behaved in that sound. Even preliterate, I could intuit what made a bilabial or a dental or a glottal stop, but the letter “l” is a sonorant and a liquid, and its essence was eluding me because it seemed relative. The sound was not absolute. I hadn’t experienced many things up until that time that were not absolute.

I think I was a pretty spazzy kid, and this memory is proof. Standing in the middle of a street in south Bellevue on a summer evening chanting the name and the element over and over again, trying to understand. If any neighbors were observing this, they must have just rolled their eyes. Again.

Thanks Walter.

And for your after dinner entertainment…

The best kind of day ends like today did. I left the office a few minutes early and walked down along the waterfront to the Old Spaghetti Factory to meet my wife and daughter for dinner. We do this once a month or so. I always have the (unsavorily named) Potpourri — four kinds of sauce over spaghetti noodles. Angela ventured into the veggie lasagna tonight (verdict?: “meh…”) and Mara usually orders spaghetti with tomato sauce and, like her parents, a green salad with bleu cheese dressing. For desert there’s spumoni, of course, in little pewter dishes.

We always ask for a seat on the west side so Mara can watch the commuter and freight trains go by.  As a digestif, we walk across the street and ascend to the Seattle Art Museum’s new Olympic Sculpture Park by way of a little path that winds through a grove of — hmm, I suppose now I think about it they’re probably quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), along with native currants and blueberry bushes.

Tonight there was a little troupe rehearsing a moving dance they’re performing in the park tomorrow — by that I mean that they’ll be moving through the park as they perform. With them was a man tuning up what looked like a six-foot-tall hookah with strings attached to it. It was shaped like the lamp from I Dream of Jeannie, with a large metal resonating chamber at the bottom and twisting strands of metal winding in planty fashion to the top, where the 16 strings were attached. It was loaded into a Radio Flyer red wagon so he could play it while it moved.

I asked the man what the instrument was and he said “It’s a stamenphone.” Indeed, it looked like what you might see inside the flower of a hermaphroditic plant: stamens around a metal ovary and pistil. It was really quite a beautiful instrument. It looked unmanufactured, like he’d made it himself, and I asked if there was another of its kind, and he said “No. It’s my own invention.”

“Oh, so it’s THE stamenphone.” I wondered, and he said yes it was. (A little research post eventum turns up that this man was most likely Ela Lamblin, creator of the stamenphone, and that the instrument “hums and wails empyrean melodies, evocative of whales and cellos and mermaid songs.”)

We sat on the grass and watched the group get ready. Several of the performers were in wheelchairs, and all of them wore royal blue shirts. An electric fiddler (the fiddle was electric, not the…nevermind) started playing a staccato music in a minor key, and the stamenphone man began striking the strings of the stamenphone (you can also use a bow, apparently) to add a kind of spooky tonal volume as yet another guy pulled the wagon with the black handle in front and they all marched off in a line. The dancers followed the musicians and did expressive hand and head movements; the ones standing also crouched and dipped, and then they moved on a bit and stopped and did it all again.

We run into little surprises like this fairly often, and I’m really glad because it means Mara’s experience of the world is richer for it. Who knew that the world’s only stamenphone would be drawn by red wagon right in front of us this night, followed by blue-clad performance artists? We felt like kings and queens of serendipity to encounter such a treat.

The Barber of Ravenna and other stories

[Stop. Go get coffee, then come back and settle in. This post is colossal.]

Many many years ago, back in the Dreamtime near the end of my college days, I used to get my hair cut at a little barber shop on the Ave, on the west side of the street between 41st and 43rd. This was maybe the late ’80s, and it was called University Ave. Barber Shop. It was always a little scary going in there, because the barbers all seemed to be ex-convicts and motorcycle gang members. The owner, Kieth I think his name was, was a big round guy with frizzy red hair who wore, at different times, a handlebar moustache or a goatee. His was the chair closest to the door and he always greeted you when you walked in.

The other barbers all seemed to be Kieth’s personal friends. Over the years they included Doug, who seemed a little non-linear in his loud contributions to the topics du jours and who apparently once went after a customer with a straight razor; and young Dino, a humorless person with one eye who gave a good haircut but who had resentments that he could not keep up with in the telling. “If someone isn’t happy with it, they should tell me. I mean, I’m happy to fix it. That’s my job right? If they don’t tell me how they like it then how do I know, do you know what I mean? I don’t want them to go away feeling like it wasn’t cut the right way, you know? But how do I know if they don’t tell me?” He said this the first time he cut my hair, just after telling me that if I needed him to fix something or if I was dissatisfied with my cut, I should let him know. I inwardly swore that I would NEVER tell Dino if it wasn’t a perfect haircut.

There was a very matter-of-fact woman named Carla there for a while who had a smoker’s voice and a look of absolute disinterest in whatever your problem might be, or those of her shopmates. She cut my hair once and did a great job. I was very relieved, but I never saw her again. When I asked they said “she went up North”, whatever that meant.

So it was like Abraham coming into the fertile vales of Palestine when I finally met Pat G–. Pat was quiet. He was stocky, had trim wire-frame spectacles, a moustache, and a kind of big head of sandy-brown hair, kinda ’70s style. He seemed in his thirties, talked about motorcycling and getting to see his kids from an early failed marriage.  If I remember correctly, he lived in a trailer somewhere. I like him right away. I looked up on the big mirror that ran the length of the wall behind the chairs and noted his name on the little sign. PAT. He seemed safe, a regular joe just trying to get by, concentrating on the head of hair in front of him and doing a good job. He used scissors, too, didn’t just shear and get it over with. He seemed like a tradesman. Sometimes I’d see him standing outside on the sidewalk smoking, and he would recognize me with a wave or a nod, even if I was just passing by.

The pubs and flower shops come and go, but the old gang soldiers on.

The pubs and manicure shops come and go, but the old gang soldiers on.

This shop had a system to ensure that customers who didn’t have a preference were equitably distributed among the barbers. There was a plaque-sized board up above the opposite wall-length mirror (above a waiting bench littered with magazines and hastily abandoned sections of newspaper), and on this board were hooks. A deck of cards had been drilled with a hole so that it hung on one hook, and after each barber finished a customer, he’d take a card from the main deck and move it to his hook. I think the cards had big numbers written in felt pen on the red side. I’m not sure quite how the system worked, except that they would pay attention to who had the smallest number on his showing card. That guy would get the next customer, unless the customer had a preference. I had a preference. I preferred Pat.

Pat disappeared after a year or two, and so I wandered off, unwilling to deal with the stress of entrusting my scalp to any of the other fellows in there. For a while I paid salon prices and got the shampoo etc. treatment at Gene Juarez, because I just wanted it cut right. I have a cowlick in the back and an annoying wave toward the front. For a couple years I just let my hair grow long, down past my shoulders. For a blessed season, I lived on a ranch in Ohio (much more on that someday) and one of the women there would sit me down on an old wooden chair in her front yard — a safe distance from the laundry hanging on the clotheslines — and cut my hair for free. Did an okay job, too. But through the ’90s I bounced from one shop or salon to another, never satisfied, a drifter without a barber.

I thought Angela would want to cut my hair when we married in 1999, but she has always refused. An earlier experience ruining a boyfriend’s coif had left her permanently shear-shy. So when we moved into our first house a year later, I started going to Tom Neva’s four-chair place over on 15th Avenue NE, just north of 65th Street between the Ravenna and Roosevelt neighborhoods. Neva’s was in a little old two-story wooden building in the block south of Roosevelt High School, with goofy doors that opened into each other. A radio in one of the windows aired baseball games and talk shows. There was an old guy named Ted who operated one of the back chairs, and once in a while Tom himself came in for a while and cut hair in the chair by the front window. Tom was trim and handsome, had big, prematurely silver-white hair that made him look like he should be yachting. He dressed in bright blue polo shirts and always seemed like he needed to be elsewhere. Ted was fastidious and a little passive aggressive, moved at the unhurried pace of a man who was no longer trying to prove anything to anybody. He would pause to sharpen his straight-razor on the leather belt, and he would take his time doing this, not just make a few quick whips as I’ve seen others do. Occasionally I would become aware that for several minutes he had been rooting around behind me on the counter for a comb or an attachment.

One day there was a new barber there. He was short and had a belly. He had thick coke-bottle glasses that made his eyes seem huge, a stubbly beard, and a long pony-tail. His teeth seemed bad. I was next so I climbed into the chair and started making small talk. He responded minimally, gruffly, with a voice that I instantly liked. In fact it was a voice I remembered.

