Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The 17th Of May

It’s a big day in Ballard today, Norwegian Independence Day, and Ballard hosts the second largest parade in its honor, outside of Norway. This is my 17th year living in Ballard, and I feel like every year I want to write exactly the same thing about Syttende Mai. I think about the first year in the house when we realized that a parade was assembling at the base of our street. Marching bands mingling with dancing clams, Scandinavian dancers alternating with skiers and a Ballard Market shopping cart drill team. It seemed like a foreign movie, Fellini Does Ballard. There were also the pink and blue balloons tossed by nurses from then Ballard Community Hospital. “Ballard’s Having Babies” the unfilled balloons announced. How symbolic.

We had our baby in Ballard and so even though I’m a transplant; she’s a native. Every year on the 17th of May I want to write about how she went to every single parade from the time that she was two months old until she was thirteen; how she would be in a child carrier, strapped onto my back, peering her head around mine for a better look. Yet I always seem plagued by regrets in May as though I don’t feel equal to this stunning month, the month when the lilies of the valleys cross with the rhododendrons, and the scent of wisteria wafts with the daphne. I don’t know why so many ghosts seem to walk with me in May. You would think they’ be scared off by the Shriner’s driving toy cars or the Seafair Pirate/Cowboys.

For almost thirteen years the 17th of May was also my bosses’ birthday. It became tradition in the office to make his favorite dessert on that day, and so it became known as Pie Day. I always made strawberry rhubarb and he would say that it was his favorite, even amidst the table heaped with butterscotch, key lime, green tomato, black bottom, and deep dish apple.

May is such a beautiful time in Seattle; the greens of the trees are still so fresh, the mornings so refreshing. So much bursting and popping from the flowers and yet I feel wistful. I miss Pie Day. I miss my daughter’s face nuzzling around the back of my neck. I miss gardening in the mist. Plus, I miss my friend Rucy. She loved my strawberry rhubarb pie too.

Rucy was a writing partner, a gardener, an artist, a grandmother, a friend. Her birthday was in May and if she had lived she would have been 74 years old this month. Each year on the anniversary of when she’d completed treatment for breast cancer she would share chocolates. She was a 27 year survivor. But three years ago the doctors realized that her dry cough was a symptom of lung cancer that was extremely advanced. We kept meeting and writing together for the next eighteen months, or at least writing together until about three weeks before she died when she had said that she couldn’t read her writing anymore.

Two years ago this May we met at the Java Bean on 24th NW. She had brought her own cushion to tie to the seat of a chair. Rucy had always been very small but her illness was rendering her smaller, so that it hurt to sit on her bones. Three of us drank tea and wrote, then our other friend had to leave and Rucy and I proceeded on an errand that I had volunteered to do with her. Rucy could be fearless in her words and deeds, but she didn’t particularly want to go to the Gob Shoppe alone to buy a bong.

The Gob Shoppe had been a near institution up on Sunset Hill; a head shop perched at the summit of Ballard’s highest rent area. But when it moved to Market Street and changed hands it seemed to become just another nails/tattoo storefront on a rapidly changing block. Rucy drove us a few blocks closer to Market Street and we parked two blocks away. She was in sweat pants and sneakers, short sleeves and her baseball hat, walking slowly. I felt robust next to her in sandals and shorts. Her skin was incredibly soft as she let me support one arm.

The shop was in the rear and on the 2nd floor of a tattoo parlor by then. The stairs looked long and steep to Rucy. But she made it and for over 20 minutes we moved back and forth between glass cases, stepping around a dormant yellow dog. Rucy’s son had made some suggestions and Rucy wanted a bong that would be as soothing a possible, a water bong. Her throat was always irritated; was there a way that trying to smoke could be soothing? The owner gushed over hand blown pipes and shared his tips on freezing water in the bowl, for the coldest experience possible.

When Rucy had made her choice the Gob Shoppe wouldn’t take a credit card and so we went through our backpacks to find every last dollar, uncovering money from nooks and crannies as though we were desperate magicians. “You could go to the ATM just down the block,” the owner suggested. Rucy glared at the owner in his blond dredlocks and apparent good health and said, “I couldn’t survive those stairs again.”

“I could meet you downstairs,” he said more quietly. But we counted out dollars and by magic there were enough. “Give it a special wrap,” the owner called out to another worker, “and throw in a cleaner for free.”

