It was either Paris or Seattle. After a decade living in Pasadena, just east of Los Angeles, I was done. Relentless sunshine. Relentlessly upbeat people. It was downright depressing. I was ready for gloom and nocturnal wrestling with the soul. Ready to wrap myself in large coats and mufflers. Ready for a place infested with intellectual aspirants — people who read entire books. My French was only passable, so, northward ho!
I dream of living in Seattle — its hills, literary cred, and historic houses remind me of San Francisco — on muscle relaxants. So I pack up my gear in mid-December 2010 and drive a thousand miles north. I’d give it one year.
Here in Sea-Town, locals think the sun-deprived give up too easily. “Strato-cumulus,” intones a KUOW weatherman. “The top cloud that sends people back to California.” I am determined. No rain will dampen my psyche.
For water is what I love and I can see Elliott Bay from my living room window. I agree with British writer Jonathan Raban: “Seattle is the only major city in the world that people move to in order to get closer to nature.” After losing a Wallingford rental to a yoga teacher with tools, I find a bungalow near Lake Washington. I walk out my front door and am enchanted by a forested park designed by the Olmsted Brothers.
In the Golden State, you must be rich to live like this. One of my ordinary working friends owns an 85-year-old lakeside cottage nestled in a grove of trees. A visiting Californian remarked that she moved and suddenly became a millionaire.
Fifty dollars buys me a beach house for the night on Whidbey Island, where I slumber in the lap of waves. The next morning, I watch a great blue heron skitter into the surf for its breakfast.
In SoCal, you’re supposed to worship the sun. If you’re pale and snag a hot date, you order a spray-on tan to look “healthy.” You know you’re in Sea-Town when this email pops up: “Weather outside frightful? Get a $149 trip to Paradise.” The “Sun Weekend” getaway — how bizarre! I spent most of my time down south trying to escape the Big Ball.
Everyone here deals differently. A stair-climber at the gym sports yellow sneakers. “During the dark, ugly days,” she tells me, “I look down and feel happy.” A bus rider bundled in a coat over her Tinkerbell costume clutches her wings on Halloween and advises, “Make friends, it will seem less grey if you have something to do.”
Ah, friends. While we have the famous “Seattle Freeze” that seems to cool friendships, in L.A. you can meet someone, have a five-minute chat and conclude your instant chemistry means a soul mate found. That is, ‘til you discover he lives east of Interstate 5 — you west. You know you’ll never see each other again.
French composer Erik Satie once said, “The more I know of man, the more I love my dog.” Here, locals would rather scoop poop than change diapers, and nearly twice the tail-waggers as kids call Seattle home. I’m sandwiched between two pet boutiques blocks apart. And dog yoga, or “doga” has taken a pawhold in West Seattle. While L.A. sports an upscale pet resort (with surf lessons), here the hoi polloi dog-paddles in city pools.
It’s no picnic driving in Los Angeles. For the privilege of snaking your way through traffic, you need a license. And that requires loitering for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles, listening for the voice to finally drone your counter number. So I procrastinate getting a Washington state license — expecting the worst.
And I start hopping the bus here, which I almost never attempt in L.A. By the time you adjust your coat and hat on the No. 14 you’ve almost reached Pike Place Market. But in Los Angeles, you could finish your novel, send it to friends for comments and get them back before you arrive at the County Museum of Art on L.A.’s Westside.
People take their coffee seriously here. I learn to order “drip” instead of regular. And to grab seats by fireplaces at Tully’s in Wallingford and Starbucks in Madison Park. A carved mantel dominates the Jewel Box Café in Northgate, seemingly plucked from a Victorian drawing room. I half expect to see Sherlock Holmes stride in, sporting silk pajamas as he puffs his trademark Calabash. I learn not to act surprised when a stranger raps on my car window to deliver a cup of joe I unknowingly balanced on my roof for three blocks.
I achieve a rapprochement of sorts with Starbucks – which drives many SoCal java joints into the ground. That includes Quel Fromage, (What a Cheese), one of the first in San Diego, famous for its long, refrigerated vats of Swiss and cheddar. Starbucks dropped two stores one block away on either side and squeezed the curds to death. Since Starbucks remains the last shining light in my ‘hood, I befriend a barista whom I dub my, “Merchant of Ventis.”
And while every L.A. coffee house brims with would-be screenwriters pecking out their scripts, this town is lousy with storytellers. I tell tales at Moth-up and check out The Verbalists, A Guide to Visitors, and Seattle Confidential, where actors read unsigned confessions. A certain south Asian son of an imam, living on the down-low with his Catholic girlfriend, performs at AGTV, and a few months later, his tale pops up at SC.
Los Angeles may be the movie-making capital, but Sea-Town rocks with one of the largest indie film fests in America. I gorge on one film daily for a month and it nearly kills me! But Seattleites are just as crazy about the written word. Just ask someone if she has seen a particular movie, and she’ll gloat, “No, I read the book!”
As December and my first year here draw to a close, I think about how our four seasons heighten the passage of time and preciousness of life. Spring here brings an explosion of cherry blossoms and daffodils. In L.A., there’s an explosion of skin as denizens show off their new implants or liposculpted abs. Here, if someone is naked in public, it’s probably because they just painted on a pinstriped suit for Fremont’s Summer Solstice Parade’s bike promenade.
Summer flips into autumn with a snap this year — temperatures plunge and the rains begin. SoCal’s liquid ambers are pale compared to the Northwest’s fire engine red maples. Overnight, two of my fuchsias die. My mind conjures the word, “poignant,” to describe the sudden hibernation of the landscape. Seattle Times reporter Lynda V. Mapes also finds the word evocative: "…to the first plangent honks of geese and tang of wood smoke and burn piles: Who can bear the poignancy of this season?"
While California’s San Diego hosts “Christmas on the Prado” with reverent carolers suffusing Balboa Park, our Figgy Pudding singers commandeer downtown streets for charity. The Beaconettes croon saucy lyrics while balancing beehive wigs festooned with lights. A Hallelujah Chorus of hard hats commands, “Join a union! Join a union!”
My heart will ache this New Year’s Eve. I’ll miss the suckers camping out on the sidewalk along Colorado Boulevard awaiting morning’s Rose Parade. I love the parade — not the one that is broadcast. Three days later, floats crawl down Pasadena’s streets, ruddered by their drivers, after headlining at the local high school. Traffic parts to salute the mobile artworks made of flower petals. It’s like seeing movie stars up close. Off-camera, they’re still beautiful, but somehow smaller and fragile.
As the year draws to a close, I can no longer avoid getting a Washington driver’s license. That’s what a uniformed person tells me. So I bring along a novel and steel myself. But the DOL office is nearly empty and my number gets called in two minutes.
The counter guy captures my portrait and shows it to me for approval. In California, they snap a mug shot suitable for posting on TMZ.
“Welcome to Washington,” he says. Welcome indeed!