Archive for November, 2009

Twice warmed by Country Journal

“Me I’ll sit and write this love song
as I all too seldom do
build a little fire this midnight
it’s good to be back home with you”

— Jethro Tull

We like to burn wood in our fireplace, when burn bans are not in effect, of course. I suppose firewood is cheaper here than in North Platte, Nebraska, but even so, we scrounge rounds where we can. I used to drive a Ford F150 pickup, and every once in a while I’d pass a yard where a tree had recently been felled and chopped into rounds, and if the owner was nearby or a “FREE” sign had been set out, I’d be able to stop and wrestle several of them up into the pickup to split later.

My old “buckboard”, as I called the truck, is gone now, and we have only our Subaru Forester, so it is usually Angela who notices the rounds by the roadside. She tells me about them, but it’s seldom I can find time to get back to wherever it was, and then the Subaru doesn’t hold a lot. Still, we score frequently enough that I always seem to have a few rounds to split. Scrounging rounds is fun and economically sound, and it encourages one to think ahead into one’s “future on the land” because firewood has to dry for six months to a year after it is split before it will burn efficiently, or in some cases, burn at all. You have to keep your stock a few seasons ahead of your need. I find that the process of finding, hauling, splitting, stacking and burning firewood goes a long way toward that connection I’m always seeking to the land and the earth’s cycles.

Not bad for a city boy.

I don’t mind the splitting and chopping. They say that if you cut your own firewood it warms you twice. I actually get warmed multiple times for each split log that goes into our fireplace because I have always moved my woodpiles so often, or restacked them once they’ve collapsed.  This year I finally built a little rack to stack my split wood in. I didn’t plan it out very thoroughly, I just started by laying some wood rails on some pier blocks (level both side-to-side and front-to-back, of course), then raising some end posts so that the pile would not tumble outward. It’s open on all sides so the wind can blow across the log ends, really more like a corn crib than a shed. When it was finished it seemed a shame to have my newly stacked wood rained and snowed on, so I contrived a slanted shingle roof for it, but because of the way the roof supports are determined by the location of the bottom rails, the roof couldn’t conveniently cover all the area occupied by the wood. The ends of the longer logs stick out a little bit. Still, I’m pretty happy with it. I had to figure out how to lay shingles, which was intuitive enough except for the first (bottom) course, and the last (top). My dad helped me think through what would have been the ridgecap if the structure had had a ridge instead of a simple lean-to slope.

In shifting some things in the garage yesterday, I came across my three-year subscription to Country Journal magazine, 1992 through 1994. I encountered this wonderful periodical when I was living in rural Ohio in 1991. There are glossy magazines that are targeted toward city-dwellers and have a vague countryish theme, but they’re really for people with six-figure incomes who live in places with names like “Elkwood Crest” on the outskirts of big cities, where forests have been knocked down and meadows turned into outlet store malls, where there are no more elk and no more woods. These magazines do not use the word “manure”, and they’re really about interior decorating with antiques, presenting that sanitized and effortless vision of ruralness that everybody seems to instinctively love. We subscribed to one of them for a while recently. The recipes were good, the interiors impressive. If you had a few mil, you too could buy a farm and turn the dairy shed into a temperature controlled library. 

Country Journal was NOT that. Country Journal didn’t even have a tagline, like “Celebrating life on the land” or “Living in harmony with the seasons.” It didn’t have to, because it was exactly what its name suggested it was. Its focus for decades was how-to articles with such tantalizing titles as “A Sugarhouse You Can Build Yourself”, “Buying Farmland”, “Attracting Barn Owls”, “Keeping a Small Engine Running”, “Build a Low-Cost Pole Barn”, “Choosing a Saddle Horse”, “Buying Lumber from a Sawmill”, “The Amateur Blacksmith”. Every issue had more than one practical article on how to make something, repair something, find materials for something, find a market or a supplier for something, or choose the best something for one’s purpose. These articles were accompanied by lavish drawings and figures.

