Posts Tagged 'Seattle'

Up on the Roof

I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be”

Up on the Roof by the Drifters

For someone who would rather be far from the city, it surprises me how much enjoyment I get from simply looking at it, examining its contours and angles and spaces and contrasts. Most of you know about me that I’m drawn to the odd folds of the city where it seems to be keeping its history. But sometimes, just the skyline itself appears wondrous to me, even buildings I don’t particularly cherish. There’s something about the way the buildings seem to move around in relation to each other and the way light brings out the edges and faces and the way shadow gathers in corners and valleys that keeps me interested in the whole picture, all the time.

The buildings along Post Alley in the afternoon. The tennis court and parking lot are three or four floors above the street. The two low brick buildings are the Colonial (furthest away) and Grand Pacific hotels.

When you begin to know a city you become acquainted with particular landmarks first. Maybe the first office building you worked in, maybe a historic landmark like the Smith Tower or a cultural landmark like the Experience Music Project. The piece you know sits among pieces you know less well or not at all, so the cityscape is like a hodge-podge of known and unknown, familiar and less familiar, and yet it’s all on a huge scale, so that you can get down in it and looking at it from one place inside it gives you a different arrangement of those knowns and unknowns than you get standing somewhere else inside it, and the relationships change when you look at it from different vantage points outside it as well. It never appears the same way, even from the same spot, because then the season may be different and the light accordingly crafts each object a certain way for that day, for that weather, and even the buildings themselves are changing, new ones being added and old ones quietly being removed. More of it becomes familiar to you as you spend time in it, but you can never know it all.

The building engineer checks the cooling system just as the morning fog is lifting.

For me, that shifting interplay of known and unknown is like life itself. Mara knows that the Columbia Tower is the tallest building in Seattle, but sometimes she asks me why today it’s shorter than other buildings nearby, which it isn’t, I explain, it’s just that buildings that are closer to us seem to be taller. Our eyes, then, feed us raw information that is almost useless until it can be understood through the filter of experience, sometimes through waiting, sometimes through movement and exploration and always through attention to relationships. So many things in life are like that for me, especially as I get older and I know my life better. The knowns become great or small for a time, or they become occluded, but I can trust that they are still where I know them to be; older unknowns are there in shadowy anonymous lumps like Donald Rumsfeld’s “things that we don’t know we don’t know” and new things startle me and for a while I may not have a way to harness them to the grid.

The mayhem of First and Second avenues disappears. Note the bright ivory-hued backs of the Beebe Building (the higher one) and the old Hotel Cecil (the lower one) on First Avenue, and the front of the red brick Holyoke Buidling across the street.

A month or so ago the building engineer for the building I work in, neither of which I will name in this post so as not to get him in trouble, gave me a key to the door that accesses the roof so that I could take some photos from up there. “Just don’t fall off”, he said. The building is a six-story red brick rectangle with a green cornice and prominent scrolled Ionic capital ornaments built from 1904 to 1905 as a warehouse for goods shipped in and out of the waterfront, which is hard by. The building looks itself like a large brick with windows in it. It was restored late in the last century, but earlier, when John Wayne made the cop movie McQ, it was an old wreck of a warehouse that the city did not mind having a police car driven into and exploding into flame against.

The old post office, the Exchange Building, and Smith Tower, among others, struggle to emerge from a blanket of fog.

A closer look at the fogbound Art Deco ramparts of the post office.

The building is not tall enough to enable you to look down on the surrounding buildings, but there are other places for that. It’s actually good for something else: walking around on the roof of my building puts you high enough above the streets that they disappear unless you are looking off one of the corners, while still being nestled among other buildings. And not only that, the canyons that the streets lie in compress and vanish when you look across them so that the buildings on different blocks all look as though they are coplanar, part of a single multifaceted backdrop. In this way the “hustle and bustle” part of city life — the sidewalk, that is — literally vanishes, and all you are left with is the part of the city that children draw with crayons. It’s no wonder being “up on the roof” is so often associated with safety, retreat and romance. I’m thinking of the 1962 Drifters song and Marlon Brando’s rooftop scene with Eva Marie Saint in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront, and any number of other cultural classics that have to do with rooftops in the city.

Above and below are some of the photos I took up on the roof on different days. Hey, if you are — or have powers of sway over — the keyholder to a view of downtown Seattle that you think I need to see (whether a wide vista or a small nook or cranny), please let me know. I’m willing to wear a hardhat.

