There is no security, or peace, except underground.”
— Badger in ‘The Wind in the Willows’
When you descend into the Metro tunnel from the University Street entrance there’s often a wind that pushes out at you, most strongly just as you get to the end of the hallway and walk through the double doors that lead to the big vaulted chamber of the tunnel itself. Not being a meteoroligist I don’t know exactly why this is. I’m sure it has to do with the limited number of pathways that the air can take in this subterranean network of passages, but why there is so MUCH air in motion that desires to exit is mysterious to me, as is the little flicker of excitement that I get when I pass through this pneumatic vortex.
I was grumpy, expressed grumpiness, when official notice was given earlier this year that both of my homeward bus options, the #76 and the #316, would no longer run on the surface of Third Avenue but would be rerouted through the reopened Metro tunnel. (The tunnel has been closed for several years while being refitted for light rail.) Why should I be grumpy, anyone might ask. There is no smoking in the tunnel, unlike on the sidewalk, which is now, because of a law that I did not vote for even though I do not smoke, the last refuge of those who inhale. Nor can the rain and the bitter cold winds reach you in the tunnel, although truth be told, since the new route started in February there has hardly been one evening when I’ve walked to the tunnel in rain wet enough to spot my khakis. And although I never felt threatened standing on Third, the tunnel is well-enough lit that most people can feel safe waiting for their buses. For some reason, panhandlers and others whose avocation involves speaking directly to passersby do not often work the platform the way they do the street above. And, at least in theory, a throughfare dedicated to mass transit does not clog up with baseball fans in cars, so the buses generally come on time, except when they don’t.
What’s not to love about the tunnel?
For me, one of the things that makes being in the city tolerable, even almost enjoyable at times, is standing or walking outside among buildings that are fun to move among as they catch and redistribute light, or rain, or whatever’s coming down. There are a few real abominations that look like losers in any light and in any clime, and two of the worst are the two buildings that fill the block directly across the street from my accustomed bus stop, but these are more than made up for by the old Telephone Building and the Seattle Tower one block away, which provide a very restful station for the eyes.
Secondly, I don’t like being underground. Actually, that’s not really true. The four internal tunnel stations each have different styling and art installations, and there’s a certain badgerish pride one might take in the whole system. What’s true is, I don’t like missing out on what’s happening in the out-of-doors. Even if it’s ugly out. The weather is one of the few connections to the earth that almost anyone can afford and access, at least occasionally. For me it’s a lifeline, a soul-line. I usually eat at my desk so I can use my lunch hour to get out and wander around.
There’s also something about being moved around as though I were a toy figurine in a panorama that rankles a little. One day I’m waiting for the bus topside on Third, and the next day, because of a decision taken by some folks in a room somewhere high above street level, I must go down in this hole, over here, and wait for my bus in this latter day Moria. It occurs to me that the Deciders can put my bus anywhere, and they can route it through Omaha on the way to my house if they wish. There is a feeling of being shuffled about, a feeling of lack of control over where I place my footsteps. I am both served by and enslaved by infrastructure. Those who know me will not be surprised to find me slightly resistant when this equation appears to be tilting away from me.
Finally, when the fair weather comes, it is still preferable, even with the pervasive cigarette smoke, to stand and wait for my bus outside in the last light of a nice day — one that I have spent most of looking out at through a window — than to trog down into that burrow to wait for a bus.
But today I am willing to look for what I call Ye Gode Thynge and to focus on that. There are actually several “good things” that I’m starting to enjoy about the new commute. The fact that I have been “rerouted” by the Powers That Be means that I now must either walk north from my office to the University Station or south to the Pioneer Square Station, which I enter from James Street. I usually do the latter, which takes me through the part of Cherry Street that the oldtimers called “Cherry Canyon”, which in turn means I get to walk past several of my favorite old buildings. One is the Hoge Building with its adornment of lion heads around the top. Another is the Broderick (a.k.a. Bailey) Building with its rough-hewn stones — it looks like Ben Grimm from the Fantastic Four squatting there — the gabled Lowman Building so iconic of Pioneer Square, and of course the Alaska Building, which was Seattle’s first steel-framed skyscraper and is now being renovated (and, sadly, renamed). These are all on Cherry between First and Third.
And back to that great rush of wind at the University Station. I don’t know why I like that so much. Perhaps it feels like the opposite of what I expect to encounter — stale dead air. It makes me imagine that the city is breathing, which makes me hate it less as an entity, or it reminds me that everything that goes under the ground rises out of it again, if only in spirit.