The Books and Writings of
Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

  Seattle Rantings
by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

A Primer
Lunch at the Sit & Spin
A Word about Metro
Spring in Seattle
On Firm Ground
The Fish Guy
Take-Yer-Pick Weather
Roses in Rain City

A Primer

"...For the rain it raineth every day."
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

I live in the 'burbs north of the city, but work in the downtown area (Belltown, specifically, so called--for all I can figger--because it's bisected by Bell Avenue.)

If the sun set in the north, my workplace would be in the shadow of the Space Needle. It's a four-block walk to the base. Walking out of the office, I turn left, walk two blocks up to the bronze of Chief Sealth on its pedestal in a lonely triangle next to a busy street. It looks as though it was intended as a place for quiet contemplation in the midst of a concrete world, but there are no plants there, no water (except the rain), and all you can here while sitting there are the cars, the construction, the choppers (channels 4 and 7 are kitty-corner from one another, and their choppers take off and land several times a day), and--every ten minutes or so--the monorail zoofs by shuttling tourists from the Needle to the Mall and back. You smell exhaust, the salt air from the Sound, wafts of flavor from the pizzeria and the Thai food place. It's such a city place, so unlike the world the Chief knew when the land was torn from his people's grasp. It's like we've imprisoned him for all posterity. I find it a sad place, but one worthy of visiting, simply for its sheer incongruousness.

Now, March is here and winter is fleeing. Oddly, you see more umbrellas in Seattle in spring than you do in winter. In winter, there's this Seattle machismo at work on the streets. It has to be absolutely pouring before any of us (myself included) will even carry an umbrella, much less use it. In spring, though, it's warm in the sun of the afternoon. Only the early birds like myself still bundle up. Coats give way to jackets and sweaters, and those are not made for the wet and, thus, more umbrellas.

The big joke this week was that they declared the Space Needle an historic landmark. As a local comedian put it, you wouldn't think they'd have to do that. It's not like someone's planning to tear the thing down and build a Bagel World.

But it is a nice city. Walking to work, the restaurant at the top of the Needle hovers above the morning fog like some sort of UFO trying to land on the rooftops of the condo towers. The Chief has been washed clean by the night's rain, the streets look freshly laundered, and even the homeless guys waiting/sitting/sleeping outside the "Clean Start" seem...I don't know...in place, you know?


Lunch at the Sit & Spin

I took myself out to lunch today. I headed to the teriyaki place (Mom's Teriyaki, the best in Seattle) but the line was to the door, so I stopped in at the Sit & Spin.

The Sit & Spin is a laundromat/cafe that features bands and booksignings in the evenings. It's like a trip to Greenwich Village, a little corner of Bohemia right here in Seattle. I placed my order and took my Cab Calloway table marker over to an empty corner. Dark, unkempt, moody types smoked clove cigarettes in dark recesses near the jukebox and Pac-Man game while a pair of women with too-red hair sat near the poster-bandaged windows. A waitress with unshaved armpits and Birkenstocks delivered my tandoori-chicken-salad on nine-grain and took Cab away. The sandwich was divine; a hint of lavender, the tang of fresh parsley, and NO sprouts but real lettuce. A shredded cabbage salad with sesame oil dressing came with, along with out-of-the-bag tortilla rounds. It was served on an old but unchipped plate, heavy with history and kitch. The table was green marbled Formica rimmed with aluminum. The seats were vinyl.

It was Real Cool. A neat place to sit down and brood or laugh, y'know? A place to write. A place to watch the world walk by while you your laundry tumbles and your beer warms.

The Sit & Spin, in Seattle, on 4th between Bell and Blanchard.

See you there.


A Word About Metro

I've ridden the mass transit systems in a handful of cities. I grew up riding the Golden Gate Transit and Muni of San Francisco. When the time came, I rode BART (the light rail that travels under the Bay in SF). In time, I rode the buses of Jerusalem and London. I experienced the Tube. I've taken the NY Subway. Now, in Seattle, I ride Metro. I've been a bus-rider all my life, I guess. I wrote a piece a while back on my memories of those different bus systems. No one wanted to buy it, though. Maybe I'll post it here someday.

