We talk these days about “the before time.” In its standard usage, the phrase means before the pandemic seemingly changed everything for all of us. But it can also mean before Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd; or before unidentified feds abducted protesters off the streets of Portland into unmarked vans; or before Seattle’s air was rendered unbreathable for a full week in September by wildfire smoke. Russian dolls, watersheds within watersheds, or, as the Haitian proverb has it, Deye mon gen mon: Behind the mountain is another mountain.
The ultimate before time, back beyond which I’m scarcely able to think anymore, could be abbreviated B.T.: Before Trump. It sticks in my craw to write this, because what I resent more than anything is the way the man looms so insistently. In the spring of 2015, around the time he humiliated Marco Rubio in the Florida primary – which I remember as a turning point – I wrote an ambitious, multi-part 12,000-word essay I titled “America: Now What?” If I remember right, that was a good piece of writing. The question is still timely, but what would be the point of revisiting the circumstances in which I asked it more than five years ago? It’s an orphaned piece of work. My aspiration is always for my writing to be durable. But how can that aspiration be comprehensible, much less achievable, in a time when each night we go to bed feeling sure that some fresh appalling event, seemingly shaking the very foundations of our society, will have happened by the time we wake up the next morning?
The – for now – most recent before time, before Trump’s covid diagnosis, to me also means before my birthday. Friends and family joked about my strange birthday present, but it’s just another collateral desecration. The cognitive dissonance and depression that I’ve been fending off since then have to do with the fact that I feel obligated to continue following the shitshow. A few nights ago I looked over to see Jenny, at the other end of the couch, visibly struggling with the decision whether to open her laptop. We want to avert our eyes, but we know the multi-car pile-up is happening and feel compelled to watch it, as if there were anything we could do to stop it. In everything he does and says, Trump is literally demanding our attention, at every moment. So maybe the most helpful thing I can do is to withhold mine? But of course I’m giving him some, just by writing this. So: now what?
I suppose it’s revealing that I felt obliged to spend three – now four – paragraphs clearing my throat, in order to struggle back through the molasses to the before time, way back to eleven days ago, in order to justify exercising some modest measure of temporary control over what I pay attention to. I despise Trump for making it necessary for me to write these four paragraphs.
So anyway, way back on Thursday, October 1, the day before my birthday, I went on another of my long urban hikes. I planned the route to traverse the University District and the campus of the University of Washington to Husky Stadium just north of the Montlake Cut of the ship canal, then east to 35th Avenue NE and north as far as my favorite sandwich place at NE 70th Street, then west from there, home via a few more places of personal interest. I estimated it at about twelve miles, and I invited along my friend Jeb Wyman.
To tell the truth I almost bailed on Jeb, because I woke up that morning in a crappy mood, but his eagerness carried the day. The preceding week had been another hard one, leaving me drained from the demands made on my time and emotional reserves to keep someone else’s publishing situation (in which I was involved) from blowing up due to bruised feelings and failures to communicate. What I badly needed was for something in my life to be nourishing and restorative.
Jeb Wyman is the editor of What They Signed Up For: True Stories by Ordinary Soldiers, a compilation of combat veterans’ personal accounts that I published in 2017, and he teaches writing at Seattle Central College on Capitol Hill. The fall academic quarter had just started, and he was feeling relaxed because he was feeling on top of class prep, having just finished preparing and posting online the first few weeks’ class materials. “I used to start all my classes by shaking everybody’s hand,” he reminisced as we set off from my house, wending south and east to N 80th Street to cross Aurora Avenue and then the freeway. “For a while I changed that to fist bumps. And now, I don’t see ’em at all. Converting to online – it’s a publishing act. You’re putting stuff online so someone can go there and navigate it. Rather than walking into a room and starting talking.”
Walking eastwards from Aurora, along 80th, we encountered one of those NOTICE OF LAND USE ACTION signs in front of the perfectly nice wooden house at 8001 Ashworth Ave N. The sign announced NEW 3-STORY ROWHOUSE BUILDING with five units, three parking spaces, and “Demo of existing building,” with any comments from the public to have been submitted by 2/3/2020. That was eight months ago. In the before time, the location was a prime one for such density-driven redevelopment, especially given the recent decision to reroute the 45 bus from Loyal Heights via Greenwood from 85th Street to 80th, en route to Ravenna and the U District. Before she lost her job, Jenny was complaining about that planned rerouting. Now, it doesn’t matter.
I wondered aloud about the fate of this and other planned and in-progress building sites around Seattle, including the multiple large apartment buildings in my own neighborhood.
Jeb wondered too. “And Boeing is shutting down production,” he added. “And Amazon is sending its workers wherever they want to live.”
We made a detour to see the handsome brick Rose Crest apartment building at 7914 Densmore Ave N, just above the top of Green Lake, the first place Jeb lived with his wife Darci, nearly three decades ago. I took a couple pictures of Jeb mugging in front of the building, then we walked along the top of the lake for a block or two. Jak’s Alehouse at Green Lake Drive & Wallingford Ave was empty, with a FOR LEASE sign in the window. To see for myself and document such retail emptiness was part of my intention in making this walk, though I don’t really know what purpose that serves. Maybe time will tell.
I had chosen this route partly to approximate Jenny’s former commute to UW. Jeb and I walked across Interstate 5 on that bridge where 85th curves to become 80th and then curves again – there’s a spot where, on a clear day (which this wasn’t), you can see Green Lake, the Space Needle, and Mount Rainier – to become 75th where it hits Roosevelt Ave, at the corner with the 76 station, the Safeway, and the Apostolic Faith Church (with its prominent sign: “Jesus/THE LIGHT of THE WORLD”).
If you continue straight past the Safeway, you skirt the north edge of the reservoir until you hit 15th Ave NE. Instead we turned right, downhill, on Roosevelt. On the northwest corner of Roosevelt & N 70th was a four-story building under construction. I pointed it out, though it was hard to miss. “And then you forget what was here before,” I commented.
“It’s amazing how fast that happens,” Jeb agreed.
The smells of fresh-sawn wood and newly poured concrete made Jeb nostalgic for the extension his father had built onto their house in Marshfield, Wisconsin, in 1968, when Jeb was four years old. He said that sometimes it crossed his mind that he might have been happy as a builder. “There’s upsides in being able to see different ways you can live,” he reflected. It crossed my mind now to ask him the obvious question: Was he happy as what he was, a teacher?
“I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have been able to do what I’ve done the past twenty-five years,” he said. “It’s been the best education I could have received, coming from my provincial, privileged, prejudiced Wisconsin background.”
Jeb’s father – whom I’ve spent time with and am fond of; long story – is a retired physician, and Jeb has described his family to me as belonging to the “local gentry” of Marshfield. Teaching at an urban community college exposed Jeb to a different kind of student than he would have met at a major state university like UW, or at a private college or university. Many of his students come from households hovering around the poverty line, and are often the first in their families to go to college. They come from working-class and immigrant families and ethnic minorities. A few of his students come from privilege but for various reasons didn’t take the fast track to success. “A lot of them have already had their hubris kicked in the nuts,” he said. “Yeah, it’s been a wonderful life.”
Descending toward N 65th Street we saw the new Roosevelt light rail station, now nearing completion, on the site where the QFC supermarket used to be. It’s handsome and promises – or promised; the pandemic compels added attention to verb tenses – to anchor a transformation of the 65th & Roosevelt neighborhood, in ways that would have been welcome to me and Jenny. For one thing, she could have picked me up there after business trips, rather than having to drive further to the current light rail terminus at Husky Stadium. As things are, I’m finding it hard to imagine actually riding the light rail from the airport south of the city to quite near my house, or even wanting to.
“That’ll return,” said Jeb in a confident tone.
“I think so.”
(Funny how, as I’m writing this up, I just got an email from American Airlines, which I sort of vowed never to fly again after they announced, on June 27, that as of July 1 they would be booking their flights to capacity. Today’s email invited me: “Whether you’re planning a quick weekend getaway this fall or your next big adventure for 2021, bonus miles can help you get there. That’s why we’re extending our offer to earn up to 100,000 bonus miles when you buy miles this month.”)
I hadn’t seen Jeb since before he went to Alaska, which he’s done annually for several weeks every summer for more than three decades, to fish for salmon in Bristol Bay. I was eager to hear about it. There was surprisingly little to tell, Jeb said, about what had turned out after all to be a “surprisingly normal” salmon season once they got out on the water. Beforehand, “There were loud voices absolutely opposed to letting us fishermen come into the state,” he said. Native communities especially had strong collective memories of the Spanish flu, which had hit Alaska in 1919, later than most of the rest of the world. In the flu’s aftermath, people venturing into empty villages had found emaciated children cowering alone in houses, and dogs eating corpses.
“I was frankly surprised that you were able to go after all,” I said.
“It was all touch and go,” he acknowledged. “There was a bunch of paperwork we had to file.” A big concern had been whether the coronavirus would hit the processing crews, halting the freezing of millions of salmon and shutting down the fishery, but that didn’t happen.
We walked east on 65th then south on Brooklyn Avenue, on the block where the house is where Jeb first met Darci. We walked down the east side of the block, then back up it. Jeb found himself disoriented and consternated. “I think we walked by it,” he said. “But the fence is gone. I painted that fence. It was kind of a pink/mauve. Now, I’m reflecting that, ‘How can I not remember?’ And I’m looking for that fence.” He called his wife and got her voicemail. I could hear her outgoing message: “Hi, you’ve reached Darci Wyman …”
“Honey, what was the address of that house?” said Jeb into his phone.
It turned out to be the blue house at 6410 Brooklyn Ave NE. Jeb verified this when we went around to the alley behind it (where we also stumbled on a randomly situated hidden gem of a Henry mural). “Yeah, that’s it,” he said. “That’s a new deck.” Jeb had stayed in the house in 1991 when it was owned by Bob Mack, the “chief” or engineer of the five-man crew of the Alaska crab boat Jeb had worked on that winter on the Bering Sea. “He taught me to do that job.” Bob ended up being the best man at Jeb’s wedding. He spent years on the Bering Sea, but drowned in the Cle Elum river in a terrible accident in 2005. Bob’s two sons, Garrett and Connor, are now crewmen on Jeb’s boat. Looking up at the new deck from the alley, Jeb remembered: “I accidentally tipped a can of turpentine over and it fell down onto a rosebush, which immediately died. And Bob’s wife was just livid. I bought her a new one to try to placate her.”
We returned to Brooklyn Ave and headed south to the steps down into Cowen Park, which connects to the larger and wooded Olmsted-designed Ravenna Park in the ravine under the 15th Avenue NE bridge. We walked into the ravine as far as the bridge but clambered back up to street level there, because I wanted to walk through the University District.
In The New York Review of Books dated October 22, Caroline Fraser remembers her grandparents’ “modest house at the top of Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill, with two small bedrooms and a tiny bath, valued at $2,000 during the 1940 census, the equivalent of around $35,000 today.”
Sold long ago, the house still stands, now with four bedrooms and three baths. It’s currently worth close to $1.2 million, well above Seattle’s recent median price for a single-family home, $760,000. Driven by ballooning growth at Amazon and other Seattle tech employers, the city’s housing costs have risen by around 10 percent annually in recent years, with home values rising 85 percent since 2012. Were they living now, my grandparents, laborers without much education, could never afford to rent or buy a house in their old neighborhood.
Seattle’s latest Hooverville is everywhere and nowhere, with the homeless population rising steeply over the past decade, reaching a high of over 12,000 in 2018, with more than half living “unsheltered.” (The total dropped to 11,200 last year.) People crowd into encampments next to highways, railroad tracks, or train trestles, under bridges, on city sidewalks, in their cars. They stay temporarily in shelters or sleep on park benches and in doorways, parking lots, alleys, abandoned buildings, campgrounds, and beaches.
Twenty-twelve (see above) is the year Jenny and I had the extreme good fortune, really sheer dumb luck, to be able to buy our own modest two-bedroom house in Greenwood, and that 85 percent rise is close to what we understand has happened to its value since then. Prior to that we rented together for five years, and prior to that we rented separately. Talk about dodging a bullet. Among the trees in the median along Ravenna Boulevard between 15th Ave and University Way were several tents. Jeb and I registered and remarked on them, but it’s hard anymore to summon astonishment, although I did succeed in doing that a month or two ago when I was running errands in Ballard and happened on the tent city lining the entire perimeter of the city-block-sized Ballard Commons Park between 57th and 58th streets west of 22nd Ave NW, kitty-corner from the library. There are tents along the northern edge of Greenwood Park, right around the corner from our house, and we notice them but we also avert our eyes. I’ve lost the capacity to be astonished, but what does come to mind every time I see a homeless tent in Seattle is another of those things my Grandma Casey used to say: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Down University Way – locally dubbed “The Ave” – at 55th Street we took note of the condemned three-story wooden building on the northeast corner, maybe a rooming house in the way-before time. Its NOTICE OF LAND USE ACTION sign was completely defaced by graffiti, as were its two boarded-up storefronts at street level. We walked on south then west through the parking lot of the repurposed big old wooden school – vintage public architecture so characteristic of Seattle neighborhoods – where the U District farmers’ market is held. At Roosevelt near where 50th crosses the freeway is the public library branch, a Carnegie, on the northwest corner, and across from it on the southwest corner the Seven Gables Theater, now closed. In the same shingled building, around the corner from the theater on Roosevelt, is Ristorante Doria, also closed – in fact boarded up, surrounded by a chain link fence, with a broken window and smothered in graffiti.
“Holy fuck!” exclaimed Jeb. “That was Mama Melina’s.” Where Jeb and Darci held the rehearsal dinner before their wedding in 1993. “I didn’t expect, after Bob’s house, to come across any more landmarks from my life.”
South of Trader Joe’s on Roosevelt is a building I never really noticed until a few weeks ago, when driving past I saw that the bike shop that curved around the corner onto 45th had closed and the space was for lease. It’s a single-story tan building with decorative green-striped columns demarcating the separate retail spaces and a red-tile roof, across 45th from the Shell station and kitty-corner from the strip mall with the legal weed shop called The Joint. Quite an interesting building if you sit and look at it for a while, as Jeb and I did from across the street. Probably at least a century old and maybe historically protected, to judge by how the much more recent and otherwise blah AMC Seattle 10 multi-plex behind it sports the same color and roof tiles. It would be a good class assignment for students of Jeb’s colleague Joel Shaver, who likes to ask students to research and write about the history of locations and items around Seattle. A lot of history must have happened in that building. Right now it’s empty.
We headed east on 45th to the UW Tower. The new through street at Brooklyn Ave, revamped in tandem with construction of the light rail station here, looks complete, though the chain link fence is still up. We walked past it, and past the Neptune Theater where Jenny and I heard David Crosby and his excellent young bandmates play their sublime Here If You Listen album (plus a few hoary hits, but only a few) on November 2, 2018, one of the most memorable concerts of my life for multiple reasons. On June 7 of this year, the day I helped Jenny move out of her office cubicle in the tower, the Neptune’s marquee read:
SEATTLE, WE LOVE YOU
SEE YOU AGAIN SOON
Today, Jeb and I passed the Neptune then rounded the corner onto the Ave, to where you can see how the light rail construction has affected the small businesses on the short block of 43rd Street across from the post office, including Samir’s Mediterranean Grill, where we had lunch last November after I sat in on a KUOW radio interview Jeb did about his book for airing on Veterans Day. I usually get the marinated chicken pita wrap, but that day we shared a large Mediterranean salad. “One of the great lunches of my life,” Jeb enthused now. “I remember the table we sat at. And I drank two Diet Cokes.”
Samir’s was always my go-to lunch place in the U District, and might be again. A couple years ago I asked Samir whether the light rail construction was hurting his business, and he said yes, it was. The owner of the building was enlisting him and other tenants to confront Sound Transit, in court if necessary, to insist on some form of relief for lost business from the effects of construction delays. If they couldn’t work something out, Samir told me, he might decide to go ahead and close. I asked if he might consider finding another location. Nah, he said; he had been in this spot for forty-seven years, after all.
I don’t know how that issue from the before time was resolved, if it was, but now it seems quaint. The light rail station looks near complete now but is still not open. They’re still saying it’s going to open next year along with the one at 65th & Roosevelt, with Northgate to follow in 2022. We’ll see. You can see how, once 43rd Street is reopened and landscaped as promised, the pedestrians-only throughway from the station entrance right past Samir’s to the Ave would be good for business, if the world were still normal and people were riding public transit again. “He’s in a good place,” Jeb assured me. “People getting on and off the train. Good times are waiting for him. I think.”
We headed east again, crossed 15th Avenue NE, and headed uphill onto the campus of the University of Washington, past recently renovated historic Denny Hall, onto the Quad where the Japanese cherry trees planted in 1936 bloom gloriously every March. This March, the campus was closed – it was the first campus to close, in fact – and the Quad was off-limits. Now we could walk through it, and did, but on this Thursday of the first week of the fall academic quarter of a major American university there were hardly more than a dozen people on the Quad. There were even fewer on Red Square further south.
Back on June 7, after Jenny and I cleared out her office cubicle, we took the opportunity to have our daily walk on campus, which slopes downhill southeastwards from 45th Street to Montlake and is beautifully landscaped. The campus was always one of Jenny’s favorite things about the university, and our walk that day left her feeling nostalgic. “I’m going to miss working in basically a park,” she said. We saw lots of invasive bindweed that late-spring day, and grass growing up through the roses in the beds surrounding the fountain, and big clumps of herb robert. But we also saw several bunnies. We appreciated the magnificent Rainier view from the fountain, and the herb garden, and the bust of Edvard Grieg (I used to think it was Mark Twain) in a wooded hideaway near Thomson Hall where Jenny used to enjoy eating her lunch, and the sylvan grove (which I hadn’t known about) with the plaque explaining the cedar ionic columns moved from the original downtown campus by the class of 1911 and restored in 2008 “after nearly 100 years in our Pacific Northwest climate” by the class of 1956. It was as we sat on a bench in the sylvan grove that Jenny said, “Yeah, I wonder what I’ll do in the future.”
Not quite four months later, Jeb and I were sitting on a wall near the fountain as he told me about his conversation near the end of this summer’s Bristol Bay salmon season with Mike Sparks, owner of a shop called Alaska Net, when he went in to pay his bill for the season.
“We’re good buddies,” Jeb assured me. “I’ve known him for years and have spent many thousands of dollars there on hydraulic hoses and fittings, and stainless steel nuts, bolts, and screws, and electric switches and wire. Not things you can walk into Lowe’s hardware and find. To me it’s just a magical little shop, because it has everything you could need to keep a Bristol Bay fishing boat out there fishing. And I’ve told him what a debt of gratitude I owe him for keeping this fleet fishing. He’s got buoys, nets, twine, rope. I could go on and on.
“The CHOP [Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, also known as CHAZ or Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone] was happening when I went to Alaska in June, and I lost the news for about a month there, and this was technically at the end of the season. This was at the end of July. And he said, ‘Jeb, tell me what’s going on at the colleges. Is it true all the professors are socialists and communists?’
“And if I hadn’t been in a hurry I would have had to say, ‘Mike, I think you’ve been watching too much Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.’ And he’s a nice guy. I think we could have had a conversation. I’ve earned his respect, and not just by paying my bills. I said, ‘Well, Mike, you know who I am. I’m a pretty ordinary guy. Most of my colleagues are pretty ordinary guys, like me.’”
We walked through the sylvan grove and out the other side, where it turned out we were almost directly across 25th Avenue NE from Husky Stadium. “Just to note, there’s our hospital,” I said, turning and indicating the main University of Washington Medical Center behind us on the south side of NE Pacific Street.
“Yeah,” he said. “That corner has massive meaning for me.” Jeb and I were in the same hospital at the same time, exactly a year ago, both for major surgeries, both of which went well. Well, I was there for an infection that followed my surgery a month earlier. Jeb had undergone open-heart surgery to repair a valve in the right side of his heart. A nurse brought him, pushing along a walker, from his wing of the hospital to mine for a brief but memorable visit.
After five days in the cardiac ICU, he’d been moved to another wing. “I hated the food,” Jeb said now with feeling. “And I got out of bed during the night to pee, and this alarm went off in the room, and the nurse came in and yelled at me. And there was a guy in the room next door with some horrible pulmonary condition, sounding like a very large cat trying to vomit over and over again. And I thought, ‘My God, I’m in the madhouse!’
“And my best friend Mike died March 13 from prostate cancer. And I think, ‘If this is the worst thing that ever happens to me …’”
So we headed north and east as planned to where 35th Avenue NE angles up from NE 45th Street east of the University Village mall, and we trudged gamely uphill all the way to Grateful Bread at 35th & 70th, where Jeb got a Caesar salad and I got my usual Grateful Clubhouse sandwich on sourdough, to go of course, and we sat on a low wall in an alley nearby and gratefully ate our late and well-earned lunch. While Jeb was disposing of our trash I checked my email on my phone, as one does. And there was an email from William L. Andrews, who was my professor for two American literature classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during my junior year, 1985-86. It turned out he had read my diary entry of September 28 and felt moved to tell me:
Ethan, I know darn well that your portrait of Grandma Casey was heartfelt, genuine, and very touching. Thanks for introducing me to her. May she rest in peace and always be remembered for the generous Micah 6:8 soul that your well-wrought memories in your diary show her to have been.
Bill was one of my most important teachers, and The South in American Literature – which I confess I signed up for mainly because I had already read several of the books on the syllabus, so I figured to save work – was seminal for me. The class was so good that I reread all those books anyway, and I wrote my best college paper on All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.
Bill was very generous to me, personally and intellectually, both during and after college. And here he was back in touch again, thirty-five years later. So Jeb returned from the trash can and I read Bill’s note to him.
And to my surprise he cried, “William Andrews! I took The American Short Story from him in 1985. He wouldn’t know me from Adam, but he read ‘Ethiopia Saluting the Colors’ by Walt Whitman out loud on the first day of that class, even though it’s a poem and not a short story, and to this day I still read that poem to my students.”
Then we headed west on the home stretch, past the huge glacial Wedgwood Rock in someone’s front yard where 29th Ave NE meets NE 72nd Street, and past the Dahl Playfield at 25th & 77th, where Jeb said, “Just a few days after I met Darci, she was a softball player, and she was playing at this field. I didn’t think we’d get to see yet one more landmark.” And then, get this, west and north to the park over the covered reservoir above 80th Street east of Roosevelt, where Jeb remarked: “The Snappy Dragon, at 90th & Roosevelt, is my favorite Chinese place in the city.”
“That’s our Chinese place of choice too,” I told him. “Judy Fu.”
“Judy Fu,” he affirmed. “Dayna, Darci’s older sister, went to high school with David Fu.”
“Well, we’re gonna walk past it,” I told him.
“Holy shit! Not another landmark!”
And yet further westward ho we wended, crossing the freeway on 92nd, past the brutalist North Seattle College and Pilling’s Pond, the lovingly maintained private waterfowl preserve on 90th near where the two new schools were built a few years ago, and across busy Aurora Avenue and thence home. And I think it was on 90th, on our side of Aurora, that I snapped a pic of a homemade lawn sign of the times:
DEPENDS ON IT