The same scene as above but without fog.

Looking eastish up Madison Street over the roof of the Alexis Hotel, née Globe.

The view south. Hi Maritime Building!

Seriously, the Federal Post Office and the Exchange Building are loads of fun to take pictures of.

West by northwest to the Seneca Street off-ramp from the viaduct. I confess to bumping up the saturation on this one because the day was so dismally gray.

Piggy back

A pig had been standing on the corner of Pike Street and Post Alley in the Pike Place Market since 1986 and as far as I know had not moved until last month.

The pig is made of bronze and is named Rachel after the prize winning Whidbey Island sow that modeled for the sculpture. It’s actually a piggy bank, and every year, so it is said, the Market Foundation pulls between USD$6,000 and $9,000 out of her in currencies from around the world.

A pig in a pinch. Note the handmade signs visible behind the blonde woman's head. Click to see larger.

Whenever I go visit my friends up at the Post Alley Seattle’s Best Coffee, I walk past Rachel coming and going, and she is almost never not covered with children having their photo taken on it. Many is the time I have broken stride momentarily or walked around a person holding up their iPhone in order to avoid walking through their shot.   

So it is remarkable that I didn’t even notice that for the past month, the pig has been absent. Granted, the market has been under exensive renovation (“so it can stay 104 years old” goes the slogan) and there have been barricades and cones and yellow tape and temporary plywood walls directing and corraling pedestrian traffic for months, so part of the reason I didn’t realize she’d vacated her post was simply that there has been so much of moving things around.

A crowd of Rachel fans looks on. Note the small boys ready to spring. Click to see larger.

Today, however, on my way to meet my friend Erik for a coffee, I came up the stairs from Post Alley and found a circle of people gathering around a handsome, very old truck as if something were happening. The pig was in the back of the truck, and my first thought was…where are they taking the pig? At the coffee shop, Vangie told us that Rachel had actually been hit by a taxi cab in February and roughed up pretty badly and that she was actually returning today after having been away for repairs.

You could have knocked me over with a 5 Deutschmark note. Sometimes I think I’m very observant, and sometimes…well, sometimes I think I’m not very observant.

Erik had known about it. Much of his immediate family lives on Whidbey Island, which for you outtatowners is just up the Pugest Sound a few leagues. According to what Erik has heard, the artist who originally brought Rachel to immortal life and who was called upon to make the repairs lives on the island.

In case you think you might heist this piggy bank, the rebar fastenings and the expression on this man's face should dissuade you. Note plaques on pole and under worker's foot. Click to see larger.

Erik and I took our coffees over and joined the crowd. The men in reflective vests had already hoisted the pig off the truck and within seconds of setting her on the ground were having to pause while kids hopped on and off her back. Eventually they taped her off so they could fasten her down to the concrete in the same place where she has stood all these years.  

The Return of Third Avenue

The shades of character that neighborhoods, streets, blocks, or even particular corners take on has always intrigued me. There are a few places downtown that have traditionally been “dodgy” (as Hugh Grant says it in Love Actually), where I have been aware that I’m slightly more aware of the people around me — like the hair on my neck is trying to act as antennae for potential trouble from the panhandlers, the crazy yelling people, or the groups of angry young men or even young women that make moving about in the city so invigorating. But one block over, or a block or two away down the same avenue, things are completely different. I’m always watching to see how and why these pockets of dubious character form, take hold, maintain themselves, and maybe finally get replaced by a different character.

Give me First Avenue any day. Real local shops, human scale, a well-peopled way.

When I was growing up, if we mentioned Seattle’s First Avenue we snickered, because it’s where ladies of ill repute plied the oldest trade (supposedly — I never saw any of that trade’s practitioners and I had to cross First at Marion to get onto the ferry as a teenager to visit my friend Cam on Bainbridge Island). The street’s name was synonymous with harlotry and sleezy businesses. There are still one or two businesses that hark back to that time but in the main First Avenue is now  upscale, clean, and reputable. Because I pay attention to the built environment and the social environments that it either nurtures or discourages, First Avenue is my path of choice if I have to walk on a North-South axis. There are lots of coffee shops and cafes and restaurants and retail stores, a great stationer, and enough older brick and stone buildings to retain a human scale.

