Novelist Gary Shteyngart's Seattle
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T+L soaks up the city’s literary ambience and culinary delights, its late-night characters and early-morning coffee shops.
As the plane begins its descent into Seattle’s airport I write on the inside cover of my notebook: ‘New take on Seattle necessary for article. Avoid all weather clichés and weather by-products. No rain, no melancholy, no coffee, no flannel, no grunge.’
It’s not going to be easy. As we cut through the melancholy, leaden sky, the new Boeings parked on the tarmac of Boeing Field like so many late-model cars, our airplane shakes from the crosswind on approach, pelted by the Northwest’s machine-gun fire of rain, the remains of my coffee spilling onto my flannel shirt, and the chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” queuing up in the Wurlitzer of my mind. “Hello, hello, hello, how low.” Welcome to Seattle. Always different. Always the same.
I write fiction for a living, so I go to Seattle a lot. Perhaps because of homegrown amazon.com, perhaps in spite of it, Seattle (and its smaller cousin Portland, Oregon) are the last places in America where books are still a dominant part of the culture, consumed, discussed, pondered, and critiqued with gusto. But let’s hold off on the literary for a moment. Seattle is a frame of mind. Nature surely wasn’t on sabbatical when she conjured up this landscape of hills and water. Even the world’s most distracted person will find room for serious meditation and introspection here, a place for the mind to power down into a deep regenerative sleep as a fresh drizzle plays against the windowpane. I’m on the life-affirming ferry ride from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, the city’s rather quaint steel-and-glass skyline receding behind me, nature rushing in to tickle the eye with aquatic sparkles of sun, the green, hibernating islands strung out across the horizon like outstretched arms. A big, bearded man choking on his loneliness tells me the story of his life, which concludes with the line “I was too stressed out working at the Hilton, so now I just take the ferry back and forth.” This seems to me to sum up some greater Pacific Northwestern wisdom. Cue the melancholy—this is not a city that chooses to turn its back on sadness. There are many things to do in Seattle but after a while, with a sense of resignation, one just may take the ferry back and forth.
These days Seattle is hovering on the edge of greatness. If and when a comprehensive light-rail system is finally built, easing the city’s Bangkok-grade traffic jams, that “world city” effect may well be achieved. But not everyone may be pleased. More than just about any other city in America, Seattle is a city of fierce neighborhood patriots, all attached to their particular hills like the Romans.
My friend Christopher Frizzelle is one such patriot of a particular hill, in his case Capitol Hill, perched commandingly over downtown, one of the world’s great full-service neighborhoods, awash in everything from Seattle-style Indian thali to salted-caramel ice cream. Chris works at America’s strangest and clearly best alternative newspaper, named, appropriately enough, The Stranger. How strange is The Stranger? It recently ran an article on Seattle’s six sexiest trees. The paper gave rise to the acerbic and hilarious Dan Savage and is the only media outlet I can think of that has promoted its book critic to the role of editor-in-chief. That, again, would be Chris Frizzelle, who describes his tenure as “the best job on the West Coast.” His reaction to the Occupy Seattle movement: “I will say this: The homeless have become a lot more attractive.”
Any visitor could tell you that Seattle is on the whole a welcoming, unpretentious city, but it is best to harness the town’s quirky (read: insane) residents to expose its nooks and crannies, not to mention sexiest trees. So for an entire week I handed myself over to Chris and Bethany Jean Clement, The Stranger’s managing editor and food critic, and to a small group of Seattle friends. We ate, we drank, we drank and ate, we scrambled all over town in a series of increasingly contentious cab rides, we read books, we looked at fish and clouds and did some other things that I can’t remember.
