One side effect of living on the West Coast of North America is that a lot of things happen while you sleep. That’s true for anyone anywhere, but the effect is amplified here by the three-hour time difference between here and the East Coast, and eight and nine hours between here and the UK and Europe. So these days, all sorts of things happen overnight. You go to bed, feeling physically and emotionally drained for no discernible reason – except, oh yeah, there’s a pandemic – but with a certain notion in your head of what you need or want to write about next. That notion feels hard won, because everything right now just feels so viscous and heavy and requires so much extra effort. Then you go to sleep. Then you wake up, make coffee, sit down on the couch, open your laptop – and all sorts of astounding new shocks to the system turn out to have taken place at points east since you were last online, last night. So you find yourself, already first thing in the morning, forced to perform attentional triage. Right now this is happening every single morning, morning after morning.
So, as of 7 a.m. Seattle time today: Boris Johnson is governing (if that’s the right word) Great Britain from self-isolation after testing positive for Covid-19; a single congressman, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, is holding up the stimulus package (now priced at $2.2 trillion, another $200 billion somehow conjured and tossed on top for good measure) by insisting on a roll call vote (and, in a minor sign of how weird things are anymore, he’s rebuked for it on Twitter by fellow Republican Peter King of New York); at least ten cruise ships, carrying at least 10,000 passengers, are being turned away from ports worldwide; Spain has recorded its highest single-day coronavirus death toll. In other news, Curly Neal has died at age 77 – I have happy memories of seeing the Globetrotters play in Milwaukee as a kid – and, with pretty bizarre timing I must say, 78-year-old Bob Dylan has released his first new song in eight years, a 17-minute epic about the Kennedy assassination.
What I went to bed last night planning to write about today was closer to home: construction in Seattle. Two days ago (Wednesday, March 25), the Seattle Times published an article that Jenny brought to my attention:
In a major clarification to the statewide stay-at-home order, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office said Wednesday evening that workers on most commercial and residential construction sites should stay home to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Nearly all construction is a nonessential activity under the state’s new stay-at-home order, according to a memo issued by the governor’s office. …
The exceptions to the stay-at-home rule, which takes effect Wednesday at midnight, are construction related to essential activities like health care, transportation, energy, defense and critical manufacturing; construction “to further a public purpose related to a public entity,” including publicly financed low-income housing; and emergency repairs. …
“I don’t think there’s much of a rush for new construction,” said one construction worker, whose job site partner is in the hospital awaiting the results of his COVID-19 test. “It’s going to take people with a bunch of money and give them more money – at what cost?”
March 8, 2020 is a date that no doubt will remain forever etched in my memory, as the date of that great 17-mile hike my friends and I did around Bainbridge Island. A fluid roster of our bunch has been doing long, mostly urban hikes in and around Seattle for maybe a decade (!), roughly every six to eight weeks, usually on Saturdays. Thanks to them I’ve accomplished some feats worth bragging about, like our epic 26-miler a couple years ago from the airport to downtown Tacoma.
I’ve also gotten to know the city of Seattle well as a result, very much at ground level. But the meaning of that phrase – “getting to know” Seattle – is elusive, because over the decade of our hikes Seattle has been anything but static or firmly graspable. The essential truth has turned out to be the flux itself. Seattle has never stood still, and its recent flux has been in the form of an Amazon-led boom, one that’s very visible in tangible form as chain-link fences and NOTICE OF LAND USE ACTION signs, followed usually in short order by high-rise towers downtown and in South Lake Union (and, more recently, in the University District), and four- or six-story apartment buildings in residential neighborhoods.
Now, everything previously normal – that is, everything prior to the coronavirus – is in abeyance until further notice. Officially so, as of this past Monday, by order of the governor. And as of Wednesday’s clarification, that emphatically includes almost all construction. The occasion for my beginning this passage by recalling our March 8 hike is that I got downtown that morning on the #5 bus from the stop on the west side of Greenwood Avenue N, just south of North 85th Street, about five minutes’ walk from my house. I noticed that morning that traffic was light, although at that still-early moment it was hard to tell whether that was because of the coronavirus or simply because it was early on a Sunday morning.
I also noticed how the building site just south of the bus stop, where Neptune Coffee and the G & O bike shop and the Mr. Gyros take-out joint used to be, was still a building site. It’s easy to remember how long that site has been a vacant building site, because those shops were destroyed at 1:40 a.m. on March 9, 2016 by a huge explosion caused by a natural gas leak. Jenny was up late that night, working in the front room. I was awakened by the explosion and went outside to stand around gossiping about what had just happened with similarly pajama-clad neighbors. I didn’t see the damage until the next day, because police tape had been put up at the corner of 85th Street nearest to my house. The next day’s Seattle Times headline was “Seattle explosion leaves heart of Greenwood neighborhood a gigantic mess.” No one was killed, but several firefighters were injured, and for a while it was the talk of the town. It even made the New York Times.
So it was four years later, almost to the day, that I stood at that now long-reopened bus stop waiting for the 5. And that unbuilt site wasn’t the only one, or even the biggest or most important one, in Greenwood, because most of our historically modest neighborhood of single-family homes had been “upzoned” to accommodate the Amazon boom. The scuttlebutt was that Greenwood was to become “the next Ballard,” with concomitant congestion and parking headaches and loss of old houses and businesses, but of course it would all be good for property values. The new “Janus” apartment building on the south side of 85th, across from Fred Meyer, with the convenient BECU branch at ground level, was no longer really new. The seven-story building behind the line of shops and bars lining the west side of Greenwood Avenue was going up fast, already at the fifth story. But what about the former Safeway at Greenwood & 87th that closed in June 2018, supposed to be replaced by a 285-unit, six-story residential building, still just sitting there empty and covered with cartoon murals and graffiti? Or the Walgreen’s across the street from it, empty even longer? Or the big hole in the ground along 85th where the DMV, latterly a dance studio, used to be?
Some delays were reported – a few months back in the Seattle Times – to have been caused by permitting red tape in the city bureaucracy. But I found myself, that morning of March 8 as I waited for the bus to take me downtown to the ferry that would take me to Bainbridge, wondering about all of the above, because they matter to me, because they’re in my neighborhood. And now that, as of March 25, all “non-essential” construction is halted by order of Governor Inslee, I find myself wondering about them even more.
My friend the guitarist Dennis Rea, who egged me on to write this diary, lives with his wife Anne Joiner in a two-bedroom condo on the eighth floor of a 16-story tower called the Elektra, off Pike Street as it heads uphill from downtown toward Capitol Hill. For at least a couple years now, Dennis has been griping to me about a tug-of-war within the condo association between owners who actually live in the building (like him) and absentee owners who have been renting out their units to tourists and travelers from out of town (VRBO = “vacation rental by owner,” a.k.a. VRU = “vacation rental unit”). The absentees, who now own more than half the units in the building, prevailed, which pissed Dennis off. On our Bainbridge hike, he told me that he had thought up a new and very legitimate angle from which to needle them. The official complaint that he submitted on March 4 read:
With reference to recent communications from the Copeland Group [Arizona-based management company] regarding recommended health precautions to be taken by Elektra residents during the COVID outbreak, I’d like to point out that the greatest health risk facing the Elektra resident community is the large number of transient VRBO guests arriving at the building daily from who knows where. The right thing to do in this situation is to suspend all VRBO rentals until after the crisis has passed, in order to help prevent further spread of the virus and consequently any legal liability that may be incurred [by] VRBO owners (i.e., lawsuits) should their guests prove to be the source of any infections. Obviously, this suspension should take effect immediately.
The board responded to Dennis fifteen days later, on March 19:
The board has determined that the association does not have the legal authority to restrict owners. It is up to each individual owners [sic] to take the necessary precaution [sic] per the health department mandates.
Dennis’s comment to me about this exchange was: “Translation: property rights Trump [sic] public safety.” Then, on March 21, he and other residents received an email from the building concierge:
On Friday, March 20, 2020, we were informed that a resident in the building has tested positive for Covid-19. The resident began experiencing symptoms on Saturday, March 14, 2020 and was tested on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. The resident has been in self isolation since their initial symptoms but did leave to go to the test on Wednesday and to take their dog out a couple of times. The resident has been taking extra safety precautions in the instances where they have had to leave their unit and is making sure not to touch anything directly. They have also avoided elevators and all common areas. The resident also shared they have not had close contact or seen any other resident during their brief outings.
… followed by a bunch of now-standard advice about things like social distancing and hand washing, followed by:
I know this can seem alarming, but we do not want residents to panic. We are monitoring the situation to the best of our abilities and will provide any updates if and when they become available.
Addendum: Dennis tells me today that the building concierge “is now in quarantine with her husband, who might have symptoms (right down the hall from us). In the course of her job, [the concierge] has to deal with significant numbers of transient VRU guests from places like mainland China coming and going all the time.”
Dennis’s wife Anne teaches English to international students in the Seattle Colleges District, the same job Jenny does at UW. Yesterday Dennis told me: “Anne got a call yesterday from one of her students, a Korean guy who was in a panic because he was exhibiting symptoms and didn’t know where to turn – he has no host family, just rents a place with other students, and he can’t go home to Korea right now, of course. She tried to calm him and directed him to district resources, but the point is that this is another underappreciated facet of the teacher’s role.”
Dennis and I exchanged some text messages yesterday too. He’s been declaring himself “more defiant than despondent” and is cultivating a “weird optimism” about how Seattle and the Pacific Northwest might ultimately fare through all this. I’m trying to feed off his defiance and optimism. Here’s part of our text exchange yesterday evening:
Dennis: So today’s WA numbers were released and … there were 627 new cases. Apologies for leading you down the garden path [smiley face].
Ethan: We have to be optimistic anyway. I know that’s hard. I’m feeling stronger now than this afternoon. Toke helped.
Dennis: Thank heavens that we’re in a weed state! And that they decreed weed shops an “essential business.”
Ethan: [Writing my diary is] hard – not intellectually but emotionally. But hard to tell if it’s the writing or the subject matter.
Dennis: We’re all strung as tight as piano wire, pal!
Then, late last night, Dennis sent an email to me and our mutual friend Pete Comley, fellow aficionados of the novelist J.G. Ballard, with the subject line “Ballardian imagery in play”: “Every night for the past week, greasers have been drag-racing or gunning it under the Interstate 5 Convention Center underpass outside our window to amplify their engine noise, on the otherwise barren eight-lane tarmac. We live in a (shortish) apartment tower; Crash meets High Rise?”
This morning, Pete replied: “Don’t forget Concrete Island! Kinda applies … if one of them crashed into a homeless camp.”
Also yesterday Sandra Janusch, Ph.D., Assistant Vice Provost, International & Academic Programs, University of Washington, Continuum College – Jenny’s boss, whom Jenny and her colleagues supported in her application for her position – sent out an email, blandly subject-lined “Information about IEP”:
As you are aware, we have been looking at the financial viability of the Intensive English Program (IEP) for almost a year. … [followed by two paragraphs of verbiage rehashing management claims ardently disputed by the unionized Intensive English Program teachers]. For that reason, UWC2 has made the difficult decision to sunset the IEP at the end of summer 2020. … I am very sorry to deliver this news during this difficult time, [etc., etc.]
Just over an hour later, Jenny replied privately:
I cannot tell you how personally disappointed I am in your serious lack of leadership and judgment, as evidenced by your sending this particular message at this particular moment.
In spite of this, I hope you and your family are staying well and healthy.
One thing that didn’t happen yesterday, March 26, was any baseball games, anywhere in America. The Mariners were supposed to open their season yesterday at home against the Texas Rangers. Instead Seattle Times reporter Ryan Divish published his educated guess of what the two teams’ Opening Day lineups would have been, because why not? According to Divish, the likable lefty Marco Gonzales would have been the Ms’ Opening Day starting pitcher for the second year in a row, and unproven but promising youngsters would have started at first base, second base, shortstop, and both corner outfield positions.
Looking at the sports section today, I see a nostalgic article on memories of the awful but lovingly remembered Kingdome – of course including The Double by Edgar Martinez to score Ken Griffey Jr. in the bottom of the 11thinning of Game 5 of the American League Division Series on October 8, 1995 – and a piece by Larry Stone headlined “Waiting for MLB’s opening day amid coronavirus crisis: ‘You have to laugh; if not, you’re going to cry.’” Earlier this week I tweeted at Larry Stone, asking what he and other sportswriters would be writing about in the absence of an actual baseball season. He replied: “We’re trying to find interesting stories – and there are a lot of them out there. Many have to do with how people in sports are coping with all this. And the Seahawks’ transactions are getting even closer coverage than normal.”