Why do we bother? Because Seattle is worth it, that’s why. Ron Judd’s dysfunctional-love letter from the future imagines what we’ve lost — and what no one can take away.
OH, WE LOVE this place, all right. Sure we do. In spite of ourselves, basically, and more and more often, against our better judgment. How could we not?
Some of us try. Most of us fail and keep coming back, head hung imperceptibly with shame. The dysfunctional relationship rolls on, clunk by clunk, like a river rock bouncing down the Skykomish.
Well, there’s a history, you say. And you’d be correct.
Being smitten with a city, a region, a place — especially one as unique as Greater Seattle — is not that much different from falling for a person: It comes on unexpectedly, washing over you like the rogue wave that freezes your giblets while you’re mindlessly combing the beach for agates at Copalis.
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It’s almost that fast, and the power of it is exhilarating enough to make you not only pumped to embrace the future, but willing to overlook the low-grade misery of the recent past. Think about this: How many times have you trudged through the horizontal rain; cursed at a half-block-long line to see a mediocre movie; or waited through three cycles of Metro buses and asked yourself, “Why?”
Why put up with it? Why bother? Why not leave?
Answer: Because falling out of love with a place, just like cutting ties with a person who reset your heart rhythm from beat to throb, is a process. Anyone can declare himself done for good on a bad, midwinter week like, say, this one, when Seattle’s most-irritating maladies — rents and taxes that are too damn high, permanent gridlock, a seeming loss of whatever once kept the place real — are pounded home by the mind-numbing reality that it now officially starts to get dark right after lunch.
Break up with Seattle? Go ahead. Check the flight sked to Palm Springs. Book that U-Haul. Humor yourself.
Because a few months from now, still in your faux fed-upness, the sun will cut through the layers of heavy dank, sending you down to grab a double fish and chips at the Ivar’s on Northlake, where you snag a seat on the old floating dining barge. You’ll gaze across Lake Union and see the synchronized chaos — sailboats and ships; kayaks and canoes; a guy paddling a stand-up board in shorts, jacket and tie; and float planes dodging insanely between the Space Needle and all the rest of it. And you will be forced to admit it: this place. Nothing like it in the whole world.
SOME OF US, of course, eventually break that pattern of dysfunction. Certain unforgivable events will come along — the departure of the Sonics, maybe, or the arrival of Kshama Sawant — and we realize we’re just done. (A personal-experience side note: While much of the flight from Seattle now clearly is economic, for most, other factors contribute. One is simply aging; at some point, a lot of us decide throbbing urbanity is fine, but just not for us anymore. Or, people couple up, kids come along and everyone wants his own swing set. We flee for the hinterlands. It happens.)
But from whatever distance, we always keep a watchful, nostalgic eye on our first place-crush. We see the unarguable upsides of a more-diverse, thriving urban core, but retain the native’s self-proclaimed right to gripe about lost paradise and reminisce about the old days when Bumbershoot was free; at least a few neighborhoods were middle-class; and Seattle Center did not feature an outlet mall for Dale Chihuly, blower of glass.
Could some of the present unpleasantness have been avoided through smarter planning? Sure. But rather than dwell on that, it might be more constructive to consider that for many newly arrived Seattleites — most of us, after all, have arrived within the past 20 years, a good number in the past five — these are those first-crush “good old days” that many of us middle-aged natives remember from a generation past.
To them, this Seattle is the shining pearl — a stark contrast to a previous locale that was in most respects less pleasant. And a generation from now, it is they — the current hipsters and trust-funders and coders and builders enamored with the place as it is — who might be lamenting the Seattle that was, or should have been.
And so: Just for fun, and to exercise the license that comes with fresh-start, new-year thinking, allow us to shove you forward 25 years for a speculative look back at where Seattleites went right — and wrong — in keeping their love of place alive.
SCENE: DOWNTOWN BALLARD. Year: 2042.
From your corner table in Hattie’s Hat (“Ballard’s Last Stand — STILL”), you take your last bite of the steak-fried chicken-fried chicken breakfast special ($68.95) and look out the window. The radar masts of superyachts moored along the Rolf Neslund Body Parts Memorial Ship Canal are shuddering. Seconds later, the ground shakes a bit, as well.
