By lex, on January 26th, 2011
Finished up my presentation – it was well-received by the Ostrayans in the audience – and went back to my room to decompress. Changed out of the gray charcoal pinstripe and into the Mountain Khakis, a North Face button down and a hoody sweatshirt, for its cold here by Sandy Eggo standards and maybe a wee bit damp.
I’m close to SEATAC, and therefore hard by the Link light rail that services Seattle and environs to the north. It’s a good deal at $5.00 round trip, and we got to spend some time with a demographic we are not ordinarily exposed to in our quotidian existence. Seattle is “diverse” in ways that San Diego is not.
A thuggish young man in a quilted parka hurried to join me in the elevator on the way up to the train station, and his presence put a shadow over the ride to the railway car and perhaps even the rest of the evening, for he seemed to be hovering in a way that was not friendly, shifting his eyes from side to side, sensing the environment. I am reminded, each time that I am in a foreign city that there are dark places that the locals avoid which the stranger knows not of.
He lingered by the turnstile as I paid for my ticket, and I settled my imagination with a mental sequence of judo moves that used his weight to lower him down, punch low, punch high, elbow in. Bigger than me and half my age, but there is pride to think of and I will not willingly be a victim.
The train left the airport station just at sunset, which was rather a pity for the outer townships were painted with a distressingly revealing light. Living under the approach corridor for a major airport doesn’t do much for property values, and what was left behind was jaded to the point of indecency. Clapboard shacks rolled by, wet and angry, one still sullenly displaying Christmas lights around a plate glass window that bore slack jawed testimony to a parade of light rail cars, six to the hour.
At the next stop, Vietnamese restaurants and butcher shops shared strip mall quarters with Somali smoke shops. The houses on either end unfinished projects right up against the railway, their empty windows gaping at us like missing teeth. Behind these innovations and atop the hills more mature quarters that a post-war husband might have shown to his wife with real pride sagged in the growing gloom, longing for older days, back before the weight of all that rain defeated them, back before their shame was revealed in the light of the overtaking sprawl.
A woman behind me yammers at top lung in some musical African language, while next to me a distant cousin eyes her with a weary malice. In the quickly adopted manner of city people, I take surreptitious glances in the darkening train window, preferring reflections to eye contact.
At the next stop a heavyset young man bundles in, hiking boots and shorts above a US Army M-65 field jacket. He has close cropped hair topped by a Mariner’s cap, a stiff red beard, gauges in his ears and a stoic look of unburnished stupidity in his light blue eyes. I take all of this in at one glance and then pretend to find something more interesting to hold my gaze. The man in the quilted parka is one car aft, and I see him occasionally glancing at me. I pretend not to notice.
Closer to the city, the stops come in quicker succession, like the engineer can’t wait to get us there and is giving her the spurs. Past the stadium the light rail plunges into the ground like a burrowing animal, for it’s one thing to rattle the china out in Othello or even Columbia Beach, but when you get to Beacon Hill you are to be neither seen nor heard above ground.
I got off the train at Pioneer Station – alone – for I had the mad notion to drop in at a pub named Fado. It seemed not so long ago that I was here for a fleet week with 5000 or so of my closest friends and I remember that we had had a good craic there. I found it eventually too, but not before passing by a shelter where men wizened by age and their accumulated addictions flowed out of the shelter’s doors like a dark, ground-hugging fog on the cool evening, passing around cigarettes and waiting for something interesting to happen, fully aware that it very probably would not. That there had been a time once when interesting things might happen, but that time had flown forever, and now it was just a matter of sourly waiting it out.
We are all on the same voyage, the thuggish young man in the quilted parka, the bull in the M-65 jacket, the loudly musical African woman – I wondered briefly what three or four of them might sound like in a heated discussion – and those road enders on the sidewalk by the men’s shelter. We’re just getting there by varying trajectories.
I walked twice around Fado’s without finding a seat at the bar. I declined to take a table by myself and have to lamely pretend to await company. I walked out again unrefreshed into the cool damp, reflecting that is good for the man to be alone sometimes, the better to appreciate those moments when he is in company.
Walking the few miles down to the waterfront for a recommended meal I was serially put upon at each successive corner by wraiths for whom even the men’s shelter presented too stern a discipline. Any spare change, any change at all, buy me some food, one caramel colored man said, and I shook my head once, ashamed for him, ashamed at myself, for I had found $20 in the parking lot this morning, and this was maybe a test.
I never give money because I know where it goes, but I sometimes buy food because people have to eat and so what if that frees up their other alms for the needle or the pipe? You can’t make their choices for them. It’s just that there was a hunger all around me, and it wasn’t in the belly. Shining eyes begging for their next angry fix or slash of rotgut, and if I pause to open my wallet then I will become a target and I once again think of the thuggish young man in the quilted parka and frown, shaking my head at what he had done to me, or – more precisely – what I had done to myself, or allowed to be done.
Dinner was a nice affair, necessarily quiet of course. Hiked a long series of steps up into Pike Place Market, had fragmented memories of a pair of boozy nights here over 20 years ago, the ship in port on the way home from a long deployment, the squadron ashore for liberty. Saw their faces again, the callsigns flooding back: Booter and Cajun, Nomax and Slammy. We used to hit the town, whatever town it was, like an alpha strike, ears pinned back, and bringing the heat with joy in our hearts and laughter on our lips, knowing for certain that we were young, we were stupid and that we would never die. That was all an awful long time ago. I found myself wondering if I’d ever get back here again, for it had been so long since the last time and tomorrow’s not promised.
At the top of the hill a pretty young Asian girl wearing a camel hair pea coat over stockings and dancer’s leggings mugged for her boyfriend’s camera, their commingled breath steaming in the night. She was maybe 23 years old. Perhaps as old as 25. I thought her boyfriend a lucky young man, and I hope that he knew it. I shrugged up the hood to my sweatshirt and bundled along, fists thrust into my pockets, looking for the train station.
As I headed towards the down escalator, the final pale wraith of the evening surged up to me asking for money for his bus token. His clothes had once been nice, but that had been some days or even weeks before and he was unshaven, hollow eyed and bestubbled with whiskers. I felt a flash of anger bordering on hatred rather than shame, and noting the distinctions in my varying reactions, I put that away in a box to open up and look at later. I wonder how many people he has to hit up before he can take his loose change to the man waiting around the corner to get him his boost. I wonder how many times he came up short, and ended up in some alleyway, shaking, sweating and dry heaving his sins into the cold evening air.
The ride home was uneventful, the evening having fallen and courteously cast a decent blanket of darkness over the outer boroughs. I was left alone with my thoughts and wishing I had brought a notebook, for there was so much more to say and my eldest daughter bought me a very nice one for Christmas.