“Are you Pat?” I asked, suddenly focusing on the mirror opposite me and seeing my old barber in this man. I couldn’t believe it. He seemed to have aged thirty years in twelve. Life had treated him harshly, but he was still Pat. “I thought I recognized your hair once I got into it,” he said without irony or jest.

And that was a happy day. Pat recognized my hair. My barber recognized my hair, after all the years of separation. My barber.

So for awhile all was well. Pat cut my hair for several years at the Ravenna shop. But things continued to be tough for Pat. He was plagued by health issues, something wrong with his stomach and bowels, and he told me he was an alcoholic. Between the two, his once stout frame had been beaten down. He was living in a room above Tom’s shop, but between snips of the scissors he would confide that that arrangement wasn’t working out very well. I gathered his finances were not in great shape either.

I came in one day and Pat wasn’t there and his name was gone. The new guy, an Iraqi named Amar who had come in one day while I was in Pat’s chair and asked if he could apply to cut hair there, told me that Pat wasn’t cutting hair there anymore. Ted said nothing. The dismayed look on Amar’s face suggested that he had little patience with people who couldn’t rise to meet life’s responsibilities. Amar had fought in the resistance against Saddam Hussein, fled his homeland to take refuge in America, then spent 10 years trying to get his wife and child out of Iraq, cutting hair and sending whatever money he could save to grease the palms of Iraqi officials. To Amar, Pat must have seemed like a lazy drunk who had every opportunity to get it together but just wouldn’t bootstrap it.

I asked where Pat might have gone. Amar pointed across the street to the R&R Hardware, a neighborhood institution of old-fashioned chaos that deserves a treatment I can’t spare at the moment. Like many of the houses and buildings in the neighborhood, R&R was owned by an older man named Drake. “You maybe could ask over there,” said Amar.

The hardware store was like my dad’s nut can only expanded to fill a cavernous building, and with more than nuts and bolts. I asked the young woman behind the counter if she knew how to get ahold of Pat. She said he was in there every so often helping Drake with odd jobs, Drake would know. I left my phone number and asked them to have Pat call me. When he did a few days later, I asked if he was cutting hair at all, and where. He said that Tom had thrown him out — something about the rent money — but he still had some of his tools and the hardware had a shears set he could use. He said to come by tomorrow and we’d figure it out. He didn’t think Drake would mind if we just did it right there in the hardware store.

A great place for a haircut.

A great place for a haircut, but it's BYOB. Note the bus stop pole directly in front of the door.

The next day I went in and introduced myself to Drake, said I was hoping Pat could cut my hair today. He nodded and without much conversation he led me outside. Not once in this tale had anyone expressed any curiosity about why I would be chasing down an alcoholic whose life was falling apart to get a haircut. I followed him around the side of the building to a lean-to carport in the shade of a large walnut tree, which Drake took pains to point out. In this carport, behind a lot of mowers and dressers and other large items, Pat was apparently sleeping or resting on a cot. He was living in there. Drake called to him, and Pat’s rough voice answered that he’d be just a minute. After a while he emerged fumbling with a plastic sack that held his combs and scissors.

That’s how I ended up sitting in a plastic-seated chair on the sidewalk on 15th Avenue NE, the mighty Nile of North Seattle, with a red and white checkered barber’s bib strapped around my neck and flapping in the wind. With an extension cord borrowed from inside the store, Pat sheared one side of my head and then decided to look for a better attachment or some blades or something. There is a bus stop right there, and while Pat was inside, buses would pull up and disgorge a fare or two, or take one on. The passengers on the buses looked at me with that blankness that settles on faces that are observing strange sights through the safety of glass or plexiglass. After one bus roared off spewing exhaust in my face and sending clumps of my hair swirling around in little tornadoes of wind, I saw Ted and Amar standing in the door of Neva’s across the street, smiling. I waved from under the checkered cloth.

I asked Pat where he got his equipment and whether he had everything he needed, but his answer was long and fuzzy, a kind of complaint. Pat was disappearing, and it made me sad. Maybe I just had never noticed it before. People don’t undergo this change overnight. He gave me a good haircut that day, despite the displacement and his failing health. I went back a day or two later and gave Pat my leather side-bag, a wonderful hand-made bag made in Peru by the Gallardo family that I’d had for years, to put his tools in. He accepted it as a matter of course.

