Archive for February, 2011


thirty white horses on a red hill
first they champ,
then they stamp,
then they stand still.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Hobbit’

A tooth went for about a dime on my street in the 1960s. Though I don’t actually have a direct memory of it, I recall the fact that when a tooth came out we would put it under our pillow that night and the Tooth Fairy would somehow retrieve it from under the weight of our head, leaving Eisenhower’s bald profile in its place. Given how many baby teeth I had to leave for that benign bone collector, you’d think I’d have clearer memories of making the drop.

What I do remember very vividly is using my tongue to wiggle a loose tooth back and forth while sitting in school, and even more vividly wedging the tip of my tongue under the bottom of the tooth on the inside where it had become detatched so that the tooth would lean forward, still attached along the outside. And finally that warm and alarming taste of blood.

They're coming in!

What strangeness are teeth! Like fingernails and toenails they are parts of our skeleton that show on the outside of us, the architecture exposed, a glimpse of the clay from which we are formed. They are like granite outcroppings on a hillside, hinting at what there would be if the breath of life were removed and grass or skin whithered away. And am I right — that teeth are the only parts of our bodies that we are given a preliminary set of? We don’t drop our arms or legs during childhood, nor can we in later years evacuate our innards in favor of new stuffing, as beneficial as that would be to many of us. New eardrums anyone? How about the eyes, which fail so many before they wear out the rest of themselves? Why did the Creator deign to accord us a completely disposable set of teeth while of all our other body parts we must take utmost care, unless it is that a mouthful of teeth is so vital to our well-being that we must have them before our mouths can fit them or our gums support them. Or maybe it’s because the gums must be broken — with something — before we develop the memory to record such awful pain. I don’t know, but to me — to me — it seems to point to not only brilliant but also benevolent design.      

It’s all about the ivory these days at our house. I’ve likened our little family before to a herd of elephants, and right about now that seems apropos. Emilia has two teeth now, the bottom fronts, and is working on the rest of her starter package. The thing about photographing them, however, is that when she smiles she also wags her head around so that the camera has trouble focusing on her, with the result that there are not a lot of really clear photographs of her new, white, razor sharp teeth. We’ve been letting her maul apple slices, which she loves. Bananas, no. Sweet potatoes, no. She will happily mash these others in her fist and then wave her hands and splatter chunky, handmade apple- or yam-sauce around the kitchen, but she doesn’t seem interested in putting those in her mouth. But she knows what to do with a Honeycrisp, boy howdy. As she stuffs a wedge of apple into her mouth and works her jaw you can hear those lower incisors tearing cleanly into the flesh of the fruit. She mostly spits out the chunks but she loves the juice.  

They're falling out!

While Millie has been getting accustomed to her first teeth, Mara and Angela have both been preparing to lose some of the ones they have been making good use of for years. 

Angela’s wisdom teeth came in beautifully when she was younger, came in with none of the thuggish crowding behavior so common in teeth of that ilk, which in my own teenaged and too-small jaw were impacted and had to be gone in after as soon as they started pushing on the molars above. Angela’s wisdom teeth might have gone the distance, but one of them developed a crack and some subsequent decay — I blame sucking on ice cubes, though she derides this diagnosis as quackery — so they are all coming out in two weeks, just to reduce the chance of further trouble.

Neither Angela nor I is looking forward to her operation, she because it will probably hurt and will certainly inconvenience her, I because I will temporarily lose my tag-team partner in the daily struggle against chaos (or should I say KAOS; some of Mara’s behaviors lately suggest she might currently be an agent for the original Axis of Evil). But both of us are excited that Mara, our family’s first baby elephant — after much jealous pining to experience the thrill and danger described by older (and lisping) friends, and much pulling and pushing and testifying that she was sure one of her teeth was starting to become loose — actually coughed one up about a week ago. One of her bottom teeth gave way in preparation for the arrival of her first real tusk.

What a tooth will fetch on the faerie market today.

After much careful examination, the little tooth was placed in a mesh pouch and set to rest next to her pillow when she went to bed. In the morning, the tooth was gone and in its place there was a new $1 Jefferson “gold” coin.