Second Avenue through the main part of downtown (say Marion through Stewart) is boring — made up now of the empty concrete “plazas” and courts at the bases of skyscrapers, interchangeable burrito joints hidden in their deep shadows. (There are some exceptions to the monotony, which I’ll treat of in other posts someday). At five oclock these areas become deserted. Even the disenfranchised prefer places with more human energy. It’s not run down. It’s just lifeless. As long as I’ve been walking around downtown Second has been a safe street you could walk down without being bothered — except for the intersection at Pike. 

Second and Pike seemed to me like a drug-deal corner for ages, and in truth the two blocks of Pike Street from Third to First (where Pike meets its market) remain the corrider for people you don’t want to bump into very rudely. A few years ago, the police would ensconce themselves daily at the parking lot on the southeast corner of Second and Pike, and even ran a needle exchange program there for a while to help reduce the spread of AIDS. The grocery or tobacco shop just east of this parking lot was secured behind a drop-down metal gate at night. I was always nervous around there. Still, seventy yards further east and you were on the other side of Third, and that was a “nice” area. Tables with crisp white linens were set out on the sidewalk in front of cafes. A block from the needle exchange.

The Maximus Minimus truck now sells pork sandwiches where the pusherman used to sell drugs. Photo taken earlier this year.

The Newmark Cinema went in at Second and Union (one block south of Pike) during the late ’80s or early ’90s as the anchoring tenant of a large new building there, but the theater failed because — in my opinion — it was too close to Second and Pike. People didn’t like to walk around there. As I mentioned, Second Avenue through most of downtown doesn’t have enough sidewalk life to feel inviting, but then when you get closer to Pike, the kind of sidewalk life you encounter is the kind you want to pass through quickly, not queue up for a movie and pull out your wallet in.

In recent years, however, the block of Pike between Third and Second has come up, and I think it is part of a revitalization of Third Avenue. Because of the presence of the world famous Farmer’s Market at the west end of Pike (a chaotic place friendly to the dodgy element), I think the blocks immediately eastward on Pike will always be a little greasy. But between Second and Third the police cars come less frequently and the needle exchange vans are gone. The old grocery/tobacco place was replaced two years ago by a second installment of Mae Phim Thai, a lunchtime institution that is still line-out-the-door every day down on Columbia below First. Soon after Mae Phim opened its new restaurant there, a gourmet popcorn joint went in right next to it.

Because of the many nice shops and restaurants nestled among the towers of finance on those streets, if you walk along Fourth or Fifth Avenue you will share the sidewalk mostly with business people and retail shoppers during the day and with a few theatergoers, happy-hour revelers and shoppers in the evenings. If you walk along Second, two short blocks toward the bay, you will encounter business people during the day and no one at all in the evening, because there aren’t any nice restaurants and there aren’t any shops. But between these two avenues, Third is this unusual blend. It has the Post Office, which until recently has been the third ugliest building in town and which sits directly across from Benaroya Hall, our symphony’s home. There is a fine restaurant called Wild Ginger at the same intersection (University), and there is a McDonald’s on Third and Pine. Because of this mix and because Third is the main bus corridor, both daytime and evening traffic consists of the upper class element threading their way among other people with considerably less to lose, and late at night Third Avenue is virtually an avenue of urban decay, gangs of youths yelling and strutting across the street in front of buses and clustering into an impenetrable wall in front of McDonald’s.

Bruno's single-handedly held down the west side of Third Avenue for years. Now the sign for the IGA supermarket is visible to the north. Photo taken earlier this year.

