Seattle has been a little different recently. Most would say that there is something off. You could call it the economy. You might say it is the state of our public health. Folks around here, and in pretty much every town, would say that we are missing our sense of normalcy.
The first place one notices oddities is on the streets. There are still cars to be seen and people about. One cannot really ever separate Americans from their cars. They are our muscle machines. A prime way of expressing who we are to the world with the tricked out engines, the chrome enhanced features, and the myriad of bumper stickers. They let us go where we want, see what we want, and ensure that we are free.
There just happens to be fewer places to go. The parks are closing. The city streets yield to pedestrians. Roads become the widest sidewalk you have ever seen. This is the way things are when people feel like being outdoorsy; like strolling about because that is what nature intended. Only do not get too close to others. Natural, yes, but let us proceed with extreme caution.
And so the cars make way for the people that will one day drive again. There is plenty of room on the road. The traffic has dwindled to a meager trickle of what was once a raging river of headlights and fenders. Tailgating still occurs. Some things will not change.
Yet, in all of this strangeness, there is a pattern to be seen. The trucks are fewer for only some construction is underway. The beater cars and the putt-putters are parked off to the side. The college kids are back, leaving their vehicles unused. The lower income families are home, tending to their families until the daycare reopens.
As to the luxury cars? Those with the shiniest door handles and the hood ornaments that speak of prestige? Those have taken up residence in the garages that were custom made for their needs. The older, 401k, established set are concerned for their health and stay home. They video chat with grandchildren, find themselves reading the same newspaper articles, and try to find new ways to discuss the state of things. There are plenty of vans rushing about to deliver their food.
One type of car is left to cruise about town: the middle class ones. The taxi-like drivers will always have a presence. The hybrids are represented in respectable numbers. The sedans park happily, knowing that their curbside parking will not be checking by law enforcement.
These are the cars of those still at work. The bus drivers, the garbage truck drivers, the grocery store deliverers. They take their kids with them to buy food from the local burger establishment. On the one hand they do not have to keep track of their offspring as they run off to claim a plastic table or clamor over the selection of toys that come with their kid’s meal. However the parents now have to crane their necks to get each child’s attention, translate their order over the microphone, and pray that the mustard and ketchup packets miraculously keep to themselves and do not make friends with the car seats.
A parent can only cook the same meal so many times. And a journey to the far off land of Burgers 4 U has suddenly become the great adventure of the day. Anything to keep the kids occupied for an hour. The television and computers, usually a welcome distraction, threaten to drive mom and dad crazy with their pervasiveness. Where did they hide those jigsaw puzzles? Did they leave that board game at the cabin, or is it hiding in that back of the closet? Maybe with the Christmas decorations?
Those are the questions that occupy the frazzled mind. Better to focus on those trivialities than to try to figure out when they can go back to work. The school year is essentially over, so why does this not feel like a vacation?
Then there are those that have no need to go back to work. They are the unemployed. The sidewalk residents. Those people who could be labeled as transient but for the fact that their status is so permanently fixed. The only covering over their heads is an outside vestibule or a well-positioned awning. Their words are often hard to make out. They may let their cardboard signs talk for them. Their blankets, the well-worn comforters that are constantly draped around their bodies, those speak volumes.
One does wonder if the people that are homeless might have some things going for them. The long-timers know the routine. The man knows exactly what corner he will return to. If no one wants his things, then what fear does he have of losing them? Who frets over a landlord if no rent is due? There is a grocery store a few blocks away. If he is not given food, surely he can take some. His provisions are not plentiful, but he gets what he needs.
And what, after all, is more necessary than companionship? The man has a dog that has proven his loyalty. Rain or shine, the dog stays by his side. In the early morning, the dog curls up and sleeps on top of the blanket that the man sleeps under. During the day, when life is too real for the man to face, the dog has its perch, sitting like a gargoyle on the man. Its eyes are half-open even as the sun is high in the sky. It takes in the people that mill about with the mildest of interest. Its expression seems to say, “What? Yeah, we’re here. And? You don’t ask questions, we don’t raise a stink.” Those that walk along wonder if a dog is capable of shrugging. For if it is so, this dog has certainly mastered the gesture.
When the man sits outside the grocery store, his head a little heavy and his distressed sign on full display, the dog is there. It seems no leash is needed. The dog and man formed their bond years ago. The dog will be fed. The man will have an audience, one that will listen and attend as he shares his woes. For all that he lacks, the man has a friend in these hard times. Could any of us require more than that?
This strange world still has dashes of hope and color. The doughnut shop, with its giant, “OPEN” sign, has flowers and decorations on display. The skyscraper that is home to a hotel has a new purpose. The lights that used to aid guests now serve as a beacon for the public spirit.
There will always be graffiti. But is it defacing private property when it is meant to delight and encourage? These are not concrete walls or brick backings. These are boards, planks of wood put over windows and doors until the storm blows over. The barricades against intrusion now act as tapestries. Encouragement adorns one set of windows. Cartoon characters and clouds fill another. Can one really call the police on these temporary works of art when there is humor to be found? Surely the gift of a laugh and the joy of a chuckle; those crucial delights must be worth the disdain we normally have for those that deface buildings.
The medical field; who can forget these public servants? Anyone can see that their ears are burning. Part of that, true to the old saying, is because they are constantly being talked about. They are discussed, admired, and watched for new developments. At the same time, the redness behind their ears is real and frustrating. There is the constant tugging and tension of the mask; pulling at their lobes as they try to pull it together. The influx of critical patients. The waiting rooms that threaten to fill with visitors that the staff cannot receive. How is one to handle the normal heart surgeries and pregnancies when the infirm continually arrive at their doors, presenting their fevers and aches?
But as the hotel reminds us, this city has a heart. It is no more present than in the medical professionals. Those that sit with the patients when the family cannot. The staff that helps those they can. They are the ones that would put their own health at risk for a stranger. Their troubles and anxieties of life take second place to the public’s needs.
Every city, every community; they all have their sources of strength. Perhaps ours comes from our nickname. We are, after all, the Emerald City. That is true in more ways than one. Wherever we look, there are trees to be seen. In some areas, true, they can be sparse. However, more often than not, there are rows, groups, and clusters of trees decorating the horizon. We are part of the Evergreen State. We celebrate nature and its beauty. Trees still grow, plants still survive, hope still continues strong.
If we are to look to literature, our Emerald City can find even more comfort. Look to the story. The great threat? The plague that threatened the landscape? All it took to defeat the villain was a few drops of water. And in Seattle, we have all the buckets of water one could need. It can take some searching, but the yellow brick road is there. Once we find it, and with help from our loved ones, we make it out okay.
We are reminded that the great and powerful; that source of intimidation that booms and bosses all who approach? It is only smoke and mirrors. With heart, with courage, and with brains, we find our way. The city, the people who call this place home, they continue. We learn some lessons that we wish we had not. We carry with us those that have fallen; in our hearts and memories if not on our shoulders. We believe that we will get to the other side. Because even after we have been through the struggle, even after we have been changed by what we have experienced, there is still no place like home.