Other articles treated of the habits, distribution and basic biology of foxes, hawks, otters, vultures, whistling swans, porcupines, weasels and other creatures with whom the readership (imagined by the editors to be mainly New Englanders, it seemed) was likely to be sharing their land. There were poems and essays, and departments for recipes and product reviews and new vegetable varieties that performed well here or there. Then there were the special sections: “106 Essential Tools for the Garden, Home, and Woodlot”, “Fences and Gates”, “How to Sell What You Grow”, “Garden Plans for the Smallholding”. There were letters, of course, because as the editor once noted in his monthly “Letter from Plum Hill”, the magazine’s readership was so broad and knowledgeable that as a group, they knew everything.

Generations of knowledge about getting along on the land -- plus beautiful drawings!

I loved Country Journal. I subscribed starting with the January/February issue of 1992, on the cover of which, beneath the name, was written “Our 18th Year”. The magazine had done well. It had won a National Magazine Award in 1975. Circulation was high, advertising revenue was flowing well, and the readership extended all the way to Thailand. I read what I had time to read, and carefully stored my stack against the day I would have my own place on the land and could make proper use of all the how-to articles. I was sure this would happen.

It never did, or at least it hasn’t yet. We live on a 5000-square-foot city lot, much of it a 70 (or more) degree slope. I’m not complaining. We have a beautiful life, and as you know we coaxed some food out of the ground here this past year. But I’ve kept my handful of CJ numbers all the same. The magazine was sold several times and finally disappeared around 2000. A media group that publishes those monthly apartment-for-rent and houses-for-rent magazines — the kind you pick up free between the sliding doors at grocery stores — bought Country Journal and announced that they were relaunching it in 2001, but I never heard burp nor shiver out of it again. It was inevitable. The writing was excellent (“A septic tank problem is like falling in love: The sensation is hard to define, but when it happens you know”), the content immeasurably valuable, and the design and printing materials superb. It was a Camelot that publishing can never go back to because from cover to cover it was of a quality that no publisher can now afford. That it lasted so long is a miracle I am grateful for.

It occured to me that somewhere in the pages of my issues of Country Journal there might be an article on building a firewood crib, now that I had already gone to the trouble of building one. I opened the treasured magazines today, perused their yellowed pages (but not too yellowed — the paper was good stuff) and found that indeed, in just the short time I was a subscriber Country Journal published one article on roofs and roofing materials, including wood shingles, and another on building a woodshed. The woodshed would not have fit in my yard, so it’s not like I’m kicking myself or anything.

And anyway, someday when we have our own patch of farmland I can build the Country Journal woodshed. It’ll be right next to the sugarhouse.


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. 


“Once in a while
You open up just like a child
See things fresh and new
I wish this for you
I wish this for you”

— Victoria Williams

Mara read for the first time today. It happened in the car. It happened in the underground parking lot of Whole Foods. We had driven in there and parked, but Angela hadn’t yet finished making the grocery list, so we all sat in the car for a few minutes while she worked out what meals she’d fix this week and what she’d need. For a few minutes Mara and I played; I lowered the back of the driver seat and pretended to be sleeping and snoring.

I noticed a sign on a nearby wall. lit by that dim and depressing garage lighting, whose first word was “NOTICE” writ in large white letters against a black background. I suggested to Mara that we work out what it said. I asked her what the first letter was, and what sound it made, and then the second, and then the third, each time adding the new sound to the word.

“‘N’ and ‘O’ makes ‘No…'”

“‘No’ and ‘T’ makes ‘Not…'”

She knew N and O but had forgotten T momentarily, and she didn’t remember I or C. But when we were all done — adding a Silent E at the end “just to hold it all together” — I pronounced the entire word slowly. Mara recognized it and chirped “Notice!”

Angela then wrote C A T on the back of her shopping list and said, “Here Mara, try this one.”

I looked at it and said, “Oh, I’ll bet she can do that one without any help.” I said this by way of supplying positive chatter, though I secretly thought she might need to be walked through the sounds and I was surpised by what happened next.

