Archive for November, 2011

A dropped coin

He who does not see God in the next person he meets need look no further.”

— Gandhi

I seem to be treading near the horizon between this material world and other ones a lot lately. A strange thing happened today as I was threading my way among the citizens and denizens of this dubious outpost of civilization. I was walking east along Pike Street in that dodgy section between Second and Third. I find it difficult to remain spiritually open in this particular quarter, as there always seems to be the potential for mayhem, perhaps an argument or even a shooting. It was here that police many years ago encircled a troubled black man who’d been brandishing a scimitar and finally knocked him to the pavement with water from a fire-hose.

So I always experience a temptation to harden myself as I pass through there, and the hardening changes not only my posture and my gait but I’m sure my face as well. I’m aware that even when I think I’m smiling bigly, like for pictures, I’m really only smiling a little, and that when I’m not smiling I actually look like I’m scowling. And maybe I am. Being aware of this unfortunate aspect of my visage, I make an effort as I stroll around to open myself up — not to ask for trouble, and not because I think I’m a superhero, but because I need that for my own soul. I am trying to become the kind of person I might admire, and I often know such persons by the fact that they are open and friendly and smiling. So I practice it when I think about it.

Years ago, even the people with clipboards asking for a moment of my time for a worthy cause made me fold up and wish I could disappear — I hated them. I still inwardly cringe every time I see one ahead of me on the sidewalk, or waiting for me at the other side of the crosswalk like someone guarding the far end of a rope bridge, but these days I am able to smile broadly as I approach them. I don’t necessarily shake the hand they proffer (the line “I’d shake your hand but I don’t want to” from The New Adventures of Old Christine always comes to mind), but I always say hi and I don’t feel trapped, and that’s because my outlook toward people has changed toward the positive over recent years.

But that balance between the self-preservation instinct and spiritual openness is difficult to maintain in the wacky parts of town. So it seems now somehow fitting or predestined or ironic (or something) that I saw a young woman in a thick coat and the big soft boots of the current fashion approaching me earnestly at an angle across the sidewalk. Her diagonal trajectory caused people behind her and in front of her to adjust their own bearings suddenly, though she didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Excuse me!” she said quickly.

I stopped and raised my eye-brows, trying to look open, even though I felt very much closed and protective of myself. My collar was up against the cold and my hands were in my coat pockets and because I had forgotten to smile purposefully I probably looked irritated.

Her right eye wandered a little and was slightly closed. She held some coins pinched in the fingers of both her hands and was clacking them together. She seemed to be waiting for me to answer, but I had not yet fully opened myself. My stopping and regarding someone is my signal that they have a short moment to engage my empathy, but I don’t waste words on the street. I waited for her to state her business. She seemed confused that I didn’t speak.

“You’re beautiful,” she blurted. She said this in a quick slur, barely moving her lips, so that I wasn’t even sure that that’s what she said. She clicked the coins, looked away slightly. I suddenly understood that she was completely overwhelmed by the world, and had no idea how to go about getting what she needed from anyone.

I leaned forward then, hoping to assure her that she could at least continue, could make her request. I expected she was going to ask for money, and I regretted that I didn’t have a dollar ready. I sometimes keep a dollar loose in my pocket so that I don’t have to fish out my wallet out on the sidewalk when the spirit moves me to give. But she didn’t ask for money.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“I just wanted to see if you’d stop,” she reported, again in a kind of tight-lipped slur. She shifted position on her feet and looking away again. “You’re beautiful.”

I have an idea of about how beautiful I am on the typical scale of Western civ for my age category. This didn’t seem to be about that. The phrase repeated sounded strange, as if she were not saying it of me, but more as a hope for herself, a hope that it may be true of herself and that someone would say it to her. It sounded like something she said often, like a phrase she worried over.

“Well…thanks,” I said. I wanted to say “You’re beautiful too,” which was just the truth. But I was so taken aback that I only managed to add, “You too”, a lame non-sentence, a fragment without verb or object.

