Creating a 'right' life: notes from the belly of Seattle

We haven't lived in Belltown all that long. Who has? On any given Saturday you can see all sorts of people like me unpacking U-Hauls to give the inner city a try.
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We haven't lived in Belltown all that long. Who has? On any given Saturday you can see all sorts of people like me unpacking U-Hauls to give the inner city a try.

The building I live in is on Vine Street in Seattle, and when my husband and I first moved in we lived in a studio that looked out over an alley that was, if not the place for a guy to relieve himself on Saturday nights, then at least close to it. Pants were unzipped, relief was delivered, and my husband and I commented that, with the exception of a few women squatting after looking both ways rather sheepishly, there was no embarrassment revealed by the guys even though a street light illuminates the alley until the bricks on either side shine bright as paprika. And we wondered if this is how a suburban boy, used to trees to hide behind, feels when he comes to Belltown to party: As if our condos and apartment buildings are huge impersonal structures without, say, a hundred sets of eyes peering down at him as he howls-in-alleviation, a sound resembling the cry of a hound until the other members of his tribe can find him. This was back before we moved up in the world into a one-bedroom down the hall if for no other reason, so that we could grapple with the larger questions that had nothing to do with the alleys of our neighborhood. A milestone. Now we share 480 square feet and I remember thinking when we signed the papers that we finally had all the room in the world. We haven't lived in Belltown all that long. Who has? We moved here because I woke one morning and could no longer endure living in a small town west of here. For years I lived a comfortable life there, perhaps too comfortable. All the familiarity grew to be annoying, just the way none can. And there was this persistent ache to reach beyond. Working as a writer had shown me how to work hard, work scared, work while confused and embarrassed and feeling like a failure. I figured it was time to do the same with my future. Just your garden variety identity crisis but after searching for a "community" where ultimately there is only the one you create, especially in our culture, I figured it was time to make mine where I didn't feel like I was living with half a heart in terms of enthusiasm. And on any given Saturday – moving day – you can see all sorts of people like me unpacking U-Hauls to give the inner city a try. Perhaps they too dislike driving. Or they sense the freedom a bit of anonymity can offer if they're feeling a little stifled by small town or suburban tedium. Whatever the reason and as the trendy saying goes: It's all good. Mostly because their relocation means that in two, maybe three generations all these new buildings reaching for the sky are bound to feel like a real neighborhood with something solid in the air. Not something perceptible really. Or easy to name. But it will hold us together. Still, every now and then, a shiver hurries up my spine in the form of a longing: I miss four walls and a garden. And that's when a homesickness for ground level that can lay dormant in me for months gives way to exhilaration. When I cross Denny with bouncy strides and walk all the way up Queen Anne Avenue North to where the allies are inviting rather than abject. Where I can pick a few flowers and breath in the scent of the earth renewing itself. And the best part, the part that makes me smile with a grin full of something beyond the upward turn of my lips, is how I can relish all the well-kept yards without having to actually maintain one. This feeling alone can make the galactic housing prices seem deserving, if only momentarily. Yes, it's an almost magical lushness on this hill where the bungalows have been remodeled with marble-top counters and wood floors, wall-to-wall carpet rolled up and carried off with the trash. And yet my favorite are the few that still belong to yesteryear, the pastel green or dispiriting beige homes with metal hand railings. The kind of metalwork that is in-vogue again but only if rusted-on-purpose and placed upright in the garden. These are the homes that seem sort of covert now, reminding me of the truism I so often say, that there is nothing so invisible as the recent past. And yet I never stay long. I come to the hill to realize rather than retrieve the pros and cons of a house and garden life. I don't want all of that history to back up on me just yet. The history of perfecting a garden, yes. Only to realize years later how much it was thriving. Yet I was not. Because as soon as I return downtown, I feel the same sense of appreciation. Only differently. Appreciation for what it took me to act on a feeling, a need for change, rather than let it simmer into rage. And for the newness of a city that sputters to be urban as much as I do. And when I duck into a new café nestled into the corner of my building, I climb up on a bistro stool to enjoy the feel of our neighborhood café, The Artisans Café, its intimate size bestowing real human contact rather than a fusing to a laptop or iPod and other acts of Seattleness until it seems no one is tuned to the sounds of reality, to a sense of living in the present. "So," the woman at the next table asks me, "do you live in the building?" I pegged her to be somewhere between newly divorced and an empty nester, her face radiant with expectation for a new acquaintance. Like me ... minus the divorce and kids. I told her, "Yes I do." And we eagerly got on with what we love about our building and what we dislike which was, hands down, The Leaf Blower – worse than a man with a jackhammer. And sitting there I thought about how some cities have a downtown filled with tangible history, others with more of an emotional one in the throws of the exhausting task to create our right lives where high rise living is only a millisecond old. Fueled only by those willing to be optimistic about it's future rather than skeptical. Needless to say, I'm making my way through this new way of life. And because it's rare in this part of the city to meet someone who was born in Seattle, I figure I stand the same chance as everyone else of fitting in.


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