You almost have to feel sorry for the people in Seattle.
No, not because of the rain and traffic.
Because of the hype. Think of the pressure to live up to that city’s image. If the people who live there buy a tenth of what they read and hear in gushing magazine and TV stories, many must be tempted to judge their own lives lacking.
Just imagine. Suppose your daily routine revolves around going to work, spending time with your family and reading or watching a little TV. But you are bombarded with breathless reports about a media make-believe Seattle.
You know the place. It’s a relentlessly exciting eco-haven where everyone attends readings by Central American authors of important human-rights novels. It’s a happening glamourville where fit microbrew connoisseurs in trendy leisure clothes speak knowingly about obscure foreign films and diversity-affirming art.
In the eyes of smitten travel writers wearing misted-over glasses, Seattle is a double tall fantasy where everyone works for Microsoft or Boeing, there are no homeless, Husky fans are always polite and the mountain’s always out.
So, yes, you could almost feel sorry for people who have to stack their real lives up against that. Unless, of course, you live in Washington’s second-largest city.
Too much fawning national publicity isn’t our problem.
Many of Spokane’s image-defining stereotypes constitute an altogether different sort of burden. You don’t need me to tell you so.
So let’s just say a fair number of those broad-brush swipes aren’t especially flattering. No reason to dignify uninformed accusations that we’re a boring burg populated by a bunch of heavily armed, white-supremacist hayseeds. No need to defend Spokane against sticky labels such as “Ingrown Empire” and “The Land Time Forgot.”
No need, when you think about it, to shed a tear for Seattleites.
But what about trying to understand what it’s like to live and work in Washington’s largest city? Not the smug “Emerald City” of “Most Livable” lists fame. Not “Latteland,” but the real Seattle.
That seems worth a try. And it’s why I found myself on Puget Sound not long ago, aboard an eastbound ferry.
The Walla Walla had pushed away from Bainbridge Island shortly after 7 a.m., loaded with weekday commuters on their way to work. And the big city was just coming into view. Through the mist, the Northwest’s signature skyline loomed. Postcards don’t do it justice.
A new day in one of America’s celebrated lifestyle meccas was getting under way.
Spokane seemed far away.
Then I noticed. The two guys in the seats next to me were talking about their yards.
“I mowed my lawn last Saturday and I’ve already got to mow it again,” said one.
The other man nodded and said something about a new weed killer he was trying. Then he launched into a dissertation on topsoil.
Wait a minute. Those two guys weren’t talking about cool stuff. They were talking about crab grass.
Like I needed to travel 300 miles to hear that.
Welcome to The Slice Goes to Seattle.
Their pace is different: When that ferry docked, the herd of people getting off practically race-walked into downtown. If they had been on the Bloomsday course and been able to sustain that speed, they would have turned in a pretty good time.
Overheard outside one of 1,945,000 Seattle Starbucks locations (young woman in a suit to young man in a suit): “You were born here? I didn’t think anyone was born here.”n n Some things Seattle has are not worth coveting: On the day we went to Planet Hollywood, we got there too late for an autograph session featuring actor Tom Arnold. He had been there promoting the movie “McHale’s Navy.”
A brochure unexpectedly found in a rack at the ferry terminal: “North Idaho: There’s no better place to be.”
The one thing 40-year-old downtown parking-lot checker Rocky Thach of Ballard likes best about Seattle: “The weather.”
Looking through eyes accustomed to seeing Spokane: As you probably know, the scale of virtually everything in Seattle is, depending on your mood and perspective, either impressive or slightly off-putting. The airport, the traffic and the landmark buildings all make you second-guess ever having referred to Spokane as “urban.”
Sometimes Seattle smells like seaweed clinging to a rotting dock: At least the waterfront does. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of us enjoy pungency, though perhaps not pungency that leaves hair smelling like algae.
The air over there even seems to have a different, thicker texture. If you suck in a deep breath, it’s like taking a hit of sea bass.
Overheard in Pioneer Square (twentysomething guy with a nose ring talking to a twentysomething woman): Man: “Things are kind of weird around the house right now.”
Woman: “Mine, too.”
Entry in the “Suggestion Book” at the Elliott Bay Book Company: “Huh huh, I’m drunk.”
Man on the street: John Bennett, 35, a real estate investor who moved to Seattle from New York seven years ago. He was walking his dog, Cody, not far from Lake Washington. I asked him what he liked best about his new hometown.
“The range of things to do. You can hike. There’s the water. There’s great food. I got tired of the subways, the garbage, the urine everywhere. And everything I liked to do was either too expensive or too inconvenient. If I wanted to hike, I used to have to go to Vermont.”
It happened at the world’s fair: We went up the Space Needle on an afternoon when it was raining. It seemed like a Seattle thing to do.
Using their camera, I snapped a picture of a young Swedish couple.
A dad nearby was giving two little boys a pep talk. “We’re not afraid of a little rain, are we?”
The boys were quiet.
Close, but no cigar: The short monorail connecting the Westlake Center downtown and the Seattle Center (home of the Space Needle) is fun to ride. It feels quite city-like. And for about 90 seconds you can pretend that Seattle has a real light-rail system.
True story: I was going to ask the clerk at the Made in Washington store in the Westlake Center about some Eastern Washington products not on the shelves. But he was too busy talking to a friend about his Internet home page.
Bumbershoot your eye out: Some of those people wielding umbrellas are a menace. I’m not kidding.
One difference between Seattle and Spokane: People in Seattle seem to feel less compelled to make small talk on elevators.
Not everyone is prepared for rain: Even in Seattle. We saw lots of wet hair. Go figure. Maybe it’s a new look. You know, a trend. “Maxi-Mange style.”
Or maybe wet hair is intended as a sardonic commentary on humankind’s troubled interface with our environment. You never know.
One man’s perspective on Seattle’s reputation for enlightenment and racial harmony: “It’s a farce.” - Eric Mitchell, 37, an African American Louisiana native who works at Johnson’s Shoe Repair. He moved to Seattle from Dallas in 1989.
Despite what you’ve heard: People in Seattle jaywalk all the time.
So do visitors from Spokane.
Rated for intensity and persistence: Seattle’s panhandlers make Spokane’s look minor league.
Late night in Pioneer Square: There are reasons some people regard big cities as scary.
City that only occasionally sleeps: Obviously, this would vary. But emergency-vehicle sirens could be heard downtown night after night. And there’s no telling what caused some of the loud crashing noises around 3 a.m.
Between sunbreaks: Remember hearing as a kid that Arctic people had 20 words for “snow”? Well, I stopped a fast-walking woman on Spring Street and asked her if Seattle skywatchers have 20 words for “gray.”
She responded with just two words. I’ve heard them before. And I’m pretty sure they have nothing to do with the weather.
A Child’s Garden of Washington State’s Most Beloved Stereotypes: Even people who ought to know better seem to cling to the belief that Seattle is a singular bastion of courtesy and politeness.
Two different people told me stories involving visiting New Yorkers who were astounded by Seattle’s congeniality.
Being from Spokane, I was too polite to point out exactly why that’s not a particularly impressive boast.
I got your livability right here: What good is having fabulous bookstores if the goatee-wearing clerks treat you like a jerkface for asking a simple question?
Less is more: Maybe it was cruel. But sometimes you’ve got to say something that will shut ‘em up.
In more than one conversation with Seattleites who seemed to be suggesting that anyone who lived elsewhere is a loser, I managed to say, “I usually walk to work.”
Sure, Seattle’s chic, but some of the people who say that’s where they live actually reside in Mukilteo: ‘Nuff said.
Ultimate Seattle putdown (one woman to another in the lobby of the Columbia Tower): “He didn’t even know how to log in.”
Man on the street: Transplanted Californian Mike Gardner, 38, was sitting on a patio outside a waterfront restaurant. He said he lived up near the Canadian border. He and a dog named Zack were waiting for Gardner’s girlfriend, who lives in Virginia. She was interviewing with the Seattle Police Department. The two of them met in Bosnia.
If she got the job, the plan was to live together in Seattle. “I think San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the United States,” he said. “But Seattle’s close.”
(He said he had been to Spokane and liked Riverfront Park. But he didn’t compare it to San Francisco.)
Fashion parade: I took a seat next to a bank of elevators inside the Columbia Tower between 8: 30 and 9 o’clock one weekday morning. About 4,000 people work in that huge black building. My mission: See if business people in Seattle dress better than their counterparts in Spokane.
It was an admittedly subjective survey. And I’m hardly an authority on style. But Seattle appeared to come out the winner. Even those affecting a casual look seemed a tad more spiffy than what I see at home - especially when I look in the mirror.
Quote: “I think the golf is better in Spokane.” - Deems Tsutakawa, Seattle jazz musician and composer.
The difference in appearance between people waiting for buses in downtown Seattle and people waiting for buses in downtown Spokane: Not much, really. Spokane has fewer Asian American bus riders. That’s about it.
Given a choice between looking like a rube and not getting to indulge my desire to stare up at tall buildings: I decided to go ahead and look like a rube. Though often, this meant getting rain on my glasses.
Seven things Seattle has over Spokane: 1. Radio station variety. 2. Movie selection. 3. Head shops. 4. Confidence. 5. International District. 6. Free Zones for downtown bus riding. 7. Closer to Vancouver.
Three things Spokane has over Seattle: 1. There may not be as many places to go, but getting there is usually easier. 2. John Blanchette. 3. Better shot at having a white Christmas.
Three things both cities have: 1. Drivers running red lights. 2. Condoms on sidewalks and in alleys. 3. People who will let you into a lane of traffic in exchange for a thank-you wave.
Eavesdropper’s log, 7/11/97: Most public conversations in Seattle aren’t any more interesting than what one typically overhears in Spokane.
The houses, streets, businesses and parks in suburban Redmond all seem to say one thing: “If you live and work here, you must be a success.”
Parking at Microsoft: When you see Porsches and BMWs off the side of roads on sloping gravel shoulders, you kind of get reminded that the company hasn’t stopped growing.
So during our visit to one of the campuses - that’s what they call office complexes - we used the valet parking.
Overheard in a Microsoft lobby: “Dr. McKenna?”
“Shall we get started?”
Declaring a place to be the heart of “Spokane is Irrelevant” country: The Bellevue Square mall might deserve that title.
There are more than 200 stores. The Nordstrom is awesome. And if I shared what’s in my notebook detailing the lineup of expensive new cars in the parking garage you would have every right to suspect I was exaggerating to make a point.
Western Washington realism: We decided to go check out Kent. It has always sounded to me like a place that might qualify as Anywhere U.S.A. You know, the real suburban Seattle. Less attitude. Less affectation. Real families.
But we missed the exit. So we went to Auburn.
We didn’t see all that much of it. But at least Auburn didn’t make us feel economically inadequate, the way Redmond did.
A sign at a car dealership touted a ‘91 Caprice. “Spoil yourself,” it said.
I walked into a tired-looking nonchain doughnut shop. “Sure got nice and sunny,” I chirped to the baleful woman behind the counter.
“Yeah,” she said. “For now.”
Something you see in Seattle that you seldom if ever see in Spokane: Multiple riders on a city bus reading newspapers printed in several different Asian languages.
Speaking of riding the bus: One day on my way to West Seattle, my bus stopped dead in a traffic snarl for something like 15 minutes. I had no idea what was causing the delay. But nobody, not one person, acted like this was at all unusual.
Something we have in Spokane but makes more sense in Seattle: Radio traffic reports. They’re like dispatches from the front lines.
