A newcomer on notice

Choosing to live in Seattle, and arriving here by way of St. Louis, Miami, and Tacoma, you see things differently than the mossbacks.
Crosscut archive image.

The author on Stevens Pass. (Tom Albers)

Choosing to live in Seattle, and arriving here by way of St. Louis, Miami, and Tacoma, you see things differently than the mossbacks.

I've lived in Seattle for two years now, so I'm still a newcomer. According to the mossbacks, I'm part of the problem; my very presence here is ruining everything. But there isn't anywhere else I can say I belong. A child of the military, I learned early on not to call any place home, as we'd soon be leaving it. Seattle is the only place I chose to live as opposed to being shuttled there by other forces.

My childhood education was spent in eight different schools in four different cities. We lived in one place for only three months; the longest we lived anywhere was five years. My three siblings and I hold birth certificates from three different states. My youngest brother speaks with the self-proclaimed redneck accent of one born and raised in Southern Illinois. I think of that part of the country as merely where I went to high school.

The husband and I chose Seattle deliberately Â'ꀔ once we figured out that living in Tacoma might be close, but not close enough. We moved to that sub-Seattle city five years ago, having traveled from about as far away as you can without leaving the contiguous United States: Miami. We made the trip with three cats, three little cat carriers hoteling it in the back of our CRV. (Anyone who says she had to abandon her cat for relocation reasons is just making excuses.)

When you're sitting under the mango tree in Miami and gazing at a map of Washington state, Tacoma looks like it's close enough to Seattle to be under its influence. The whole metropolitan area hiding under the skirts of the Cascade range and hugging the knees of Puget Sound seems to promise two things: 1) the benefits of cultured city living not dependent on South Beach celebrities or a professed hatred of Fidel Castro, and 2) proximity to a wilderness unspoiled by the forces that drained the Everglades and shot 95 percent of the birds out of Florida skies.

My would-be academic colleagues played up the transformation taking place in Tacoma: the Glass Museum, the downtown renovations, the waterfront. The area around the school where I went to work boasts glacial lakes, pungent swathes of Douglas fir, and a breathtaking view of Mount Rainier. (Seattleites, take notice: Tacomans have a much better view of the mountain.) The gig I had in Miami was good for a teacher: My own grad school wanted me to work there full-time. But it wasn't tenure-track, and Miami wasn't where the hub and I wanted to stake a claim.

So we packed up the mini-ute and headed for the Northwest.

Only to find that things were a bit harder than we'd anticipated. Okay, a lot harder. First: the rain. Coming from Miami – which gets 250 days of sunshine per year and where we were known to bike-ride to work/school and get a fair amount of tennis-playing in before sundown, not just in the summer but in the winter, too – the transition was a shock. My colleagues shook their heads at my parka and informed me that no, I would not develop webbed toes.

Second: hard times for the hub. There just weren't any jobs for an artist-cum-exhibit preparator down south, and he was spooling away up to four hours daily commuting by bus to Seattle. I hardly ever saw him. He had neither time nor energy left for art-making. And since he spent so many of his waking hours en route to or from Seattle during the week, he just couldn't get up for a Seattle social outing on weekends.

Still, we really did try to make a go of it in Tacoma. I successfully secured tenure, and teaching was my passion. But somewhere along the way, teaching got passed up by writing, which had been there all along. Sure, I could have morphed into a career writer from the southern edge of Puget Sound, but coupled with the hub's struggles, the town just didn't take. We were too deeply attracted to Seattle's cultural offerings. After living in Miami, which is finally claiming its title as the Capitol of Latin America, at least as far as art is concerned, and the very culturally underrated St. Louis, it was tough for us to take the step backward that Tacoma represented. Sorry, Tacomans, but it's true.

So we joined the legions in Seattle who are house-poor but rich in so many other ways. Here in the northerly tip of Ballard/Crown Hill, there are sidewalks, and people use them. We live on a busy street because that was the only way we could afford a house in this neighborhood, but the city is just this week painting in bike lanes, which the hub will use on his daily commute. We can walk to Ballard proper and its lively restaurant/music scene; we can hoof it to Golden Gardens Park. We went to Seafoodfest this year and felt like part of a community.

And that community, of course, centers on commercial fishing, which is what sealed the deal on our decision to move to Seattle. I'd taken a job as the first woman to edit Fishermen's News. I was both hazed and embraced by the fishing community, and while I no longer edit their paper, I feel a certain insider's respect for them. Like many of them, I can claim a Norwegian heritage; my people are from Northern Wisconsin, the ones Garrison Keillor both lampoons and celebrates in his radio shows and Lake Wobegon stories. Had my ancestors decided to cast their lot with the sea instead of the soil, I might very well be a mossback.

When I've gone back to visit the places I lived as a child, I've hardly recognize them. Part of the difference is due to the nature of childhood perceptions, how everything that seemed to loom large now appears miniature by comparison. But some of the difference is due to how much the place itself has changed. I haven't seen Chandler, Ariz., since my family drove through it in 1984, but people I've met from Phoenix tell me it's a sprawling suburb now, very built up. I remember each year they would light the Christmas tree in the town square, a giant pile of tumbleweeds spray-painted white and strewn with multicolored lights.

So I wonder at Â'ꀜnativeÂ'ꀝ Seattleites who seem to take special umbrage at the changes here. To accompany an essay on growing traffic congestion and how to solve it, I used to show my students an aerial depiction of population growth on the East Coast from the Civil War to the present, which looks like The Blob devouring the entire eastern seaboard. During the 12 years I lived in St. Louis, which is the longest I've lived in any one city, I saw tremendous change. My alma mater in particular, St. Louis University, transformed whole city blocks into campus buildings and green space. They acquired the aviation school Parks College and built a new wind tunnel smack dab in the middle of St. Louis proper. It's just down the street from the legendary Fox Theater, where you can still catch a decent show.

So, mossbacks, it's not as if The Blob is invading Seattle alone. The Blob is population explosion, and the changes it brings are both inevitable and universal.


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