Mara regarded the letters for a moment in silence. She didn’t open her mouth. She looked at them as though she expected them to say something to her, which apparently is what happened, because after a long moment she suddenly said “cat”.

Angela reports that a tingle went down her spine when this happened. I myself sat back upright in my seat. The moment of what had just happened hit us both and we looked at each other with boggling eyes. Then we expressed perhaps an overabundance of joy and amazement through high-fives and a lot of whooping, beginning that process (one we usually outsource to the state) of replacing Mara’s innate and intrinsic drive to learn with an extrinsic approval-based motivation to succeed. But we couldn’t help ourselves. Mara read a word!

Okay, but children have been known to memorize the shape of words they see a lot, and we do own The Cat in the Hat and many other books in which cats figure prominently. I once tried to teach a man named Edward to read. He was about sixty and had suffered from some developmental disabilities early in life. I was about twenty-seven and I was volunteering in a literacy program, the only time I have volunteered unselfishly in any organized enterprise. Edward had already had several tutors and had not learned how to read. He was very familiar with the materials and knew the stories by heart, which made it difficult for me to see at first that when he said “cat” he was recognizing the whole word, not a word made up of letters. (This is in fact what the rest of us readers do after we’ve been reading awhile, but the difference is we have gone through a process first of recognizing the word’s constituent parts, and we know what to do if someone takes those parts and rearranges them. Edward could not do that.) So just to be sure what was happening was really happening, Angela wrote B A T and again Mara looked at it for a minute, this time sounding the B the way we’ve taught her. “B – B – B” she said, and then,”bat”.


Lesson One in the underground parking school

We squealed with excitement. Mara did too, and she asked if we could do another. And another. We all started getting high on it. Mara read, with increasing difficulty, TOP, SAT and BAG, before Angela and I got some oxygen in our brains and realized that we were already pushing our daughter unnecessarily. If we pushed further, she would experience failure and disappointment, and there was no need to rush toward that. Her spontaneous achievement was a beautiful beginning, completely sufficient and perfect in the moment. We are so proud of her, but we want her to continue to own and drive her own learning process. We believe kids naturally do this until they are presented with such idiocies as homework assignments that take longer to do than any three class periods combined. 

Yesterday, perhaps not coincidentally, we visited a cooperative school in the University District, meeting the teachers in an open house there. We were really impressed with their whole philosophy, especially given the shape of public school policy today, but we both also had the thought, “why shouldn’t we do this ourselves?” What these teachers are really doing is “listening” (they say this word often and each time they use it they reflexively put their hands up to their ears) and letting the interests of the children drive the subject matter. In their own words, they are mostly socializing the children in an environment where the children continue to do what they have been doing all their lives: soak up knowledge about the world around them. Angela and I both feel this is the right approach, but we also don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to share more immediately in that process if it’s possible for us to do so (i.e., homeschool).

Angela put it well tonight when she said, “Why should someone else get to experience all of Mara’s ‘firsts’ when it could be us?” The answer to that question for many couples is an economic answer, because both parents must work days, and for others it is a matter of personal sanity. Being with a child all day every day uses up a lot of one’s emotional energy. Ultimately, if we go that route, it will be Angela who bears the burden when it’s a grind. But I love her outlook. When it’s not a grind but instead a golden moment, why shouldn’t that moment be experienced by us as a family, as it was today?

On the way to church, a conversation arose about the planet Mars. Mara said she wanted to know more about Mars, what it was like. Angela said she didn’t know much about it, but that we could do some research.

That’s how it happens.

Shine me on, shine me off, just don’t run me down

There is a parking enforcement officer who stands every day at the entrance of a parking garage on Spring directing traffic whom I am very fond of. She has stood there every evening for years, blowing her whistle and putting up her lighted wand to stop cars coming out of the building at 1101 Third Avenue so that I can continue up the city’s second-steepest sidewalk in safety and without interrupting my stride. We always exchange a greeting and a word about the weather. She mans this post for several hours every day and leaves promptly at 6 o’clock. During the early part of her shift she drives a “meter maid” cart, and I recently saw her patrolling through Post Alley in it. She honked a greeting. I stopped and chatted. I like her. She is a real person. Her name is Linda.