Third has some exceptional old buildings like the Arctic Hotel, the Dexter Horton Building, the Telephone Building and the Northern Life Tower. Some other time I’ll talk about some of these, along with the ugliest two buildings in the downtown core, which are also on Third. But Third has two particular blocks, the blocks between University and Union and the one between Union and Pike, that have been problematic up until now. The old Woolworths building, now a Ross budget clothing store, takes up half the block between Union and Pike but only has windows at the corner. The rest is a bare wall without awnings, so it bakes in the summer sun and offers no relief from the drizzle during the rest of the year. That side of the block also contains a Bartell’s Drugs, which is handy but attracts trouble. While I was talking with Ben Gant at his newsstand the other day three men came running out of the Bartell’s. The one in front was brought down to the sidewalk by the two chasing him, who turned out to be store detectives. In the low buildings on the other side of the street there were mainly empty or not-often-occupied spaces, with the exception of Bruno’s Pizzeria, which has been there a long time. South a block, between University and Union, the Post Office and the symphony hall face off over the heads of hundreds of bus patrons. The Third and Union bus stops create throngs on both sides of the street. The Post Office, with its cheerless facade and offensive parking garage, had the audacity to replace the old neo-Classical Post Office and the Pantages Theater, the Pantages having had the audacity to replace the neo-Gothic First Presbyterian church [UPDATE 5/2010: Paul Dorpat has posted a thorough treatment of this section of Third on his blog, here]. Along this side there are again no awnings and until recently only a few windows to break the dread monotony of this thoughtless architecture. The Benaroya, while inside a paragon of high culture,  is outside a block-long refuge from the rain and sun for people wanting to light up a cigarette while waiting for the bus. One of our greatest architechtural treasures is a building I can’t stand walking in front of.

The bright facing and new windows are long overdue, but it's still a depressing stretch of sidewalk. Photo taken earlier this year.

All this combined with the McDonalds a block north, in my opinion, has kept this section of Third in the doldrums. But a few developments have begun to make things look brighter for the neighborhood. I’ve already blogged about the resurrection of Ben Gant’s newsstand, which is the only spot of life along the wall of the Woolworths building. The aforementioned Thai and gourmet popcorn places appeared on Pike around the corner, and the addition of a Starbucks directly on this corner gave them a reliable friend nextdoor. Last year, in the wasteland between Wild Ginger and the Starbucks, a new upscale Kress IGA grocery went in next to Bruno’s, which for a number of years had to hold down the entire block by itself. The opening of a supermarket on this long-forsaken block surprised me, but a moment’s reflection reminded me that the regentrification of Belltown a few blocks north provides a sufficient customer base for a large store.  Lastly, as if finally realizing that it was sharing the block with greatness across the street, the Post Office got a face-lift last winter and spring. Now it has some fake windows (I assume they’re fake — I don’t think they cut holes in the building for this) that do wonders for the upper floors. [UPDATE 5/2010: The windows are not fake. On dark winter days after I wrote this post I could see in through the tinting, and the fact that I never previously noticed the windows — plain as day — demonstrates that the facade was so glum that I couldn't look at it.]

Of course I’m in favor of the new shops going in, and I especially like the Post Office’s makeover. It all helps create a sense of place. However, I still prefer the sense of place two blocks west on First. A lot of people are crazy there, but they aren’t all standing in a line to form a gauntlet of cigarette smoke. 

Puttin’ the realness in

It has frequently occurred in my life that I will pass by an opportunity or service being offered an hundred times, noting to myself that I would rarely if ever make use of that service or product and wondering how such a person or business can continue to operate when the service or product they offer is so manifestly uncompelling, later to discover a need for just such a service or product and then be unable to find it.

I used to wear what I have always called “tennis shoes” all the time, Reebok’s classic white during my thirties and New Balance in latter years. Hard leather shoes, what I call “man shoes”, have always hurt my feet. If I had to wear them for a wedding, I was irritable and couldn’t wait to get out of them. My company’s dress code is Seattle Software Startup; T-shirts and sneaks by summer and fleece and sneaks by winter, jeans the year long. But I decided several years ago that I wanted to look my age, not like someone trying NOT to look his age.  I thought I’d try to find a comfortable pair of man shoes, at least for my workday, and I landed in a pair of brown Rockport Margins, size 10.

I have lived in these shoes ever since. They’re unbelievably comfortable, and I walk a lot so I’m the one to ask. In my travels around the city I have never felt like I had to get them off my feet, in fact never thought about them at all, except, when passing an angled glass doorway, how dashing I look in them.

About six months ago I realized that my Rockports were starting to look pretty beat up, and it occurred to me to go looking for a sidewalk shoe-shine man. I’d seen several over the years, or maybe I’d seen the same guy on different occasions. They’d be sitting on a low stool against a wall and as well-dressed professional men would walk by they’d say, “hey, brother, let me brighten those up for you!” After I started wearing my Rockports, the offer was extended to me. If I was not in a hurry I smiled and said no thanks, and if I was I ignored their pitches. Now that I could see myself availing myself of the services of a shoe-shine man, I reasoned that it would be easy to find them precisely because it had lately been so hard to avoid them.