Yelling at the tube sounds dumb on either side of the state: At FX McRory’s restaurant near the Kingdome, a couple of guys in white shirts and ties were expansively smoking cigars and watching the Mariners on TV. They had zero tolerance for errors. My guess? Years ago, they both got cut from their high school teams.
Ads that ran near my back-page ad seeking former Spokane residents in the Seattle Weekly’s classifieds: “Penis Enlargement,” “Holistic Guide to Credit Correction,” “Ishaya Monks Coming to Teach Ascension” and “Dreamwork and Creativity.”
I never got a single call.
Seattle is different: I didn’t do a study or anything. But it seems as if far fewer people there are willing to spend 15 minutes circling and looking for the “dream parking spot” that will eliminate their need to pay for a space in a garage.
Maybe it’s because they know they’ll never find it.
Hurling salmon: The Pike Place Market is fun. Those horrifying geoducks alone make it worth a visit.
But what’s the deal with those guys throwing big dead fish to one another. Exactly why is that supposed to be exciting? Especially when it’s obviously just a show and not a necessary part of seafood commerce.
I wonder, though. What could vendors throw in Eastern Washington? Peas and lentils? Huckleberries?
They left this tip out of the tourism brochures: I was doing some interviews near Seattle University and one guy seemed utterly baffled that I had chosen to visit a neighborhood known to have its share of crime.
That must be against the rules for out-of-towners writing about Seattle.
This is what I was told when I asked a tourist outside a Russian pastry shop at the Pike Place Market if he had considered going to Spokane instead of Seattle: “Uh, no.” - Gordon Rome, Knoxville, Tenn.
Another tourist, Debra Knudsen, who lives in Germany, recalled having been in Spokane for a wedding: “It was beautiful. I seem to remember wilderness.”
Investigative journalism: I asked Jeff Guinn, 31, an employee of City Fish Co., why he thought tourists might choose Seattle over Spokane. He was nice about it.
“Well, it’s a seaport. And it’s more cosmopolitan.”
He has two brothers in Spokane. “One on the South Hill and one on Glass.”
Name of the restaurant declaring that it offers “Seattle’s Finest Home Style Cooking”: Saigon Gourmet, at 502 S. King St.
Just a thought: It must be almost intoxicating to know that people find your city exciting. But wouldn’t that tend to attract newcomers who have phony jump-on-the-band-wagon personalities?
Woman on the street: Rhonda Robertson, 42, works at Providence Hospital. She lives in Issaquah. She moved to the area five years ago from Spokane.
Why did she relocate? “I just wanted something different. I had lived in Spokane all my life. I like Spokane, but it’s better here. It’s near the water. And when the sun shines, there’s no place more beautiful.”
What does she miss? “The distinct seasons.”
Where Teresa Hong, 42, proprietor of the Jeff-Mart convenience store at 17th and Jefferson in Seattle goes when she heads home: Federal Way.
Not in Kansas anymore: The University Bookstore in the U District has a Clinique counter.
Ed Scott, a twentysomething laborer, on Seattle: “I don’t like the attitude of people here, especially the women. Everybody’s into body-piercing and stuff.”
Except he didn’t say “stuff.”
He wants to move to New York and become a filmmaker.
Quote of the day (a gentleman encountering a cluster of folks milling aimlessly on a downtown Seattle sidewalk): “Well, move or do SOMETHING, you goddamned people.”
It’s just an opinion: But I’d say espresso places in Spokane make better hot chocolate than espresso places in Seattle.
I tried three places in Seattle. And all seemed to think any hint of sweetness would be inauthentic and tantamount to endorsing clear-cutting in state parks or something.
Or maybe they just resent someone not ordering coffee.
I’ve heard about it for years: But I’ve got to say I didn’t think the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel was anything to write home about.
She must have gotten too close to Hammering Man: One morning just as the Seattle Art Museum was about to open, a woman noted to her male companion that people were hanging back and not bunching up by the door. “Only in Seattle,” she said. “Niceness rules.”
Right. Only in Seattle. Sheesh.
Man on the street: Jimmy Moore, 42, was waiting for a bus in Pioneer Square. He told me he had just gotten out of jail. Drug charges. He said he had been a longshoreman. But now he’s working as a cook at an IHOP. What would he change about the city?
“There’s a lot of brutality from the police. I understand that they are trying to clean up the streets. But they go too far.”
Two questions: Michelle Zuarri was at her post as a tolltaker at the downtown ferry terminal.
What’s the best thing about Seattle? “The variety of things to do.”
What would you like to see change? “I would try to do something for the homeless.”
Guess what: Spokane doesn’t have a monopoly on that slightly wild-eyed, unwashed Mountain Man look. Though, to be fair, in Seattle it might be meant as a statement.
Overheard in Sano’s Espresso at the corner of First and Union (woman with extremely short hair talking to a bored guy behind the counter): “I’m going to be downloading all day.”
Who should never go to Seattle: Anyone who is made uncomfortable by people speaking languages other than English.
Selecting your uniform: One guy who said he was a financial planner told me that, in Seattle, wearing a conservative business suit shows that you are confident enough to not rely on forced casualness to make the statement that you are creative and independent-minded.
Or something like that.
Seventy-sixth floor, watch your step: To go up to the observation deck atop the Columbia Tower, cartoonist Milt Priggee and I each gave $5 to a security guard with a truly sour disposition. I can’t begin to tell you how miscast this guy was in a role that involves dealing with people.
Anyway, we went up - my ears popped en route - and looked out. The view is staggering.
Then Milt got an odd look on his face. He announced that he wanted to get an application to join the Columbia Tower Club, one floor below.
Milt went ahead. I stood in an elegant hallway and tried to make myself invisible while a nice woman inside the club’s entrance explained to him how America works.
“She said I need to be nominated by an existing member,” he reported a few minutes later.
Surrounded by firepower: Bellevue resident Alan Goldman, who operates a gun shop in downtown Seattle, smiled and theorized about why everyone is ga-ga about Seattle.
“We have good weather. We have beautiful surroundings. We have the opportunity to indulge in any whim.”
Just don’t get him started on the traffic.
Yes, Ruby Montana’s is full of wacky stuff: Now let’s move on.
A recurring theme in several throw-away weeklies targeting alienated youth who are busy competing to see who can be most emphatic about pronouncing grunge dead: Seattle is boring, man.
Tell those ladies to put some clothes on: I was talking to 47-year-old Ken Miller, floor manager at the Champ Theater and Arcade downtown. It’s a shrine to XXX-rated entertainment. “I like Seattle because there are a lot of things to do,” he said.
On several TV screens up over his shoulder, action scenes from some remarkable motion pictures caught my eye. Then I noticed some women who weren’t really dressed to speak of, hovering nearby. They wanted to know what the interview was about.
I started to explain the premise of this undertaking. But before I got very far, they retreated through a curtain.
Adventures on Spokane Street: You probably don’t know this about Milt. But he’s an excellent driver.
Still, even his impressive urban car-handling skills were no match for Spokane Street, south of downtown Seattle.
We had decided that we would drive the length of it. But because of construction projects, interruptions in its course and general bedlam near the industrial port area, that proved virtually impossible.
So when, for the umpteenth time, we found ourselves on Spokane Street one moment and not on it the next, well, it was discouraging. Until I realized we were headed south, toward Sea-Tac airport.
Our flight home wasn’t for several more hours. But a thought occurred. Maybe Spokane Street was sending us a message. Maybe we could catch an earlier plane.
Or should we stay and continue to soak up the sights and sounds of Seattle?
We looked at one another.
It was an easy decision.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 8 illustrations by Milt Priggee
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: REPRINTS Reprints of this series will be available in August. Call (509) 747-4422.
Click here to comment on this story »