I just visited my 90-year-old Uncle Jack at his assisted-living home in Albuquerque. We sat at lunch, laughing through our secret stories, despite his frailty and my angst that this was surely our last such visit.
A handsome and rather formal couple soon joined us. The man quizzed me: “Where are you from?”
“Seattle,” said I.
“Oh, we were born in the area, but after our sons grew up, we left. Too rainy.”
I gave my usual calm, I-am-not-defensive answer, praising our city’s dry and perfect summers.
“Where are you from?” He asked me again. By the fourth iteration of this table talk, I understood that he’d lost his short-term memory, as I had my sense of humor.
I wondered later at my spirited defense of Seattle. After all, it had been my city for four decades. But then, I was once a New Yorker.
New York, 1965. Here I was, just out of grad school, in the Center of the Universe. I was ready to march in all the protests and to engage in the 1968 Columbia student strike. I took advantage of everything in this giant candy store, limited only by a small budget. I though nothing of going alone to see flautist Julian Bream perform. Or seeing Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Pawnbroker solo. Fiancé Kenneth and I saw Woody Allen live in Play It Again, Sam and wished we’d had binoculars to better see all the nudity in Hair. A stroll past the South Street pier could yield an impromptu concert by Pete Seeger on the sloop Clearwater. Our trio of women called ourselves the Edward Villella Fan Club and had front-row balcony seats at the New York City Ballet. I met the star at my dentist’s. Only in New York!
And yet . . . I was spat upon outside my Upper West Side apartment the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. I thought I had mastered my tough assignment—the Hunts Point (Bronx) branch of the New York Public Library—until a depressed girl followed me around, lighting matches, and the nodding-out addicts started showing me their needle tracks.
I prided myself on keeping my cool. I was a real New Yorker, surviving alongside everyone else. Or so I thought. But by decade’s end I was hearing explosions in my head. Kenneth and I decided to move elsewhere to raise a family. In 1970 we moved to Seattle—a foreign land; William Buckley called it “the provinces” during a University of Washington debate shortly after our move.
Seattle, March 8, 1970. Our first day in the New Land. The weather was clear. The University District, to which we gravitated, was filled with hippies walking barefoot on the sidewalk—the first of many such culture shocks. We saw They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and the audience laughed at all the wrong places. Not a decent bagel in town, complained Kenneth. People were forever asking, “Don’t you just love it here?” They all had ruddy, white faces.
I didn’t last long at my first job, at the huge, suburban King County library system. The person in charge of ordering books (“We used to have a committee, but we fought too much”) wouldn’t order Philip Roth’s current bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint. It was an insult to her Jewish friends, said she. She ridiculed me in her weekly report on new books for protesting Frederick & Nelson’s refusal to give me a credit card without my husband’s signature. My lawyer husband laughed when I came home sputtering that I wanted to sue.
I wore a black armband to work at my suburban branch library the day after the Kent State shooting in May 1970. Nobody spoke of it, but the student workers all wore armbands the next day. I left soon after, the dour branch head’s words (“I guess you want to have fun”) ringing true in my ears.
My first friends in Seattle were fellow refugees from Back East. We spoke the same language.
Seattle, May 2012. Forty-two years later, the city has changed dramatically. Me too. We met somewhere in the middle, the city more knowing/world weary and I less so.
Woody Allen movies have been popular for years, and our population is a lot more diverse. In the 80s and 90s, Seattle was romanced on surveys as a best place to live, but the turn of the century brought seismic changes, dirtying our pretty face. The World Trade Organization met here in November 1999, and rabble-rousers among the 40,000 protesters managed to shut everything down. The police looked like Star Wars storm troopers, and the mayor was soon out of office. Then in February 2001 we had a real, serious earthquake, the first such in many years. No lives were lost, but we grew up a little. The city had screwed up and we’d had a small disaster. Our civic adolescence was over.
I am no longer so much in denial about the Rain City tag. Seattle has only 37 inches per year, less than many cities (New York has 50 inches)—and ours is a daintier rain. But it does drizzle down 155 days a year (121 in New York). My outlook as I age is “glass half full.” I’m grateful to be alive, especially on the rain days when the afternoons turn to sunshine and puffy clouds. It’s the leaden November skies that bring on the blues. When the sun returns, our lush vegetation sparkles. Ours is a mild, marine climate, and I love it.
Seattle took me a long time to love, but it has grown on me over the years. I have thrived as a librarian in the city library system, and I am fully engaged in its civic and cultural life. These days, Seattle is never boring—a virtue it now shares with New York.
New York City was my bildungsroman, the place where I came of age. Seattle is where I grew up and grew old. I have married twice, the second one ending in widowhood. I had my two children at Group Health Hospital on Capitol Hill. Now I have two grandchildren, born in the same, much more modern, birthing center. My spouse, Skip, is a Northwesterner, although he too spent five young-adult years in New York. We can’t imagine anywhere we’d rather live. And I’d miss my grandchildren and my garden too much.
Seattle is not New York, but it is more beautiful. Come visit and we’ll walk around Green Lake, a small paradise in mid-city. We’ll have Happy Hour at Ray’s, overlooking Puget Sound. I look forward to walking the sidewalks of New York again, but Seattle is my home.