I make a point of telling you this — and I’ll come back around to it — to balance the observation, actually the complaint, I am about to relate. I hesitate to post this because I can sense the bad attitude wellin’ up inside me here. But this is my experience and I offer it for your amusement / edification / conderation and rebuttal / what-have-you.


The future of "community policing"

Today as I walked down Second Avenue a motorized vehicle whizzed past me on the sidewalk at a speed that I’m going to suggest was between 18 and 25 miles per hour. It went past my left shoulder just as I was about to turn my body that way to look behind me (perhaps some part of my inner hearing registered its approach).

I started when it zipped by, then I grew cross. It was one of the new three-wheeled scooters made by T3 Motion that the Seattle Police Department’s parking enforcement officers (PEOs, they call themselves) have been trying out this year. According to the Seattle weekly newspaper the Stranger, these things can go 18 m.p.h., and according to the company’s website it will do 12 m.p.h. in its standard form and 25 m.p.h. with an optional upgrade. They are faster, therefore, than Segways, which only go 12 m.p.h. and have also been used by police in Seattle, and they are a lot beefier.

The officer sped down the sidewalk standing on her scooter, weaving among pedestrians at what I considered — just one concerned citizen’s opinion here — an inappropriate speed, especially since it turned out that the situation she was responding to did not involve any individuals in danger. When she got to Union, she parked her T3 and dismounted to issue a ticket to a person who had just managed to plead their car off of the tow-bar of a Lincoln Towing truck.

This is the third time I have nearly been bowled over by PEOs on scooters. The first time it happened I was rounding the corner of University onto Fourth Avenue, at the northwest corner of the Olympic Hotel. Two officers riding T3s shot out in front of me along Fourth Avenue and sped through the crosswalk across University. I stared agog while my spine finished chilling. They had nearly mowed me down. Both happened to be female officers and though I don’t know how the term is defined medically, in my opinion both were obese. (That is a separate issue, one that has in fact been taken up loudly by bloggers and commenters, but added to the insult of being nearly flattened by officers of a constabulary that is sworn to “protect and serve” me — with my own tax dollars, too — it seemed to push the event into the realm of the psychedelic to witness this miscarriage of public trust and treasury. Of all Seattle’s patrol officers, these two should have been using their feet.)

I blew my steam to a friend and forgot about it, until it happened a month later. Again it was at a corner, and again the officer was travelling athwart my path too fast to be able to respond to anything unexpected. It was a good thing my own wits were about me. If I had been running to make the perpendicular crosswalk, there would have been blood.



In the interest of full disclosure, I should aver that I have no love of the police in this town as an institution, and that I believe the institution as a whole is prone to a view of itself as “enforcers” more than as “stewards”; further, that what police officers the world over often seem most eager to protect and serve is property, rather than citizens and their rights.  In Seattle, instances of excessive force and the abuse of authority are frequent and don’t seem to be unequivocally addressed. The Seattle Police Department in fact has a bad reputation. 

Once I was jaywalking, which is not lawful in Seattle, near Fourth and Stewart, and another man was jaywalking in the opposite direction nearby. The other man was dressed shabbily and walked somewhat unhurriedly. I was dressed business casual and was crossing the street with purpose. A squad car swooped in with a siren burst and a patrolman leapt out and stopped the other man. The other man muttered something he shouldn’t have, probably feeling understandably picked on. I heard the officer say loudly, “Are you sure you want to take that attitude with me, sir? Because I can make your life hard if that’s the way you want to go.” It was ridiculous self-importance, bullying and bluster. Somewhere else, a crime was probably being committed (and it goes without saying, I was not approached*). The scene reminded me of that chapter in The Lord of the Rings where Captain Faramir busts Gollum for fishing near his camp and sentences him to death.