Months went by, however, and I saw no sidewalk shoe-shine men. I walked everywhere looking for them. Or rather, everywhere I walked I kept an eye out for them. I had a visual memory in my head but couldn’t remember which street it had been on. I stumbled across a photo on Flickr of an old man who, according to the caption, used to sit at First and Pike, near the Market, but the photo poster couldn’t remember seeing him around in a long time. Others suggested I step into Nordstrom’s, Seattle’s  famous upscale clothier, because they had a bank of chairs there where shoe-shine men operated. But I didn’t want the shoe-shine factory experience. I didn’t want to read the paper in a chair while someone worked quietly on my shoes as though I were not attached to them.

I wanted a sidewalk vendor. Because that’s how I roll, that’s why.

Today on my lunch break I came out of Barnes and Noble at Seventh and Pine, where I’d been doing research on an author I thought I might want to read (in the end, not), and my cell phone rang. It was my wife, Angela, to remind me that I’d be on my own for sustenance tonight, since she and my daughter would be getting home late from some friends’, and would I mind drawing a bath for Mara around 6:30? Just past Sixth Avenue, while I was focusing on Angela’s words to translate and log the salient data (“eat solo – bath 6:30″), I became aware that someone I was passing on the sidewalk seemed to be shouting at my feet.

It was a shoe-shine man, sitting on a stool (I assume, or a bucket; his jacket covered it so I couldn’t see it). He was a middle-aged black man, with a close-cropped grey beard, lean face and brightly sparkling eyes. He had a metal shoe post in front of him. Around him on a blanket or cloth he had laid tubes of lotion, brushes, rags, tins of Kiwi polish of various colors, and other tools of his trade. From the ground up, he was dressed in a pair of black shoes (Echoes, he said) that shined like the chrome on a limo, black trousers, a black shirt or sweatshirt, a long black coat, and a black cap. He looked like a crow, perched there, and he made the movement of a crow with his head when he cawed at me.

“Shine!” he was yelling, as though he might induce my scuffed shoes to change their appearance merely by commanding them verbally. “Shine!” he yelled again. “Right here, brother. Shine!”

I stopped and turned, finally noticing him fully. “Oh, honey I gotta go. I just found a shoe-shine man and I’m going to get my shoes done”. The man heard what I was saying and started reaching for his gear as I signed off.

I asked him how much.

“Aw, man just give me a tip,” he said. “Something. Anything. Five bucks. Just help me out.”

I asked how long it would take. I was already late back to the office.

“‘Bout a minute and a half. Just want to shine them up for you.” He patted the shoe post and I put my foot up in front of him. He squirted some Cadillac Boot & Shoe Care leather lotion on the toe and started working it in with his hands, which were strong and dark and creased.

Anything you do good, brother,

you do with your hands.”

From this moment on he did not stop talking. He spoke in a pleasant mix of descriptions of his process, assurances and exclamations, and paraphrases of what he’d said the instant before. I don’t recall a lot of what he said at first, because I was a little preoccupied with trying to figure out how I should comport myself during this transaction. Physically, I mean. What I should endeavor to have my bearing look like. I’ve said before that while there are plenty of blacks in Seattle, I haven’t mingled with a lot of them. The Seattle brand of racism is polite disregard. My awareness of this gives me an absurd Woody-Allenish neurosis whenever I’m in company of color, a fear that no matter what I do, I will do or say something offensive. In this case, I doubted this man was thinking about black or white, but rather brown, the color of my shoes, which he was trying to bring out with his lotions and sprays. But I was hyper-aware of how things looked to passers-by. I felt a discomfort in standing over someone who was working at a lower level, and attending my person, as it were. The thought of people ministering to your very person, your body or clothes, as though you are a king, or a god — well, it’s a little creepy.

Thankfully, in this country it’s a service someone offers and that you pay for, not a dishonor loaded onto the backs of the oppressed. But then again, standing tall there as a black man toiled beneath me just had that sort of lordly feel, and after all, we did have slaves in this country. I wondered what to do with my hands. It was a gorgeous day that made me want to breathe deep and place my arms akimbo, but that felt as though it might look impatient. I tried resting one hand on my upraised thigh and the other in the pants pocket of the leg that was straight. That felt better; it brought my shoulders in a little. It helped that we were conversing, or at least I was listening. He needed only the merest promptings to continue.

“See that? You know what I’m doing? This here, you know what this is? I’m bringing out the natural color of the leather. See that? I’m working it in like that. I’m working it into all those little cracks and places. That’s gonna put life back in the leather. Make it last. I do it by hand. That’s the right way. Some people think they can do this with a brush. They just brush it in. But that’s just superficial. Anything you do good, brother, you do with your hands. See how I work that in? I’m puttin’ the realness in.”

First he worked the Cadillac lotion into the leather, massaging and spreading and lifting flaps and laces to cover all parts of the exterior of the shoe. Then he spritzed the shoe with something. Then he passed a stick of black polish around the edge of the sole. Next he put the brown Kiwi polish on, again with his fingers, then mixed some tan in as well. Then while that was setting, he did the same to the other shoe. While that one was setting, he took brushes and a rag to the first one. He chattered the while.

“It goes backwards. Business is actually better in the winter. People start wearing shoes again. Stop wearing tennis shoes. I work until 5:30 or 6, you know, people gettin’ out of work about that time. And I get people at lunch time. I figure I work six or eight hours, I’m done. But I like to put my hours in. Especially now. I got to work a little more for the holidays coming.”

I asked him his name. “They call me Shoe Shine Eddie,” he replied. “But you can leave off the Eddie and just call me Shoe Shine. I’ve been shinin’ shoes for nineteen years. I’m always out here. This is my spot. Either here or down there in Pioneer Square. You know where them clubs are? The J&M that just closed down? I go down there. Right on First. First and Washington. Here’s First. And here’s Washington. I’m right there by the J&M. Or by the Bread of Life. I shine shoes over at Occidental too. It’s allright if I get a little black on the brown part. I’m gonna be brushing that. It’s alright. It’s going to be just the right mix of color. This is the brown. I’m putting that color back in. This is about as brown as a shoe should be.”

I said I bet he could tell a lot about folks by their shoes. It was cliche, I knew, but he loved it. His hands stopped moving and he looked up sharp and smiled. “Hohhh. You got that right. I can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. I look at your shoes, now. You get a lot a walking in these shoes. You might be like a reporter or something.”

“I am a writer.”

“Ah, you see? That’s close. That’s the thing about it. I don’t think about it too much, I just say it. And I might be wrong, but I say it anyway. You see this? This is a little bit of tan. I work that in after the brown. Not too much, just a highlight. I know that brother you’re talking about, but he ain’t there no more. First and Pike, that’s right. But he passed on.”

After brushing the shoes, he snapped a grey-brown rag taut and then dove in with it repeatedly, then away, as though he were shining the hood of a cobra — one stroke of the rag each time. Here his whole upper body leaned in quickly and he voiced a loud “hooph” sound, a sound that made people turn and look.

When he was done, the shoes gleamed as they had never gleamed before. I thanked him and gave him a fin. He asked my name and then used it several times while telling me once more the various street corners where I might find him.

I need to do some research on what a fair price is for a shoe-shine because I have a feeling I underpaid. Eddie was really working, and it wasn’t any minute and a half, more like twenty minutes. And he knew his stuff, or at least he put up a convincing bluster. But the bottom line was, the shoes looked good. Walking back to the office, I felt underdressed.

In search of trains

Angela left Friday for a women’s retreat with some of the ladies from church. Unlike me in my reluctance to join in the reindeer games of the tribe of menfolk, my wife is actually inclined to participate in what other women in her world are doing and she really looks forward to the twice annual getaways to Whidbey Island, which leave Mara and I blinking worriedly like orphaned quail. She left a plate of freshly baked cookies, which now mirrors the desperate faces of two people missing Mommy. And it’s only Saturday afternoon.

Actually, I exaggerate. Mara and I have learned to make the most of these occasions. And Angela left us some pea soup.

Today Mara and I decided to go in search of trains. Real ones. Big, working diesel engines. We always see at least one train when we go to Carkeek Park to hike in the woods, play in the playground or mess about on the beach. That was our first destination. It was a chilly day and there were many clouds, but there were also these patches of blue sky, which permitted cascades of sunlight to bless into the world herebelow, momentarily lighting up part of the green bluff between Ballard and Edmonds, as though picking through the foliage to find the best fall color.