You race outside, look down the street, and there it is: A Sound Transit light-rail train, the first ever to arrive from downtown, has pulled into the station — the culmination of a forward-thinking regional transit plan that ran a decade, and a couple trillion, over budget, a fact that absolutely could not have been foreseen. Across the quaint train’s bullet-shaped nose is a decal, carefully placed by workers from the radical-urbanist junta that occupied City Hall in 2019 and never left. The slogan reads: “Vision Zero: REALIZED!!!”
A small ceremony ensues, during which the Last Car in Seattle — ironically, a minty, battery-powered, 2026 Tesla T-Rex — is ritualistically bashed to bits by the great grandson of television celebrity auto dealer Dick Balch. As a piped-in recording of accordion music performed by local legend Stan Boreson plays through the implanted brain chips of bystanders, two doddering old men shuffle off the train and head toward their shared public-housing unit. How nice, you think to yourself, that failed Mayor Mike McGinn and bankrupt hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen are still so close.
Walking up the former Market Street, now Quad-Jammer Macchiato (R) Way, you pop into a Starbucks, take a seat and pull from your pocket your NewsRag combination reader/lens cloth/snot receptacle — an early example of the New Capitalism principles of the 2020s that focused on producing goods that combined the functions of previous goods whose markets long ago were saturated. You spread it on the table, and as soon as the NewsRag links up with JeffNet, the Amazon-controlled satellite space-Fi web, your personally tailored Seattle Times newsblaster feeds you the top stories of the moment:
• Skirmishes are reported along the Demilitarized Zone running through Red Square at the University of Washington, established in 2022 after negotiations between the campus’ major ruling personal-pronoun factions, the “They’s” and the “Xe’s,” broke down in a hail of small-arms fire and other aggressions, both micro- and otherwise.
• On the U-Dub’s lower campus, the Nike Athletic Chancellor was rumored to be working up a $12.6 billion extension to the contract of 77-year-old football coach Chris Petersen, whose unfortunate record of losing seven separate national-championship games, each on a botched trick play, had been offset by his team’s 26-year winning streak over the archrival Washington State Community College Cougars in the annual Delt-A-Laska Airlines Apple Cup.
• Officials at the Hanford nuclear reservation said they were nearing a definitive plan to deal with the 4.5 pints of highly radioactive nuclear waste — a leftover from the First Cold War — that had not already flowed into the Columbia River and on to the Pacific Ocean, merging with similar contamination from Fukushima, Japan, to form a floating neon light show the size of Texas.
• A cluster of historians at The Evergreen State College in Olympia announced a new multiyear study of the lamentable demise of self-driving automobiles. The gizmos by 2024 had emerged as a promising solution to regional traffic woes, only to be abandoned after control chips developed a form of extremely low-grade intelligence and began bunching up at annoyingly slow speeds in the left lane of every freeway.
• A Times correspondent in Portland reported that the place continued to be self-obsessed, pretentious and annoying.
• In Redmond, officials at Microsoft announced a pending single-step “hotfix” for a new computer operating system, Windows Closed. They hoped it might allow users to place an image into an MS Word document, and then move it to another location without bollixing up every computerized device between Seattle and Los Angeles.
• A new January record temperature of 136 degrees was reported in Toppenish, Yakima County. Octogenarian UW weather guru Cliff Mass blamed the media.
SUDDENLY DEPRESSED, you wad up your NewsRag and head down the street toward home in Fremont. The moving sidewalks are alive with foreign tongues — Russian, mostly — the new language of this ’hood since the 2030s, when, during a wave of romanticism for the trappings of totalitarianism, boatloads of disaffected Eastern Europeans flocked here and stayed. Where else could they have gone to find a properly maintained statue of Lenin, let alone a sea of the finest surviving examples of traditional Soviet Bloc architecture?
You arrive home at your 112-square-foot sleeping pod. Thanks to the wholesale abandonment, in 2020, of exclusionary zoning codes, it is located in the basement of a 112,000-square-foot summer house owned by an early Amazon.com investor smart enough to cash out before the seizure of assets during the third Trump administration. It’s not really comfortable, but at a rent-controlled rate of $5,100 a month, moderately affordable.
Scratching your gray beard, your mind drifts back to the good ol’ days. You still remember the youthful exuberance of a city whose semipro baseball team, the Seattle Mariners, had gone only four decades without a pennant — and that seemed like a long time. You recall the days when Boeing, long ago relocated to various points south, still made airplanes in the large Renton buildings now occupied by the Ed Murray Memorial Homeless City, RV Camp and Water Slide Extravaganza.