If she heard me it had no visible effect on her. Her attention seemed to be drifting, or rather, she didn’t seem to know what to do with my own attention now that she had it. I smiled as broadly as I dared then, and feeling suddenly vulnerable I turned away and proceeded in the direction I’d been going. I thought of how we desire to be told these truths by the people who matter to us — our parents and partners and friends — and how, failing that, a person might seek that connection and affirmation anywhere, anonymously even, and how even in a relatively open moment I was not able to receive such a gift without fear and confusion. It was a pretty simple idea she communicated, a clear statement, and yet I wasn’t able to fully return the blessing just then, just there, and it sent me tumbling down the sidewalk wondering what could possibly be wrong with her.

I heard a coin drop and when I looked back she was chasing it. It seemed to be rolling away from her, just beyond her reach as she followed after it.


Stepping out into Winter

In the time since we gathered last year for Thanksgiving Dinner at my sister’s house, my father passed away and the percentage of all humans brought into the world by my sister who are married increased from 25 to 50 percent. Other than that, our Thanksgiving dinner gathering was much the same this year, which is to say comfortable and homey and happy. We all miss my dad’s quiet and yet foundational presence at the table, his enjoyment of other people’s merriment and of young people and their news. However, we knew he would not have wanted his absence to make us somber. The evening passed with much conversation and laughter and the eating of good food. I took no photos because I assumed the event would be exhaustively documented on people’s phones.

Non-commuters experience the busride as a fun thing.

Yesterday, Angela and I took the girls down to the beleaguered Seattle Center to see the miniature train village that they put up in the Center House every year during Winterfest. Mara and I have gone to it several times, but I don’t remember blogging about it before. The Center House has a lot of food vendor storefronts around a central gathering area and a stage in one corner. In previous years we saw tap dancers, break dancers, and singers of various kinds on the stage. But yesterday we got there so late in the afternoon that we had missed all the performances. The train was there, which held Millie’s attention somewhat, but Mara seemed to be obsessed with the candy store we patronized last year, whose storefront was now hidden behind a wall that separated the public space from a lot of remodeling construction going on. It was not open or even visible, but the memory of choosing several pieces of candy from this brightly colored and sweet smelling shoppe is evidently emblazoned on a part of Mara’s brain that has easy access to her tongue, which wagged the daylong with wonderings and musings about when they might open again, and whether we might possibly find our way to some other source of a treat.

With so many of the food vendors closed and no music, it seemed a little bit of a let-down to me, and certainly to Angela, who had not been along on earlier visits to Winterfest when it was more lively. But the girls were not disappointed at all. Because we were all together doing something outside the house, it was automatically a good time for them. Plus, we visited a balloon lady and got Mara a giant candy cane balloon and Millie a mouse balloon, which she enjoyed even after she untwisted most of it and all that was left was a little mouse head and a long tail. We spent probably an hour outside by the big fountain just watching people trying not to get wet and getting very wet indeed (it shoots jets of water in all directions in an unpredictable pattern and sometimes shoots all of them at once, and people young and old — even in the damp and cold of November — cannot resist trying to touch the domed base of the fountain without getting tagged).

It was a fun adventure and it struck me that it is not very often that all four of us get to do something like that together. I think it was Emilia’s first bus ride, too. It’s a taste of great family adventures to come. Just one more thing I’m grateful for this Thanksgiving weekend. Here are some photographs:

Watching the trains

A miniature winter wonderland. What's not to love?

Mara getting to drive the train = two dollars. The thought of her doing this while wishing she was at the candy store = priceless.

Romantic pastoralist indoctrination or harmless wondermaking?

The picture of sisterhood begins to emerge.

GSGH #5 winner limerick

Issy, who won the sixth installment of our Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt, has also gone back and won the fifth. She correctly identified the location of the grimacing gargoyle in GSGH #5 as the old Coliseum Theater on Fifth and Pike, now the Banana Republic store.

Gargoyle #5

I’ve been waiting for a non-rainy moment when I could take a picture of the venerable movie palace to include here, but instead I’ll include another photo by the ubiquitous Joe Mabel, who seems to have photographed every interesting building in Seattle and then licensed all the images to the public. (Thanks again, Joe.)

