Excerpt: Dispatches

It’s been over thirty years since I last visited Seattle. A generation has passed, but my memories of the Emerald City have remained warm and comforting. In my college days then, I stalked the city streets and secret places with limitless energy. There seemed to be no end to the adventures this place had to offer. Still, that was many years ago and vintage memories have a way of becoming diffuse and unreliable.

Looking back on my recent three-day trip to Seattle, though, it seems that very little about the city has changed from my college years. The transformations have been personal and ultimately irreversible. I’ve noticed more waddling than easy roving on this visit, more eating and resting then strolling, and considerably more sightseeing than worrying about being seen. That’s the essence of middle age, I suppose. Still, my memories of those earlier days haven’t grown old or dim; nor, it seems, has the luster of this city.

I enjoy mentally rating America’s great cities as I pass through them. It’s a way of putting memories into some kind of order, comfortably filing them away for a future visit, and marking the passage of time with a minimum of pain. These large cities are always bustling, sensuous, and imposing. They lend a sense of permanence that is both compelling and deceiving. The great cities all convey an element of mystery; they lure us to explore them, and they tease us with subtle, hidden pleasures. Because they are complex and often chaotic, there is no way to effectively gather together the sights, sounds, and smells of even a few hours in the grip of such a place.

Cities are also like next door neighbors—you need to keep track of them; you need to have some way of understanding them. Some age gracefully and become good friends, while others groan and strain as they mature, blighting whatever surrounds them (or inhabits them). Either way, such places deserve to be remembered. In the end, one can only distill the big city experience into something marginally meaningful, and then take lots of photographs to keep the residual memories as fresh as possible.

Like most occasional visitors to well publicized places, I have a personal rating system. In fact, I have several. For America’s cities, I use the Great City Rating Scheme, which reduces the most diverse and telling city experiences into a minimum number of crucial components. Each element is rated from a low of 1 to a high of 10. A low number, say 2 or 3, generally indicates a higher degree of city sanity, while a rating of 10 generally means that straightjackets should be the dress of choice on Main Street. There is also a certain consistency in the Great City Rating Scheme that will be obvious since each element is more or less dependent on the others. Here is how the scheme works:

Road Rage Potential. This index describes the relative physical danger one encounters when traveling city streets, either in a vehicle or on foot. It can also be thought of as an indicator of the overall psychosis of city dwellers when they are behind the wheel, or the intensity of their relative unconscious death wishes when navigating city streets on foot. Because this index is a measure of city chaos, the number 1 signifies near absolute safety while the numeral 10 indicates almost certain death.

At the extremes of the Great City Rating Scheme are two California locales. Columbia, which is located in the foothills of the Sierra-Nevada mountain range, is rated a 1. In this interesting town, automobiles are forbidden by law, the streets are permanently barricaded, and pedestrian-Vs-pedestrian accidents are exceptionally rare. In large measure this is due to the fact that there’s only one hotel in town and not much to do. This kind of environment severely limits the possibility of pedestrian-Vs-pedestrian tragedies.

Predictably, at the other end of the scale is Los Angeles, where every seventh trip to the drug store or your favorite drive-in-church will probably result in an injury. In Los Angeles, the ratio of automobiles to pedestrians is reckoned in powers of ten. Therefore, the survivability of the streets is reckoned in fractions.

City Planner Insanity. How well have the city streets been designed and laid out? How easy is it to move from place to place? Is there any apparent logic to the street names, street directions, and addressing schemes? Note that this index is directly related to Road Rage Potential, for obvious reasons.

At the bottom of the list is San Francisco, notorious for such planning blunders as one-way streets running east that end in one-way streets carrying traffic in the opposite direction. There are also such dubious concessions to street planning insanity as “the most crooked street in the world,” and at least one roadway that leads directly into the San Francisco Bay after warning the unwary motorist with a sign that politely announces “Wrong Way.”

At the other extreme is Columbia, California, which has only one street. Planning will likely never become an issue here.

Fish Factor. Fish is important to human nutrition. It is also an underrated but crucial indicator of the relative sophistication of a city. Now, merely offering fish is not sufficient for a city to attain a high ranking in this category. The fish must be fresh, well prepared, and without the dreaded side effects that some fish dishes are known to induce in tourists. The ideal scenario is one in which the fish was flopping less than an hour before you forked it for the first time. Realizing that this is a high goal to achieve, some latitude must be granted to physically (or socially) isolated great cities.

The worst Fish Factor rating goes to Las Vegas. In fact, this jewel of the desert rewrote the Fish Factor low-water mark. Las Vegas has yet to discover that fish have no feet, do not graze, are not chased by saddling up, and have no ears from which to make trophies. If it’s served as fish in Las Vegas, caveat emptor and bring on the Mylanta.

On the other hand, Seattle commands first place as easily as Las Vegas brings up the tail. The fish are so fresh at the Pike Place Market that they have been known to voluntarily flop into those cute, pink plastic shopping bags that every tourist in town carries. Every restaurant in the city seems aware of the Fish Factor and is willing to prove it with incalculable numbers of interesting concoctions.

Panhandling Creativity. This is perhaps my favorite category because it tells so much about the soul of a city. Just how innovative are the city’s panhandlers? Do they engender interest when making their pitch, or is it the same, hackneyed stuff, corner after corner? Do they make you want to part with your dollar or impale them with a piece of your mind?

At the top of the Panhandling Creativity list is New York City, where panhandlers are plentiful and their stories are legendary. Competition is fierce in this bustling city, and only the most practiced panhandlers are successful. Beyond the intense competition, New York City is well known for its exceptionally high ratio of panhandlers who hold postgraduate degrees in political science or who should hold political office.

At the bottom of the list is Las Vegas, where each unfortunate panhandler offers the same, dreary story—bad luck.

Sense of History. Does the city understand its own place in history? Can the city dwellers share this valuable information with tourists? Is it worth hearing?

Once again, Los Angeles dwells at the bottom of the list. It has no sense of history because no one lives there long enough to create history. Besides that, you wouldn’t want to know it anyway. At the top of the list? Almost anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard. Now, that’s history!

Sleepability. This is another of my personal favorites. Rest is vital when traveling, especially as one ages. The singular question for this category is simple: can you get any sleep in the city?

Ironically, Las Vegas is the most sleepable city. This is because one never goes outdoors (it’s too hot), the hotels don’t have clocks on the walls, all windows are tinted to make the outside world look like a cave experience, the lighting indoors never changes, the sounds indoors never vary, and everything is available at any time, thereby making the necessity to know the time irrelevant. The net result of this endless similitude is that it doesn’t matter what time it is when you go to bed or when you wake up. Everything is just as you left it.

At the other extreme is New York City, where sleep must be induced artificially and everything is loud or louder.

Livability. Can one live in this city? Is it possible to be a city dweller and retain some semblance of sanity? Is mutation inevitable after a few decades of city living?

Bringing up the rear once again is Los Angeles, tied for final marks with the rest of Southern California. Ask anyone who hails from the Los Angeles area and you will discover that no one actually lives there. Everyone is passing through or passing on.

At the other extreme is Jackson, California. It’s a ghost town and therefore very livable.

Junk Foodability. This is the opposite of the Fish Factor. It is a measure of how far a city has fallen in its inevitable downward cultural spiral. When landmarks of city sophistication die away, are they replaced with a rejuvenated view to nourishing culture or a passion for Big Macs?

Tacoma, Washington, is junk food nirvana incarnate. This city offers up at least one junk food restaurant on every block while managing to maintain a very poor Fish Factor index, despite its proximity to water. Junk food is plentiful and cheap in Tacoma, a situation that is reflected in the growing Road Rage Potential in that city.

Taking bottom honors, which places it near the top of true livability, is (once again) Jackson, California. It has no junk food restaurants. In fact, it has no restaurants. It’s a ghost town, remember? The Fish Factor is obviously not significant.

Spin-Doctor Effectiveness. How effective is the local Chamber of Commerce or Travel Bureau in luring tourists to the city? After reading about City X, are you inspired to call your travel agent, gas up the guzzler, pack up the Winnebago, and go?

Las Vegas rates top honors here because the local spin-doctors have virtually nothing to do. The tourists do it to themselves.

Jackson, sadly, is at the bottom of the list. It doesn’t have any spin-doctors.

So, now that we’ve reviewed the Great City Rating Scheme, how does Seattle fair? Overall, pretty well. Here’s the box score:

Road Rage Potential = 6.5. Although the streets are frenetic and perpetually busy, the city folk are generally polite and moderately patient. I saw no one injured, maimed, or killed in three days. For Los Angeles, this would be an inconceivable experience. So long as you are not in a hurry, Seattle is a relatively safe city. Much of this has to do with the weather in this great metropolis. Because the days are typically cold, rainy, and gray, there really is no point in rushing to your destination since you will only be required to get out of your warm car. On the other hand, if you’re walking the streets in Seattle, there is always virtue in rushing (for the same reason). The net result of this unique situation is to put pedestrians on a somewhat equal footing with vehicles.

City Planner Insanity = 5.0. A middle-of-the-street rating. Seattle’s streets are numbered and lettered in a predictable way, unlike San Francisco’s, which were clearly laid out by 19th century city planners on a steady diet of laudanum. However, Seattle does have a number of streets so steep that you cannot see over their crest as you approach. This presents a definite danger for the jogger or fast walker, and it tends to take a heavy toll on those drivers who still rely on a clutch mechanism.

Fish Factor = wonderful! First place. Exceptional! It’s caught locally, prepared locally, and eaten locally. This is a very fishy city.

Panhandling Creativity = 2.0. Seattle ranks very high in this category, which is indicated by its low mark. Here are just a few examples of panhandling creativity that I noticed in a three-day period:

  • A saffron-clad Hare Chrisna devotee passing out leaflets and asking for contributions in the Belltown area of the city. How long has it been since you’ve seen that? Although not strictly a panhandler, I didn’t know how else to categorize this interesting young man.
  • A forty-something man with a short piece of chain that he beat repetitively on the sidewalk. No music, no words, no singing. Just a tin cup that sat empty next to him and the beat, beat, beat of the chain.
  • A young woman who spoke backwards, or claimed to. I couldn’t tell.
  • A person of unidentifiable sex wearing a plastic, blow-up fish head (a Salmon, I think), who would run quickly up to passersby and then shuffle away in reverse. Like the man with the chain, he or she was apparently mute. No cup in sight, but there was a hand extended during the retreating part of the ritual.

Sense of History = 7.8. Lots of history in Seattle. Common to many great cities, Seattle has survived the usual catastrophes, like burning completely to the ground, suffering earthquakes, etc. However, it has also preserved an enviable knowledge of rare and valuable historical events. For example, Seattle dwellers take pride in the preservation of their 19th century toilets (called “crappers” out here,) which were elevated as much as 19 feet above the ground because of a sewer system that backed up at every high tide. Fortunately, this problem has been solved, at least in my hotel room.

The city also has the distinction of being the only locale in America where an individual drowned in the middle of a downtown street because the unfortunate victim fell into a sinkhole that had been flooded with the aforementioned remnants of Seattle’s sewage system. Certainly, stories like these define a city’s history.

Sleepability = 3.2. An unexpectedly poor showing for such an attractive city. On my three-night stay, I selected a hotel with the word “Executive” in its name. I was, in part, fooled by the local spin-doctors and, in part, lured by the ego satisfaction of being thought of as an “executive” for a few days. Moreover, this place was directly across the street from the Seattle Center and offered an incredible view of the Space Needle from my hotel window. Sounds good, eh? Well, here is a chronology of the first night:

– 11:05 PM. Time for bed. I want to be up early the next morning and venture downtown to check out the Fish Factor and Panhandling Creativity index.

– 11:40 PM. A giant crane stationed next to the Space Needle begins to rotate unexpectedly. This thing must stand at least 10 stories tall. It immediately begins to drag stuff from the ground, up ten stories, to the top of a half-finished metal structure near the Needle. With every movement, the crane squeaks, squawks, and groans. What in hell are they doing over there at nearly midnight? Does this make any kind of sense for a normal construction crew? Maybe they don’t want to drop anything on the tourists who are perpetually hovering underneath the Space Needle during the day? I suppose they would rather keep the sleeping tourists up all night.

– 12:50 AM. I am just beginning to get into the rhythm of the crane and it’s making me sleepy when I hear two dozen male voices from outside my window. They are chattering, bantering, and generally raising hell. The next morning I find out from the front desk that they have all been staying at the hotel for their last night before joining the military. Since this was their last night of freedom, well, need I say more?

– 2:05 AM. There is an ear-shattering symphony of noise that sounds like a rampaging crowd outside my window. In my drowsy condition, I picture myself in downtown Beirut on market day during a riot. I stagger to the huge glass window and look out. Across the street, a nightclub is letting out—closing it doors. The name on the front of the building is “DV8 Club.” Figures.

– 4:11 AM. The crane across the street finally shuts down with a god-awful whoosh of its engines.

– 4:20 AM. The crane workmen walk by my window, chattering in 30-decible voices about their dissatisfaction with working such crazy hours. One of them slams his car door four or five times. Another one cannot get his car started and grinds the starter mechanism to oblivion.

– 4:50 AM. The tow truck arrives to help the guy who couldn’t start his car. The tow truck driver is obviously deaf and has a megaphone for a voice box.

– 5:15 AM. Someone rings my room, asking for Fredericka. That’s not my name.

– 6:00 AM. Daybreak. Too light to sleep. Might as well get up.

Livability = 6.4. Pretty good, but not for someone who appreciates a good night’s rest. Nearly 600,000 folks live in Seattle, and some 2,000,000 in the surrounding areas. Crime is relatively low and there are not many obvious crazies roaming the streets. Seattle is not as livable as Jackson, which (as you remember) is a ghost town, but it is certainly light years ahead of Los Angeles. The trick is to stay away from hotels with “Executive” in their names.

Junk Foodability = 2.0. A truly cultured place, even Seattle’s few junk food restaurants are a cut above the average. No ties required.

Spin Doctor Effectiveness = 1.2. Nearly over the top on this “low is high” scale. The local spin-doctors do their work and they do it well. Read any spin-doctor piece on Seattle and you will want to come here, post haste. The trick is never to stay in a hotel with the word “Executive” in its name. On all other accounts, don’t miss this city. It’s a jewel.


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