by Rose Blessing
Today, the floor-to-ceiling window of my 17th floor apartment frames a curvy horizon of pointy pine trees that gently stitch themselves into the sky as they blanket hillsides to the northeast. I savor this evergreen view with my morning coffee, though I also wonder how my previous scenic companions are faring – the purple finches, acorn-chomping squirrels and saucy chipmunks who all performed their gymnastics for me in the back yard of the New Jersey house from which I recently moved.
I’ve got a second view to appreciate here in my new city of Bellevue, WA; I must step outside to see it. From the southeast, snow-capped Mt. Rainier rises above all else with the authority and magnificence of a Greek god. Despite being the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range, 14,411 feet high, it’s not always on display. It rains frequently in Seattle; I knew this before I arrived, though I’ve come to know the rain as a gentle precipitation that mostly mists or patters down, not impeding much. Still, cloudy skies, in a Wizard-of-Oz-like way, often curtain the mountain from view. When the clouds withdraw, I feel as if a deity has deigned to bless me for the day.
This god-like entity has a fearsome aspect, too. Mt. Rainier is a . . . volcano . . . yes, one like Mt. St. Helens, also in the Cascades (but farther south), which famously blew its top recently (geologically speaking) in 1980.
Mt. Rainier has regular earthquake tremors and is considered active but dormant for now. Fortunately for me, Mt. Rainier rests at least 50 miles away from me, and in the event of an explosion, any volcanic and/or debris mudflows (called lahars) are expected to descend into valleys in more southern areas of the state while ash clouds would most likely blow east.
It’s earthquakes Seattleites and I (Seattle is a bridge away, across Lake Washington) might choose to worry about more. Seattle and its surrounds are riddled with faults, the extent of which scientists first began to understand in the 1960s . . . According to my reading, this state is not as prepared for earthquake emergencies as other states on the West Coast . . . well, I’m here, and that’s that.
Having volcanoes and quake tremors nearby feels strange, but other aspects of Bellevue feel strangely familiar, as if Bellevue has been stitched together from pieces of other cities I have lived in: Houston and Dallas in Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; towns in New Jersey (think of North Jersey as a suburb of New York City and South Jersey as a suburb of Philadelphia); Duesseldorf, Germany; and London, England. A fascinating aspect of moving, I have learned, is that memories of places I’ve lived before populate my mind just after a relocation, as if I must revisit every aspect of my old life to move forward successfully. Compare and contrast becomes my modus operandi.
When I chat with Washingtonians at check-out counters, I note that their speech is crisply enunciated, like that of upstate New Yorkers, but unhurried and helpfully conversational, like that of Houstonians. This speech pattern combo disorients me: what will such a hybrid people expect of me?
As it turns out, not much in the way of banter. When I make a teasing or situational joke, many say “What?” or look a little startled before they smile or laugh appreciatively . . . and that’s all. I realize I’m waiting for the repartee that would ensue in New Jersey. . . . Nope. It’s not the habit here.
I always explore a city with my feet; the broad sidewalks of Bellevue bring to mind the aromatic wafts of my father’s pipe as we walked side by side on Sunday afternoons on Kansas City’s wide boulevards. The walkways here feel sensible, reliable and delightful to me, like the advice my father would give me on our walks.
The stoplights can be a little dictatorial, though. When I press buttons to get walk signals from the lights here in Bellevue, many bark a “Wait!” command in the tone of an aggrieved boss. Once the white pedestrian light shows and the countdown of remaining seconds begins, pedestrians need to hustle; the streets are wide, especially those that cluster around the exit lanes of highway I-405.
As I wait at Bellevue’s stoplights, I think of Pittsburgh’s pedestrian-friendly Oakland neighborhood; Oakland has talking lights, too; they chirp and chatter more than Bellevue’s, often naming the streets about to be crossed. Oakland’s stoplights shepherded not just throngs of backpacking college students, but also a community of the blind. Carrying this memory of blind individuals tap-tapping around the city confidently on their own always cheers me; it helps me maintain my faith in communities overall.
Bellevue’s tidy grids of numbered streets and avenues draw shoppers to glitzy malls and upscale stores. Department stores include both the high-end Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus (institutions both launched in the early 1900s, Nordstrom in Seattle and Neiman Marcus in Dallas), as well as stalwart Macy’s. Many of Bellevue’s stores would look fine plopped down in any glamorous big-city Texan shopping center of the 1980s. If I were to run into someone around a Bellevue corner maintaining a head of hair permed, blow-dried and curled into a ferocious mane, wearing a business suit with shoulder pads, it wouldn’t look too out of place here.
At trendy nationwide chains like Target, P.F. Chang’s, Cheesecake Factory, Trader Joe’s, Barnes & Noble and others, I am surprised that memories follow me despite my general familiarity with the goods on offer. It is my first time in this Bellevue Target, but recently in a New Jersey Target I had selected shower curtains; look, here are the very curtains in Bellevue, too! The Christmasy items at a Trader Joe’s in Bellevue bring to mind my outings to the warm, cozy Trader Joe’s in Pittsburgh – and time spent afterwards in the cold as dark fell while I waited for the not-so-frequent bus that took me home.
I do have a car here in Bellevue. Drivers here don’t crowd me, and the freeway access lanes are a reasonable length. Thank you, sensible calm Washingtonians. Bonus: Despite being so far north, Bellevue doesn’t get the type of snowstorms and melting-ice cycles that leave Northeastern U.S. roads destroyed each year. So Bellevue’s roads are as seductively smooth as those of Houston. I could enjoy driving here, once I shake off the post-traumatic stress regarding driving that New Jersey’s tailgaters have left me with.
But I’m still a fan of public transportation, so to begin my Seattle explorations, I hop a bus from Bellevue. Wow, no messy traffic to deal with once in the heart of the city, as typically happens to New Jersey buses once they squeeze into Manhattan; instead, soon after entering Seattle city limits, my bus dives neatly into an underground tunnel that it shares equably with Seattle light rail system trains. To get back to street level at the major train/bus stations, passengers ride on escalators as steep and gleaming as those of the London Underground.
In Seattle, the Pike Place Market is a main tourist destination. As I walk through it towards one of its many vendor stands, a wide-mouthed coal-colored fish suddenly jumps from its bed of ice and snaps at me. I am not the first tourist to be “gotten” by this trick (the seafood vendor rigs the fish up), and I won’t be the last. Next, I am treated to this same vendor’s other, more-world-famous entertainment: the staff toss slippery fish to each other high in the air over counters as they prepare orders. Not only is it mesmerizing, the staff is having fun, and their good mood pervades the entire market, even close to closing time on a chilly fall day. The market is authentic, used by the locals for produce, meats and artisanal items, as is the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, though here in Seattle you won’t find an Amish stall tempting you with cases full of apple dumplings and shoo-fly pie.
Back in Bellevue, I continue settling in. In any city, I celebrate the day I can get my library card. Before that day arrives, I must survive in an alien environment without even the relief of a pile of fresh books by my bed. Here, I make my way through the thicket of instructions on web sites and forms until I have a Washington driver’s license, and with that proof of residency I can finally get my library card. Now I belong!
As I enter the open layout of the Bellevue library, a memory of the library in Kansas City that I bicycled to on summer days drops into my mind. First, I would open huge (for a child like me) steel doors into a well-worn high school hallway. Then I would enter the rooms to the left that the school district had set aside for the public’s use. The children’s librarian at her cluttered desk would chat with me before she inked due dates into a paper in the back of the book; I would leave the deliciously inky-papery smell of the room and take home a carefully loaded bike-basket full of books. Here, I have no bike, and Bellevue’s self-check-in and check-out bar code systems make direct human contact less likely at the library, but the books I take home give me the same anticipatory thrill.
Another signal that I belong is the opportunity to vote. Washington mails out ballots to registered voters. As in, real paper ballots, not preparatory facsimiles like the ones New Jersey mails out. For an hour or two, my ballot sits on my kitchen table with my other mail until I realize it is my civic duty to protect this genuine article from crumbs or spills until I am prepared to mail it back. I conscientiously whisk it away, still unharmed, to a safe spot.
Voters mail back completed ballots or drop them into sturdy ballot boxes placed around town. For me this works, yet I will miss scuffling through fading autumn leaves to a polling place in New Jersey on a November fall Tuesday, past homes still decorated with Halloween hay bales and scarecrows. How patriotic I felt each year joining my neighbors at some familiar place – like a school, fire station or clubhouse – that had been transformed into a place of political import for the day.
In Germany and in England, however, as a temporary resident on a visa, I had no vote at all when their election seasons rolled around. What a melancholy feeling. So, I’m simply grateful to have my vote here.
Before filling in ballot ovals, I research who endorsed whom in the newspapers and watch past candidate debates on YouTube. My crash course inspires many questions. What random or engineered events and flows of money or lava have shaped this state, which got its first transcontinental train connection only in 1893? How does a state budget coalesce in a state (one of seven in the U.S.) that has no state income taxes? As upon my arrival in other cities like Duesseldorf and London, I stay alert for answers to the unfolding mysteries of my new place.
I unexpectedly get a first tutorial when I dare myself to read a book called Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens. This book, published in 2016, proves itself not merely a terror-inspiring psycho-drama about the big boom, but also a neatly drawn portrait of the politics of the State of Washington before and after it; 1980, when the volcano blew, coincided with a reduction in logging, the emergence of the tech industry and increased environmentalism in this area.
Though I now see Bellevue, Seattle and Washington primarily through the lens of my past, I’m carving out a present and a future here. In the meantime, what’s up with that Bellevue retail paved parking lot near me that has a creek under it that salmon travel through? And when will I get around to whale watching, kayaking or hiking a western mountain? I’ve still got a lot to understand and experience here. Gotta go!