17. Carry On Grunge

  1. 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
  2. 02. A Public Service
  3. 03. The 22% Solution
  4. 04. On The Campaign Trail
  5. 05. Athens of America
  6. 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
  7. 07. My Canadian Family
  8. 08. Edmonton? Why?
  9. 09. Prairie Singers
  10. 10. Deconstructing Calgary
  11. 11. My Kelowna
  12. 12. Wine Whine
  13. 13. Fire Mountain
  14. 14. A Stopover and a Popover
  15. 15. Inspiring Victoria
  16. 16. Planet Rosehip
  17. 17. Carry On Grunge
  18. 18. Street People
  19. 19. The Curse of Portland
  20. 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
  21. 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
  22. 22. Managing Yosemite
  23. 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
  24. 24. Parched
  25. 25. Brave New San Fran
  26. 26. Over The Hill
  27. 27. Greatest Again

With moments to spare before the one hour grace period expired, we returned the rental car. There had been nothing graceful about it, with Frank weaving madly through downtown Seattle traffic while I shouted navigational imperatives. It is emotionally instructive to acknowledge the bickering, dangerous driving maneuvers, and profound indigestion that can result from trying to avoid a twenty dollar surcharge. As always, I was relieved to be rid of the car, knowing it would be six days until I needed to drive another.

We ducked into the Bartell Drugs store on Seattle’s McGraw Square. Bartell Drugs is a drug store much as Canadian Tire is a tire store, which is to say that Bartell Drugs sells drugs and Canadian Tire sells tires, but I’ve never met anyone who has purchased either from either. Our mission was to buy wine — arguably a drug, come to think of it. Bartell Drugs did not disappoint, offering an entire supermarket aisle of wines. (Alas, Canadian Tire does not sell wine, although they do sell a range of wine racks, wine glasses, and wine aerators, the latter being how one refers to drunk pilots, I think.)

Laden with half a case of wine, we plopped down in the square in front of John McGraw’s statue. John, it seems, was one of those “right-place-at-the-right-time” sort of fellows. Not long after his 1876 arrival, his intended career as a Seattle hotelier was abruptly truncated by his appointment as a Seattle Police Officer – one of four, at the time. He became what law there was in a city renowned for its lawlessness: City Marshall, then Chief of Police, then Sheriff of King County. After serving as the second Governor of the State of Washington, he made a fortune during the Klondike Gold Rush. His luck then turned. His fortune went to repay considerable sums to the State following an investigation, whereupon he died of typhoid fever. Eventually, a monorail overshadowed his statue.

Like McGraw, Seattle has enjoyed rollicking good times followed by periods of retrenchment, seemingly in penance for its excesses. Each boom – first lumber then gold then shipbuilding then airliners (Boeing) — led to a bust, each boom bigger and each bust worse than the previous.

The Seattle I visited twenty years ago was resigned to the inevitability of collapse. With a moist and cool climate that made mud and dampness a constant companion, the city’s aging Victorian homes complimented their flaking paint with moss and mold. The local look was characterized by plaid flannel shirts, torn blue jeans and weathered army boots with disheveled hair and a devil-may-care attitude. This fatalistic yet accepting look and feel came to be called “grunge”.  Indeed, it spawned a musical genre of the same name. None of these things particularly appealed to me – but I do appreciate that they were uniquely Seattle.

The current boom started before all that, three decades ago.  When Microsoft arrived in nearby Redmond, it eventually spawned thousands of “Microsoft Millionaires”, fundamentally changing the character of the city. These days, Microsoft is old hat, a fading fraternity of dowdy, well-heeled nerds resting on their laurels. Before Microsoft could get to bust – and it will – another shining white knight named Amazon rode in, reinvigorating the boom.

Today this boom continues, leaving little grunge in Seattle. Real estate fervour has bleached the mold, renovated the Victorians, created mid-rise “luxury” apartment shitboxes anywhere one can shit in a box, and an Amazon warehouse/office building anywhere one can’t. On the street, every second person is a stylishly quaffed Californian promenading with an Amazon box tucked under arm. The other person is a native Seattleite wishing the first would go back to California. Postbellum Atlanta comes to mind.

In my opinion, Atlanta improved considerably after the Civil War. Let’s face it, it was a dreadful place beforehand. While I do not compare the horror of slavery with the merely debilitating pervasiveness of grunge, I will say I am happy to see the back of both. Those who miss the grunge might take misguided solace in the idea that this biggest-of-all Seattle booms may usher in a corresponding bust – and with it, a return to form. Grunge. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I was here, now. As usual, we had overbooked ourselves. Top of the agenda was the birthday party of an old friend, Jason, a survivor of Seattle grunge. First we had to get picked up by my trusty nephew Angus and get settled in our AirBnb apartment in the Queen Anne district before hightailing it across town to Jason’s Central District soiree.

Angus and his wife Bea arrived as scheduled, having driven down from Vancouver to join us for two nights. It was Seattle’s Seafair FleetWeek, so in prospect of viewing the Parade of Ships on the morrow, we had rented a two-bedroom AirBnB apartment which promised a balcony offering a panoramic view of Elliot Bay. Squeezing into the car, we headed there.

Another AirBnB apartment, another eye-opener. The balcony did have a good view of the bay, but it was tiny, especially considering I had invited my sister and her grandchildren to join us for viewing the Parade of Ships. I had relied on the promised roof deck, which turned out to be on the roof of the building’s second floor outcrop – with no view at all – rather than on the real seventh floor roof, which belonged to the penthouse. Oops.IMG_1552

This apartment was not dedicated to holiday accommodation, but someone’s actual home.  The young woman lawyer who owned it lived here, staying elsewhere when she had rented it out. There are advantages to this. The kitchen was well-stocked and had notes granting explicit permission to eat or drink anything there, save the expensive wine. There are also disadvantages to this. The place was already quite full of stuff when we arrived, and the four of us had brought plenty more stuff. Young woman lawyers have a lot of shoes, it turns out, and this particular attorney dedicated an entire closet to them. She also had a closet full of cello. Cellos should have proper homes in the country where they romp in the fields, I think.

There was no time to trifle about such things. After a quick inspection we headed to Jason’s party. Last I had seen Jason, some twenty years earlier, he was in the restaurant business. I had reason to believe he still was. For example, he was hosting a big party on a Tuesday afternoon. Restaurant people know how to throw parties, which augured well.

Jason’s party did not disappoint. About two dozen pleasantly laid back folks enjoyed perfectly legal marijuana in his florid hillside garden overlooking Lake Washington. We reveled in the idyllic weather with an impressive food spread, all manner of booze, and a singing accordionist that was disturbingly entertaining.

Jason and I greeted one other with the unspoken horror of middle-aged men seeing each other after twenty years. We hugged and exclaimed “You haven’t changed a bit!” — insulting words when you consider we were both thinking “Oh my god he looks like hell.” Though the words were false, the affection was genuine. After all, neither of us was dead yet, putting us in a minority of mutual friends from the Age of AIDS that had created our acquaintance.

I ate way too much fried chicken, as one doesn’t find much fried chicken in Australia outside of KFC, which is awful. Otherwise, I behaved. I didn’t even get stoned. I am not sure why.

I should have. Even after a two hour eating hiatus and a two mile walk, I still had no appetite as we reached the lovely Terra Plata restaurant on Capitol Hill. I ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, coddled eggs laid by hens on the roof deck served on kale leaves hydroponically grown in an attic across the street, heavily seasoned with pretension. To my amazement, it was delicious, as was everything else we had.

IMG_1504Over dinner, Angus, a former employee of the Canadian customs service and currently a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer, related their experience at the border.

“I handed the customs guy my American passport, because, well, you know, American customs get mad when American citizens hand them some other passport. He looks at it, then at Bea’s Canadian passport, then asks ‘So how’d you steal this fella away from the greatest country on Earth?’ It came to me that he was talking about the US, so I explained that I had never actually lived in the US, but that my mom was an American, so I carry both passports. He went into some diatribe about not understanding why anybody who had a choice would not choose to live in ‘the greatest country on Earth’. He must have said ‘the greatest country on Earth’ a dozen times.”

“Hey, don’t you have a new job at the RCMP?” I asked. “I hear you aren’t out at the airport anymore.”

Angus nodded. “Political corruption unit. Mostly desk work.” He patted his stomach. “Haven’t completely adjusted yet.”

Later in the dinner, I mentioned “Hey, y’know, your former Auditor General is now our Auditor General. He’s doing an audit of our program…”

Angus raised his hand, stopping me in mid-sentence. “I can’t talk about this.”

I was a bit surprised. “Oh, okay, I was just going to say – “

“REALLY, I can’t talk about this.”

Sometimes I am a bit slow to catch on. “Well the only thing I was going to say is –“

“NO, if you are going to talk about this I have got to leave the table. REALLY.”


We changed the subject. Small world.

IMG_1527Wednesday presented itself as a hot, sunny day, tailor made for the Parade of Ships. My sister arrived with a carload of grandchildren, all of whom shared an irrational fear of balconies. That was just as well since it wasn’t big enough for the eight of us. She and I took the kids down to the foreshore while Frank, Bea and Angus viewed from the balcony.  All got a good show. The amphibious-assault ship USS Boxer led the USS Dewey 2nd, USS Gridley, USCGC Midgett, HMCS Vancouver, and HMCS Brandon around Elliot Bay, IMG_1506while fire boats sprayed ceremonious geysers into the sky. IMG_1543From time to time an acrobatic airshow would break out overhead, the clear air offering stunning views of Mount Rainier as a backdrop. IMG_1511Good fun, as celebrations of our military industrial complex go.

Speaking of our celebrated military industrial complex, I was most impressed by a pedestrian bridge that provided locals easy access to the shorefront park. Atop it, I crossed paths with IMG_1539two Texan bicyclists wearing unfastened helmets atop their ten gallon hats, pretty much defeating the effectiveness of both bonnets. The Texans were gobsmacked by a breathtaking view, not of the bay nor of the city nor of Mount Rainier, but of the endless oil train that rumbled beneath our feet.  IMG_1544Two or three times a day, every day, these monsters traverse Seattle. On average each train carries about 150,000 gallons of Bakken shale oil, a substance the Wall Street Journal reported to be “highly volatile”. Yet it comes and comes, from the booming fields of North Dakota over America’s ancient transcontinental railways to Washington State’s refineries and ports.  Yikes.

My fifteenth campaign pledge: In about ten years, Americans are going to wonder why we laid waste to North Dakota and accidentally blew up several towns along train lines across the country while bankrupting the country to finance a military establishment that ensured the continued flow of oil we no longer need from the Middle East. The Smiling Kodiak administration will use what’s left of North Dakota to create new Kurdish homeland as a cheap source of immigrant labour.

IMG_1530We all gathered back at the flat for lunch, during which our host stopped by to introduce herself.  I sensed she was a bit nervous about eight folks trampling around her apartment, so I forced a glass of wine into her hand, which immediately defused the situation.

My sister took the kids back by taxi to their suburban Seattle home. Bea and Angus went off for some sightseeing, agreeing to meet us for dinner later. Frank and I headed to nearby Lake Union to see what Amazon hath wrought.

Lake Union is a very busy place, even on a Wednesday afternoon. The emerging apartment towers and office buildings that surround it seemed to be closing in by the minute. Seaplanes landed and took off, dodging their way through sailboats, power boats, charter boats, paddle boats, tour boats, ferries, kayaks, canoes, red fish, blue fish. As we walked passed a man begged “Can you help me put my boat on top of my truck?” I looked at him like he was out of his mind, as my boat-lifting days are long past. Before I could tell him that, Frank pointed out the “boat” in question was merely a two man kayak; no big deal. Job done.

The patio of McCormick & Schmick’s, a chain restaurant overlooking the lake, beckoned. It seemed the perfect place to wind down a summer afternoon with a bottle of wine. We sat down, ordered and waited. And waited. And waited. It dawned on me that everyone else on the patio was waiting, too. There was no shortage of staff. Every two or three minutes a different young woman in a tight black T-shirt and shorts would emerge from the restaurant to assure each table that their order was “On its way!”, perhaps taking a new order from the most recent arriving customer.

After thirty minutes – we’d ordered a bottle of wine, not Peking Duck, for heaven’s sake – I marched inside to find out what on earth the problem was. I was rather surprised to find a man, presumably the manager, standing on a chair in front of a dozen staff, all women, all in black, none servicing customers. The manager appeared to be preparing to demonstrate how to operate a cork screw – on what, I realized, would have been our bottle of wine. “Wait!” I hollered, the crowd of trainees turning in my direction. “Don’t open that, we’re out of time. Just forget the whole thing.” The manager slunk down off the chair silently. We left.

That evening, dinner with Bea and Angus was a down-market affair: Mexican take-away on a grubby restaurant’s rear deck with horrible premix margaritas, doubles on special. They were so horrible we each had two. Doubles. Maybe three. Possibly four. Probably four. Honestly, I don’t recall. It was great.

This was the Seattle I remembered.