"It can't be seen," said Mara about the treasure she was burying at Carkeek. I was surprised at her dramatic use of the passive tense.

"It can't be seen," said Mara about the treasure she was burying at Carkeek. I was surprised at her dramatic use of the passive tense.

We found the usual (and always surprising) number of rocks that look stunning at the water’s edge and not so stunning at home. We also found a small but entire periwinkle shell. It is rare to find one that is not broken, and the only other time we found whole ones, they were occupied by very crabby tenants. Naturally, we brought it home.

But we did not find any trains. Oddly, not a single one came in the hour and a half we were there. But not to worry; we had other tracks up our sleeve, so we headed south. We stopped for blueberry pancakes and biscuits and gravy at a pancake house that we didn’t even know existed, and which was a delightful surprise to stumble on for big breakfastheads like us, and which I’m not going to describe because Angela might read this and Mara and I are planning to take her there as a surprise.

After brunch we motored south across the Fifteenth Avenue Bridge in Ballard and got off at Emerson, then hooked into the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad industrial labyrinth that sprawls between Emerson and Dravus and centers around a large roundhouse. NO TRESSPASSING signs were posted. I hadn’t really expected that we would be able to drive right up and get out of the car and climb onto locomotives, but I thought there might be someone around in a hardhat that might be kind to a dad and kid out appreciating the railroad. At the very least I figured that some fast talking might prevent me being made to “taste dirt” by Homeland Security and my child being handed over to CPS before we could have a looksee.

I should pause to note that my appreciation of large, exhaust-belching behemoths of the Industrial Age, the age I blame for many of society’s present ills, is mysterious to me and possibly hypocritical. I know that the railroad barons were crooks, and that the issuing of huge grants of land to railroads in the service of “Manifest Destiny” (don’t get me started) helped create many land-use problems that endure today. And locomotives are thoroughly unsustainable — they don’t, after all, burn corn oil.* Still, I just love trains. I think it has something to do with the way they go. Running on tracks parallel to but just beyond our world of cars automatically gives even the grimiest and noisiest of them the aspect of friendly guardians. You glimpse them from the back seat of your parents’ Ford Galaxy 500 as a child, a smudge of rusting metal between buildings or trees, and you sense the slow movement through an intuitive analysis of distances and positionings that accounts for your forward motion and the speed at which buildings and trees appear to be moving past you. Or suddenly they are running alongside the car, full throttle, and you wonder how something so huge as a freight train could have sneaked up on you like that in the middle of Nebraska.

The roundhouse was curled with its back to us, so we couldn’t see the turntable, and I was leery about nosing around on a property whose owners forbade tresspassing clearly and explicitly and in writing. But a sign saying that “all visitors must check in at the office –>” seemed to suggest that visitors were not unheard of, which was a tick in the plus column. We found the office and went in. A woman in an orange vest and a man sat behind a counter, just like at a dentist’s office. There was a monitor in the corner that showed what was going on out in the yard from a camera way up on some pole; lines of tracks, some with hoppers or tank cars on them, stretched away in the distance; the orange and black locomotives of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (now officially shortened to “BNSF” — the KFC of over-the-rails commerce) sat with their headlights on, but nothing much moved. Three burly guys in orange vests and white hardhats stood in front of the counter talking to the two admins. One of these, an elderly guy with silvery beard and moustache, saw Mara walking in next to me and said, “here’s the new employee.” Mara slid behind my legs.

The section we stood in has its six doors open at the far end. The office is the small extension at the top of the building.

The section we stood in has its six doors open at the far end. The office is the square extension at the top of the image. Image purloined from Microsoft Virtual Earth/Bing Maps.

While the five concluded their business I picked her up in my arms and held her and pointed to the locomotive I could see through the window in the door between the office and the roundhouse proper. I imagine the people who work here don’t call it a roundhouse, even though it has the classic roundhouse shape and function. They probably say “shed” or “shop” or something.

Presently the man behind the counter asked if I needed something. I uttered my hope that we might get close to the turntable or some of the locomotives, though we knew everyone must be very busy. 

“Closer than you are right now?” he said, and scrunched his face to indicate that was unlikely. Silverhair, who seemed quite gamesome, said to Scrunchy, “You want me to give them a tour?”

“They’re not PPE’d,” said Scrunchy. I recognized the acronym, and said “oh, we’d need personal protection equipment, right?” 