The next time I went in, Drake said he hadn’t seen him in a while, that Pat had been in the hospital and that he thought he might be staying with his sister. I don’t remember if I talked with Pat on the phone or if I saw him once more, but I remember him telling me that while he was in the hospital someone got into the shed and stole the bag I’d given him along with his tools. After that, I didn’t go looking for him anymore. There was something of the feeling of standing on the edge of a black hole in my recent years with Pat, and I had gone as far as I could go. I don’t even know why I held on so long. Every life needs to be valued, to be seen. Even as some lives explode and fall apart, someone should stand close and witness it. And it wasn’t charity. Pat was my barber. He gave me the best haircut I could get. He recognized the arcane and invisible intentions of my hair.

Except for the time he called me back on the phone, Pat never once, that I can recall, used my name.

I started going back to Neva’s and having Amar cut my hair. He was quick and did a good job. But Tom sold the place to whomever was buying up the block to redevelop it, and Ted and Tom and Amar moved operations to Lake City. I was out on the drifts again, for awhile going to Dao, a young Asian woman who had bought a little place further east on 65th from an old guy named Greg (or something similar) and left his name on it. She did an okay job but it wasn’t the same. There was another old guy on 65th, right down the alley from us, who cut hair in his apartment, or rather he slept and cooked and watched TV in his shop. His blinds were always dark and he cut only by rare appointment. He too had health issues, and imposed upon his customers and friends to go get his groceries for him. He had grown up across the freeway from where we lived near 58th, before the freeway was there, and he remembered when the streets went all the way through and which families lived where. There was something horribly depressing about getting my hair cut there, and I didn’t go back.

This is what they get for laughing. Just kidding. The owner probably made serious bank for this property, and now they're cutting hair up in Lake City.

This is what they get for laughing. Just kidding. The owner probably made some serious bank on the sale of this property, and now Tom and posse are cutting hair up in Lake City.

I went into a salon in the University Village a few years ago and was lucky to be served by Allison, a bright, pretty, professional and conversational woman who always seemed to ask questions that led to me talking a lot about myself. She had that gift. I would try to turn the tables on her, but she was better. I learned only that she was from Casper Wyoming (or was it Cheyenne?), and she was studying English Lit and French. She became Angela’s stylist, too, and she and her boyfriend ended up taking Angela’s dance class (Angela teaches partner dancing — waltz, foxtrot, swing, etc.). But she left the salon to travel in Europe. I tried several of her colleagues at the same salon, but getting haircuts in a salon is expensive when it’s not by someone your hair absolutely connects with.

We enter the present time. For years now, when I leave work downtown I catch the #316 or #76, both of which buses travel south on Third Avenue before turning and catching the freeway north. Where I catch the bus, up in what I suppose is called the financial district, people on the street are busy professionals rushing purposefully here and there. Further south, between Columbia and Yesler, Third Avenue’s citizenry consists increasingly of people standing in one place, either because they are shouting at nothing, or because they have forgotten where they were going, or have no place to go. Or they have met someone they know, which happens more down there than in the fincancial district. They huddle in pairs or groups, lending cigarettes, ears. The center of this neighborhood is a recovery house between James and Yesler. The place always has a firetruck out in front of it. I think there are a lot of overdoses in the doorways there. Right around the corner from this building there’s a little place I’ve seen often from the bus window, a hole in the wall, actually in the basement of the same building. Clean Cut Barber Shop. The doorway is off the slant of James Street, which swallows the place as it rises to Third. It has the red, white and blue barber colors painted around it. For a while now I’ve been thinking I’d go in there.

I’m always surprised at how my imagination of things does not match reality. I’ve always imagined that there would be a gruff old guy in this barber shop, an old pot-bellied white guy or an old thin black man, smoking a cigar and leaning on his chair while waiting for that rare occurance, a customer.  The place is a little off the heavily trodden paths of the professional classes, and there isn’t a thriving residental neighborhood nearby. I imagined the place would be a throwback to the ’50s. He’d grouse about how the neighborhood had gone to the dogs. He wouldn’t rush, but he’d give a simple haircut quickly. He’d express strong opinions about whatever was on the radio.

Miguel's Clean Cut Barbershop on James Street. Just beyond the normal roaming radius of the white-collar dollar.

Miguel's Clean Cut Barber Shop on James Street. Just beyond the normal roaming radius of the white-collar dollar.

