ON the ride from the Seattle airport to the University of Washington, Seattle undergoes a transformation emblematic of major American cities. On the far reaches of the city stand tall weeds, dilapidated homes, industry depots. A sports stadium, once intended to stimulate economic activity in a low-income neighborhood, has long since abandoned attempts at stimulation and knows only the roar of beer-soaked bleachers.
Seattle’s outskirts are incredibly diverse. Thai, Eritrean, and Ethiopian restaurants flash by. Buddhist temples dot the landscape, along with older suburban homes proudly bearing worn 12th man flags. The link rail will suddenly happen upon aggressively gentrified apartment complexes advertising available spaces, but for the most part, the outskirts are where the minority, the blue collar, and the immigrant lie.
Once the rail hits Pioneer Square, the demographics on the train change from blue to white. The contrast is immediate and stark. Young Asian women with dark blazers and high heels; white men hanging environmentally-friendly totes off their bikes; students bearing the Huskie logo. By the time you get to Capitol Hill, the metamorphosis is complete. The train bubbles with freshly-minted minds and untapped earning potential. This is Seattle, after all. The city isn’t known for the loyal iron worker residing in Rainier Beach — it’s about the YoPro (Young Professional) getting hammered in lower Queen Anne, with the seed of an idea for yet another mode of escape to put on our phones.
NEAR the University of Washington resides a large plaza known as University Village, with every corporate convenience a student might need. It also houses the only physical Amazon bookstore in the world.
The Amazon bookstore is jampacked with patrons, many of whom are idling by as they wait for their numbers to be called at the nearby Din Tai Fung. Despite the clusters of bored university parents, the bookstore blusters with interest and enthusiasm.
Ironic that this virtual company, which drove bookstores into oblivion, has now built a physical store of its own. Put your competitors out of business … and then take their place. But the Amazon bookstore, whilst popular, cannot possibly make even a fraction of the money that the online retailer earns. So why have one?
Perhaps it’s just to make the point that they can.
I go sailing with Clint and Xio on Lake Union on Sunday. The house boats, made famous as Tom Hanks’ abode in “Sleepless in Seattle,” are, according to Clint, estimated to cost around $2 – $8 million. The houses are not that big, but the reason their valuation is so extreme is because of their positions on the lake.
Typically we pay for elevation — the closer in you get to the heart of the city, the higher you want to be; alternatively, you can pay to retreat to the seclusion of towering hills. In Seattle, it’s the opposite — you want to get lower to the ground, closer to the water.
Funny how we commodify space.
I visit the Seattle Public Library with Alexandra. It rises ten stories above the middle of the downtown area, and resembles a half-finished origami project.
We put so much faith in corporate giants like Amazon to innovate and generate. Meanwhile, in the middle of the fucking city, lies a behemoth of knowledge, information, and resource. For free.
Talk about untapped potential.
Alexandra and I go to a poetry event in downtown Seattle. One of the poets reels off fun facts about animals. For example, the ostrich has three eyelids. A male angler fish mates with the female by sinking into her body, and eventually becoming one with her. The poet concludes with, “And we think we’re so significant.”
On Friday night, I go out to the Ballard Bars with Ramit, who works for Microsoft and drives a bright orange Jaguar. He tells me that it can accelerate from 0 to 100 in six seconds. Or maybe I’m exaggerating. I don’t recall.
We get beers in a bar displaying a giant Scottish flag.
“Technology is changing the way we interact,” says Ramit. “It’s reducing intimacy. These days people break-up so quickly. The divorce rate is higher than ever.”
“But is that necessarily a bad thing? Maybe they’re quitting a shitty situation.”
“No, it’s because we have so many options. You can go on your phone and swipe and have a new option in seconds.”
This continues for the next two hours. More drinks are had.
We end up on the rooftop of his downtown Bellevue apartment, trying to make out the Cascade Mountain Range in the distance. It’s too dark to see. But in the opposite direction, directly before us, are Microsoft corporate offices, all of which are brightly lit from bottom to top in the middle of the night.
I remark that this is an enormous waste of energy. “You’re such a liberal,” laughs Ramit.
My Uber driver on the way back is a Kenyan man, father of two, who used to be a maths professor at Kenyatta University, where I studied abroad during college.
We bond over Kenyatta and Kenya time.
I ask if he likes Seattle.
“It is not a bad place to be,” he replies.
“Do you go back to Kenya to visit often?”
“I do not think I will be able to go back for a long time.”
We’re quiet for a moment.
“Seattle is not a bad place. It is not bad.”
The next night, I end up in the Capitol Hill district, which holds the reputation for being the LGBTQ neighborhood, the gentrified neighborhood, and YoPro Central.
I’m with my friends Avani and Drew. One works for Microsoft, the other works for IBM.
I work on my beer.
Avani complains that she doesn’t have enough friends in Seattle: “I have like ten friends here.”
Cut to: we enter the bar, and Avani knows everyone sitting at a long table downstairs.
I get to meet Avani’s coworkers, all of whom greet me by immediately presenting their resumes.
“Hi, I’m Patrick, and I’m on the Surface Pro Team.”
“I’m Kevin, I’m in dev.”
“I’m Bobby, I’m moving to California.”
“Oh that’s great, Bobby!”
“I’ll be working for Google.”
I’m still working on my beer.
They ask me what I do, and I say Hollywood. They ignore me and go back to talking tech. On the one hand, this is very refreshing, because I don’t have to explain myself or field awkward, prying questions. On the other hand, this is just straight up rude.
By the end of the weekend, I tell strangers that I work in “Revenue Strategy Optimization.” Two people believe me. What do these words even mean? It’s not clear if anyone in tech really knows, but products with a deep productivity analysis and work-life balance are essential to this city. We’re all thought leaders here.
For some reason I end up walking with Drew for a mile to lower Queen Anne, and once again I end up on a rooftop, this time overlooking the Seattle downtown skyline. The Space Needle stands off to the right as a remnant of a bygone era of architecture and faded relevance.
“You know the planets and stars exist constantly, we just can’t see them.” It’s cute to think that way about human potential.
I get brunch twice in Seattle.
The first time is with Alexandra, at a Seattle brunch staple known as Portage Bay. They put a bag of Earl Grey in boiling water, mix in a little milk, and call it a “London Fog.” The trend amongst white, hip folk seems to be putting salmon and avocado on everything, so I dutifully partake in two salmon eggs Benedict. They are, as one can expect from such institutions, absolutely delicious, and absolutely expensive.
At the table next to us, four bros are discussing how to plant a vegetable garden.
“You gotta have spinach, you gotta have arugula, fersure.”
“Oh! You can also make a fence out of bamboo sticks.”
“Nah dude, you don’t want to start too ambitious. Focus on the vegetables first.”
Across the street, a recycling event is taking place.
This is easily the most Seattle moment I have all weekend.
The second brunch is with Monica and her group. This time, I settle for chicken wings and unlimited mimosas. One of the group members has just turned 30. All of the group members are dating each other. They discuss whether to go to Paradiso this year.
I joke that in Seattle, there is the Holy Trinity known as “in the name of Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing, we pray.”
Monica ironically makes the sign of the cross, smiles, and says “Amen.”
Image source: Wikimedia/hairyegg