Saturday, March 29, 2008

Bookstore at the Edge of the World

When people describe this place, it is mandatory to talk about the "creaky wooden floors" but truthfully they only look as though they will creak--what they actually manage best is attempted homicide. During the decade-plus that I worked at the Elliott Bay Book Company, those floors almost killed me more than once, when the thin heels of my pseudo-Jimmy Choos became caught in the wide cracks between the planks of flooring and almost brought me to my knees. Charming, yes--hazardous, beyond any doubt.
Since it is a Seattle bookstore, I may be the only fool whose cigarette heels became a hostage of the floor--this is the land of sensible shoes where comfort trumps style in a big way and Birkenstocks excite no sneers. I am not however the only person who has come away from the rough-hewn bookshelves with one or two splinters. This may be one of the only bookstores on the planet where a pair of tweezers has a permanent and prominent spot near the cash drawer, and booksellers are routinely asked if they have a band-aid by customers who sport minor flesh wounds from slivers of cedar.
It is a spot that booklovers hope to find when they die, if they are good in this life. Along with the murderous floors and the splinter-laden shelves are rooms and rooms and rooms filled with books--so many books that you can lose yourself among them for hours, finding old favorites amid stunning new surprises, many of them signed.
Nobody wears a name tag at Elliott Bay but it's easy to see who the booksellers are, even when they aren't weighted down with books to put on the shelves. They are the people who walk through the place as though it's their home, which, to a degree, it is.
As it is for all bibliophiles--this sprawling, often dusty, historic building that clings to the edge of the world, close enough to a finger of the Pacific Ocean that you can smell it as you browse through books, that will endure as long as there are people who love the printed word encased between two covers. It's Heaven, it's Mecca, it's the Elliott Bay Book Company--and it's waiting for you.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Modest Disposal

Much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth is taking place over the troublesome issue of Social Security payouts. Baby Boomers are afraid that they'll never receive them, and every generation that follows them is afraid that they will. It is a topic that is divisive, vituperative, and without any reason to carry the weight that it does.
Thanks to the state of medical care in the U.S., we Baby Boomers are dropping like flies. Even those who make a reasonable income and have some form of health insurance are faced with soaring deductibles and expensive prescription costs, which make their friendly family physician more of a luxury and less of a preventative measure every year. And those are the lucky ones--many of us work for employers who can no longer afford to offer health insurance, and yet because we work, we aren't eligible for public health programs. (Let's not even begin to talk about dental work.)
Medicare is years ahead for most of my generation, and that program too is standing on shaky ground. By the time we are eligible for it, it will be such a fragile structure that the sheer weight of boomer medical cases will send it crashing into oblivion.
So Generations X, Y, Z and Less than Zero, cheer up. Thanks to the lack of a sane health care system in our country, the number of Boomers who will be alive and well by the time they're ready for Social Security will be much smaller than the hordes that haunt your worst nightmares.
Who says there's no method to the Republican madness? And with a health system like ours, who needs to worry about Soylent Green?

Welcome, Crackheads!

My neighborhood is changing. Cheap and ugly condo barns are sprouting in spots that used to harbor brick buildings and cheap restaurants. New apartment buildings that have replaced SRO hotels for the elderly, the down-and-out, and the new arrivals to our shores boast "market-value" rents--and the market they are referring to is quite clearly Manhattan. Pretty little boutiques are sprouting up on unlikely corners, selling imported jeans for $200 and fancy soap in a neighborhood where some residents have no access to a shower. Chinatown is on its way up and out.
I've always wanted to live in the neighborhood that I call home now. It was a place where you could have dinner, go to a play, have a drink after the curtain fell, and then go home--all on the same block--which is my idea of true urban living. It's edgy enough that I was cautioned against moving there, and I have to admit I rarely take advantage of the fact that I can go out to many nearby restaurants until 2 a.m. In fact, if I'm not home before 11 p.m., I make sure I'll get there in a taxi.
At night my neighborhood isn't mine, nor is it anyone's who isn't looking for drugs. It gets rough after 11 p.m.
By the time I leave in the morning, the streets belong to old ladies going to buy groceries, people waiting for the bus to take them to work, a few small children being taken to school. But the signs of the night before are there for all to see, the debris left by people who have little to lose and carelessly drop what they no longer need wherever they're standing when they've used it up. And the alleys are even worse--that's where the human waste is deposited.
And yet if anyone is going to keep our neighborhood an affordable place to live, it's the people of the night who are going to do it. So when I walked out of my building this morning to put my garbage in the alley dumpster, and narrowly avoided stepping into a pile of garbage from a broken garbage bag near my doorstep, I felt a certain elation.
They're here, in one of the few remaining spots downtown where they are still able to live--like me, like the very old men in my building, like the people who shop in the little Chinese grocery across the street where English is a minority language, like the deaf poet who lives in the apartment that adjoins mine who battles with schizophrenia. We, along with the crackheads and the derelicts, are clinging to our little piece of Seattle. We are all equally desperate to remain where we are. But it's the people who make our neighborhood a dirty and sometimes dangerous place to be who are the frontline fighters in this battle. If any group can keep our neighborhood from gentrification, it's them.
Support your neighborhood crackheads! As hard as it may be to admit, we're all in this together.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

My Money Where My Mouth Is

Money is a perennial difficulty for me. Like most people, I live from shrinking paycheck to shrinking purchasing power, and rarely spend much on incidentals. Yet today I just sent what for me is a chunk of change to a man whom I think can make me proud of my country again.
For those who are already sick of the latest Presidential campaign, move on to another blog. But if you think that America can fulfill the dream that it was founded upon, please stick with me for a little while.
I've seen too many promising politicians killed in my lifetime, and with them much of my own hope that we can work together to solve our very real national problems. Today I printed out a speech, written by a man who has the courage to address our country's major flaw--racism.--in terms that are nondivisive and compassionate. By the time I had finished reading it, I knew this is a man to bring the U.S. back to a sane perspective on many things--beginning with racial bias, which I believe is America's original sin.
I have sent a small amount of money which I can ill afford because Barack Obama's campaign is nourished by small donations from people who find hope in his candidacy, like me. Please read his speech for yourself at
You have nothing to lose except five minutes of your time, and quite possibly everything to gain.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Outsider

I grew up in Alaska during the middle of the last century (my, doesn't that sound distinguished?) before it was transformed from a territory to the 49th state, and when its residents referred to the continental U.S. as "Outside." Residents of the warmer U.S. were known as "Outsiders," a term that was often prefaced with "those damn." They were, to those who had just recently escaped "Outside"themselves, a lesser life form, those pitiful creatures who chose to live away from "God's country" because they lacked the cojones to survive there. Many "real Alaskans" ranked them just slightly below newcomers or "cheechakos" and slightly above "Natives," the indigenous population or the true Alaskans ( who in the 1950s received little recognition for being the owners of the land that "real Alaskans" claimed as their own.)
I always knew I was not a "real Alaskan," and yearned to live somewhere else--somewhere warmer where people understood the value of being well-dressed and lived on something other than moose meat and potatoes. "Outside" seemed a good place to start.
But I was shaped by the attitudes of my time and place. "Outsiders" were well and good in their place but once they reached Alaska? Well, it's not for nothing that the best-selling bumpersticker in the 49th state was for years "We don't give a damn how they do it outside."
One of the few things Alaskan that I feel a remnant of local chauvinism for is the Last Great Race, the Iditarod, when mushers race over 1000 miles to Nome at the coldest time of the Alaskan year. I grew up with sled dogs and the men (yes, in those days they were only men) who mushed them. This is where the Alaskan Natives were undisputed kings, and I cheered on George Attla until the day he hung up his mukluks. It was difficult for me to shift allegiance to non-Native Alaskans, but when Outsider Doc Lombard began to race in Alaska, I began to root for any Alaskan resident who could beat him.
This year I work in Seattle's Gold Rush Museum's gift shop, where window displays are my responsibility and at the moment are filled with all things Iditarod. This is the first year that a woman from Washington state has entered the race, and I've been tracking her progress and cheering her on.
Today as I checked standings, I realized that the two front-runners were both Alaskan residents and that I was supporting a dogmushing carpetbagger. And suddenly I realized that at last I had become one of Them--I'm an Outsider.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Weight for Me!

Mr. Eliot may have claimed that April was the cruelest month, but what exactly is so bad about mixing lilacs and desire anyway? As far as cruelty goes, that ranks right up there with wearing one's trousers rolled and daring to eat a peach--not exactly the stuff that nightmares are made of.
February on the other hand--the weather turns bleak and the IRS turns ugly, what with all of those little tax reminders rolling in, and the flesh that has provided insulation during the winter suddenly threatens to become permanent. Add to that a virus season that lasted for far too long and infected most of the known world and there you are--the winner for the cruelest month goes to...February!
The past month has been virtually unlived by me--wrapped in a tomb of sleep and rousing from it only to do what absolutely needed to be done. Normally I'm someone who has loathed the entire concept of naps since the day I was born--and suddenly my entire existence was one gigantic nap. This is not a life, and this was February.
There's a feeling of wild exhilaration that comes at the end of February, and this year that end was even more welcome than usual. It also brought with it a new appreciation for body fat--when lack of health forces hibernation upon you, replenishing caloric needs is not a high priority. Without my winter fat cells, this could have been an even bleaker February for me, and I now have a newfound appreciation for plump. Plus now that I'm feeling better, food tastes good again--viva le appetit!