I ducked my head to go in the door of this place last Friday on my lunch hour, and to my surprise there were three barbers and three chairs and three customers in those chairs, and on the little chairs against the wall there were three more customers waiting. I made to sit, but the barber nearest the door, a young guy with a long ponytail and a streak of pink in his hair, interrupted me mid-squat to ask if I’d called ahead. Surprised, I said no, that the sign had said “Walk-ins Welcome”. He laughed. “Well, you’re welcome to walk in, but I can’t take you today. I’m full up.” I must have looked dumbfounded as my mental picture was hastily being reconfigured to match this reality, like a stage set being struck to be replaced by another, because he said he might be able to squeeze me in at 5:45, last one of the day.

I said I’d try him again the next week. Monday I called and made an appointment with the same guy. Miguel. He’s the owner. When I walked in he was the only barber there, and he was just finishing up Mr. Bickerstaff, an elderly black man.

“Three o’clock?” he asked. I said yes.

He went back to telling Mr. Bickerstaff that he reaked of cigarettes. A mild note of surprise came from the old gent, but Miguel insisted. “Really, Mr. Bickerstaff, it’s pretty strong. You can’t smell it because you’ve been smoking, but it’s pretty strong. I wouldn’t have said anything but it’s something that I think you should be aware of.”

I was immediately charmed by this, a barber doing the hard task of being honest about people’s odors. Mr. Bickerstaff paid and shuffled out, and Miguel turned to me and patted the chair.

“Are you Christian?”

“No. I’m Matt.”

“No, I mean do you call yourself Christian? As in are you Muslim, Christian, Jewish?”

I hesitated at the chair. “I don’t like to call myself anything, but I’m Christian. Does that mean you won’t give me a haircut?”

He laughed. He said he had a question for me. I said I wasn’t qualified to speak for Christianity, but he waved me off. He said his father was a minister of one kind of church, maybe Baptist, and his mother was some official or other in the Assembly of God. “Which makes me an atheist,” he joked smartly, and hit me on the shoulder to absolve me of the duty of a response.

Heaven is now, and the world is full of surprises.

Heaven is now, and the world is full of surprises.

“No, but seriously, I was just reading a scripture last night, like Luke 17:2 or somewhere like that, where the people are asking Jesus about where the kingdom of God is, or what it is, or whatever, and he says, he says, ‘the kingdom of God is within you’. I mean, what?! I mean, what is that all about, man? Christians are always talking about heaven as a place OUT THERE where you go after you die.”

I hadn’t been ready for this at all. I looked around for evidence of mass caffeine consumption, and offered my opinion that it was certainly an interesting thing for Jesus to have said and that more Christians should probably reflect on that passage.

“That’s exactly what I’m sayin’, man! I mean, it’s like if heaven is eternity… well, eternity has no past and no future, right? There’s only this moment now, so heaven is right here, the kingdom of God is right now.”

I smiled as he kept talking, and he worked as fast as he talked. I’m a short taper cut and it’s been several months, so he started with the shears, but then switched to scissors and moved with a rhythm that matched the high and animated cadence of his voice. He went on to say that he’s been an atheist all his life and now this one little line has got him thinking it all through again.

“Wait,” I said. “You’re about to take a razor to my head while you’re having a life-altering epiphany?”

“Oh, this kinda stuff happens to me all the time,” he dodged. “Next week it’ll be something about physics.”

Some kids came in and he let them take out his trash. Maybe they needed some cash and he paid them to do odd jobs. Every once in a while someone would pass by on the street and holler a shout out and he would respond with a shout and a wave.

“Miguel, paso!”

“Paso!”

The long years of wandering may be over at last. I think I have found my barber. He’s young and apparently healthy, and he’s very present. It gave me a pang of sadness about losing Pat, and about how Pat seemed to turn to dust right in front of me. But you lose people and you meet people.

I think Miguel and I are going to be together for a long time. And now I’m one of those people who stops by to give him a shout out, because when I walked over there the next day on my lunch hour to take the picture of his shop, he was cutting hair. I ducked my head in the doorway and waved. “Miguel!”

His face lit up and he said “Hey man! What’s going on?”

“I’m just taking a walk.”

He paused with the scissors, seemed for a moment to put all of his focus and intention into a deep nod, and said, “it’s a good day for a walk.”


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The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt


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