When I first moved up here from the burbs of Portland, Seattle dazzled and intimidated me with her seeming largeness. Whereas Portland has a sense of order about her - streets built on a grid, instead of resembling the scribbles of a kindergarten artist - Seattle, in many parts, feels almost illogical. Or creatively unrestrained, maybe that is more true to our culture here. Whatever the case, one thing that's crept into my soul after ten years of residence in Seattle is this: we're a small town, folks.
I began to feel this after working at my Starbucks for nearly three years now. I run into customers everywhere. Seriously. Hiking Rattlesnake Ridge in North Bend, crowding into a bathroom in a brewery at Leavenworth, attending a semiformal event at McCaw Hall, going to church, grocery shopping in Ballard, hunting for pumpkins at a farm in Marysville, sneaking into a non-Starbucks in the neighborhood, riding the bus across town, flowing along in the river of pedestrians through the Pike Market tunnel, catching a bite of dinner at a small Italian joint in Redmond - everywhere, customers.
And then, there are the people I don't know that lend Seattle a sliver of small town-ness. Like Corrine at Pike Market Saturday morning, perched on her crate stool outside Le Panier, selling Real Change papers. Her gleaming, gold-toothed smile made me slow down as I pulled open the door to the French bakery. "Can I buy you a coffee?" I called out.
"Why thank you, dear! But I've already got one." She pointed to her Starbucks cup. "But that's real nice of you!" We grinned at each other, and I went inside, inhaling the mouth watering fragrance of buttery croissants. It was warm inside, but I glanced back at Corrine, sitting happily outside. I took my coffee outside and leaned against the pole to talk with her. Turns out, she used to work in housekeeping for Swedish hospital. "What's your name, dear?" she asked.
"Ambre? Now that's a purdy name. Never met anyone with that name. Used to have a perfume named Ambre. Do you know that one? It was real nice, strong scent, didn't need much of it, if ya know what I mean. I think it came out in 1969. I got my first - well, my only - bottle of it when I worked in the hospital. Some patients left their room, didn't clean everything out - musta got better or somethin' - and left a bottle of it behind. And that's where I got mine. Lasted me a long time. But now, I got no place to wear nice perfume. Used to wear it going out, church and all that, but there ain't no reason for it anymore." She looked up at me and shrugged, smiling.
And then there was Molly, the cashier at Macy's last night. Not sure how old she is, but most likely in her fifties or sixties - mother of eight children. Ricardo and I were checking out in line, chit-chatting about parents who drag their little kids shopping late at night, and she scanned a coupon for us. "I'm not really supposed to do this, but I want to," she explained. We thanked her, and she stepped out from behind the counter to hand us the bag, continuing to talk with us, giving us free counsel on parenting. She told us stories of trying to get her shopping done with eight children, how she'd swap babysitting by dropping kids off in pairs at different friend's houses, taking two with her.
"If you ever have kids," she said, "Make sure you put electronics on wheels, with padlocks. Then, if your kids don't listen to you, you don't have to fight with them or make a scene, simply unplug the machine, wheel it into another room and lock it up. Don't even have to say a word." We listened with rapt attention, amused smiles, enjoying our conversation with this kind stranger.
People often say Seattle isn't a friendly place. I haven't lived out of the Northwest for a long time, so I wouldn't know the difference, but I will say this: Seattle is as unfriendly as we want her to be. Sure, there are the Cranky Pants, the Scrooges, the Paranoid East Coast plants, the perpetually stressed out that speedwalk through the streets with eyebrows furled, heads down, glued to cell phones. But it's kind of hard to be friendly to people whose earphones are such a part of their daily wardrobe that they must feel naked without them. Walking through the grocery store, down the streets, on the bus, through check-out lines, at the gym, there's even less opportunity to engage with the masses when the masses have their own soundtracks playing all day long, revolving around each other like separate planets that never need to touch.
All it takes is slowing down.