Sunday, July 17, 2005

seattle, barnum-style

Here is my favorite story from my first-ever visit to Seattle: When The Pioneers (a band of semi-corrupt white guys) arrived at the part of The Sound (my friend Yoshiko tells me only tourists call the big body of water to the west “the ocean”) that is now Seattle, they settled on the only unoccupied flat of land, not thinking that perhaps there was a reason it was unoccupied, and not being familiar with the concept of tides.

Some time and many potholes later, they realized their new city/tide flat was basically a giant marsh. I don’t know enough about plumbing to properly explain the problems that resulted when they tried to flush their newly invented toilets, but suffice it to say that they had to put them on six-foot-tall platforms if they didn’t want a sewage geyser every time the tide came in.

Semi-conveniently, the city then proceeded to burn to the ground. Great opportunity to re-grade and rebuild, right? City officials thought so, but local business owners (who would have had to pay for the ten-year project) did not. So the business owners rebuilt at sea level, and the city rebuilt the public portions of the town anywhere from eight to 35 feet up. Seriously. City streets were eight to 35 feet above the sidewalk. Citizens had to climb ladders to get to where they parked their horse. That is, if their horse hadn’t slipped and plummeted while they went into the general store to buy chewing tobacco or whatever people bought at the turn of the century.

Some more time and many cliff deaths later, the business owners agreed to put in new, street level sidewalks above the old ones, turning all the town’s first stories into basements.

Now you can tour the underground city—Jamie warned me that it was essentially a walk through a giant, damp basement, but I happen to love giant, damp basements. I loved the mossy bricks and antique smell. I loved standing beneath the dirty purple glass skylight and watching passersby cast shadows on the present-day sidewalk. I loved hearing how civic incompetence and stubbornness were carried to such a ridiculous extreme as to make a little prolonged construction on Santa Monica Blvd. seem positively civilized.

I even loved the tour itself: A girl who claimed to be named Penny (she was far too young for that to be her real name) kicked off the tour in a bar decorated with red velvet curtains and framed portraits of the city’s founders. She made bad puns and lots of derogatory jokes about Tacoma. Then she broke us into thirds and sent my group with a gray-haired, Birkenstocked woman who didn’t seem nearly as comfortable with puns and insults as Penny did, but she gave it a valiant try anyway.

The museum portion of the tour featured sepia photos with irreverent, opinionated captions. A shot of a bunch of men in suits and hats gathered around a saloon piano helpfully said, “This is not a gay bar. Women did not frequent taverns at the time.” The tour featured several prostitution-related anecdotes, and the gift shop at the end of the trail sold pasties and panties. It all had a vaguely vaudevillian feel, to the point where I wasn’t even sure that the above story was true. And I didn’t really care. I loved feeling like a 19th century museumgoer, lured into a dark, shabby freak show by the promise of some “scientific” wonder, the Fiji mermaid or the missing link.

No comments: