Gone to ground

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.

It could be worse, although it couldn't be raining. This is the Pioneer Square Station. Notice the air vents at top.

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.

Temporary denizens of the underworld, because that's where we've been put.

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.

Lucky pucks waiting for their bus outside the Hoge Building. The Broderick is visible across the street. Image by Joe Mabel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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20 Responses to “Gone to ground”


  1. 1 Kip April 23, 2010 at 17:10

    Would that Boise have such a luxury as decent public transport! Matt, I can understand your reluctance to leave the Top Land, even if the weather is less than perfect. I, too, much prefer, when faced with a choice, to be outside no matter what the weather. In fact, there were times when I worked at the ski area I would be out in the worst of it (and not just because I had to be!)!

    But going underground….

    Even in a polished, man made hole with actual busses and light rail trains running through it….

    I think I would have to enter at the University Station. Just for the wind.

    • 2 jstwndrng April 23, 2010 at 19:14

      Kip,
      I’ve never thought of you as per se an outside-junkie like me, but on the other hand, I don’t think I became one until my thirties. You’d like the wind in the tunnel. It’s just the sort of thing you’d remark about. And I know you…you WOULD go in through a particular entrance just because of that. One of the great things about having old friends is knowing what their particular crazy is.

  2. 3 Kip April 23, 2010 at 20:17

    I see a T-shirt:

    “I Know Your Crazy”

    See, the joke is that I know what your crazy is, not that you’re crazy. The funnier joke is on the people that may be gramatically challanged.

    But I knew you’d know that!

    • 4 jstwndrng April 24, 2010 at 19:21

      That was my first thought, too, was that most people would read that as “you’re crazy.” Actually, you should wear that shirt and do a survey of how many people are insulted versus how many approach you to correct your grammar.

  3. 5 Invisible Mikey April 23, 2010 at 21:21

    Your thoughts and the pictures you’ve illustrated it with are very astute, Matt. In a city as beautiful as Seattle, it’s possible to forget for awhile that it’s still a city and we can become separated from nature and the spirit of the Earth our mother by spending too much of our time in them. It took me so long to realize and internalize the dehumanizing effect it’s had on me. I still love big buildings and concrete tunnels. I’m a total geek for trains. I also know the best, the absolute best thing for me is to walk, or paddle on the sea. I’ll keep visiting for music or recreation, and I may have to work in them, but I hope I never live in a big city again.

    • 6 jstwndrng April 24, 2010 at 19:29

      Mikey,
      Sometimes I think if I reached over and unwrapped that bandage I’d see myself in there. You’ve spoken my own mind here. I realize the “dehumanizing effect” every day and do me darndest to counteract it by searching out the lovely and worthy, even those things that are in fact aspects of the city, like the tunnel,and trying to paint a good picture around them. And you’re in good company here with train geeks. There’s a post back a ways about when I wheedled my daughter and myself into a roundhouse. I’m glad you’ve made your getaway to more sensible habitation. And hey, I love the thought of you walking on the sea!

  4. 7 Ben April 24, 2010 at 13:22

    Mike, I have a habit of reading with the sound of a certain character’s voice in my head. That is to say, without thinking I assign a “type” of voice to anything I read. I’ve never asked if anyone else does this… I know Matt’s voice, I know Kipper’s, but your profile picture gave me fits because the voice my head automatically came up with was one which was muffled as if you had cotton gauze stuffed in your mouth…sorry.

    Matt, the excellent wind you speak of is among a few other things, an anti-terror, virus, organism, poison gas, carrier of death kind of thing. The tunnel is probably pressurized to keep air flow moving, and nasty bad stuff from accumulating into pockets and stratifying into multiple levels. Similar to HVAC in the business office, but in a tunnel it is much more powerful in order to keep the ethyl-methyl-death from accumulating..er, well..might want to stay up top I spose….maybe you didn’t want that information…anyway..

    • 8 jstwndrng April 24, 2010 at 19:34

      Ben, the “written voice” you speak of is why Mark Helprin, when I went to his “reading” at Elliott Bay Books a few years ago, refused to read from his work. He said that when people read they hear the words in the silence of their minds in a unique way, and he did not want to influence their inner hearing. I thought it was a cool idea but I also thought he was being just a touch precious. I hear all written voices as Yosemite Sam because of an accident involving a runaway mango cart and a 4-quart soup kettle, but I’ll spare you.

      Thanks for the lowdown on the tunnel wind. Now I’m gonna hold my nose every time I pass through there.

  5. 9 roccosmusicamusica April 24, 2010 at 14:17

    I really did not want to see city transit go underground. I always envisioned Seattle as moving “overhead”. I really thought the monorail was going to be our transportation of the future with tracks from Sea-Tac to Edmonds. From Issaquah to the waterfront. And I waited. And waited. And contented myself with the monorail ride from Westlake Mall to the Seattle Center. After so many years and a number of monorail mishaps, it looks like plans for expansion of the line is no more. The monorail, in all its creaky, squeaky, kitschy wonderfulness, continues as is.

    re: The Broderick Building looking like Ben Grimm – a magnificent and hilarious analogy.

    • 10 jstwndrng April 24, 2010 at 19:40

      Louis,
      There was a dinner theater a few years ago one of whose sketches was “Monorail – Train to Nowhere”, which was a pretty funny depiction of unsuspecting tourists settling in for a nice long “train ride” and finding it over before they’d warmed their seats. Yes, I fear the monorail is now only the future of the past. You know the trains tangled with each other a few years ago on the Westlake curve and got stuck. How does that happen? The piers are concrete. The “rails” cannot get any closer to each other. Do the trains start wobbling over time? Anyway, seeing firemen pulling people out of stuck Almwegs with a hook and ladder doesn’t win votes. Sorry, buddy. I feel ya, but it’s over. Let’s go home, Lou.

  6. 11 roccosmusicamusica April 27, 2010 at 02:28

    Alright..let me get my things..

    I remember that monorail incident. As I understand it, when Westlake Center was constructed in ’89, the monorail track was tapered, creating a “pinch” in that part of the tracks. Authorities knew about the pinch, and light signals as well as driver communication was used to circumvent the pinch when both trains were running. Unfortunately, both failed the day of the “scrunch”.

    I want Westlake Mall back.

    • 12 jstwndrng April 27, 2010 at 07:59

      Wow, I didn’t know about this tapering. It seems, in retrospect, a BAD IDEA. You know that with the lights in place, driver communication will eventually become lax, since that’s how people is, and then all it takes is a short in the wires and blammo, you have an embarrassing event 40 feet above the street. When you say you want Westlake Mall back, what are you referring to? I mean, the mall hasn’t changed much since it was first built, right? Or are you just being clever in a way that I’ve become too dull-witted to notice?

  7. 13 roccosmusicamusica April 27, 2010 at 08:31

    Agreed. Bad idea. I think once they discovered the pinch, rather than finding a permanent solution, they just went for the band-aid fix. And as you so eloquently pointed out – blammo.

    When I say “Westlake Mall”, I´m referring to the area some used to call a “little Times Square”. Electric signs,pigeons, shops, a sole monorail station, bits of newspaper and candy wrapper getting caught in tiny vortexes from the crosswinds blowing through, old salts in baggy pants and crumpled fedoras sitting on benches talking about the waterfront,when it was a “real waterfront” wih just ships and merchant marines..the Green Onion Cafe, the Golden Crown, Fredrick & Nelson..

    Downtown Monorail Station - Seattle, WA

    Seattle looking north on 4th Avenue.

    Westlake Center is what I call “Little Bellevue”. A glitzy shopping center, where one must run the gauntlet of high end shops before reaching the tiny monorail ramp. Out front, acres of decorated brick. Pristine. Flat. I do like the trees, however.

    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=d&source=s_d&saddr=Westlake+Center,+400+Pine+Street,+Seattle,+Washington+98101-1625&daddr=&hl=en&geocode=&mra=ls&sll=47.611188,-122.336132

    • 14 jstwndrng April 27, 2010 at 11:20

      Okay, I see. You’re distinguishing between Westlake Mall (the old) and Westlake Center (the new). I thought that you might be pining for the old square, but I didn’t know that they called it Westlake Mall back then. Yeah, I prefer to old street level shops and the old triangular brick buildings, too, but like I says, we lost that one. Nice photos, by the by. Your little “bits of newspaper and candy wrapper” description almost brought a tear to my eye.

      So, the tapering was not intentional, you seem to be saying. I’m surprised you can remember all the details. I don’t even really recall the construction of the “Center”, but I guess you were living downtown then weren’t you?

      There are a coupla old farts at the coffee shop I frequent in the market who worked together on the waterfront in the Dave Beck days. I guess that woulda made them Stevedores (?) but I don’t call them that to their faces. They meet there every day about 1pm and sit there and converse but don’t really hear each other. A lot of non-sequiturs. I haven’t got the courage up to ask them about “back in the day”.

  8. 15 roccosmusicamusica April 27, 2010 at 12:10

    I believe the tapering WAS intentional in order to shorten the track and make it fit into Westlake Center. The pinch that was created as a result of the tapering was not intentional. I think this problem was not foreseen, and it caught them off-guard. Rather than correcting the pinch, the opted for a band-aid solution.

    I remember this stuff, because it broke my heart when the monorails scrunched together. I knew that meant the end of the monorail expansion plans, which folks had really fought over for so long.

    I was actually living in Bellingham at the time of the Westlake Center construction. I remember being angry with mayor Royer for changing what I thought was a wonderful part of the city into this antiseptic square. Honestly, with the trees grown, Westlake Center does look a lot nicer. I´d still prefer Westlake Mall. Perhaps an updated version of the mall, but keeping its old charm.

    I understand your reluctance with approaching those guys at the coffee shop. Your chances are 50/50. You´re either going to get, “Well, let me tell you about the real Pier 57…” or you´re going to get, “What are you, some kinda..kinda…commie??..get outta here..” When I was in my 20´s I used to frequent this tavern in Fremont. The fishermen would come in to wet their beaks. They were a good bunch of guys, but just wanted to relax after a hard day´s work. Of course, I had this romantic notion of the fisherman and the sea. After a couple of beers, I´d be asking about “life on the sea” (said with that pirate drawl). Some guys were cool and would talk about it. But I could see others just wanted to punch me. And rightfully so.

    • 16 jstwndrng April 27, 2010 at 12:29

      Royer probably needed the support of some developer at the time, or owed them a solid. I guess that’s how it all works. Stuff gets traded away. The trick for the populace is to know which aspects of our built environment we are able to preserve, and then make sure we do it. Reminds me, I think you’d better get up here fast, because pioneer square is in danger once again, now that Elliott Bay Books has moved out. The luster of the 1970s glory days of preservation has worn off, the streets are full of urine, businesses aren’t thriving, and pub revelers get shot. The place is getting a crummy rap. Sure, many of the buildings are on the national register of historic places, and maybe there’s even a neighborhood code or covenant to “preserve the character”, but I hear strange stories of how buildings we thought were protected really ended up NOT. The old Manny’s in Ballard (latterly a Denny’s) was supposedly protected, but it turned out that that designation did it what I believe is called a ‘fat lot of good’ (where 1 fat lot = the empty set).

      Yes, good point, the old dockworkers are also friendly enough, but I think they wouldn’t want to rehash their grinding daily routine for me and remind themselves why they have hip replacements now.

  9. 17 roccosmusicamusica April 27, 2010 at 13:23

    Where did EBB move to? Sounds like it´s time to bring back beat-walking police officers…not necessarily in those late 19th century uniforms..I think all cities go through periods like this. Like New York in the 80´s or even Seattle´s 1st avenue in the 70´s and 80´s. Pioneer Square is a family member who has gone by the wayside. It needs a little tough love to get it back on track. I read about Manny´s. Disgraceful. Reminds me also of the Twin Teepees that was “mysteriously” burned down.

  10. 18 jstwndrng April 27, 2010 at 20:01

    Elliott Bay has moved up to Capitol Hill, somewhere on Pine. The new digs will be more corporate and they’ll lose that great old “rat warren” feel that old bookstores get that have long since outgrown their space and expanded into neighboring warehouses. REI in its old (’70s through ’90s) location used to be like that, too, and their new place (though inspirational architecturally) hasn’t a fresco of that old “dungeon of homey bargains”. Whattayagonnado?

    I can see you as the constable of Pioneer Square, billy-club and all.

    Angela and I happened into the Twin Teepees once shortly before it went up in flames. It wasn’t great chow, but you had to love the place.

  11. 19 roccosmusicamusica April 28, 2010 at 02:47

    My friend Tim and I ate there once in the early 90´s. Agreed. The food was – meh – but the place was grand. I took one of these with me when we left.

    Twin Teepees Restaurant and Lounge, Seattle, WA


  1. 1 GSGH winner limerick #4 « Just Wondering Trackback on November 2, 2011 at 19:11

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