At least it's still standing. Our gargoyle is to the right of the entryway about fifteen feet up. Image by Joe Mabel licensed through Creative Commons.

My history with this place is that back in 1990, my friend Marni called me and told me that the Coliseum was showing its last movie and would be closing afterwards and that we needed to get down there. At that time I knew little about Seattle’s historic buildings and didn’t even know what the Coliseum was. It was stunningly beautiful inside. We saw Tremors*, a horror-comedy about giant earthworms starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, and at the end of the movie the staff dropped a cloud of balloons down on us from the balcony. Thanks to Marni, I got to participate in this historic finish to a great run.



My friend Pedro and I recently went in there hoping to be shown around the old balcony, which is still up there behind the remodeled interior, but no soap. Pedro had previously used his effortless charm on the clerks to wheedle his way into the hidden historic spaces, but the policy had changed when he came back with me for another go. We hit them on a jittery day this past summer, when management wasn’t taking any chances about lawsuits (or, you know, just being fired for letting people off the street claiming to be history buffs walk around in the back rooms of their business place).

Stucco entities rescued from the theater's interior now work security for the Banana Republic. I don't know whether these are the original decorations or castings made from them.

I told Issy that repeat winners don’t get additional limericks, but she suggested I write one for her as “Isabelle”. I’m not that gullible, but I am that much of a wimp, and so I relented. Plus, her husband (or at least someone CLAIMING to be her husband) made a funny comment on that gargoyle page.

Here you go, “Isabelle”. Thanks again for participating!

Isabelle said, “I know this old Liam.
In my mind’s eye I certainly see him”
The way that she’d go
When she’d step out for joe
Led her back to the old Coliseum.”

*It’s on my list of favorite movies of all time, and Fred Ward is one of my favorite actors.

Some help I was

We laid to rest the father of my best friend Kip last Thursday. For me, this is the third such crossing over since the beginning of summer — older men I cherished in different ways. My own father went in early August, and shortly after that my church lost its elder statesmen, actually its elder elder. Now this man Ben, who met my appearance on his doorstep, my appetite at his dinner table, my hand on his refrigerator door as I helped myself to a beer, with the most unreserved welcome. I was Kip’s friend, and in his dad’s mind that might as well have made me a son. He called me “Choo”, was in fact present on some outing of his family’s when Kip first gave me that nickname, they all having turned to see me lagging behind them in some spazzy reverie and Kip having said, “Comin’, Choo?”

Unlike my own dad or Jeff’s dad, Ben was a cut-up, a jokester who lived for the double entendre and reveled in the timely pun. He laughed at everything he could laugh at and cooked a brilliant steak. I was not to knock at the front door of Ben’s house, even though the doors were perfect for knocking. There were large metal rings on both tall wooden halves. Kip’s family expected me to walk in. I usually knocked and then walked in, but I did not wait for them to open. They would have given me an earful for making them get up to answer the door when it was just me.

In the eternity of my memory of the house I knock, walk in, and must immediately wrestle the dog out of my crotch. Then Kip’s mom, who is sitting at her card table next to the fireplace putting the fun bits of a jigsaw puzzle together — the boats, the barn, the mill — glances up through the top of her bifocals and says, “Matthew, get your ass over here and put some of the sky in for me.” Ben is in the kitchen, preparing a meal of red meat and potatoes. “Hey Choo!” he yells upon stepping out from the kitchen to see who has arrived. The household is chaotic, noisy, unjudging, safe. Not all my friends’ houses felt that way. Some were quiet, nearly unpeopled galleries of distant lives. Kip’s family seemed to live in all the rooms at once and fill them all with witty expressions and laughter, sometimes complaint and yelling, too. Life was lived at full volume, and my own noise and witty banter were welcome. After paying the toll of a few pieces of puzzle sky successfully placed, my only other duty was to partake of some meat or drink. It sometimes took twenty minutes before I was free to ascend the narrow attic stair to Kip’s room so we could get down to the serious business of listening to records and playing cribbage.

The old craftsman house in Bellevue was the first of our houses — Kip’s parents’, Jeff’s, mine — to be knocked down and replaced with a sterile New Eastside mansion. After Kip and his siblings flew the nest, Ben and Betsy moved back across the lake to Seattle, whence they’d come. Ben died a few yards from site of the house he’d grown up in, though I believe that house is long gone, too.

Thursday came and I caught a bus from work over to the church in Bellevue, one that Kip and Jeff and I had passed countless times on our way from my house or Jeff’s to Kip’s, or from Kip’s house to my house or Jeff’s. I had only ever been inside it once before, back in the early ’90s, for the funeral of one of our high school friends who was gunned down on the streets of Seattle after intervening to stop a fistfight. I was looking forward to representing the small pack of Kip’s oldest friends who were, excepting myself, unable to attend the memorial service. My own family having just gone through this, I was eager to be a support.

But I had already forgotten how this goes. I was sad to hear of Ben’s passing, of course, and shared the real and immediate grief of my friend as it affected him and his family, but not having seen old Ben in almost a decade I could hardly say I would miss him terribly. For me he was pretty much a happy memory already. So I was expecting to sail through the event without much activity in the lacrimal glands. I would stand there like bedrock for the shaken family I loved, a smiling, composed symbol of Ben’s favor among all who knew him.

But as I say, I had forgotten how it goes. The family were still “in it”, as I and my family had been “in it” in August. They were holding up fine, still pushing themselves through the motions of “the next thing, and the next thing”, as one must do after the passing of a loved one. It all comes so quickly…the arrangements to be made, the people to notify, the attorneys and caterers to instruct, the paperwork to fill out, the photographs to assemble and the eulogies to write. The family had probably not yet had a moment to catch their breath.

I, on the other hand, was removed from all that, and as I settled into the pew of the beautiful old Episcopal church where Ben had brought his young family when they moved to Bellevue, I did not realize what an empty, raw vessel I was, recently scoured out and ready now to be hit with the full force of the loss of a father, even though I would be experiencing it obliquely, from a few feet away, a few pews back. The loveliness of humanity in its grieving process took me utterly by surprise. I had trooped through my own father’s funeral service, even spoken publicly, kept my composure and comforted those who could not, like my dear aunt who cried and cried, and considered it a success because everything got done and got done in the right order, and my father was honored and sung to rest in a way that gave those who knew and loved him closure.

But I had not had a chance to look fully into the abyss, to see ourselves all standing there at the edge singing a man’s favorite hymns, as though to comfort him and not us. I hadn’t yet been able to consider what it means when we gather after a death. It’s a shocking and wonderful thing, this thing we do. An unthinkable crack, horrible and permanent, opens up in our lives, and our loved one is on the other side of it, invisible to us, forever as long as we live. That chasm will never close in our lifetime, but we stand there together and sing into the hole, that inevitable gaping darkness, and we ask God to remember us remembering our flesh and bone. We stand there in our most vulnerable estate, dust living the windblown life of dust, and yet we lift our voices up in gratitude for having shared what now appear to have been just fleeting moments together. We read scripture aloud, words that sometimes confused us and sometimes caused us to argue with each other over their meaning, but that now form a shield between us and the unacceptable fact of death. We sing the raw edge off of our pain.

“Eternal father, strong to save”, we sang. It is a song I love and it was the first song in the liturgy we sang that day. Episcopal liturgy is foreign to me, but the hymns were some I knew and the organist was literally pulling out all the stops, weaving a tapestry of hallowed tones that carried our frail voices — clinging to each other in disarray — into sublime harmony. Mine failed me almost right away. I tried to sing but the breath went out of me as though sucked out by a nearby explosion, the way Christopher Plummer’s voice faltered as he sang ‘Edelweiss’ in The Sound of Music. All I could do was whisper the words. It happened on every song. The hall was filled mostly with elderly folks, including the only two people who shared my pew. I didn’t know any of them and I was grateful to be there by myself, all broken down as I suddenly was. I was grateful that the family was too far in front of me to see my lower lip wiggling, the water at the edges of my eyes.