A friend for the streetcorner

Last week I was crossing Second Avenue at Pike Street and heard my name called, always a pleasant confusion in the midst of the anonymous and vaguely menacing urban throng. I work hard to cultivate a network of people I have some rapport with around the city, so that I’m never far from a smile of recognition, but it’s still disorienting to encounter someone I know. Seattle is not a very big city but it’s also not a small town.  

It was my young friend Evan Gackstatter crossing the street arm-in-arm with a young woman. Evan is a talented guitarist that used to work during the day at the Seattle’s Best Coffee in Post Alley, where for a while I was going almost every day for my latte (12 oz. decaf, single shot). I liked him right off. Good upbeat energy, seemed to always genuinely enjoy people, which, at two o’clock in the afternoon on a busy weekday when the cruise ships are in town and the coffee shop is crowded with tourists and their indecision and their coffee illiteracy, speaks well of his inner disposition.

Gackstatter the band. Tim, Evan, Nathan. Image copyright Gackstatter.

One day shortly after I met him, Evan told me he was in a band and that I should check him out online. Dr. G and the Funky Recovery. I noted the name and said I’d have a listen, but inwardly I rolled my eyes and thought, “Right, who isn’t in a band? Everybody’s in a band. Kids get a guitar for Christmas and they think they’re a rock star.” But I endeavor to be a man of my word, and so I looked him up and POW! — Evan’s guitar playing and singing KNOCKED ME BACK! I was genuinely impressed. The music of his band, which is now called simply Gackstatter, is high energy jazz-rock that, even if it’s not your kind of music — it’s not really my kind, I listen to laid back stuff like folk and roots rock — you cannot fail to appreciate that the man is a genius on the guitar and an extremely innovative vocalist and songwriter. Because he is in his twenties, I had prejudged him and imagined that his music would be more of that lazy, joyless “I’m not really trying, trying isn’t cool” school of emasculated breathy music that persists in popularity among young males these days despite any reason that I can see except cynicism. Music by and for eunuchs.

Not Evan. With a voice like a rapier, Evan fairly swashbuckles his verses, arcing here in falsetto, then diving there to fish out some bass notes, and his fingers absolutely fly up and down the frets as though he’s trying to use each musical bar to the fullest. I can’t listen to it for long, because I’m older and can’t take the sustained volume and energy anymore. But there’s a lot to hear in it. I could make comparisons with Jeff Buckley, Jack Bruce, Wishbone Ash, Blues Traveler, Huffamoose, and lots more. The music is original, the craftsmanship high quality. I haven’t met drummer Nathan Taylor or bassist Tim Carey (though not because Evan has not invited me several times to come see them play), but they are equally amazing musicians. For one of my favorite Gackstatter songs, a rambunctiously loud and busy one that also palpably expresses joie de vivre, go here and click the title track, One Winged Rocket.

The music sounds a lot like this image looks. Image copyright Gackstatter.

There’s a saying I like about “friends for the road”, a saying I can’t actually remember right now. It refers to the fact that there are friends that will remain close to you all your life and there are also people who enter your life and may be very close to you for a time — for a stretch of the road — but with whom you eventually part ways. Your roads simply diverge and the bond of whatever stress or quest united you is gradually loosened, and you drift apart. The idea is that not every friend has to be one that you are still besties with at age 93, but that these temporary friends are friends nonetheless.

I would say there are friends of an even more transient and ephemeral sort, the kind that used to be called “acquaintances”. A couple weeks ago I was sniffing around the base of the Columbia Tower with my camera and I heard someone shout “hey, hi!” in my direction, and it turned out to be officer Linda sitting in her little Parking Enforcement rig. Those are brilliant moments. The city suddenly feels like a home. And those are just the unpredictable, out-and-about coincidences. But the reason I have a connection with most of these people in the first place is because they are normally stationary and I am a creature of habitual wanderings. Patty and her daughter Ashleigh at the Planet Java diner over on Washington, which has appeared in several of my posts. David at Lionheart Books in the market. Miguel, my barber. The crew at Seattle’s Best, also in the market, and Diane, their superfriendly manager until she recently moved up to the shop next to the public library. Ben Gant of Turko’s Last Stand newsstand. Eddie the Shoe Shine, often of Pine Street. Ed, my Real Change vendor (and his dog Cosby), who parks his wheelchair at the corner of Third and University in front of the Benaroya but pulls up stakes by 9am. The man at the Mexican place in the food court at Westlake Mall, who helps me practice my Spanish.