You chuckle over memories of city leaders, triple-dipping in the Stupid Well, falling for yet another corporate-welfare scam (financed through a small bump in the sales tax, to a current rate of 68.5 percent) to build a new arena for a pro hoops team, which, seven years later, relocated, once again, to Oklahoma City, replacing a franchise that had moved on to Paducah, Ky. What were the freaking odds?
You recall with fondness those glory days when South Lake Union was on the rise, alive with the shuffling feet and glazed expressions of Amazombies — before e-commerce went teats-up and actor Trey Smith bought out large chunks of the crumbling, glass-walled slum to film the remake of his father’s post-apocalyptic “I Am Legend.” (The scene of those wild tigers mating atop a Home Depot-door desk inside the glass “Bezos Balls” at Amazon HQ was worth the price of admission.)
You heave a sigh of comfort that some good stuff happened, as well: the surprising burst of growth in maritime shipping traffic, sparked by a 12-year-old Burien kid’s invention of a shipping container with clear plastic sides and a massive, burpable Tupperware lid. The survival of at least some semblance of that edge-of-the-continent spirit of exploration that first made the place great — and all the art and culture that came with it. A healthy respect for the outdoor world, especially when viewed on screens in 120K HD.
And let us not forget those glory years in the late 2020s, when Nucor Steel, a throwback industry in the independent republic of West Seattle, went gangbusters melting down and recycling the entire Northern Pacific fishing fleet into collectible figurines of the long-extinct Pacific wild salmon.
Oh. About that. Yeah, sorry. Everyone long ago agreed not to talk about the orcas.
A FLASHING LIGHT in the corner of your eye, hearkening memories of the old-fashioned doorbell, alerts you to a visitor.
The front portal slides open, and in walks Jedidiah, an agreeable bloke who works as a ground-based backup biped drone for Amazon.com products when inclement flying weather makes the 3.5 Minute Prime Delivery guarantee impossible. Jed, 45, is a member of the generation of “Millennials” who, in their younger years, spent most of their waking hours decrying the bad hand dealt them by earlier generations.
Jed had always pointed out (correctly, but so what) that older Americans had quick-sanded his future by falling victim to their own greed and indifference. Now that many of his own generation is in power, they talked about that much less, so busy were they falling victim to their own greed and indifference. Up and down, round and round and round in the Circle Game.
Jed, too, is frustrated. His gig lifestyle, balancing deliveries with maintenance work on the robotic donut-hole excision machines at Top Pot, and mowing the sprawling lawns at Average Middle-Class Family National Historic Monument over on the Issaquah Plateau, pays just enough for rent; a transit pass; space-Fi; and his staple caloric source, bulk-packaged bags of seconds of Funyuns, a traditional onion-flavored circular snack chip.
He plunks himself on your sofa/bed/table/countertop, zips open a pouch of Red Hook Almost Undrinkably Bitter Ale and props his feet atop your stuffed Labradoodle.
“You ever think about getting out of here?” he asks.
“No way,” you respond, your mind flashing back to the last people who tried to do this, only to be stopped at the Snoqualmie Summit checkpoint and sent back by the Inland Empire Immigration Authority. “I mean, where you gonna go? Detroit?”
“Yeah. I guess me, neither,” he says. “I mean, there’re times when I seriously wonder what makes me stay. I can’t afford it. I work like a dog. Let’s face it: Rich people took over the place 25 years ago. I’m just their serving wench. We had a chance to turn it around when we were younger. But we didn’t, or maybe we couldn’t. So here we are.”
You nod in agreement, uncomfortable with the despair hanging in the air like a bad joke at open-mic night on Capitol Hill. You realize that words of wisdom at a time like this, from the older to the younger, are critical. It’s important to love where you are, where you live, breathe and bleed, and for the next gen to feel the same. And if that place is here, well, how can you not? So you fall back on what’s always worked.
“Hey, were you by chance outside the other day when the smog lifted and you could see the mountain?”
Jed’s lips curl slightly from flat line to half smile, and a glint flashes across his eyes. The angst visibly melts from his body as he remembers that his own corner of the world, horribly imperfect, was still at least notably different — and could be worse! At certain points in history, that has always proved more than enough for some.
“The mountain,” he says, finally relaxing into a slouch. “Yeah, I saw it. Spectacular, man. Nothing like it in the whole world.”