Sunday, October 16, 2011

The pink house on Summit Avenue, late 1960s


There is a theory that every person has a psychic spot in a room. The theory works something like this: you walk around the room, sit in different places, try them out until you find the spot that feels right for you. The hippies say its vibrations. Maybe it is. I don’t think there is a word for that but I believe it. If this is true of rooms it is also true of cities, streets and houses. Eventually through trial and error we find “our” spot in the room and if we’re lucky, we find our city.

Have you ever walked past a building and got a chill up your spine? You didn’t know what it was but you knew there was something wrong with that house. You knew you didn’t want to live there though you didn’t know why. On the other hand there are houses that feel right. The pink house on Summit Avenue in Seattle was like that.

There was nothing outstanding about it. It was an old, pink house that had been converted into apartments and housekeeping rooms. Maybe it was the porch that drew me, maybe the lilacs in the yard, maybe the crumbling concrete steps leading up to it. Whatever it was the house gave me a good feeling and I moved into one of the rooms the next day.
The room I lived in looked like the room in Van Gogh’s paintings. The colors weren’t the same but it didn’t matter. It was like the “Yellow House” at Arles and I was comfortable.

It’s a good thing the landladies weren’t suspicious of their tenants for a lot of strange people lived in that house. Larry for example; a stocky college student. The kind that would read Reader’s Digest Condensed books and take speed-reading courses. Always up on the latest. The only thing wrong with him was that he used to talk to himself. No, that’s not true. He shouted to himself - mostly four-letter words on Sunday afternoons.

Then there was Demon Rum. That wasn’t her name, of course, but I called her that because she had a demon and she didn’t drink rum. Two or three nights a week she would beat on the floor with her cane and scream, “Get out! Get out!” She told me matter of factly that she had to chase the demons out periodically.

Then there was the Gleaming Torso. He was a narcissistic young man infatuated with his own body. As soon as the snow melted, he’d peel off his shirt and wander around the building and yard half-naked. He had a beautiful body but it got depressing after a while. There’s something depressing about an oiled, sunburned torso in March.

I felt nothing could go wrong in that house. Though my Dad said the building was a fire trap I knew the building would never burn down. Though I couldn’t get theft insurance in that neighborhood I knew I’d never be ripped off.

When the landlady said she had a larger apartment upstairs for the same price I jumped at it. I decided to move after I’d come home late from a party.

Have you ever moved when you were drunk in the middle of the night? Have you ever dragged bookcases up two flights of stairs at 3 o’clock in the morning? Have you ever tried to carry a tray of silverware up the stairs without a knife or fork falling out and clattering down to the bottom? By the time I finished moving I felt entitled to the place. I had worked for it and I had won it.

What can you say about an apartment that was made for you and you only? I can attempt to describe it - I could tell you that the apartment was a labyrinth of tiny, multi-colored rooms with Alice-In-Wonderland doorways and beaded curtains. I could tell you that the ceilings sloped, that there were three attics and that each attic had a round window like a port hole. I used to sit by the round windows and watch them tear the old houses down across the street, muttering four-letter words at the destroyers all the while I watched.

I could tell you that the refrigerator was green. I could tell you there was a small, faded Oriental carpet in the kitchen. I could tell you that the kitchen was like the interior of “The African Queen” and also like a cathedral. I could tell you that the windows were very tiny and rattled in the wind and that the sills were rotting and that it didn’t matter. I could tell you about the chronically damp pink rug in the bathroom and the sink that no one could fix. I could tell you that I could see Queen Ann Hill from my bedroom window, that I could lay on my tummy and look out and watch the snow fill the city until all the buildings looked like ferry boats lost in the fog.

I could tell you how the whole apartment swayed in the wind like a house in a treetop. I could tell you how I fixed it up, how everything I owned went with the place, even the print by Chagall. I could tell you about the winding staircase that lead to the apartment and that each step had a different colored rug nailed to it. I could tell you that it was like climbing Rock Candy Mountain. I could tell you how the room looked when I lit candles and listened to “Carmina Burana”, with or without a lover. I could tell you all these things and still be unable to tell you how it felt to live there.

Or I could tell you about the people. I could tell you about David and the way he’d thunder up the stairs when his drama class was over at Seattle Central Community College. I could tell you about our puppy, Louise or about that hilarious morning when Carl slept over because he got drunk and couldn’t get home on his own. We all had jobs to go to and had only slept an hour when the alarm clock rang. We stumbled around with hang-overs and Louise got hold of Carl’s socks and ran under the couch and how we all laughed because we felt so terrible and because we were friends. I could tell you more about David and how the first time I saw him he was falling off a barstool but that’s another story.

I could tell you about my dad, how he came to nail the windows shut and about the fire alarm he brought for me that could be attached to the wall. I could tell you about the man who took me away and how he hated the place at first sight. Perhaps he hated it because it was mine.

I tried to rent the apartment back from time to time. I walked by it periodically and looked up at the tiny spun-sugar windows I used to lean out of in laughter when I called to David on his way to classes and I’m pretty sure I saw the Gleaming Torso sitting on the porch a bitter day last March. The apartment I wanted back was never available again.

Update: October 16, 2011 – the pink house has been gone for many years.

A page from the past

The farewell party held for former PI employees made me think of the Titanic, of the band that played to the end before sinking into the sea forever. Perhaps that’s because The Seattle Post Intelligencer was akin to that great ship – no one thought it would ever go down. There weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone. Yes, there are survivors.

Freelancers were invited as were the employees, former employees and their families; the media was not. I dithered as to whether or not I should go. Though I’d written a column for 13 years as a free-lance writer I still felt like an outsider. I knew only two employees, one I had never met in person yet I was compelled to attend.

The employees didn’t know – and it doesn’t matter now – that my grandfather, Edwin J. Dalby wrote a column for the PI back in the 1930s, early 1940s nor that my parents met there. It didn’t matter that I’d applied there for a secretarial position in the early 1990s and almost got hired. I’d wanted to work for the PI more than anything in the world.

When that phone call came from GJ back in 1996 asking if I’d like to try my hand at writing “Hike of the Week” I thought it was a joke but he’d read my writing in regional magazines and liked my style. An opportunity to write for the PI was one no writer could resist.

We didn’t know the column would last 13 years; neither of us knew that the PI had already struck an iceberg in the dark, the beginning of the digital age. The damage would only be discovered too late. The ship sailed bravely on in the fog of a new age.

The ship began taking on water in the early 2000s. By then I was no longer sending diskettes, slides and negatives to GJ. Digital cameras replaced the Pentax, the Kodak slides, the strips of negatives. That was heady stuff. Little did we know that the digital era was the perfect storm, enough to sink a great ship like the Seattle Post Intellencer, just one of floundering ships in a sea of pixels and html.

Was it 2005 or later that we felt the first shudders of our sinking craft? Bravely, we carried on, meeting our deadlines. I still scrounged the bottom of the literal barrel looking for winter hikes to write up and pickings were slim. I’d beg GJ for ideas; he always came through.

The digital cameras improved, the dinosaur of dial-up replaced by broadband and other means of doing everything faster and faster. We noticed that the PI seemed to be ailing, getting skinnier by the day; some of the columnists had fallen overboard. I was still in the lifeboat; still believing, hoping we wouldn’t go down.

Then, a sinister change - an on-line edition stealthily appeared on The Internet. My columns – as were other columnists – were in the printed edition as well as on-line but I didn’t pay much attention to the on-line edition. I barely glanced at all the digital photographs in the on-line edition; I was too busy writing a column. But the printed edition continued to shrink as the on-line edition grew.

In January we knew our vessel had been struck a lethal blow. We knew we were going down but the band played on. Business as normal was the word that came down from the powers-that-be. That’s what you do when a ship goes down. You just carry on. Climb into a lifeboat if you can and if not, help other survivors and if you go down hope you are brave until the end.

There were not enough lifeboats for everyone. Only a few survived this disaster, the ones that “got it” early on and forged ahead into the digital age, unafraid of the creation of ever-faster technological devices. Word came down to me weeks before that my column was “dead”; it hadn’t got enough on-line “clicks”. That hurt; I didn’t even know that my future had depended on the number of clicks from on-line readers.

