Last week, I wrote about transporting a wine cellar across the plains when my family moved from Iowa City to Seattle in 1979. This week, as I prepare to come back to the Pacific Northwest, to see family and old friends, before heading up to the Left Coast Crime conference in Vancouver, I’m thinking about my time there (1979-2000).
Somehow, two three-year-old Seattle Weekly nostalgia posts helpfully popped up in my feed to prepare me for coming back. As I’ve been thinking about this trip, I find myself, like the character of Miss Gilfillan in William McIlvanney’s very fine, Docherty, dipping into nostalgia “like a narcotic.”
Back-to-back articles, Seattle in the ‘Eighties, and Seattle in the ‘Nineties, did a lot to spur those memories. I skipped their piece on the ‘Nought’s because by then I was living in the East.
I recognized the Seattle depicted on both articles, though I wonder how much of the present city I’ll know when I come back at the end of the month. And maybe it’s fitting that I’m writing about this on a cold, drizzly day here in Philadelphia, the better to feed my nostalgia. The blinds are down, the light is low, and I can hear car tires swishing as they drive past our row house.
The black-and-white photos in the Weekly articles best depict the Seattle I know (and still love). In the scattered, flat light of the Northwest, black-and-white photos seem the most expressive. They pick up nuances and depth of field that often fail to register in dismal color compositions.
Though nostalgic, this blogpost isn’t meant as some dreary yearning for a “lost” city that was better in the past than it is now, because I’m deeply suspicious of any such remonstrances. In the ‘eighties, I endured long, tiresome disquisitions from aging hippies who hated what Seattle had become. What comes through in such ubi sunt diatribes is the speaker’s lament for lost youth, not any honest valuation of their subject. Like Miss Gilfillan, “whose mind had closed a long time ago and in another place, wherever she looked she saw only the shapes of her own atrophied prejudice,” you learn nothing new by listening, unless it’s that you should endeavor to order your life so that your future happiness isn’t predicated on holding onto youth.
My family lived in Montlake, on Hamlin Street, “the museum side” of Montlake Blvd., we’d say, though I guess since MOHAI moved that isn’t particularly helpful. In high school, I worked at The Last Exit on Brooklyn (see “aging hippies,” above), for which I have an abiding affection.
I went to Garfield High for sophomore and junior year, and I spent the first semester of my senior year in France. I graduated from the Northwest School of Arts, Humanities and the Environment, got my BA in English from the U-Dub and then my MFA there, as well. I was married (twice). All three of my children were born in Seattle.
The geographic center of my city was always binary, first oscillating between Pioneer Square and the U District, then Belltown and the U. After the The Exit, I worked the dinner and late night shift at Trattoria Mitchelli and spent my downtime at the J&M Cafe and Central Tavern; while I lived and went to school in the U district. Later, I also worked for Pioneer Square Theater, running sound for Angry Housewives and understudying props, lights & sound on The Foreigner. Over time, one of those centers of gravity shifted north to Belltown and the Watertown, Tugs, the Frontier Room, Raison d’Etre, Mama’s Mexican Kitchen, the Two Bells and a number of venues that came and went quickly. I ran lights for a couple of shows at The Moore. I even did a summer internship at the Weekly in 1987.
The Palladian, 2nd & Virginia – 1987
Along with friends and family, what I remember and value most about those years in Seattle was an energy and attitude that still animates me; what the writer Clark Humphrey (another Belltown denizen) refers to as Seattle’s “DIY Ethic,” and it touched everything.
There was a sense (and I mean this kindly), that the stakes weren’t all that high. In the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, you were allowed to take chances because failure wouldn’t be catastrophic. Rents–commercial and residential–were relatively low. There was space for experimentation and innovation. Mediocre restaurants didn’t necessarily go out of business, but endured, got better, learning as they went. Musicians often learned to play while they performed in tiny venues. Writers, painters, actors, could do their day-jobs while working on their craft. People were open, supportive, engaged. The only downside back then was that if you wanted to be taken (more) seriously, you had to leave–for LA or New York.
I’ve lived all over the city, and contemplating any one spot in isolation is impossible. I’m assaulted by memory. There’s both the surface and what underpins it, a jumble of memories, images and contexts, like when your cursor rolls over a cluster of embedded links onscreen. Each spot isn’t just what it is (or used to be), but who lived there, what happened there, what it was on the way to; what I was doing at the time.
I lived in a couple of different places in Belltown in the late ‘eighties and ‘nineties, and it was largely in order to be close to Pike Place Market. Here in Philly, I made sure to locate near the 9th Street/Italian Market, because it reminded me of the Market. You can even get great seafood there, though primarily from the Atlantic, as you’d expect.
Alaskan Way, w/ TDT – 1988
Can’t wait to spend some time in Seattle! Looking forward to staying connected (and reconnecting!) with old friends.
I want to check out all the neighborhoods where I used to live and spend time: U-District, Belltown, Lower Queen Anne; Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, the ID. I want to check out some of the old and new bookstores. I will eat at Dick’s Drive-in; will get a banh mi at Saigon Deli on 12th. I want to see what’s left of the viaduct, what’s left of the places I used to know…and what’s going on now.
James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network. The third and final book in the series, Emergency Powers, is coming soon.
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