Leaving New York

I lived in New York for 12 years.  In that time I went through a lot of stuff, I guess like anybody would over a 12 year span.  But I finally decided I wanted something better (and I say that full in the knowledge that I consider New York to be the best city in the world).  The City was a place of endless wonder, but I was lacking something.  I wasn’t living up to the potential of the Energetic Metropolis.  I needed to find for myself a different definition of potential.

And anyway, as I got older I found the City was starting to play for keeps at a time when I found that increasingly I wanted to just, you know, chill.  The cost of existing there was getting more expensive and I knew myself well enough by then, 1998, to know I wasn’t interested in trying to adjust my income – my profession, to keep up.  In that way, as in an auto race, the City had pulled ahead of me and then proceeded to stick its tongue out at me as it lapped me going around again.  I had to quit the race, pull into the proverbial pits and think it all over.

I needed to see something I’d never seen before; I yearned to go out West, away from the congested East.  I’d done the East for years and that was long enough.  I got home one day, turned on my computer and waited impatiently through the modem drone for an answer.  I checked out a fledgling website (as they were all then) called EarthCam and looked around.  Western cities, click, um, what’s this? Oh yeah, of course, what about Seattle?

Seattle, I’d never been anywhere around there.  Maybe as close as San Francisco, but that wasn’t close at all (I’d learn later that Seattle is about a 22 hour drive from there).  I looked at a grainy view through some guys webcam of the Space Needle from a neighborhood there called Capitol Hill.  Why not visit, take a look-see?  Of course EarthCam wasn’t the only factor, I remembered seeing all those “Best City to Live In” lists from the 1990’s and Seattle seemed to be on top of every single one.

I got some time off for a couple of weeks around Labor Day and booked a flight.  I was elated that I was going out there cold; I didn’t know anybody at all and decided I should do this trip on the cheap, student style.  I looked up the AYH (and naturally Seattle’s AYH was ranked #1, right above the one in DC) and gave them a call.  I’d never stayed in a youth hostel before, though I’d heard stories of people waking up there, missing money, or worse, organs; that it was a refuge for stinky-footed European tourists.  But the American Youth Hostel book said Seattle was the best, so it was worth a little risk on my part.

I flew out of Newark one afternoon in late August, with some spending money and two weeks to roam around.  Arriving at SeaTac Airport in the early evening, it was still light out.  I waited impatiently for what seemed like a very long time for a bus to take me downtown.  Nobody else seemed to mind the wait.  I boarded with a mixture of locals and out-of-towners, it was warm the windows were all open and the driver was feelin’ pretty chatty.  Things seemed to me a little “loosey-goosey,” (as my mom might have said).  The driver called out local points of interest.  Boeing Field.  The Kingdome.  The baseball stadium, under construction with its just installed retractable roof.  He asked us if we liked the Mariners.  I responded mentally with some New York Cynicism.

The under-construction Safeco Field

The under-construction Safeco Field

I was let off at Union Street, and walking west to 1st Avenue; I got a glimpse of the sun setting into the Olympic Mountains, with Puget Sound in the foreground.  It was beautiful.  A homeless guy who looked Native American asked me for money; I’d never seen that before (not the fact that he was homeless, but that he was Native American and homeless – I’d see a lot of this my fortnight there).  I saw City of Seattle medallions on the sidewalk corners, some depicted salmon, others ravens.  Walking the few blocks to 84 Union Street I noticed the inclination was steep and the air smelled cleaner, newer somehow.  I heard a ship horn go off in the near distance. Contrary to what I’d always heard and read, it wasn’t raining.

There was something different about the look and the feel of this place, like no other city I’d been in.  It was fascinating to me, the layout was more open, yet it still looked like an urban zone.  I walked down a flight of sidewalk stairs next to a sign that said ‘Post Alley’ and headed into the hostel.

Entrance to the AYH on Union

Entrance to the AYH on Union

I got a bunk for two weeks for $200, for me that was a price that couldn’t be beat.  While waiting for my key I pulled as many tourist brochures as I could from the kiosk behind me.  I signed up for a tour called “Barefoot Seattle” and headed to the second floor.

The first night I excitedly half-dozed over the lower bunk of a stinky-footed American.

The first week I spent my mornings having breakfast at the Soundview Café while following Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire’s pursuit of baseball’s home run record in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  The Soundview Café was located in Pike Place Market, which for me, served as the back yard of the Youth Hostel (and possibly explained why it was so highly rated, that and the views of the ferry boats on the Sound).  The Market was a wonderful labyrinth of shops, dug into a steep hillside.  It was 100 years old, ancient by Seattle standards.  I spent a little bit of almost every day there.

An old hotel from the Underground Tour

An old hotel from the Underground Tour

I did the Underground Tour (a walking tour of the “city beneath Seattle’s streets”) in Pioneer Square, and not only got to visit the Boeing plant in Everett, but also walk around Lake Union’s houseboats, all as part of the “Barefoot Seattle” excursion.  I was quite the tourist.  Every day I relaxed a little bit more, eventually to where I forgot I was a New Yorker.  The city offered scenic views from almost every angle, inviting a kind of subconscious relaxation.  It started to seem like home, like a refuge for me, a place to start over.  My mental editor, my New York Cynicism, had less and less to say.