Anyway, the buses in Seattle have one thing in common that I've not discovered anywhere else. You all might have experienced it in your travels, but in my own, Seattle is unique. And that uniqueness is this: The drivers don't seem to realize that there are people on the bus. Seattle is a polite town, one of the most polite--I originally had "politest" but it looked more like a course of study--according to national surveys. We say "Please" more than folks in other cities (it's reported). We queue up for the bus. We chat with strangers. If you drop your wallet in Seattle, odds are very good you're gonna get it back, money and credit cards intact, often on the spot. And while we're not as good as Portland, OR, when it comes to people who sit at a green light without moving ahead, we're light years ahead of New York (in Portland, the lights might cycle through amber and back to red without a toot-toot from the guy behind you; in New York, they honk before the light turns green). And we say "Thank you" to the bus drivers.

You'd think in such a polite town, the bus drivers would drive in a concomitant manner, compassionate of the needs of the forty or fifty people behind them. But they don't. I've never experienced a larger percentage of "Coach Operators" who drive as if the bus were completely empty.

Ever been in the back of a panel van or pickup truck, with nothing to hold onto, while the guy driving takes off and stops at high rates of acceleration and deceleration? Know how you slide all around on that metal flooring and slam into the hard metal walls?

It's little better on a Metro bus. The articulated buses are better than the newer, smaller buses. The "ar-tiks," made in Italy, are better due to the fact that the seats are so close together front-to-back, and so narrow side-to-side, that there isn't a whole lot of room for you to slide. Unless you're standing. In that case you're up a wetland.

They drive, they stop, they corner, they change lanes, all as if in their own family Impala, driving to work instead of as work. The only time they slow down and take it easy is when then shift from diesel to electricity to enter....The Tunnel.

London has the Tube. Paris le Metro. New York has the Subway, and San Francisco has the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Seattle has...The Tunnel.

It's too short to have a real name. It only goes under the downtown area; it has no branches or spurs. It's just an underground street for buses, brought to us Seattle-ites at a cost of millions. <sigh> The buses switch from diesel to electricity to enter (no nasty fumes in OUR tunnel). This change-on-the-fly capability is what gave us the Italian "ar-tiks" (at a cost of $250,000 per). <double-sigh>

We travel the fifteen or so blocks of The Tunnel, stopping at all places mercantile, the buses all lit up on the same wires so if one bus has to stop for eight or ten minutes, so do we all. When we emerge, the buses are still wet from the rain on the other end. The drivers switch back to diesel, and are once again free to careen and carom.



You can't really talk about Seattle without at least mentioning the topic of coffee.

Seattle gave the world Starbucks. Seattle is, by all studies, the highest per capita coffee-drinking city in the US. But it's all quite a paradox. Here we have a rep for being rather laid back, instigators of casual Monday-thru-Friday, the Land of Eddie Bauer clothing, etc. Yet, we pump ourselves with more caffeine than anywhere else.

There have been a handful of companies that have tried to create successful coffee spin-offs. JOLT cola (more caffeine than caffeine), Morning Thunder tea, and a couple of über-wassers--bottled spring water with a punch of caffeine added. None of them have taken off. Thus we can deduce that it's not so much the caffeine we crave here in the City of Rust and Drizzle; it's the coffee.

You can find a barrista on any corner. There's an espresso machine in pizza parlors, delis, oil-lube shops, department stores, bookstores, hardware stores. There's a Starbucks or SBC (Seattle's Best Coffee) in every mall and shopping center. There are drive-by espresso shacks along main arterials. You can't NOT get a cup of joe in the morning.

And then there's the brands. There's Starbucks, SBC, Torrefazione, D'Arte, Mills, and a host of others. (Coffee D'Arte is the best, in my opinion, but also the hardest to find.) With such a bewildering array of choices, you might think that the market had overloaded us, that we'd become coffee zombies. But we haven't. We're very particular about what kind we like. I've known people who have quit a deli cold turkey and taken up with another shop, simply because they've changed their brand of coffee.

In the morning you can find us all lined up--on foot or in our cars--waiting on our favorite barrista for our own special brew.

I used to dream, as a child, of being grown up and going to my neighborhood drinking hole. I'd say hello to familiar faces and wave at friends across the dark-paneled room. I'd put a cheek on the barstool and say to the tender, who knew me by name, "The usual," and he'd know what it was and would have it ready.

As with all dreams, however, the reality is a little different. It's not a bar, but a deli. It's not dark and smoky, but bright and clean. It's not the end of a hard day but the beginning of a new one, and it's not a large aproned man but a small, red-haired barrista. But when I walk in, I already hear the sound of the steam jets in milk. I don't even have to say "The usual." It's already there. My triple grande no room Americano, freshly-made (hot but drinkable) and all capped and strapped and ready to go out the door.

The dream gave me comfort in my youth. The reality does the same for me now.


Spring in Seattle

It's in the spring that you realize just how many deciduous trees there are here. We're called "The Evergreen State" and, true, we do have a lot of evergreens. Forests full. But when springtime rolls around, I'm always surprised at the percentage of trees that aren't conifers.

In the summer, you don't notice because everything's green. Light green, dark green, yellow green, emerald green. All green.

In the fall, since not all the deciduous trees go into that wintry night with as much glory as maples, it doesn't seem like there's that many, and they all seem clumped together in certain regions (though driving up the Cascade Highway in October can be a stupendous trip).

In the winter, of course, the dormant trees are invisible against the background. Only the evergreens stand out, and they're always green.

In the spring, though, as they all wake up, you can look out and see the patchwork of colors. The reds, pinks, whites, and yellows of flowering fruit trees mix with the vibrant, untried greens of just-born leaves. The pale blossoms of the cherries are right on time here, as are the pinks of plum and apple trees. The hawthornes bristle with rose, and the dogwoods push out whites and reds. The willow birches lay out tendrils of yellow. The maples have their little purple trumpets. The acacias and poplars and elms sport tiny new leaves and look like they're covered with green lace. The oaks are stay-a-beds, but have finally started to bud in pale yellow green. Add to all this the flowers of oleanders and azaleas, the heathers and heaths and Scotch broom, and you have a quilt of color that covers the city when seen from the hills. It seems that a full half of the trees are deciduous and waking from their sleep. Pollen is everywhere; the air is lousy with it. We are having a four to five day spread without rain, and come Sunday, when the storm comes, the water in my rainbarrels will be murky with yellow dust.

For now, though, the sun is bright, and the towering banks of clouds are staying out over the Sound. The winds are light, and the birds are singing. It's Springtime in Seattle.



I was looking out the window today and began counting the modes of transportation that I could see. It was around 2:00 PM PST, on a cloudy Wednesday (with sunbreaks...<g>). Here's what I saw in a ten-minute period:

  • Pedestrians
  • Bicycles
  • Motorcycles
  • Cars
  • Taxis
  • Trucks
  • Buses
  • Monorail
  • Trains
  • Trolleys
  • Jets
  • Private planes
  • Helicopters
  • Seaplanes
  • Motorboats
  • Sailboats
  • Water taxi
  • Ferry boats
  • Commercial ships and tankers

These are things that are on, above, or near our streets and in use for every day transportation. Most of these exist in any city. Some of the others exist, too, in a city here and a city there.

I'd wager that you won't find them ALL in any city except Seattle (with the possible exception of Hong Kong).


On Firm Ground

We learned yesterday that my parents want to come for a short visit in late May. They've been up here before, but this will be the first visit in our new (boughten) house and not some place where we can blame this or that on the landlord, so there's a smidgen of pressure here to make a good impression. (Still, I don't know that I'll have the time to mud and tape and sand and paint the utility room before they arrive....sigh).

Anyway, what does this have to do with Seattle? I'll tell ya.

My father hates driving in Seattle. The reason? He says he can never tell whether or not he's on the ground. It's true, too. Seattle, you see, is situated on seven hills between three lakes, two bays, and a sound. It has four major bridges, and about ten minor ones, in the metro area. Coming down into the city you're on an overpass, then on an elevated freeway, then a bridge, then another overpass, then a tunnel....you get the idea.

During their last visit I rented a van and we all went drive-about. We were on the express lanes, in a tunnel of sorts, under the main freeway. My dad looks out the window and sees that we're really on a bridge. That's when he made his pronouncement about driving in this city. You just can't tell, here.


The Fish Guy

Continuing with our Seattle thread for those folks out there who are geographically-challenged (read as "not from here"), it is my sad duty to inform you all that this month we saw the last of a man who was, in all estimation, a man among fish.

Yes, as all you locals know, this month The Fish Guy retired. <awww.wav>

For those of you who don't know, The Fish Guy was a true piece of Seattle-ana. He worked at the Pike Place Market: a long, three-storey building perched gingerly on the side of the hill overlooking Puget Sound. The building holds on to the hillside with creaky wooden arms, as if fearful of slipping down onto the waterfront.

It was originally built in the early part of this century as a farmer's market, and the upper portion of it has remained precisely that to this day. Kiosks and stalls in the central portion are filled with vegetables, flowers, fish, meat, bread, fungi, preserves, pastries, and a hundred other things. Towards the edges are the craftspersons, the newstands, the perfumers, the silkscreen artists, everything. The lower storeys have cafes, importers, antiques, and more of everything.

Back up at the street level, under the clock and the Pike Place Market sign, is Pike Place Fish, and it is here that The Fish Guy used to work.

I don't know his name. I don't care to know it. He has always been The Fish Guy. He was the manager of Pike Place Fish, and though he did not start it, he did perfect (imho) the art of Fish Throwing.

Stand out front near the sad-eyed fish and the blushing crustaceans in their beds of ice and The Fish Guy would come up to you, his hands tucked into the string of his apron and his fisherman boots squeaking on the wet cobbles underfoot. "Questions? I got answers." You would ask him about this or that fish, about that or this method of preparation. He'd advise, but never bully; cajole, but not embarrass. You'd be drawn into the act, laughing as you wandered from the pale trout and white cod over to the Really Good Stuff--the wild salmon, the fresh albacore, and the half-extended geoducks. Eventually you would give in and indicate the appointed fish. Then came one last question.

"Fileted or whole?"

"Whole," you'd say.

The Fish Guy would grab this arm-long wild King salmon. He'd plant his feet and shout "WRAP IT!" The men behind the counter would echo his command. "WRAP IT!" they'd shout, and then the salmon would fly. The Fish Guy would throw your fish from where he stood next to you on the sidewalk, over the beds of ice-blanketed fish, over the refrigerated cases behind them, and into the waiting hands of one of the men behind the counter, thence to be weighed, rolled, and wrapped.

This was The Fish Guy. He had been at Pike Place Fish for 25 years, having gotten the job after being laid off as a machinist at Boeing. It is estimated that during his tenure he has thrown some 500,000 fish. I find that a conservative estimate. He was always there, at PPF. Six days a week, 10 hours a day, playing the character for the tourists, and pointing the locals to What Is Good Today. Last summer, he blew a disk in his back and had to give up throwing salmon. Only crabs, clams, and scallops. This year, even that proved too much, and this month, The Fish Guy retired. Luckily for the rest of us, PPF goes on, the torch has been passed to a younger generation, and on any given day down at Pike Place Market, fish still fly.

Now THAT's Seattle.


Take-Yer-Pick Weather

There is a two week period here in Seattle where you need just about every type of clothing cover-up you have. It is the period between the summer solstice and the Fourth of July. During this period--for some reason unknowable to humankind--we get just about every type of weather, often on the same day.

Already since the 21st we have had:

  • blue skies
  • grey skies
  • unseasonal heat
  • unseasonal cold
  • high winds
  • dead calms
  • bright sunshine
  • gullywashing rains
  • fog
  • drizzle
  • claustrophobic humidity and
  • sultry nights
  • mild, comfortable days with a
  • wonderful light breeze

Today I needed a heavy coat, an umbrella, a light shirt, and sunglasses. Sometimes we have a pleasant 4th of July. Sometimes it rains. 50-50 chance, historically.

And it's ALWAYS been this way. Always during this fortnight.

So, what did I do? I planned a barbeque for this weekend. Won't I ever learn?


Roses in Rain City

It is the case that in Seattle, raising roses is, even under the best of circumstances, a challenge. Due to our famous rainy climate, it is very difficult to get good quality roses to bloom. Sure, we have the Woodland Park Rose Garden and it always seems to be FULL of roses, but remember that they have an army of gardeners looking out after the poor dears, and also remember that there are several THOUSAND of those poor dears, and just by the law of averages they're gonna get some good ones.

But roses like heat, and they like sun, and we usually only get those two for a handful of days at a time (and usually only on the weekdays <G>). Those few days of sun and warmth are enough to encourage tender buds to begin to color up and show their faces. Then comes the rain and it shuts them down like Kenneth Starr and they just ball up and molder. That crop is dead, and the patient--ever-patient gardener must trim the carnage and wait until the next flush of begins to bloom.

Spring is always like that. So is June. And most of July. We usually don't get a good shot at some good blooms until late August/early September.

Now, however, as the mid- and south-West burn in a terrible heat, we here have perfect rose weather. Naturally, I hate it and can't wait until it rains again. But the roses are coming on strong. Even our Sterling Silvers, a hybrid that is always puny and finicky.



All contents ©2001-2010 Kurt R.A. Giambastiani