These relationships are not necessarily deep nor very tightly bonded, but they are relationships. When I see these people I get happy, simply because I know their names, or in one or two cases just their faces, and by knowing I am known. Because these things don’t just come about by themselves. If I grunt and throw money on a counter without looking at who is serving me or acknowledging the dizzying array of potential human stories swirling around me as I go through mine, then these little friendships can’t happen. But when I pause and ask a question, or make a little small talk, and then come back again soon and make the effort again, I end up with a constellation of friendly faces strung across the city, which like I said can otherwise be a pretty lonely place.

Gradually, one hello at a time, I’m turning downtown Seattle into a place less alienated, a place I can comfortably walk my soul in. Thanks for calling my name, Evan.

History night at the book store

Last Wednesday night I attended a reading at the University Book Store by Richard C. Berner, whose previously published and now updated book Seattle 1900 – 1920: From Boomtown, Through Turbulence, to Restoration is being published by and printed right there at the University Book Store. Paul Dorpat’s name is also on the cover because he ransacked his collections of old photographs and ephemera to supply the reissued book with dozens of illustrations particularly suiting the text.

Rich Berner, left, answers questions about his reissued book while Paul Dorpat plays the gracious host.

I skibbled over to the University district after work, then nabbed what turned out to be one of the best little burgers I’ve had in a long time at a tiny joint called the Burger and Kabob Hut on the Ave between 41st and 42nd streets. Then I wiped chin and hied the two blocks north to the “U Book Store”. About fifty people had gathered upstairs near the poetry section, where rows of chairs had been set out.

It wasn’t really a reading, per se. Messrs. Berner and Dorpat told a little about the already successful book, which is only the first in a triplet that Rich had published late in the 20th century. The other two will also be reprinted by the University Book Store. Paul told about how he’d come to be involved and with his typical humility gave the gathered throng to know that while his name was on the reissued book it was really all Rich’s work, that he Paul had only supplied the illustrations. In the forward to the book, Rich, who is 90, acknowledges that if Paul had not agreed to toss in with him on the project he probably would not have been up for it. Besides the addition of pictures, the book has been updated with additional textual material.

Paul fields a question from the audience.

I had never heard of Richard Berner, but many there were familiar not only with the man’s history trilogy, but also with what many consider an even greater contribution to our and future generations’ understanding of regional history. As head of the University’s Archives and Manuscripts Division, Rich engineered and oversaw the gathering of a number of collections of records and data into the University’s archives, which he founded in 1958 and in whose navigation and use he spent a quarter century mentoring his students. Though he retired decades ago from his post, researchers continue to benefit from the trove of documents he amassed during his tenure.

A spontaneous award. Louis Fiset presents Rich with a copy of his book. I had a camera handy so they turned toward me.

One such researcher and author was present at the reading. During the question and answer session, Louis Fiset, who has written two books and numerous articles on the experience of Seattle’s Japanese community during the internments of World War II, opened a copy of one of his published books (Camp Harmony: Seattle’s Japanese Americans and the Puyallup Assembly Center; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009) and read the dedication, which stated that without the benefit of the collections that Mr. Berner had secured, his own book would not have been possible.

After the question and answer period there was the signing of books and, for those interested, a trip downstairs to see the book actually being published by the University Book Store’s Espresso Book Machine. This little equalizer not only enables you — yes you — to publish a single on-demand paperback copy of any of millions of out-of-print books, but it also enables authors to publish their work in paperback form with a binding supposedly at least as durable as those on the books distributed by the industry’s large publishers, without having to pony up for a printing of thousands. Depending on length and other variables, you can test the waters for your book of post-postmodern neo-Euclidian poetry for the cost of a one-time set-up fee ($50 – 70) and about ten dollars per printed copy.  

Get 'em while they're hot! Tera shows us the Espresso Book Machine in action. The freshly minted book appears in the clear plastic chute bottom center.

I bought my copy and had it autographed by both gentlemen. Incidentally, the whole book (the new edition!) has also been published online on the website Paul shares with his friends the photographers Jean Sherrard and Bérangère Lomont, so you can read it or download it as a group of PDFs there, but Paul pointed out that most of us who enjoy history of this sort are the kind who like to hold the book in our hands. If you’re crazy that way, too, ask for it at your local independent bookstore. [UPDATE 2/23/11: I goofed; the book can be bought for about $15 from the University Book Store (and if they run out, the EBM is right there to print you one on the spot) and from Tartu Publications, P.O. Box 85208, Seattle, WA 98145. Note that after covering the cost of running the EBM, Rich and Paul are donating the rest to] 

Although it was a small and low-key event and the duties (and joys) awaiting me at home prevented me from staying to hobnob, I felt very affirmed by this little gathering. It’s a weird thing to be, in this culture of forward motion and futurism, one of those haunted by things that have come and gone and are no more, by people, places and events whose resonance in the present day may be real enough but are seldom appreciated and even less often acknowledged. I wish I’d had time to get acquainted with some of those gathered. Some of them may be people with whom I have exchanged comments on blogs about local history. But it was enough to have been introduced to a man who has done much for people like me and whom I might easily never have encountered.

A man’s gotta do…

I was going to write a post tonight about a booksigning event I attended in the University District this evening, but Angela, who has in the past few days taken up knitting and is very excited about a scarf she is making for Mara, took a wrong turn on the knitting needle, or made a false stitch, or however knitters would say that — I’m sure there’s a colorful phrase — and started to become emotionally unraveled. She started using words like “fiasco” and “disaster” and in trying to fix it she got the big loop of yarn tangled.

Not the yarn I had planned to present.

We had been happily sitting beside each other on the couch, I typing madly away, she clicking and clacking with her needles, but now she dropped the whole mess in her lap and her head hung low as if she were about to start sobbing. I asked if she wanted me to help her untangle it, and she said yes. So I spread the unwieldy loop in my hands and we turned it into the traditional ball of yarn. Now it’s after midnight. I’ll tell you about the history gathering some other time.

A penny for your history

On the northwest corner of Second and Marion downtown there is an arch made of stone. I passed it the other day while I had my camera with me. It stands near the sidewalk at the front of the upper plaza of the Henry M. Jackson (a.k.a. “Federal”) Building. I’m going to tell you just a little story about that arch. 

It's been here a long time.

Many of them were silly, but we had a lot of traditions. Looking back, I guess they were a way that we teenagers — famously stuck between impotent childhoods we wished to leave behind and the responsibilities of adulthood that we were not yet allowed — could make the world our own. My friends and I excelled at creating these traditions. There was a tradition upon leaving Kip’s house that as I or Jeff was pulling away, Kipper would thump “BUMP BUMP baDUMP BUMP” — the five notes of the old “shave and a haircut” musical phrase — on the trunk of our car (or, if we were backing out, on the hood). We would sound the corresponding two notes of “two bits” lightly on the horn. This just happened once, and then it became a thing we always did, even if we were leaving after midnight and sleeping neighbors might hear. It was no less than a pledge of continued friendship at parting.

Kip and I also had a tradition, whenever we ate at Pizza and Pipes in Bellevue, of asking the organist, Dick Schrumm, to play “Windy”, which he always did. We sat down close to his perch at the front and drank root beer and ate pepperoni pizza and heckled him, and he heckled us back. He once told us with a salacious wink that he was known far and wide as “Big Dick and his swingin’ organ”. 

Not just a work of art.