It was a long moment that went through me like a spear. It was the moment that had been on its way to me since my father, unconscious in his living room three months earlier, surrounded by us his family, gently released his grip and stopped breathing and left us here in this bewildering and beautiful place, a place that suddenly seems more lonely and strange than any conception of death I can believe in.

The quiet thought trickled out of me, “he’s really never coming back.”

I felt it all then, the loneliness of all the people who remain — the whole of breathing humanity — for all their friends departed; the weight of the whole world’s longing.

And behold, they ate of them

A few weeks back I wrote about the way Mara seemed to be charmed when it came to windowsill propagation and backyard farming. In that post we made much of the fact that she had thrown a handful of wasted spuds into a patch of unamended soil — one might be excused for using the word “dirt”, normally anathema to plantsmen — covered them over and forgotten about them, and from this unfretful sowing came four large and verdant potato plants. True, it was I who remembered to toss a little water their way when the heat finally came in August, but I almost didn’t because I didn’t really think new potatoes were hatching under there. As you saw in the post, potatoes were indeed growing — Yukon Golds — and we gathered them up at summer’s end.

Mara enjoys the fruit of her labors. That's face paint on her cheeks, by the way (a different story).

I just wanted to report on the end of the story, at least for this year. Knowing that the way things go around here Mara’s spuds would have rotted in the garage — a sort of fitting circular journey since that’s where she found the original bag Angela had abandoned there — before we ever did anything with them, I suggested we bring them upstairs and whup ’em up! Mara and I washed them, I sliced the littler ones into home fry chunks and the two largest ones into French fries, and Angela baked the home fries up with some fish sticks the next night. (The French fries we’re saving for another occasion.) And let me just testify, these potatoes were delicious!

I’m so tickled about the way this all went down, I just had to take a photo. I don’t know, it just blows my mind that Mara did this. It seems like she was a baby a minute ago, and now she’s practically growing food by herself. To produce sustenance out of the earth is one of Ye Bigge Thynges, is it not? Okay, I’ll stop yapping about it now.

GSGH #6 winner limerick

I’m grateful to Issy, who won the sixth installment of our Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt, because I’ve learned so much about a building whose reticence was buggin’ me sore. Issy identified these “gargoyles” as being the lions on the building on Second and Spring’s northeast corner, and she even specified that these were the two that glower over the entrance to the alley on Spring between Second and Third. Which is true.

The dangling "pom poms" looked familiar, she said.

This is a building that I’ve wondered about, since it has neither a visible address nor any name on it. But I raided Paul Dorpat’s Baist Map repository and discovered that it’s the J. A. Baillargeon Building, whence the Bs in the shields on the (non-corner) pier caps. From there I dug a little and found out that after having been built by Mr. Baillargeon in 1908 — and at only four stories — to house his retail store, it has spent most of its life in banking. It was renovated for finance work in 1918 (including a remodeled façade) and given a fifth floor in 1941, and it has been structurally integrated with the bank building next to it since that newcomer was built in 1958.

Here’s a photo of the building in its infancy.

A fashionably dressed lady of the oughts jaywalks on over to J.A.B.'s to see what's new in dry goods. Image copyright University of Washington Libraries.

Here’s a more recent shot by Joe Mabel.

Note the remodeled front entry and the additional floor, among many other changes. Issy's lions are on the sunlit corner. Image by Joe Mabel licensed through Creative Commons.

As a first-time winner, Issy gets a limerick fashioned in her honor. Here it is. Thanks for playing, Issy!

It’s Issy who answered our question
thanks — oddly — to traffic congestion.
While dodging its hassles
She’d noticed the tassels
That stand for the lions’ digestion.”

Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt #6

We go lion-hunting again for the sixth installment of the Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt. I’d be inclined to rate this an easy one, but no one has yet even taken a wide swipe at the still unsolved GSGH #5, which I would have thought was very easy, so who knows? For rules of play see the first entry, here.

Where are these lions? Use the comments to submit your answer. Again, past winners play for love, not for limericks.

"Down on the corner where the cats hang out" was a lyric by the '80s band Timbuk 3. These corner cats are the subject of GSGH #6


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt