I began writing this piece last summer, when I returned to Seattle for a few days after having been in Texas over a year. Everyone who has moved between cities has a story, or at least a collection of observations. These are mine.
After four hours in the air, I make my way towards the train that will take me into the city. I’ve missed public transit- something we lack in the suburbs of Houston. Not the grime, the undoubtable plethora of germs that exist on public seats and railings, or the close quarters with people you might not choose to interact with otherwise. But I miss the ease, the frequency, the availability of options for getting around a city.
The train arrives every fifteen minutes. The doors squeal open, and I take a seat. A guy close to my own age, early twenties, sits down next to me. Some recently developed instinct pushes a cheery “hi” from my mouth and into the fresh air of the Pacific Northwest. My seatmate glances askew at me, but says nothing. I almost laugh, forgetting that here, we don’t talk as much. I smile to myself and turn to look out the window, resisting the temptation to force him into a conversation just to see what would happen.
I remember the shock of a simple greeting when I moved to Texas. My mom and I went for a run in her neighborhood and she waved a good morning to everyone we passed. They all said hello- I asked her if she knew them. No, she explained. That’s just the way people are in Texas. I suppose I’ve grown to embrace this.
We glide and rattle past graffitied garages and grassy backyards, storage spaces and abandoned grocery stores. These are the streets of my childhood- I know where we are without having to look. Buildings grow in size as we inch closer to downtown Seattle, becoming more well-kept along the way. Silver skyscrapers blend in with the brick buildings and healthy ivy of Pioneer Square. People pop up in business casual, the closest we get to dressing up here, and walk by the sidewalk tents of our innumerable homeless population.
I am still a local, I realize. I do not require a map, or have to read the station names to know where to get off. When I emerge into Seattle’s rare sun, reflected off grey sidewalks, the sky is what I know to be a tourist blue. A golden blue (golden like the word: gilded, pure). This shade blankets the city in summer, allowing whispers of clouds to crawl sluggishly across it, suggesting lazy days. There’s no hint of the dark, wet afternoons to come, when the sun sets before you leave the office and your shoes exist in a permanent state of damp. Only the locals know this weather, we who stand on bus corners in rain-drenched piles of gold and brown leaves waiting for the bus in the streetlamp-lit hours before dawn in November; we who recognize the breeze on September 1st as a reminder to stock up on pumpkin and corn at the farmer’s market; we who, by the damp and cold of February, are motivated solely by the copious amounts of coffee we sip and the knowledge that when summer comes we will spend every waking minute outdoors. Summer, in Seattle, is precious.
The market on the water retains the same luscious real-ness I have always loved. Some of the vendors scrutinize my face as I sample their dripping peaches, sun warmed raspberries, and blackberries like those I’ve had in no other state. “You haven’t been here in a while,” one ventures, while another blurts out, ”your name starts with a ‘k’ right?” I smile, nod, explain my crazy move to what my family grew up referring to as Tex-ass. Begin to recognize the looks of confusion. Sum up my reasons and avoid a long explanation with that eternally useful phrase, “it’s a long story…” This works well in a city where we avoid unnecessary conversation with those we aren’t close to.
I buy spanakopita from the Greek deli at the market, burning my fingers as the grease drips down the waxed paper sheet I hold it in. There’s a small square of grass beyond the market- we call it a park, sometimes- where I wander over to find a seat amongst the tourists that love this view and the beggars that love these tourists.
There are many spots in Seattle where you can gaze across Puget Sound, sparkling in the sunset and smelling of seawater. Gulls screech and cry out, engage in tug-of-war for lost french fries softening into the pavement. Boats motor across the water, sending small waves to lap against barnacle-encrusted piers. Low flying planes hum above, and I realize this is a sound I’ve missed, marking memories of childhood summers. Music floats around, growing and changing in strength and instrument as one navigates the city on foot. Buskers with old guitars and harmonious voices, old men playing unidentifiable instruments on 3rd avenue for a penny.
My instinct upon arriving in a new place is to walk it, or run. To move through the streets with open eyes and ears, a curious and open-minded observer. But… try as I might to focus on finding new aspects of this town, on looking around me… I am overly familiar with this city, and I begin to skim the views as my mind fills the space I turn towards before it even fills my vision.
I end up falling into old habits- that is to say, I find my favorite coffee shops, order black coffee, and write for hours. I write at Zeitgeist (a giant, open room near the train station), at Storyville (where you can sit on a couch overlooking Pike Place and the water, and the staff will frequently hand out slices of fresh chocolate cake), at the new Victrola on 3rd (whose floor-to-ceiling glass windows were a good idea in theory- but if you know 3rd avenue, you know the view is of little more than grimy bus lanes and unfortunate souls). They’ve closed Wheelhouse, a tiny shop that was great for people-watching, and I miss out on Anchorhead, where I used to spend hours beneath a skyscraper sipping cappuccinos made from their house almond milk.
I am heavily caffeinated but happy, in my environment. While I’m at Storyville, having somehow managed to snag my favorite couch by the window, “Welcome Home, Son” by Radical Face begins to play. Seattle coffee shops almost always feature phenomenal playlists, but this particular song strikes a chord in me. It’s one I discovered a little over a year ago, when I knew I was leaving Seattle. I would run along the waterfront with this song on repeat, a soundtrack that resonated with me in a way that tied it to the changes my life was going through. And here I was, a year later, home and yet not home, and this song had come back to me. A few tears crept into my eyes- for what, I’m unsure. Homesickness? Nostalgia? Simple emotion, love for the person I once was and the woman I had become?
I left the café, feeling the need to walk.
Walking here is… reliving. The known, familiar. I choose not to visit West Seattle, the neighborhood in which I spent my young years, because there is nothing for me there now. The area is memory, boxed away on a shelf in my head. I don’t want to know what’s changed, don’t want to consider this not-quite-suburb as an ever-evolving and growing facet of a flourishing city. I’d like, instead, for it to remain preserved in my mind like the towns and cities trapped in snow globes sold as souvenirs, the bubble that is West Seattle. There near the edge of the glass- can you see? That’s where I went to high school. That red track where I spent so many hours becoming a runner. Towards the center of the globe you see my old home, hidden behind a wall of ivy. It’s the small house with mold in the floorboards and too many people inside and a plum tree growing from the blackberry bushes in the alley. The tent trailer falling to pieces because we spend our summers traversing the Pacific Northwest. There’s us, my sisters and I, walking to a cluster of shops called the Junction where we spent the quarters in our allowance on nail polish at Bartell’s, 10-cent candy sticks at the card shop we never saw any other customers in, grilled paninis in the December snow at Husky Deli.
It’s the oddest thing, returning to your hometown as a traveler.
It’s strange to have changed so much, yet to return to a place which has changed so little. The contrast points out two things- one, that far more has shifted within me since I’ve left than I realized. Two, Seattle is truly a smaller city than it seems. I noticed this once before, in high school when I visited New York, that definition of a metropolis.
On the bridge from West Seattle to downtown, there’s a moment while crossing that the center of the city comes into view. When I was young this view thrilled me, and when I took the bus downtown from our family’s home I would break into a smile as soon as the glittering towers on the waterfront were visible from my window.
Then I went to New York. When I came home and took that bus across the bridge again, I couldn’t help but realize that Seattle, which had been the central city of my childhood, was only a small sample of what the world had to offer me.
Tonight, as the sky begins to turn pink and the sun shoots a rusty glow across the edges of the mountains that hug the horizon, I duck into a tiny restaurant. This haunt evades the selfie sticks and loud voices of tourists because its candlelit, shadowy interior doesn’t scream out a welcome. Often the venue appears to be closed if there’s no one eating outside, if you just walk by the dim windows and are searching for somewhere popular.
Inside, there are only a handful of two-seat tables, spaced farther apart than you’d think possible in such a small room. One bench along the wall allows for a party of few to sit together, but otherwise you can tell immediately this is a place for intimacy. Giant mirrors hang from the walls, giving the room the effect of being more open than it is. These are surrounded by faded French posters and clippings of advertisements. A cluster of chalkboards near the window advertise the menu, also in French. I take a seat at the brassy countertop of the bar, across from several silver bowls full of oranges stacked against the espresso machine. Upside down ceramic cups balance atop the machine, red ink lacing the rims. My reflection in the mirror is spotty with rust, the side of my head covered by an old gilded frame.
The wine I order is pulled from a shelf that looks like it could come detached from the wall at any moment, tall and crammed full of colorful bottles. A deep red Bordeaux, my usual. I order for the region these grapes were grown. When I ask for the dessert menu, I am told they have no paper for me to read, but the bartender enumerates my options. I catch the words citron and chevre. Whatever I’ve ordered turns out to be some sort of lemon pound cake topping two twin piles of heavy cream, beneath which what appear to be dried lemons are buried, sweet and tangy treasures. Part of me wants to ask what concoction I’ve ordered but the other part of me chooses to embrace the unknown, just… accept it. Enjoy the moment for what it is. Someone orders a coffee while I’m eating and the smell makes my body perk up- I order an espresso and chat with the bartender about how well coffee pairs with dessert at any hour.
As I head to my hotel room, late, I don’t feel as though I need to rush and see anything else before I head to Tacoma tomorrow, a neighboring city significant only because it is home to family I’m visiting. I feel… satisfied, rested. I find there is little left for me to explore, here. This is not to say that there is nothing new, that I’ve been everywhere or seen everything… but I know this city, know it truly and deeply. It is reflected in the ink on my skin and the way I get dressed in the morning. It shows up in the way I shop for fresh produce, my obsession with coffee shops and used bookstores, my belief that great cities should be walkable and filled with greenery.
There is a difference between hometown and home, I find. And though Seattle will always be by hometown, it no longer carries the sway of home.