“Only empty. Only hungry; yes, we are hungry. A few little fishes, bony little fishes, for a poor creature, and they say death. So wise they are; so just, so very just.”

— Gollum

It also reminded me of my worst moments of parenting, when I see myself as the “enforcer” and I’m insisting on obedience and respect for my authority way beyond the point when Mara might possibly be edified by my taking a firm stance. 

That’s as far as I’ll go here, because a) I don’t want my blog to be political, activist, or a platform for griping, and b) I do not dislike individual officers that I know and in fact I admire all persons who are willing to serve the public with their lives and c) this is about the scooter.

I would even go so far as to say that I like most people that I actually meet. I might like the two officers who nearly ran me over at the Olympic Hotel if I got to know them, but I don’t know them. Until I know them, I don’t like them. Until I know them, they represent an abstract institution that displays, as an institution, tendencies of which, as noted before, I am unfond. By contrast, having people in my daily routine like Officer Linda, and Ben at Turco’s Last Stand, and my Real Change vendor Ed, who sits in his wheelchair at the corner of Third and University three mornings a week, and my friends at the coffee shop, and Shoe Shine Eddie, and other locals as I can find them, gives my day the humanity it would lack if all I was doing was shuffling around unknown among tall buildings.

I understand that we need police, and it’s fair for the city to collect revenue by taxing the outwearing of welcome in a particular parking spot or disregard of zoning. But we need a humane institution, not Robocops putting pedestrians at real risk of harm.


Officer Linda, protecting and serving...for real.

On the way up the hill to the bus tonight, I paused to ask Officer Linda if she ever drives one of those stand-up scooters. It had occured to me to wonder if I would be so indignant if I found out it had been she, or that it could have been.

“Oh, you won’t catch me on one of those things,” she said with a shudder. As soon as I heard this I realized it was obvious. She’s a feet-on-the-ground kind of cop. She listened to me tell about my three unpleasant experiences with these new machines, and she was very interested. I told her how the fact that the scooters are electric makes them super quiet and thus even more dangerous at high speeds. I had expected her to distance herself from my grievance in solidarity with the Force, but she didn’t.

“Was it a heavy-set gal?” she asked.

“Yes!” I said, surprised. “At least it was the first time.”

“Yeah, that’s V– “, and she actually mentioned an officer by her last name. She pulled a business card from her pocket and with her gloved hand wrote on the back of it the names of two managers in the police force that I should call and submit a complaint to. “This guy [she pointed to the first name], it’s his pet project. If they ask you what you want to talk to him about, just say you want to talk directly to him. You don’t have to name names, just tell him your concerns about safety.”

I demurred, suddenly wishing I had kept the whole thing to myself. But she said it’s a safety issue and that as a concerned citizen I should call. Something should be done about it before someone gets hurt. 

“And don’t let them shine you off,” said Linda. “Sometimes they’ll try to do that. If you don’t get anywhere with the first guy, call the second one.” At the very least, she suggested, the officers should go slower and shout out to people as they’re driving past them on the sidewalk, since the scooters are so quiet (a constructive approach; I hadn’t even thought of that).

My appreciation of Officer Linda rose a few more points and my cynicism about the institution dropped one or two. I wished her a good night and ran for my bus, leaving her at her post at the edge of the street, her lighted wand a beacon in the rainy dark.


Sidewalk patrol at a reasonable pace.

I’m not confrontational (I have a blog instead), so I don’t know that I’m really going to call the police and tell them their officers need to be reined in a little. But I’ll tell you this: I have stepped in the green and fibrous manure of  horses that the mounted police officers sometimes use to patrol near Pioneer Square and the waterfront, and it doesn’t bother me anywhere near as much as being buzzed by these T3 scooters. I consider their use by the police a dangerous, wasteful and pointless extravagance.


*However, I did once see a plain-clothes policeman stop a visiting middle-aged couple from one of the cruise ships and ticket the woman for jaywalking. The husband was incredulous, struggled to keep his temper, and kept looking around as though he expected to spy the camera crew of some reality show.

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.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt