Archive for November, 2010

A friend I’ve never met

Tuesday at work I was called to the front desk when a guest arrived to see me. I had almost not dared to hope that he would make it downtown, because Seattle was lying under a thin but treacherous blanket of erstwhile snow, which had fallen as harmless little crystal flakes the day before but was now ice. The cold outside, hovering in the teens with the windchill, was alarming for us longtime Cascadians, who rarely experience temperatures below freezing. 

I went up front and there was Louis. He saw me, smiled and raised his hands and laughed. We hugged like old friends.

And that’s the strange part. We are old friends, in a kind of a way. But we’d never met until that moment. He’s lived in Brazil as long as I’ve known him.


I hear the stammering, and I see the quizzical looks, the furrowed brows and the slack jaws. Verily, I will rescue you from this imponderable riddle.

Louis in 9th grade (top left), with legendary hair.

I ran into Louis online when I was looking for a photo of Uncle Harold’s hobby shop in old Bellevue, the place to buy bikes and airplane models when I was a kid. I followed a google-trail to someone’s Flickr page, where a lot of folks had commented on the person’s photos of the kiddie amusement park that used to exist at Bellevue Square. One commenter was Louis, who’d grown up there about the same time I did. A few comments passed between Louis and me about this or that aspect of old Bellevue — did he remember Petram’s “five and dime”, did I remember the Crabapple Restaurant — and before I knew it Louis had directed me to a large collection of photos of our old town on his Flickr page, along with his collections of sports and Seattle World’s Fair memorabilia and ephemera. When I saw his last name, I recognized it immediately. He’d gone to my junior high school, a year or two ahead, I was sure of it. He was the only white kid in my universe that had an afro. To me, he was one of the cool kids (he assures me he was just a nerd like he is now, only a nerd with more hair.) He had no reason to remember me — I was reticent to the point of invisibility (on a lucky day) — but his was neither the name nor the persona that one forgot.

Matt in 8th grade (top right, if you really just can't get there on your own).

Remarkably, Louis and I kept in touch, kept trading photohistory treasures, memories of Bellevue, and comments on each other’s work. Louis introduced me to Jess Cliffe’s, a site I visit almost every day now. A number of you have had occasion to enjoy Louis’ positive, upbeat, and unflaggingly friendly disposition right here in the comments of this blog. I started to feel like he was an old chum, and once asked him when he was going to visit the northern hemisphere again so that I could buy him a slice.

That day came this week. Knowing how impossible it is to fulfill even family and close friend obligations on trips back to the hometown, I was not really expecting to be able to meet up even after he told me he’d be in the Northwest for almost a month. I was therefore much honored when Louis emailed Monday afternoon to find out if I could squeeze him in on my lunch hour the next day. He had an opening. I took it.

So there I was, walking him around the office introducing him to my coworkers as “my friend Louis”, only seconds after we’d first met. And here’s the kinda guy he is: Louis is a professional film and voice actor who has been in movies and commercials (in Watchmen, he’s the TV producer who complains that Dr. Manhattan’s complexion will never do under the studio lights). Those of you who have kept up with contemporary cartoons may recognize his voice as that of Johnny Test’s faithful and verbose canine sidekick, Dukey (watch an episode here). While Louis has not (yet) chalked up the celebrity of a George Clooney or a James Earl Jones, the fact that he has successfully worked in radio, theater, film and television for decades might lead you to expect a certain stand-offishness. Not a bit of it. There isn’t the faintest fresco of hauteur about Louis. The first thing he did was mention to one of my coworkers that he thought he recognized him from a blog post I wrote about the development team’s field trip to the observation deck of the Smith Tower last year. This is a guy who honors other people, takes notice and interest, asks questions, and puts people at ease.

Old friends meet for the first time.