There were a lot of people at the party; they were resolute and hearty though you could see the distance in their eyes. I met JE, tall as a captain who gently said he was cutting all ties and moving on. He said he was one of the lucky ones. He was ready to retire. I watched DH, dashing in a tuxedo. We listened to DH and his band play “Twist and Shout” in the lounge. People were dancing, I tapped my feet in rhythm to the music, looking in on a world I’d had only a glimpse of.

I met DM, a warm and charming man. I met JO and told him how much I loved his recipes, especially his oyster stew. I saw AT and like DG, my guest and “date”, was surprised he was so tall. We’d both imagined him being short.

A wall was lined with photographs taken by the paper’s employees – they would go in an auction to the highest bidder. I wanted all of them. There were artifacts – an old canvas bag used by a paper carrier. There was food and drink– but I wasn’t hungry. I felt almost faint, feverish, swooning in the voices of the growing crowd, their voices rising and falling like waves on a shore.

Faces stood out in the crowd; faces of people I wish I’d known. Who was that old man that resembled George Bernard Shaw sitting on a bench, his gnarled hands gripping a polished wooden cane? Who was the slightly rumpled PI employee wearing an apron with faded lettering reading “The Seattle Post Intelligencer”? I spotted a photographer I recognized from a photograph but did not know. Too shy to speak, I gazed at him, hoping he’d gaze back.

As the night wore on people were dancing, laughing, embracing, reminiscing but with their eyes still on the horizon, looking ahead, not back. Though we didn’t know many of these fine folks, we belonged there too. We, too, would climb out of the lifeboat determined to survive.

Last fall while strolling through Warren G. Magnuson Park with my camera, I spotted something red and shiny nearly hidden in a thicket of brambles. It was two abandoned newspaper boxes. Empty, bent, broken and crumpled – one for The Seattle Post Intelligencer, the other for The Seattle Times. For some odd reason I felt compelled to take a photograph. I posted the photo of the box for The Seattle Post Intelligencer when I knew it was dying.

I haven’t posted the image of The Seattle Times’ battered box. The Seattle Times is still hanging on; I hope they can ride out the storm.

Update: October 16, 2011

The Seattle Times is still sailing; so am I.


The late 1960s, early 1970s

Late 1960s, The Tenderloin (San Francisco)

HH was a refuge for outcasts of any kind, sex, age. Doctor B was a priest on call, a gentle man who wore big glasses with dark frames who spoke with a quiet voice. SK was an ex-motorcycle gang member who stood in the door at the meeting, glaring at life, watching everyone behind dark glasses, his mouth a bruise. He was the watchman who lived in a room downstairs

HH- where the outcasts, the displaced, uprooted and lost converged in a soup of lust, hope and heartbreak. During the day when the world went about its business we’d gather inside and sit in the shadows to talk or listen to “The White Rabbit” by The Jefferson Airplane. In those days I wore high heels. I had two mini-skirts and a suitcase full of poetry. I’d come from The Tenderloin, a neighborhood of dread and darkness, where glass and blood glittered on the street, where the rooms of hotels had broken locks and rage was so thick you could reach out and touch it.

In the mornings a coffee shop on the edge of the Tenderloin became a place for cheap, plentiful breakfasts. It was where I watched a pimp that looked like a movie star buy breakfast for his whores. They liked him. They teased him, flirted with him, he laughed with them, they bantered gently. I was afraid he would look at me or catch my eye. I knew that if he ever caught my eye I would be his, I’d sit at that table and joke with the whores, waiting for him to praise or cajole, I imagined his wallet, fat with wadded up bills.

I was with SK then in a terrible hotel, the name, like SK almost forgotten. Walking down the hall you could see that most doors, many without numbers, had been broken or kicked in, repaired again, broken again in an endless cycle of impotent rage. The hallways were dark and smelled of failure. SK initially my savior became my destroyer. When I arrived shaken and penniless at HH, a gathering place for the homeless, addicted or poor SK was a member of the staff and lived on the premises in a cavernous room without windows; the walls were painted black and glowed with Day Glo paint - lime green, pink, orange. The room was like being inside the skull of a lunatic yet there was peace in that room the first time SK held me and said he’d protect me.

During the day we’d all arrange ourselves around the walls of the recreational area where group therapy meetings were held. There was a smaller room where those who didn’t want to mingle could sit, talk or weep like the barefoot girl that looked like Mia Farrow who wore white dresses and wept every day. She’d look up from time to time with red eyes brimming with tears, a silent boyfriend at her side. I never knew why she was crying.

I had long legs, high heels, two dresses and a suitcase full of my poetry to my name. The third dress, the red dress was thrown away; I’d worn it the day I was raped and locked in a room waiting to die. A pink clock radio on the window sill played songs from the late 60s; I knew I would never hear those songs again. He put clean sheets on the bed, pulled a nylon stocking over his face but before he touched me I entered a strange state, almost as if I were outside my body. Afterwards we talked; we lie together smoking, talking. A limbic wisdom took hold of my tongue as I told him I was glad he had forced me to “make love” because it had felt good. Almost shy he said, maybe we could do it again, sometime. Would you go out with me sometime? he asked, still smoking. Yes, I said carefully, as I casually and slowly got dressed again, loathing to wear the red satin dress that made me his target in the first place. “I really need to get going”, I said casually, “see you later”. “OK” he said, still smoking, lying on the bed. Downstairs was a restaurant; I called the police, my knees shaking. By the time they came he was gone; the cops were kind.

At the hospital they said they couldn’t do anything for me. My knees were shaking, I said I was going crazy, that I had no place to go, no money, no insurance. Again they said they couldn’t do anything for me. I sat in the lobby in my red dress, still clutching my poetry. Exhausted I crawled into a broom closet to sleep; it was in the middle of the night, there were few people about. Just as I was drifting off the door opened, the light poured in like acid and a man said, “Lady, you can’t sleep here, this isn’t a charity ward.”

I sat in a hard green plastic chair in the falsely cheerful lobby. Two black men came in; one of them had been hurt; a bloody bandage wrapped around his head. We talked, I told them what happened to me, that I didn’t know anyone in the city, they said I could stay with them and they wouldn’t hurt me. I said “OK”. As we left the hospital I noticed broken glass all over the sidewalk, glittering like colored sugar. A wraith-like fog, cold and sour as spite drifted through the streets and around the fog-shrouded buildings as we drove, seemingly for hours to a decaying Victorian mansion. We walked up the creaking steps and into a sullen kitchen where other men were gathered around a rickety table playing cards. They pointed to another room and said, “You can sleep in there, we won’t bother you.” I went into the bedroom in my red dress and fell asleep without taking off my shoes.

When I woke in the morning the men were gone. I walked down the stairs and out onto the sagging porch, staring down into the molten gold of San Francisco city early in the morning. I didn’t know where I was going so I headed for the light.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Work Boots

One of my earliest memories was waking up to the sound of Dad’s work boots clumping across the kitchen floor, accompanied by the comforting sound of percolating coffee. I was probably four years old. I grew accustomed to those sounds until I was old enough to leave home. Dad was a morning person – even on weekends he’d get up at the regular time to get the morning paper and a second cup of coffee. In my teen years Dad and I grew silent as Mom was not a morning person and in my Dad’s words came out of the bedroom with the “wounded elk” look. Mom didn’t warm up until she’d had her first cup of tea and a cigarette, followed by the oatmeal Dad made every morning (I refused to eat it), a piece of toast and fried eggs with wiry edges.

Dad worked in the Bremerton ship yards during the Second World War and prior to that, worked on tugboats. When he left the Bremerton ship yards he worked in various boat yards on Lake Union including Blanchards. His life and his work revolved around ships as did his paintings of tug boats and square-riggers with full sail on storm-tossed seas. Growing up we always had a dory or a skiff – I never learned to swim but loved to row around the bay owned by my grandparents in the 1950s (today the property is owned by my grandparent’s descendants – that’s another long story). Though it would have been impossible to fall out of the boat I was not allowed to row out of the bay unless I wore a heavy life-jacket. That life-jacket remains to this day a symbol of helplessness and a sense of being “different”. Everyone in the family learned to swim except me. As I reflect upon those days I believe that ancient life-jacket would not have saved my life anyway, it would have carried me to the bottom of the bay.

When President John F. Kennedy was shot we were living in Edmonds. After listening to the familiar scuffle of Dad’s work boots I was called upstairs to watch the morning news. In my somewhat over-protected world I found it hard to believe that such events could happen. My grandmother (the feisty grandmother who immigrated to America in the early 1900s) loved Kennedy and clipped out a photo of John F. Kennedy and Jackie – it was scotch-taped to the kitchen wall until it yellowed so much it wasn’t recognizable.

Before we moved to Edmonds we lived in Ballard on West 63rd Street. I’ve tried to locate that house in vain; the streets/houses have changed so much that finding it was a wild goose-chase. This was during the nuclear fall-out nightmare scenarios – in school we endured drills where we crouched under our wooden desks in a vain attempt to survive the potential doom. This made me anxious as it did many of the other children. My neighborhood pal, Alan, and I created what we believed to be “safer” hiding places, secret niches carved out of walls of blackberry behind an old shed.

A couple of other circumstances caused me to have a nervous breakdown when I was eight. Perhaps my nervous disposition started when I was about six – perhaps I was simply born “sensitive” as they used to say in those days. Mom had a nervous disposition and often took sedatives and long naps. Like me, she had a lot of fears and like me; she was born at the wrong time.

Born in the early 1900s she was a natural “beauty” and the most popular girl in Whitefish Montana where she was raised. Grandpa worked for the Great Northern Railroad in the round-house until he retired. Grandma was known for her victory garden and her canning abilities, skills that I never acquired or desired. Mom was an only child, I’m an only child and my daughter is an only child (we are approaching the end of our gene pool but that may be more blessing than a curse). When grandpa met my grandmother he proposed with these words, “Anna, I don’t have much to offer you but my hands will work for you the rest of our lives”. She accepted.

Mom married the first time after knowing her husband to-be only two weeks. They met at a dance in Troy, Montana. Troy and his dad operated a gold-mine (I have no inkling of where that mine would have been located). I have photographs of Mom standing near the mine, boot-deep in snow and stunningly beautiful. Mom’s husband went by the name of “Spud”, I don’t know his real name except his last name was “White”. Spud was good-looking – they made a handsome pair. Unfortunately Spud was no-good and would rather spend time at the dance hall and with other women than be at home with Mom. When she became pregnant she had an abortion because she knew he was “no good” and in those days she wouldn’t have been able to provide for a child on her own. Getting an abortion in those days wasn’t talked about in polite society; abortions were shameful and kept hidden. As for me, I was – and am still sad that I don’t have a half-brother as I hated being an only child. She’d been pregnant long enough she knew the fetus was a boy. I don’t know whether or not Spud ever knew. Over time Spud grew belligerent and mean – beating her up when he felt she needed it. She left him and moved to Seattle to work as a secretary at The Seattle Post Intelligencer. That’s where she met Dad but that’s a story I’ll talk about later.

I never got to know either of my grandfathers. Grandpa on Mom’s side didn’t like children or at least, they made him irritable and edgy. I barely remember him except as a curmudgeon sitting in their Whitefish house scowling over a newspaper or smoking a pipe. I was a little afraid of him he was so dour (it turns out he had good reason to be). Since grandpa worked for The Great Northern Mom had a lifetime pass to ride the railroad without cost. I believe Dad and I were also allowed to ride free but am not certain of that. I do remember riding on the train from Seattle to Montana to visit the grandparents when I was very small. I loved riding on the train (I still do). The seats were plusher than they are today and in those days the black porters were kind and gentle with children (who knows how those black porters really felt in the 1940s?). I even remember eating in the dining cars with their tablecloths and roses in vases and linen napkins. Once the Kootenai River flooded the tracks and we had to wait on the train until the river receded. It was spooky sitting on the railroad tracks surrounded by brown water; perhaps that’s where my lifelong nightmares about drowning began to occur. Then, the slow lurch of the train, as it finally began to move again through the standing water.

Sometime during that period I woke up in my grandparent’s house in darkness and saw Mom standing behind the woodstove weeping and sobbing. She was wearing a long white nightgown but I could make her out. I kept asking her why she was crying; she never told me or if she did, I’ve forgotten.

For reasons I will never know Mom grew afraid of being alone at night. When Dad got a night-shift job she had such a difficult time with her phobia that unbeknownst to me came up with a plan that changed my life. She went back to work as a stenographer (that’s what they called them in the 1940s) and booked a room at the YWCA (Dad was working nights). She didn’t know what to do with me (I’m assuming that she could not take me with her to the “Y”) so she took me on the train to visit the grandparents in Montana. Here, my memory falters but I know that I went into shock of some kind when I was told that Mom had gone back to Seattle without telling me. Later in life, Mom told me she thought she was being “kind” by not telling me she was leaving because I had grown so attached to her.

According to grandma I went into an immediate asthma attack (they thought it was a cold at the time) and had such a sense of loss (and fear) that I could barely function. Grandpa was trying to quit smoking and was extremely irritable and Grandma did the best she could. There’s much I don’t remember about those terrible days but I remember sitting on the floor in their living room and being allowed to play with grandma’s “button” box and cutting out paper dolls.

There is a photograph that grandma took of me standing in their garden; I am wearing a knitted scarf and trying to hide my face. I remember the sun was shining in my eyes so brightly that it hurt and did cover my eyes as the shutter clicked. In another photo from that time Grandpa and I are standing on a huge dump of snow left over from winter; I don’t look happy, neither does Grandpa. I also remember walking to the dime store in Whitefish with Grandma; something set me off and I had a tantrum. Grandma took me home and washed out my mouth with soap, a normal procedure in those times.

Eventually (the dates are lost) the three of us were reunited and we returned to the little house in Ballard. I remember my 8th birthday but not my 7th.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Falling Down The Rabbit Hole

My father never learned to write a check. He was an intelligent, creative man but lacked the money for a better education. Mom worked as a secretary on and off - when she needed to (or wanted to escape the house) to bolster Dad's income. We got by. When I was growing up in Edmonds we were not the only family to drive "beater" cars but that was when Edmonds was a small town and you could still walk on a real beach and collect driftwood. I barely graduated from high school - I was more interested in getting married (the other options were few and far between - in the late 1950s and 60s). Not only was marrying young an option, I'd fallen in love and that marriage was an honest mistake. This isn't where I wanted to start this blog - where I would like to start is where I am now at the ripe age of 68. My head is so full of clutter it is difficult to start writing but I will try.

I could start with my Norwegian grandmother on my mother's side. She was a tough, thrifty, sensible woman, the kind of grandmother that would buy you an umbrella for Christmas rather than a game or a toy. She had guts. Her family was close to starving in Norway - she and her sister were sent abroad in hopes of a better life. She couldn't even speak English, neither could her sister. I have her handwritten diary from that time and hope to find time to type it up for others to read. Her story is fascinating even if you are not a part of the family.

My other grandmother married young - like me, too young. She had aspired to be an opera star (and came close)but having four children tied her down. She also was Poet Laureate of Washington and was also an artist (water colors). There's much more to say about my Dad's side of the family, too much to cram into a paragraph or two.

Let me get back to the present day ... as for "now" I'd like to be honest about how near poverty has affected my life and how it has affected the life of my guy, Bob. As I write he is out on an inventory job (a very part-time job) and is on the verge of coming down with pneumonia. He is about to turn 61 and has no health insurance. The hours he works are sporadic - sometimes two weeks without any income, then a bunch of days all crammed together with crazy hours. One example: getting up at 2:30 in the morning for an inventory "gig" in Goldendale and not getting home until after midnight the next day. Then getting up (after very little rest) for another "gig" in another town far from home. In two years of job hunting this is the only work he has been able to find.

Like me Bob doesn't have a degree in anything but when he was younger did fairly well financially despite lack of a degree. He managed furniture stores among other long-term jobs and while I've never seen him in a work setting, I believe he is good at everything he does. For one thing, he shows up. He's dependable. On these inventory "gigs" there are usually at least one or two no-shows.

My first grade teacher told my mother that I would be a writer when I grew up. How did she know? I had no clue. I was just a little kid that liked to play outside and pet our kitty (who gave me ring worm!). I almost flunked out of high school - I never got good grades except in English, Spelling and Creative Writing. I was so poor at math (like my Dad!) that they wouldn't even allow me to take algebra; they passed me anyway just to get rid of me!

I wrote my first published poem on a bus en route to Seattle. It appeared in The Tacoma Tribune (I don't even remember the year it came out). That was the beginning of my "poet" chapter but more on that later.