“I could give ‘em mine,” said Silverhair.

Lady seemed about to go for this, but Scrunchy worried it down by the weight of the rules. By way of concession, he said we could go through the door and stand just inside it. “They’re bringing one in right now.”

I thanked them and carried Mara through the metal door just in time to see number 1573, an orange and black hood unit, pull into the far-rightmost of six bays that this part of the roundhouse held. We missed the shop door opening and closing, and it was a good fifty feet away off to the right, so we only really saw the front of it glide forward and stop.

There were five locomotives in this portion of the roundhouse, four hood units and a switcher. The switcher and two of the hood units had the orange and black paint scheme of the new BNSF. One of the other large engines was liveried in Burlington Northern’s old green and white, and the last wore the blue and yellow of the old Santa Fe line. The floor where we stood was elevated above the tracks and the locomotives came forward in a slot or bay that allowed maintenance workers to walk around them at the level of the doors and platforms. A staircase in front of us, its metal rails painted yellow, led down to the basement, which, if we could have visited it, would have been a strange place of nothing but large wheels and fuel tanks. Above us, metal beams suspended from the cieling held what I took to be winches and hooks for moving large generators and stuff around. I don’t know if winches are really involved or if generators are among the items hoisted around in this place, but I’m out of my element here. The word “generator” is the only noun I can think of that sounds heavy and industrial and like something a diesel engine might have as a major part. Similarly, when I open my box of words for painting the picture of heavy industrial work being done, there aren’t many words in it besides “winch”.  Sad, but there it is. I stand in a cavernous room chock full of real objects that do real stuff and have no language to describe what I see. For all I knew, every item in here had a specialized name like Pulasky. I had my camera with me but didn’t even want to ask if I could snap a picture, lest the admins begin to wonder if I was really a clever OSHA inspector, bringing the kid along as a ruse.

Spying on the work crews.

Spying on the work crews.

The air had a slight haze and the place had the flinty smell of a smithy — metal and fire, or rather greasy parts and electrical sparks. I asked Mara what she smelled, hoping that by activating a conscious olfactory registration she might be able to remember this event all her life. Me holding her. The brightly colored locomotives. The hardhats. When she’s sixty-five and I’m a hundred and eight or gone, she’ll have this vivid memory and say “My dad must have taken me to a roundhouse.”

“Smoke,” she said.

Mara didn’t want to leave. We took it in for awhile. One young man in overalls (and his PPE, of course) worked in darkness in the cab of the green and white locomotive directly in front of us. His flashlight bobbed around. After about ten minutes we walked back into the office and asked where we might go to see the trains moving around. Scrunchy was doubtful. For one thing — he moved a joystick or some keyboard keys and the view on the monitor panned around the yard — there wasn’t much going on. One shift was just coming off and another going on. For another, “they” had been “tightening up” around here with “stuff like that”, meaning we were officially unwelcome to poke around.

I said I understood, but couldn’t help asking, “if we’d brought our PPE, could we have had a tour?” referring to what Silverhair had said earlier.

“He’s supposed to be doing some work,” replied Scrunchy with amusement. “The guys that volunteer for one thing are usually trying to get out of doing something else.”

We quit the BNSF property and drove back out onto Emerson, but we circled the switchyard along various back alleys. At one point we got out and stood on a bridge watching an orange-clad work crew spread some gravel that was being deposited at the north end of the yard. I was surprised how little security there was in some areas. On the unfenced western edge of the yard, right next to a dead end road that anyone can access, a line of locomotives stood with their engines running.  We could have heisted them and been halfway to Kalama before anyone knew about it.  

We considered it...

We considered it...

I haven’t given up on the idea of wrangling a tour of the roundhouse for Mara someday. It has to be possible. I’m sure that high-level railroad functionaries’ kids get to ride locomotives right onto the turntable. But I learned today that it might be a good idea to carry a vest and hardhat for me and small versions for Mara in the car. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d been able to say, “Oh the PPE is no problem, we’ve got our own. We’ll be right back. Come on Mara, let’s go get our helmets on. We’re going to have a tour!” 

*I’m not positive this is true. In fact as soon as I wrote it a memory, perhaps a phantom one created just now, seemed to worm into my head of an article about trains that run on corn-based ethanol (and anyway, cf. Hamlet, Horatio, heaven and earth).


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