There was a season when Jeff and I rode the bus from Bellevue to downtown Seattle a lot, and we ended up waiting in front of the Federal Building, which had been built in the early 1970s. It is an amazement to me now that I gave no thought whatsoever to the nature of this arch, to this peculiar portal’s provenance. I think I assumed that it was simply a recent piece of sculpture erected there, since the building’s plaza was also home to some other works of art.

Every time we ended up here waiting for a bus home, we each climbed up one side of the arch as high as we could, and reaching up above our heads we deposited a penny on the little ledge formed by the capital above the pillars. It was just an inch or so wide. We did this every time, hoping to ascertain whether a penny thus saved might be a penny earned next time we reached up there. But the pennies were always gone the next time we checked.

The arch in the last days that it was still part of its original structure. Jan 20, 1971. Photo by Lawton Gowey courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

Destruction precedes construction. Feb 10, 1971. Photo by Lawton Gowey courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

All gone but the arch and the corner doorway (which as far as I know was not saved). Feb 25, 1971. Photo by Lawton Gowey courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

It’s hard for me to remember this mindset, but there was a time when I viewed the built environment as a static thing. I had not lived long enough to see any of it change significantly, and so it didn’t occur to me, I mean consciously, that every modern building I could see had replaced some older building of brick or stone, and that the old stone and brick buildings still extant had in their time replaced grand old Victorian houses — right here on the slopes of downtown Seattle. It seems intuitive and obvious now, but I swear it didn’t occur to me, especially since we still had an “old” section of town called Pioneer Square. That’s where the old buildings were, and they were still there. I didn’t actually say that in my mind, but the assumption informed my perspective. Similarly, we didn’t have Victorian mansions here in Seattle. Those were houses I read about in stories about the East Coast. If you had asked me if I believed that every building I saw had been erected on newly cleared ground I would certainly have chuckled and said no. I had just never really had any occasion to imagine the layering of the city’s history through time.

Had I bothered to read the little plaque bolted to the wall next to the arch, I might have known that it was the preserved front portal of the Burke Building, which had preceded the Federal Building on this site and had been razed to make way for it, as these photos kindly provided by Paul Dorpat show. The Burke was one of the many “Richardsonian Romanesque” buildings that architect Elmer H. Fisher designed for Seattle’s post-fire reconstruction boom. I believe it was built in 1889, just after that fire reduced most of the downtown area to smoldering ash.

Now when I look at the arch I see this. As usual, click for a much larger version. Photo courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

You can walk right up and touch these decorative elements today. A century ago they were fixed to the top of the Burke Building; you can see them in the photo above. Photo by Jmabel licensed through Creative Commons.

The Burke Building in mid-life (1940s) next to the 1929 Exchange Building. Unsure of the date. Photo by Asahel Curtis courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

My discovery some years later that this piece of stone art that we had been clambering on was a remnant of Seattle’s elusive past marked the beginning of my awareness of the city as an unfolding thing, a dynamic system, and a corresponding change in my attitude toward it. I had enjoyed Paul Dorpat’s Now & Then column every Sunday in the paper for years, but I somehow hadn’t connected the historical photos he presented with a citywide historical view in my mind — each was simply a unique visual puzzle. Now I was enchanted. What had the rest of the Burke Building looked like? What other treasures lay unheralded around the city in little squares and down forgotten alleys, or right out in front of everyone’s noses? Even ten years ago, when I first discovered what the arch was, it was not as easy as it is now to simply google up the name of a building and find out everything you wish to know about it, with photos. Now, of course, a quick search of the building’s name turns up many photos from different eras. Here, in addition to my own photos, I’ve used several that Paul sent me and one I found online.

In 1971, the great and grand makes way for the merely big. The doomed Burke Building from the rear. Photo by Lawton Gowey courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

At some point we stopped going downtown on the bus. Our lives became about college, and other things. Jeff moved away. I’ve walked past the arch many hundreds of times since those days, but a few weeks ago I actually stepped up onto the base of the right-side pillars and reached a hand up above the capital to see if there was a penny there.  


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt