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.
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.