I have come to realize that knowing a place – having walked it – gives me a small sense of dominion over it. That having wandered the streets of Punta Arenas and learning where to get the best hot cocoa (Chocolata, on Carlos Bories), or a shaved ice rhubarb sour (La Perla, around the corner from Mesita Grande), or where the secret “birds nest” trees are (not telling) give me the feeling of having added it to some empire of the mind. An empire which I can recall at will and roam freely.
Remembering the taste of those little cups of cherry juice dispensed by vendors who stalk Sultan Ahmet park on summer afternoons gives me some small dominion over Istanbul. As does knowing the path down the steps in the museum leading to a dim, unremarkable room where the stone with the Siloam Inscription is kept. Or the smell of the spice market, or the narrow two-story grilled fish restaurants that line the little alley north of Yenikapi.
Perhaps that explains my wanderlust, my appetite for new places, for always preferring the unfamiliar way home: I am in some ways an Alexander in my mind, always hungry for conquest of knowledge of the next city, of the next civilization to add to my dominion of experience. In my mind it’s a benign conquest, nominally mutually beneficial (But then, don’t all conquerors believe that what they do is for the best? I’ll plead that, unlike Alexander, at least, I do make an effort to only go where I am welcome.)
I first set foot in Seattle and began my conquest of the Pacific Northwest just about this time 36 years ago. I was a college senior and the University of Washington had admitted me to their graduate program in Computer Science. I knew nothing about Seattle then – nobody I knew did. Wasn’t that where it rained all the time? Alaska Airlines was how you got there. Alaska Airlines. It had to be way out on the frontier of civilization.
I flew out from Newark on the heels of a visit to Princeton (the only other grad school that had accepted me) that was so disastrously bad that it was hilarious, even at the time. I’ll spare you those details.
The winter sun was disappearing in the west as the big jet with that weird guy painted on the tail descended into the sunset-pinked undercast; the rest of our ride to the tarmac was somewhere between rock tumbler and car wash. In the airport terminal (once I’d peeled myself out of the seat), everyone looked strange to me – different clothes, different ways of moving. Faces different in ways I couldn’t put my finger on.
I remember the taxi ride to where I was staying that night – my old roommate’s kid sister shared a house with friends in Queen Anne. The driver – I remember him having a Bengali accent – hunched to peer through the windshield as though it were a periscope, wipers flapping at top speed doing little to clear the way forward. Helluva storm, I offered. Oh no, he said (and you have to imagine this in that Bengali accent), this is normal. I could have been on another continent.
And I remember sprinting up the steps to Suzie’s, feeling the rain engulf me so quickly that I momentarily worried whether there might be a point where I became too waterlogged to ascend further. But there were dry towels when I rang the bell, and a real bed, courtesy an out-of-town roommate.
When I pulled the shutters back in the stillness of the morning that followed, the clear blue winter sky barged in revealing a postcard writ large: green all the way down the hill to where a ferry plied the water below. And beyond it, the glistening white ragged shark-tooth smile of the Olympics. I believe I remember actually saying just one word aloud then, just to myself: Home.
I was a Seattleite from 1985 to 1992, not counting the surreal year living in Tokyo, and in that time, I relished expanding my small sense of dominion over this quirky city that was garnering increasing (and to me unwanted) attention from the world at large. I learned back ways around the Burke-Gilman trail where you could always find overlooked blackberries, could tell the story of the Fremont Rocket (and the Republic of Fremont itself, for that matter). Knew where the best hot cocoa was to be had in the U District. Knew and frequented the dive clubs where, unbeknownst to me, this thing called “grunge” was fermenting (and yes, back then, I did get picked up once by the rhythm guitarist in a band called “The Skirts”).
Even back then, it seemed like everyone wanted to be the last person to move to Seattle, and by the time I moved on, much of what I knew of the city had already changed out from under my feet.
I swung back through this morning. I had to drop Jeremiah off at SeaTac at 6:00 am for his 7:30 flight back to school in Missouri. We’d driven up together from Palo Alto, stopping at some more of my favorite small dominions along the way (Trinity Lake for a petrified wood ramble, Ashland for pastries, Portland for sushi). Then had a particularly good father-son week, puttering around the farm, cooking locally-grown food and getting suitably lost in the woods.
Jem needs to be back east to start a six month co-op at Nucor-Yamato Steel next week, so off we went at oh-god-thirty in the morning. The obvious thing to do after I’d dropped him off was turn around, drive straight back to the farm and see if I could find those extra four hour of missing sleep somewhere.
But Seattle. A whole city of memories.
So I instead turned the car northward and wove my way up back streets in the pre-dawn glow. Past Boeing Field, where I earned my pilots license, and from which so many adventures were launched (Oh, don’t even get me started!). Along the unrecognizable waterfront (the viaduct gone, gone, gone, but Ye Olde Curiosity Shop will surely outlive the apocalypse). Up around Seattle Center, trailing memories of what stood there before their crazy 1990’s building spree. Weren’t there bleachers right here, and a lawn where we spread our blankets out one Bumbershoot and danced to Kanda Bongo Man until we couldn’t even breathe? Over Queen Anne and across the Fremont Bridge – what was the name of that dive of a burger place, long since burned down, just on the south side?
The concrete commuters still wait for the Interurban, and Dusty Strings (“by appointment only”) still graces Fremont Ave, but other than that I didn’t recognize a thing. This small sampling of my empire of memory had been overthrown, sacked by the march of time.
I reminisced aloud to the woman at the counter when I picked out a book (Day Hikes in the San Juans – a wishful purchase if ever there was one). Mused that it was probably summer of 1986 that I was lurking around this neighborhood hoping in vain to run into someone I’d met on a bike trip. Someone who’d told me she worked there. The woman behind the counter smiled, seemed to appreciate the unexpected confession, then looked embarrassed. “I wasn’t born yet, then,” she explained.
As Alexander’s empire crumbled from neglect, so has mine, this small dominion of places that no longer exist. Many others as well, no doubt. The Tokyo I remember must be entirely unrecognizable. The house I grew up in is gone, as is the one I lived in that last year of college. Their dominions are unrooted, like cities swallowed by desert sand.
It is just as well, I suppose. Both the Buddha and the Stoics are big on letting things like this go. The world is large and, barring the unexpected, once COVID passes there should yet be opportunities to conquer and establish a few new small dominions in the time I have left.