But did I mention that we read books? Seattle is home to the Elliott Bay Book Company, a legendary fixture of downtown’s Pioneer Square that recently relocated to Capitol Hill. The Book Company has hosted readings by anybody who’s anybody, from Seattle resident Sherman Alexie to gadfly Ralph Nader. But the best reading series in Seattle may not involve any writers at all. These are Chris’s regular readings held at the historic Sorrento Hotel. No bearded poets mounting the podium here. People simply gather with their books and read. Kind of like your college library, except it is held in the Sorrento’s gorgeous Fireside Room, replete with plush banquettes, an original fireplace, and, very much unlike your college library, an excellent selection of liquor. Passing through the sweet reverential quiet of people turning the pages of books and taking the occasional slurp of single-malt, I spot Moby Dick, Mary Karr, and Vladimir Nabokov, a heady selection, consumed by about 60 people from young women in dreadlocks to walrus-mustached Kindle warriors. The hush, the gentle communion, along with the flicker of intent conversation, permeates the alcoholic glow of the room. These are some of the most attractive people I’ve seen in Seattle, and their noses are buried in books and booze. An intense young man flipping through a volume called Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America tells me, “I got it from the library!”
The Seattle Central Library of which he speaks is itself a wonder, one of the first significant buildings in the United States by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. After a roll down First Hill from the Sorrento Hotel, I see Koolhaas’s library sparkling in the middle of the dull downtown core like a dark crystal. Set within the business district’s no-frills street grid, the library’s angled sheaths of glass skin conceal a chartreuse dream world of tomes, escalators, and reading spaces, the blue slivers of Elliott Bay peeking between the city’s towers. Looking out upon the water with a book in hand, one feels present inside a giant hive mind, a perfect balance of the interior and exterior life that defines Seattle.
The next day, Chris and Bethany and I head to lunch at Café Presse, on Capitol Hill. Every neighborhood in the world should have a replica of the Presse. The décor is minimal Northwestern, and Seattle’s cool kids are actually more like cool adults. The crowd here skews older than you would find in Brooklyn or in San Francisco’s Mission. The Caffé Vita brand café au lait is masterful. The sweet saffron-and-garlic soup is possibly as creamy as the aforementioned café au lait. “It’s one of my favorite things,” Bethany says of Café Presse’s signature dish of two eggs broiled with ham and Gruyère. This is high praise from a foodie who described a side dish of fried green tomatoes at an overblown new downtown restaurant as “tasting like sand.” Bethany spent her formative years away from her hometown—Swarthmore, San Francisco twice, Prague. But she will always come back. As she puts it: “Two mountain ranges; two bodies of water; on a sunny day, it’s the most beautiful city in the world.” Café Presse is effortlessly cosmopolitan. It’s one of the few places in the neighborhood where you can watch soccer games and, should the inexplicable urge strike you, score fresh copies of Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Monde Diplomatique.
Under Bethany’s direction, I head for Seattle’s relatively tiny International District (née Chinatown) to check out a Vietnamese joint with the soothing name of Green Leaf. The restaurant’s interior is functional, but the duck-and-cabbage salad is a revelation, a magic mountain of cilantro, fresh and flavorful cabbage, and ginger sauce, all crowned with fatty ribbons of duck and pinches of fried onion and mint. The banh xeo crêpe filled with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts—each taste vying for crazy supremacy—is wrapped in a lettuce leaf and dipped into a tangy fish sauce. It’s a dish that could dissolve into a cesspool of grease, but instead has strong flavor and good karma, not to mention a dessert-like sweetness that reminds me of Macao’s famous custard cakes.
For dinner, I join friends in Seattle’s current grungy (forgive me) neighborhood of the moment, the industrially deformed, airport-adjacent Georgetown. Out here we find ourselves completely cut off from Capitol Hill’s fine selection of French newspapers, but beneath a freeway overpass we encounter another unlikely jewel, the charming Corson Building, a restaurant by the owner of Capitol Hill’s beloved Sitka & Spruce. This former Italian stonemason’s house delights with a lion-faced fireplace, rustic communal tables, exposed brick, and the softest of autumnal candlelight. The food is creatively spectacular, marching right off the day’s menu and into your waiting mouth. On our visit we go ape over an elastic, complex geoduck, cured pork loin with green almonds still in their furry green skins, buttery morels, and Dungeness crab so fresh and true that, as far as I’m concerned, this dish alone makes living in the Pacific Northwest worthwhile.
We walk out of the restaurant’s fine vegetable garden, as bucolic as you can get for being practically under a freeway, and into the strange, diesel-scented Georgetown night. Here the freight trains still thunder by the 9lb Hammer bar, which has been drawing vast crowds into its high-ceilinged, dimly lit industrial space, formerly used as cold storage but now suffused with deep, boozy warmth.
The darkened, red-lit bordello effect is big in Seattle’s other nightspots too. Back on the Hill (as in Capitol Hill), I visit the barely-one-year-old Unicorn Bar, which fearlessly combines 19 different aesthetics, including taxidermy and zebra stripes. It’s a familiar scene: creatively ambitious sexy people eating upscale themed snacks, in this case circus-basket food including fried cornichons with whipped dill cream cheese, elephant ears, and the “original corn dog hand-dipped with love.” The young bouncer wearing 15 pounds of metal sits down, shirking his bouncing duties, and, for reasons I can no longer recall, regales me with tales of his hobo days. “Been train hoppin’ since I was fourteen. Went as far as Philadelphia. Tunnels are a problem.” With this many unique characters someone should write a novel about Seattle. Not me, though.
The next morning my notes look like they fell out of a vat of cider. Apparently we went to the Capitol Hill fixture Linda’s Tavern, a nice down-home bar and reputedly the last place Kurt Cobain was seen alive. At Pony, a raucous gay bar within striking distance, I noted that the punk bouncer was deep into Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. After that, nothing really makes sense.
The best place to recover from a Seattle night out is Gas Works Park. I sit on the sun-warmed grass and stare at the postindustrial wonderland that once was the Seattle Gas Light Company’s gasification plant, its rusted structures abutting the central Lake Union like the skeleton of a particularly dear mammoth. Seaplanes are landing, athletes rowing, the skyline glittering, the college kids are getting high. When the sun is out everything feels possible. Seattle is your Dungeness oyster, a land of unfettered blue and green.
I haven’t had a perfect day in an American city in ages, so I feel the need to shout out about this one. It did not take place in any post-Cobain hipster utopia. Instead, Chris and I spend a day in Ballard, which began life as a Scandinavian fishing village about a half-hour’s drive northwest of downtown. The term village is both out of date and fits precisely. Easygoing, nature-blessed Ballard cuts the concept of urbanity into thin, tasty apple slices. It helps that we set out on a day as lovely as any and that everyone we encounter is buoyed by the sun. For breakfast we get into a Soviet-long line at the infamous Café Besalu, but the results are well worth it: a seductive cardamom pretzel; an expletive of an asparagus, Manchego, and ham quiche; a Russian tea cookie snowdrifted in sugar; an orange-glazed brioche that lands like a warm, moist patch on the tongue. With excellent coffee in our bellies, we feel awake and ready to hit Ballard’s aquatic landscape.
The edges of the fishing village are lined with boatyards, and we walk with a caffeinated step along the sunlit train tracks that skirt the yards, running into the most authentic hobo camp I’ve ever seen, seemingly lifted straight out of the WPA era.
We spend an inordinate amount of time hanging out by the Ballard Locks, watching the boats lifted and lowered into place with a kind of innocent fascination, as if this were some gentle running of the bulls. There’s a drama to the locks, the spray of greenish water, the taut lines tying the boats together, the boat captains preparing their craft, the anticipation of entry and departure. The heavy moss coating the locks reminds me that Seattle is one of the most lush, fertile cities out there. To accentuate that fact we head to the nearby Ballard Locks Fish Ladder, built to allow fish to go around the dams and other man-made objects on the way to their spawning grounds. Seeing the fishies drift out to sea is beautiful. In the darkened viewing room we watch sweet-looking juvenile salmon get pulled out of the Lake Washington watershed on their way to the Pacific.
My finest Ballard discovery of this trip is a Spanish tapas bar named Ocho that is slightly off the tourist strip of Ballard Avenue, attached like a little mole to the side of an Azteca chain restaurant and a divorce lawyer’s office. A snug place that feels like it has been there since the Inquisition, it features copper, tin and gilded mirrors, and about 30 people crammed into heaven. All it needs to match a real Spanish tapas bar are some spent napkins on the floor. We chug unremarkable Estrella lager to capture the authentic Spanishness, and match it with thick, olive-soaked jamón serrano, salty anchovies exuding pepper and brine, a toothpick banderilla holding together chorizo, apple marmalade, and Valdeón blue cheese, then more courses of cold, smooth asparagus gazpacho, flaky lamb meatballs slathered in wine, and a deviled egg with caviar, soft and spicy, like the Platonic ideal of a deviled egg. Ocho is one of the best, most authentic, and happiest restaurants I have visited in years. The New York tapas bar scene, highly evolved by North American standards, feels crude by comparison. Two guys, probably with the combined age of 42, work the kitchen, and $53 pays for a full drunken meal for two. I love Seattle.
“You have to leave it to love it,” a waitress said of the Emerald City, and saying farewell is tough. I end my visit at the Six Seven Lounge at the Edgewater Hotel by Seattle’s waterfront, not far from Pike Place Market. This area—and nearby Belltown—has seen much development in recent years, including the opening of the Olympic Sculpture Park and a new Four Seasons hotel. With a last stiff drink of the week, I soak in one of the most beautiful views in Seattle: pleasant Alki Beach Park across the way, the Olympic Range crowning the horizon like a crew of white-haired giants, a lone kayaker rolling across the water. Filled to the brim with tourists, Edgewater is not the edgiest place in Seattle, but when the sun begins to set, it may well be the most cathartic. The ferries plying their way majestically through the bay remind me of impending travel, and of that lonely, bearded former Hilton employee who spends his days taking the ferry back and forth. I raise this final glass to him and to others like him. Sometimes, in the right city, at the right time in your life, and with the right book and the right drink by your side, it’s okay to be alone.
The city’s Link Light rail system offers train service every 15 minutes from Sea-Tac Airport to several downtown stations. Visit soundtransit.org.
Great Value Hotel 1000 Large and futuristic-feeling, the hotel is ideal for business travelers and located within walking distance of Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. 1000 First Ave.; 877/315-1088; hotel1000seattle.com; doubles from $249.
Great Value Sorrento Hotel The 1909 hotel’s 76 guest rooms are decorated with carved wooden moldings, Victorian furniture, and Italian marble. 900 Madison St.; 800/426-1265; hotelsorrento.com; doubles from $175.
Café Besalu 5909 24th Ave. N.W., Ballard; 206/789-1463; breakfast for two $16.
Café Presse 1117 12th Ave.; 206/709-7674; lunch for two $46.
Corson Building 5609 Corson Ave. S.; 206/762-3330; prix fixe for two $180.
Green Leaf Vietnamese Restaurant 418 Eighth Ave. S.; 206/340-1388; lunch for two $30.
Linda’s Tavern 707 E. Pine St.; 206/325-1220; drinks for two $12.
9lb Hammer Bar 6009 Airport Way S.; 206/762-3373; drinks for two $12.
Ocho 2325 Market St. N.W., Ballard; 206/784-0699; dinner for two $30.
Pony 1221 E. Madison St.; 206/324-2854; drinks for two $10.
Unicorn Bar 1118 E. Pike St.; 206/325-6492; drinks for two $16.
Butter Home A trendy home-décor and artisan gift shop inside Capitol Hill’s Melrose Market. 1531 Melrose Ave.; 206/623-2626; butterhomeseattle.com.
Graypants Textured, sculptural furniture is displayed at this cutting-edge design studio. 3220 First Ave. S.; 206/420-3912; graypants.com.
Luly Yang Couture The home-grown designer offers couture evening and wedding gowns. 1218 Fourth Ave.; 206/623-8200; lulyyang.com.
Chihuly Garden & Glass Vibrant glass sculptures and installations by renowned Washington artist Dale Chihuly. Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St.; no phone; chihulygardenandglass.com.
Seattle Art Museum The “Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise” (February 9–April 29) exhibition showcases 50 of his paintings and sculptures. 1300 First Ave.; 206/?654-3100; seattleartmuseum.org; admission from $23.
Seattle Central Library 1000 Fourth Ave.; 206/386-4636; spl.org.
Seattle Symphony An energetic new conductor, Ludovic Morlot, spearheads its acclaimed contemporary music program. Benaroya Hall, 200 University St.; 206/215-4747; seattlesymphony.org.