Thursday, February 7, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Seattle by Richard Hartwell

Richard Hartwell
PHOTO: Bryce Edwards

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

It would be dissembling to say that Seattle in the 1960s was still a brawling, sprawling frontier town of Canada and Alaska, and yet there is truth in that. Then, the city lay promiscuously just against the coast; sinuously wrapped around Puget Sound to the west and only beginning to slowly reach out to embrace Lake Washington to the east. Her harlot’s arms reached up, past UW, toward Mountlake Terrace and on out to Fort Lawton, while her legs entwined Renton and lazily stretched toward Tacoma. Her curves and breasts and mound were formed by the hills of downtown. She beckoned multitudes, as she had since the Alaskan Gold Rush, but most of those had used her as a casual interlude on their way to something else. By the late mid-century Seattle showed the signs of her abuse. Her trollop’s paint was smearing and faded and her limbs were becoming laced with the varicose veins of freeways and highways and industry. She was no longer the virgin of the Northwest.

I remember Seattle in the '60s, during her late adolescence, when she still struggled to throw off her Gold Rush and fishing-town heritage. The World’s Fair had recently run over her and Interstate 5 was under construction: a double-decked thoroughfare paralleling Alaskan Way and overlooking the Sound. Only occasional cruise ships berthed at the foot of the hills nestling her roundness and the embryos of skyscrapers in her belly were just entering their growth spurt. The aerospace industry caressed her legs while on Lake Washington the yachts of the newly rich tickled the hairs at the small of her back.

PHOTO: Ingrid Taylar

There were still warehouses along the base of the hills, next to the docks, from which you could reach out and almost touch the speeding cars on the upper deck of I-5. Those buildings that were not demolished for the new interstate had been filled with light industry. I worked at night on the fourth floor of one of those old brick structures in what was billed as a plastics’ manufacturing plant. In winter the snow blew in through the broken windows overlooking the new freeway and sometimes the dumb-waiter elevator got stuck. This was more than a mild inconvenience when one of the injection molds failed and blew back superheated plastic, filling the room with nauseous gases and caustic chemicals. Knowing the vagaries of the elevator, we usually ran toward the broken windows and had a cigarette until the air had cleared and a supervisor yelled for us to get back to work.

At eighteen I could get a beer in a downtown bar if I was traveling in the wrong group and stared back belligerently or malevolently at the bartender, daring him to challenge my credentials. There were still fights on the fishing docks in the early morning as the night-boats unloaded their catch. The freight trains still plied Alaskan Way next to the docks and under the new freeway and most of us parked between the tracks. With the rising cost of living, most of us blue-collar types avoided the street parking and used the verge formed by the vee between the track switches. Down there near the docks and warehouses we would share the tracks with the freights and the hoboes in the early mornings, and exchange greetings with the girls at night when we got off work and they went on, leaving their dingy hotels at the bottom of the hill at dusk to strut their stuff and make a buck.

For most of us that’s what downtown represented: making a buck. At that time very few lived there. There were no high-rise apartments yet; no luxury hotels with resident suites overlooking Puget Sound. You worked in the city and lived elsewhere; the more money, the farther out; the poorer, the closer. Most university professors lived around Lake Washington; most street girls lived downtown. I lived in the middle, beyond the naval yards, maybe two, three miles out.

It was a two-room basement apartment with a fireplace, a pull-down bed, kitchen, and bathroom. It was paneled in knotty pine, not plywood, but tongue-and-groove boards lovingly constructed by a professor at the University of Washington. It had obviously been a project of love at one time and he had even put in an exterior door leading down the backside of the house and into the next street. Such are the hills of Seattle. But as love waned for the professor and the need to propel his wife up in the university hierarchy became more pressing and apparent, he sublet his basement apartment to students and pretenders from the university. My pretense was probably better than my attendance and I was able to rent the apartment while I cast into the city from job to job.

It wasn’t so much that I bounced from job to job as that I tried to accommodate my college schedule. The vagaries of employment with Boeing would often flood the work force and anyone asking for favor or change was easily dismissed and replaced. I don’t recall ever being overly resentful of this practice at the time. It was just a natural element of the environment, like rain. If you paid it any attention, it would gain the upper hand on your psyche. If you ignored it, life went on. This accommodation worked most of the time, for most of the people.

It worked for me, too, at least until late 1965 when I received a governmental direction to report to Oakland for a preinduction physical. I had failed to carry sufficient units to maintain a college deferment and mere marriage was insufficient grounds to postpone what seemed to be the inevitable, as the '60s menstruated into
the war.

Perhaps if I had been older, or smarter, or richer, I would have gone north to Canada. Perhaps if I had been younger or dumber or poorer, I wouldn’t have played by the rules and even registered for school and thus for the draft. As it was, I was one of the malleable middle. I stopped attending classes, canceled the rent, quit my job, loaded my beat-up Bug-Eyed Sprite with everything I owned, and started retracing my way back south.

PHOTO: Christian Gonzales Veron

It’s true, I was focused on the immediate future, but even setting that aside, I don’t think I was sad to leave. Seattle had been good to me. As Tina Turner croons and rasps, “. . . sometimes nice and gentle and sometimes nice and rough.” It’s not a great revelation, but it rained the day I left Seattle. It was a nice, soft rain, not too cold. It was the kind of rain you soon grew to ignore if you lived there, or the kind that quickly chased you away. The rain lathered her body, and the hills and mounds of Seattle glistened in my rearview mirror. Then the mists of her shower descended again and shrouded her from view for more than fifty years.

I was soon to climb other hills and be washed by other rains, but nothing with the sensual allure of Seattle. I’ve never been back. But what would two old whores have to talk about anyway?

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