Seattle had had a light dusting of snow the day before and then temperatures had plummeted to record lows. Louis and I stepped out into the biting air and walked over to the diner I frequent…uh…frequently. Planet Java on Washington Street. Louis had the tuna melt, and was gratified that it was put on rye bread, as it should be. I had the barbecue burger, it almost goes without saying. We chatted about all kinds of stuff, filling out the incomplete pictures we have constructed of each others’ lives over several years of emails, blog posts (his and mine) and comments. Between us we have nearly a century of experience at life, and yet each of us keeps finding new folds in the universe that bear exploring.

We tried walking around and taking pictures, but the wind was up and it felt like the sides of our faces were being flensed. We took a shot at the corner of Second and University of Louis in front of his favorite old building in town, the Seattle Tower (née Northern Life Tower), half of which shimmered in watery light patterns reflected off of nearby vitritecture.

Louis grimaces in the face of record-breaking cold.

I was on deadline for a project and had to get back to work, so he accompanied me back to the office before heading over to the waterfront to take a few more photos. I was sure glad we got to meet and share a meal and some conversation before he heads back to South America. I felt like I’d made an old friend.

Bonus pic for subscribers: Sixth or maybe 7th grade. My hair my not be so flaxen now, but I still feel just like this most of the time.

Props: Thanks to Kip for finding, scanning and sending the yearbook photos.

Hungry after three

Yesterday, for uninteresting reasons, I found myself feeling peckish at about 3:30 in the afternoon. I had not brought a sandwich to work and I was head-down writing a magazine article — technically an advertorial, since my company traffics in the technology I was writing about — until, precisely at half past three, I realized I needed to eat. Now.

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money nor did I wish to be away from my desk long. Pizza, says I. There’s a joint down the alley a block and a half. A slice of Canadian bacon and pineapple would do the trick and I’d get change back from a fin.

So I grab my coat and head down the alley. After record-setting warm days (for November, for Seattle), it has turned cold, grey and rainy. The cobbles glisten. As I approach the pizza joint, I see upturned stools and no lights on. The young swain is wiping up the last crumbs.

Suddenly, I feel the grip of a mild panic that I’ve never had a name for, but which I’ve experienced a few times in my life.

Never mind, I say. There are other places nearby. At least…and here I realize that it’s late in the day. Options are disappearing. Even though I hadn’t wanted to spend much time or money and didn’t really need much food, I would prefer sitting and eating (and tipping) like a human at the diner where they ask me if I’m having my usual (decaf with real half-and-half, a barbecue burger, extra napkins) to hunching over at some fast-food place like Quiznos or Subway. But the diner will be closed now and anyway it’s in the opposite direction. 

What else is nearby? I’m getting disoriented and confused. I don’t need a lot of food, just a snack. After all, Angela’s delicious soup is only a couple of hours away when I arrive home for dinner. But how to buy just a little food, good food, in a short time, and without spending a lot of money? I don’t know. I can’t think straight, and now that the door of the pizza place has shut in front of me, my hunger seems like a roaring lion within me.

The panic intensifies, and here’s the source of it: I am a person of means. I have money — credit, even a little cash. I pay some bank in Delaware or New York or Singapore an absurd amount of money every month so that I can live in a cool house in North Seattle. If my daughter needs a soccer ball, I buy a soccer ball without looking at the price. (I’m not bragging; I’m very grateful that these things are so.)

So how can it be that I can’t find good food right now?

I can’t find food. Who will sell me some good food? I’m standing in a puddle in the middle of Post Alley wearing a corduroy hoodie, looking like a lost dog. I feel the alienation of which I am suddenly become a picture. My money is not of any use in this particular spot at this time. I feel the hostility of the city that lies beneath all its smiling advertisements, see its true face, and I briefly imagine what it must be like to be homeless, to have no cash and no credit card, no “good standing” with Bank of Yupadoo, only the hunger — a primal desire to be taken care of, to be nourished, to be fed — tearing you up from inside.

A day bright by comparison. Photo by Seamus Murray licensed through Creative Commons.

Then I think of Ivar’s Fish Bar over on the waterfront. It’s fried food and it’s expensive, but even deep-fried fish “n” chips is still fish and seems like real food, so I decide I’ll compromise on budget and a little bit on health. At least it will be quick.

I order my four-piece fish, what Ivarines call a “single”, and an extra ketchup and stand there in the space where people stand, which is basically the sidewalk. I stare at the workers in that brightly lit interior, stare, again, like a dog, watching each movement of the man at the back of the kitchen wearing the blue “Keep Clam” shirt. When he moves left, I think “now?”, and when he moves right I think, “now?” All I want is the food I paid nearly ten bucks for.

When my order’s up I take it into the covered eating area overlooking the fireboat moored at the fire station nextdoor, station number 5. The covered eating area is walled in plexiglass to retain the heat generated by two overhead rows of heaters, each with four slender glowing orange tubes. There are skylights in here, but the day is heavily overcast and there’s no light to admit. A few other diners sit curled in the shadowy gloom, a pair of young women, a group of three older people. Their anonymous company feels good. I feel as though I might accidentally say something to somebody, might be compelled to connect in light conversation and thus suddenly become one of those strange people that you can’t get away from at public eateries, the kind of person you pity though you can’t wait until they leave, and you ignore them until they do.

As I dip my fries in the wee tub of ketchup and my wild Pacific true cod in the wee tub of tartar sauce, I stare out the window at an approaching ferry, idly wondering if it’s the Tacoma or…what’s the other one’s name? I think back to my youth when the boats on the Winslow run were the Spokane and the Walla Walla. It’s such a dark afternoon that the lighting inside the ferry’s yawning interior is already bright. I realize that the portion of window that I’m staring through is streaked with two long, grey drabbles of bird doo. Seagulls line the Ivar’s pier railing, whirling into awkward flight and insistent squawking whenever someone goes out to throw the last of their fries into their midst. The ferry arrives at the dock a block away. It’s the Puyallup. I’m not sure I even knew there was a ferry named Puyallup.

I reflect upon the fact of my being here, eating like this, alone, like some desperado, the strange way that the city has of turning on you, turning you into a wraith. At one moment, you may be a prince, but at another, the same street doesn’t know you and doesn’t care. The waterfront shines itself up for the summer tour-boat season — maybe they even clean the crap off of these windows? — but right now, it’s a lonely place for lonely people, or people whose hunger catches them unprepared. I miss the eyes of my wife.

I turn and look over my left shoulder. There are two pigeons standing on the table behind me, staring at me. Pigeons = comedy, so I’m grateful they’re here. They stand shoulder to shoulder like cohosts of some bizarre columbine TV news hour. They seem nervous, as though they want to ask me something. They seem vaguely familiar. They are, technically, trapped in here. I turn back to my food.

A while later I hear a flapping and look down to my right. One of the pigeons is now next to me on the seat, like a cat, less than a foot from my elbow. It’s asking. I ignore it. A while later I realize that I’m staring at its bobbing head — it waddles back and forth across from me on my table’s opposite bench, craning to see above the blue metal mesh tabletop, to see my food. It’s waiting.



All it wants is food.

But I’ve eaten every bit of my fish, and I believe it to be inhumane to feed French fries to small birds, so when I’m done I lift my tray and walk over to the big plastic trash and recycle cans, leaving the pigeon cooing sadly there like a jilted lover. 

All Hallows Eve, 2010

I realize I’m late on the draw here and that people are probably up to here already with other people’s Halloween pictures. But I would be remiss, given the joy that this weird holiday brings into our family, if I did not unfold. And something eerie happened to me this year, which I’ll tell anon.

Success at last. Three home-grown pumpkins.

First off, the news this year is that Angela successfully brought three pumpkins to plump fruition in the back yard. She had grown a large pumpkin one year at our old house, but someone nicked it the day before Halloween. Last year the two pumpkins that managed to get a start rotted on the vine. This year she slid a shingle under each one. Wooden boards lying on the ground are to slugs what “free WiFi” signs are to telecommuting cafe-goers, so I don’t know why the pumpkins didn’t get eaten the quicker, and the pumpkins at the farm are lying right on the ground, no problem, so I am unable to speak to why it worked, but we had three pumpkins to make into jack-o-lanterns for Halloween. For a fourth (since we are now The Four) we used one of the pumpkins we harvested at the farm a fortnight ago.

The one in front is Emilia's, and it kinda looks like her (or Buddy Hackett). Mara wanted one of Angela's classic scary-grinning ones; hers is middle left. Mine is the worried looking one on the left. Click for larger if you dare.

Just before setting out, the energy level is high.

We carved our jack-o-lanterns just hours before Mara’s buddy Gwyneth came over with her parents and little brother and grandmother. Gwynnie was Dorothy of Oz. We were all proud of her for deliberately choosing silver shoes (what the book specified) rather than ruby red (a liberty taken by Hollywood). Coren was Peter Pan, but everybody thought he was Robin Hood. Mara was Fiona (“from Shrek”, I would add every time someone looked confused by her announcement); she wore a princess dress and Angela tied her hair in a ribboned braid like the one Fiona wore in the movie.

We hit the streets just before dark, and tricked and treated our way to a house we call the Vortex a few blocks away. It is a house whose inhabitants go to great lengths every year to construct some kind of storyland out of their front porch and populate it with individuals in costume who play various parts. I think it was called the Vortex the first year we went, which is why we still refer to it that way. Last year it was a space adventure, and though I didn’t go in, Angela said it was hilarious. They took a handful of kids (and parents) at a time into a little makeshift spacecraft, which had a sliding window that purported to be a monitor onto the surface of whatever planet they visited. Their guide narrated the wonders, and the people in funny costumes acted out the story. This year we were giddy with excitement when we approached the street and saw a sandwich board advertising “The Library of Horror”. Mara and I had driven down that street several days earlier on our way home from fetching the take-out Thai, just to see if anything was afoot yet, and sure enough three people had been out on ladders painting the front of what would become, by All Hallows Eve, the Transylvania Public Library.

Note the dry-ice fogger. Mara told me later that the horns looked real and "didn't have tape holding them on", otherwise this creature would have been no problem for her.

The extra mile in festive participation. The guide introduces another group to the crying gargoyle. As always, click for larger version.

Out front we were met by a David Duchovnyish character in a tweed jacket and cap and holding a pipe (lit with a battery) and an old book. He said he was returning a book to the library and did we want to come along? Knowing that these folks tend to underestimate how scary their productions can be, I asked if we could request a spiciness level of one-star, as it were. He said he’d see what he could do, and we followed him up the steps to a pedestal on which squatted a sobbing gargoyle wearing glasses and a sign that read “Closed Due to Budget Cuts”. Mara planted her feet and gripped my hand at this point and it was only when I told her that I was going inside and that she could wait with Mommie or come with me, that she allowed me to tow her up onto the porch, which had been enclosed to seem like an interior. There were bookshelves and an old white haired librarian lady, who read an abbreviated and non-spooky summary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein while a figure of the lumbering monster motioned through a window. There was also a hand that came up through a table, and a skeletal hand that handed books from the bookshelf. Count Dracula strolled in and said hyello, and the Headless Horseman came out holding his pumpkin head and offered us candy. “Thanks Heady!” said our tweedy guide.

The TPL was the highlight of our travels that evening. I hope they continue doing that every year. It’s free, it’s fun, it’s in our own neighborhood, done for the love of it.

Settle down, Yorick! One of the neighbors' decorations. (Don't click on this picture.)

Oh, and the eerie thing that happened to me? For the first time in maybe thirty six years, I felt as though it would have been fun to have dressed up as something, and I resolved that next year I would do so. Angela was surprised. But I’d better start working on my costume now, because of course I’ll want it to be original, stunning, one-of-a-kind. Alright, maybe I’ll just settle for running into the costume shop next year two days before H-day. But it felt good to feel that desire to participate, such a distant impulse for me for so long. Maybe I’m thawing out after all these years.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt