Friday, March 23, 2007

Where the Streets are Paved with Mold

Crawling thru rat-infested sewers didn’t sound like a good time but the guidebooks said Seattle’s Underground Tour was worth the eleven bucks, so we went. It takes place in the oldest part of Seattle,--an area called Pioneer Square where many buildings are now on the National Historic Register, and which has been so nicely restored that it doesn’t feel like the rest of the city. It is shady and bricky and trendy. The best independent bookstore I have possibly ever been in, Elliott Bay Book Company, is there, and there is a clog store. Nothing inside but clogs. Big clogs, Little clogs. Red clogs, Blue clogs. Even used clogs. It, coupled with the bookstore across the street, is like my (and Dr. Seuss’s) dream shopping experience.

What’s even more interesting to me is that all this splendor is on Skid Row. Literally. This is where the term was coined. Logs used to skid down one of the big hills toward the lumber mill at the base, which was a good thing during the Boom, but when the Boom went bust, the area became derelict. There are a few remnants of what the place was like before the revitalization of the 1980s and 1990s. For instance, the Bread of Life mission is still there, advertised with neon lights that give Jesus an eerie glow and makes the place look more fun than it probably is. Across the street there is still a hotel sign that advertises rooms for 75 cents. (I assume those rooms weren’t en suite either.)

The tour took us underground into a series of dusty tunnels where we were told we were walking on what used to be the main streets of Seattle. The city burned (like all good city’s did back then) and it was decided that ground level needed to be raised, but since that would take awhile, business owners were encouraged to go ahead and rebuild at the original, lower level and add a door on the second story where ground level would eventually be. As we winded thru the tunnels we looked through archways and doorways that would have been the front doors and windows of the shops and banks that are now above ground. Of course there were also ghost stories and 4th grade sewer jokes and a gift shop at the end that the tour spills out into, but it was all good.

At the end of the tour, we both signed the guest book, and our tour guide was suddenly agitated about what we’d written. I assumed that there would follow a conversation about Zimbabwe and how did Z get here from there and aren’t things bad there right now, etc. This happens sometimes and I’m always amazed at how Z acts like it’s the first time he’s ever had to explain his origins.

Instead of conversations about Africa, Ed the Tour Guide said the name of my town and exclaimed that he is from just up the road, that he went to college in town, and so we talk. He was in The Sound of Music at the local community theater with my aunt when I was just a kid. He cautioned me that his 98 year old grandmother was still driving and that I should be careful on the roads. It was good fun to run into a paisano on the other side of the country. I should have asked him if he found the geography in the Pacific Northwest difficult to navigate and if he had an inclination like Cousin #3 to root for Indiana basketball teams.

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