Saturday, February 7, 2015

Sleepless in Seattle?

5AM, and I'm wondering why I'm so giddy to be awake. Oh, yeah! Road trip! We're loading up at 6AM and heading to Seattle for the day. We've all wanted to go there and this was our chance. Our destination lies about 3 hours north of Portland and we could only spend one day there because Samantha had to be back in school on Monday morning. We wanted to make the most of that time so, after taking turns in the bathroom, preparing a bag full of snacks and gassing the car up, we were on our way!

Baby Benjamin was my backseat companion and we played many games during the drive. It was dark at the outset of our trip and raining heavily, so we weren't missing much in the way of sights while driving. The one attraction of note that I hope to explore further on my next visit is the start (or end, depending on how you look at it) of the Lewis and Clark trail, about an hour south of our destination city.

Shortly after the trailhead sighting we pulled into a McDonalds' for a coffee refill/bathroom break. It was there that I saw a sign discouraging patrons from lingering for more than 30 minutes, even if they had purchased food. “How unusual” I thought, “that a hospitality enterprise should be so inhospitable”. I contrasted that McDonalds' declaration with the KFC in China that recently made the headlines for allowing a woman to stay for a week after her romance collapsed. I wonder what would have become of her if she had been forced out of the restaurant after 30 minutes.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, that unwelcoming admonition set the tone for our visit.  

Samantha had planned many activities for our day. Per her investigations, we parked near the world famous Space Needle to take the monorail into the city center. That was one freaky ride! Usually, when riding a light rail or train one can look out the window and see the ground, or at least the platform that the tracks sit on. Monorails straddle their track, so there is no need for an elevated path upon which tracks are mounted. When looking down from the inside the monorail cab, one sees only the ground rush by. I'll admit it made me queasy.

Our target was Pike Place Market, otherwise known as Public Market Center that has operated continuously since 1907, in the same building at the same location. It is a combination Farmer's Markets, crafts distributors and food vendors. There are also quirky little shops that sell memorabilia of all kinds, from the normal 'tourist kitsch' to Dr. Who life-sized cardboard cutouts. It was lively and bustling, although there were not nearly as many people as someone used to China's crowding might anticipate.

The fish markets are famous for throwing fish, as I've already mentioned. Here is how it works: a customer selects from the arrayed product. The vendor, at floor level, shouts the request to his co-worker behind the raised counter, while throwing the fish. The co-worker trims and packages the customer's order and then tosses it back to the fellow at floor level, who then hands it to the customer. It is quite a spectacle, especially when 3 or 4 customers are being served at one time.

Across from this market is the original Starbucks. We didn't go inside but we did glance in, and took this picture beneath the sign. Why didn't we go in? I'll tell you in just a minute.

After a while of walking around in the rain we got hungry. Our options: the Russian deli which, on our fist pass was fairly empty of customers, the Mexican food stand, or a French place. Originally I wanted to try Russian food but changed my mind when Darrell said he was in the mood for French. Samantha cued up at the now full Russian deli and I made my way with Benjamin, in his stroller, to the French establishment.

As with Starbucks, there was no ramp to wheel the stroller in (that, and the fact that we'd gotten coffee just an hour before is why we didn't go in). Again, an oddity: America is usually very generous with accessibility for handicapped. Why not in this tourist mecca? Maybe they didn't want to ruin the authenticity of the building.

How was I to get the stroller down those stairs by myself, and where would we park it in that small shop? Darrell returned from his short walk to help carry Bun and stroller down and we edged our way into the seating area as carefully as possible. After helping my non-French speaking son make his selection – everything on the menu was in French, and being rejoined by the lovely Samantha,  we sat down to our meal.

I took that occasion to look around. Here, here, here and there: people sitting and eating alone, staring out. Walking down the street: people with their heads down, perhaps to shield against the persistent rain. Even couples and groups seemed to maintain their distance and silence. Recalling: in the market, no one seemed particularly ebullient or joyful, not even obvious tourists. Was it the rain, the early hour or just the place?              

Seattle has long been unfairly touted as the suicide capital of the Northwest because of its gloomy weather, drug problem and unemployment rate. Even my son,  while walking down deserted sidewalks proclaimed that 43% of the nation's suicides happen in Seattle. I could find no facts to substantiate that myth, perhaps perpetuated in the wake of musician Kurt Cobain's death by self-inflicted gunshot. In spite of that, there is a disturbing tendency to nickname the George Washington memorial bridge, or Aurora Bridge as 'the suicide bridge', prompting the State to enclose it with a tall safety fence in 2011. Buses advertise suicide prevention hotlines – phone numbers one can call should s/he feel that life is not worth living. And I saw plenty of people who appeared lonely and dejected.

After our lunch and leaving the Marketplace behind, we strolled to Pioneer Square, Seattle's first historic district. It was during that jaunt that our little Ben fell asleep, oblivious to the rain or any surrounding noise.

The architecture was stunning! Many of the old marquees were still in place, advertising hotels and card parlors. One such building had turned its rooms into high priced apartments. The sidewalks were well-paved and wide... which didn't matter, because we were about the only visitors. An occasional unwashed, obviously in hard times shuffled by but we were not accosted, assaulted or harmed at all. In doorways we saw plenty of downtrodden resting among their possessions – blankets, cardboard and tarpaulins. Rounding our tour of the historic district, we walked past Occidental Park, also deserted.

As always in America, but especially on visiting Seattle I have to remark on how unpeopled these public venues are. Compared with China's teeming streets and crowded malls at any season or in any weather, I am at a loss how to describe how haunting these empty, rain-washed streets were. Even buses were devoid of passengers. Was it because it was Sunday, or the weather?

We wanted to take in other attractions: the underground tour – walking along the old sidewalks and storefronts of Original Seattle. Smith Tower, once the tallest building on the west coast, that offers a view of the city from above. The Locks – a series of water containments teeming with fish in the summer but avoided by us due to the cold and rain. Ferry rides and Puget Sound. Various museums, conservatories, gardens and the University of Washington campus. Of course, Chinatown, one of the first established Asian communities, started by the Chinese as they were recruited to lay  tracks for the transcontinental railroad. However, there was a certain puppy at home who would soon need attention, and the rain was worsening, making the drive back more hazardous. We did walk, and then drive past the stunning Public Library buiding, hailed for its architectural innovation.

There is so much to see and do in Seattle that costs little or nothing. It would take more than one day to appreciate it all, but I'm reluctant to go back.

Seattle struck me as a city of 'lonely', where people are isolated and not necessarily friendly or kind. Walking past the mission district, where those whose lives have taken a bad turn and the only thing they had to look forward to or hope for was their next fix and a warm bed, all of the otherwise deserted streets and empty buses, the single diners who stared out forlornly... and perhaps even her reputation as 'suicide city' leads me to feel not completely happy about Seattle, especially in contrast with Portland, where people will say 'hi' to you on the street, cede the right of way while driving and greet you in the stores.

Which is really strange because, according to the most recent statistics I could find, Portland, Oregon ranks higher in suicides than Seattle does.    

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