I took a two day trip to Vancouver BC and loved it all.  A Canadian Border Patrol officer casually checked our IDs on the Amtrak train about twenty miles across the border, while zipping across farmland.  Vancouver itself was ultra modern but somehow also had mountain peaks right there in your face.  It was a slightly ramped up version of what I’d noticed in Seattle, that mixture of urban and wilderness.  I strolled jauntily down Robson Street, through random wafts of pot smoke, taking it all in.  The city had a nice hostel too, right on Jericho Beach.

On the train back to Washington State I thought of myself as going back home, even though ‘home’ was the Seattle AYH.  It wasn’t like I’d even met any new friends yet, but I knew that the potential existed there, and I was ready to enter what would turn out to be a nurturing period of my life.  The next day, on a kayak in the middle of Lake Union, I watched a float plane take off for the Orcas Islands and right there resolved that somehow I’d find a way to move out to this place.  My mental editor, Mr. New York Cynicism, had no answer for that at all.

From houseboat tour, Lake Union

From houseboat tour, Lake Union

I happened to visit the area during what locals usually agree is the best time of year.  It was warm, Bumbershoot (an annual music festival) was happening, summer was in full hum.  Finally, with my time about out, I took the bus back to SeaTac, still damp from the lake water that had come into my wake-tossed kayak.  I decided to save my money for a year and then leave New York, so sure was I of my plans that I announced them to my brother and his wife just a few days later.  To stoke myself for the move I endlessly showed pictures of my trip to my friends at work in Brooklyn.

I spent the year working, saying goodbye to New York, and saving just about every dollar.  I visited all my old workplaces and friends; places I’d gone to school.  I did some touristy things I’d always planned but never done; just girding myself for the wave of New York nostalgia I knew would surely come (and it did).  During that time I occasionally thought about how easy it would be to just stay.  My brother was right there in an adjoining borough, I had no family at all within 1000 miles of Western Washington.  But the odd doubt never shook my resolve; I was too excited about the idea of starting over, maybe even of reinvention.

In the year that followed, I watched on EarthCam as a condo tower slowly rose in Belltown, partially blocking the view of the Space Needle.  Finally, about 13 months after my “look-see” excusion, I left New York in a U-Haul, it was late October ’99, and my friend Sinclair gave me a motorcycle escort to the Holland Tunnel.  I’d rented an apartment in North Seattle, sight unseen, over the phone from a former Decca Records recording artist and current landlord in the Greenlake neighborhood (one of the few areas of Seattle I hadn’t visited the previous year).

The drive west was an adventure, I met up with family and stayed a few days in Illinois, toured the Badlands and Devil’s Tower, and breathed a little more deeply as I worked my way west.  I drove some very long stretches, other than Illinois only stopping overnight 3 times, the last one collapsed and exhausted in Spokane.  Finally I arrived, unpacked my truck, got a job, and the eight years that followed was really everything I could have hoped for.  Seattle, notorious in reputation for being frosty towards outsiders, welcomed this one (as it turned out they always have).   And I made a real home in this sometimes overly self-referential city (I had never seen a place that had its own name written on so many places, like it was reminding itself what it was or wanted to be).IMG_0003

I made a lot of friends and even became a little more outdoorsy.  I learned about potlucks and sunbreaks and pea patches.  I took my shoes off when I entered friends’ houses.  I felt more peaceful too; the vibe out there matched a little more evenly what might be called my lack of ambition.  And that’s what I wanted most of all.  I even found a sort-of career in the Natural Foods business, working at a co-op in various capacities for the entire time I lived there.  With newly acquired patience I accepted myself and also learned the fact that it’s not such a bad thing anyway, in fact it’s really good.  In 8 years I evolved towards the more open, yet also more defined person I knew I needed to be, as I suspect any of us would do over an 8 year span.  My perceived failings in New York were just that; I didn’t really reinvent myself, it wasn’t necessary.

I think you always retain a little bit of where you’ve lived, wherever you may presently find yourself.  I’ve always held onto a little bit of New York, my snark, my subway smarts, along with a put-on accent (which I would do because it made people in Seattle laugh so much), all without even trying.  But I’ll always go out of my way to try to retain the things I learned in Seattle; take a little bit of the Emerald City with me wherever I go.  That place was good to me, after all.  It can be hard sometimes though, without the physical reminders of an old home, the mossy sidewalks, the monkey trees, the barely falling mist, and all the friends I picked up along the way.

1 reply
  1. Mare
    Mare says:

    I had the best time visiting you in Seattle.. Snow-shoeing, Pike Place Chili, Space Needle and Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helen’s……. You were the best host! I’ll never forget how you showed me the dessert and snow in the same day! What amazing times!


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