We moved slowly down the stairs. Rucy took as deep a breath as she was able before starting down. “Have fun ladies!” the owner called to us, as though our errand were recreational. We walked slowly back to her car. She asked me to repeat some of his directions for use and care. “Have fun ladies,” I kept parroting and she managed to laugh. Along 24th NW a City of Seattle truck was stopping every few feet for a worker to unload sidewalk signs that declared, NO PARKING, 5/17 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The bong didn’t work out well for Rucy. She said that she couldn’t get the hang of it and the effects certainly didn’t make her more inclined to eat. A neighbor tried baking her brownies but she said that they tasted awful. Yet when I would visit her she would give me lunch and even after she had stopped eating, she gave orders to her daughter on what cookies to have in the house for the visitors. That was when she was still able to be downstairs. The week before she died she said to me, you have to be my witness now. I want you to write about this, because by the time someone gets into this state; they’re not usually not able to speak.

But two years ago, on that 17th of May, the sun was still pleasant for Rucy. Over tea she had eaten part of a square of coffeecake, putting small bits slowly into her mouth. We spoke of her garden and what was blooming. She had always had the most stunning garden and that May she said that she knew that it would be her last spring. She had been giving away her plants and wanted them to all go to good homes. I gave her arm a last squeeze and watched her slowly maneuver from her parking spot. I walked home along what would be the Syttende Mai Parade route later in the day. She had forgotten her cushion at the Java Bean and I went to the empty table in the window and untied the cushion carefully from the high-backed wood chair.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Piano Tuner

One summer solstice I rented a piano for a party. A friend played and guests circled round him and sang. It was a fantasy come true, a scene from a Judy Garland movie. When my daughters’ fingers could spread far enough apart I advertised in the Ballard News that I was looking for a piano for free. A woman in Kent called to say that her children were grown; the piano was mine if I wanted to have it moved. I am not musical so I called a friend with an ear, “how will I know if it’s any good?”

“Have her play the keys for you over the phone,” he said. She did, and it sounded, well, just like a piano.

The piano is an upright and has now been backed along my front staircase for over seven years. My daughter took lessons for nearly six months. I decided to take them too, and I stuck them out for nearly a year and a half. I was so tense when I practiced that my shoulders knotted and I acquired tennis elbow, mostly from attempting the blues scale, over and over with my teeth clenched. The upright makes a lovely showcase now for my daughter’s pottery. Her hands made other choices. The lid stays open though, exposing the dusty keys. Sometimes a visitor, usually a child will hit at the keys. I miss music. But what I miss most, not having thrown a party in years or a friend who plays, what I miss most is the piano tuner.

I found piano movers in the yellow pages and called A-1, the first on the page. The movers gave me a card for a piano tuner who helped them refurbish instruments. Hak Bo Lee was handwritten on the A-1 card. He appeared on my doorstep after dark one winter night with no sign of how he had arrived. Hak Bo Lee was small, sturdily built, wearing a black leather jacket and a black beard, carrying a briefcase that was revealed to be filled with tools. “How much did you pay?” he asked. “Just the moving,” I replied. “You got a good deal,” he told me. “This is going to be a good piano.” He did mysterious things to it; removed a piece the size of a board and took it away with the black keys. Reassembled the piano and then put new pads on each key. His fee seemed so reasonable; his fingers seemed so sure. He would stop whatever he was doing when my long-haired cat sauntered by. He would “tsk, tsk” for her and she would rub against his compact hands. He told me that he was a dog person himself, “little Pekinese.”

When he left I would rush to the window to see if he had a car, but he would always have vanished. After the restoration work was done, he tuned the piano. That afternoon he suddenly began playing, some classical piece that sounded so beautiful I found I was holding my breath. He didn’t sit down on the bench, just stood above the keys, stopping in mid-phrase to tweak something in the tuning. His playing was fierce, a torrent. Then he stopped again abruptly and replaced his tools with a click of his briefcase. He was off. The piano seemed abandoned; not one note lingered.

How I long to have someone touch the keys of the piano again, for friends to gather round and sing. The piano sits silent, still, dusty, stacked with pottery. My daughter’s hands are full-grown now and she is taller than me. It is still a good piano. But how I wish that I could open my door and find Hak Bo Lee on my doorstep again.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


It was one brief paragraph in the Sunday paper. An apparent suicide from the Aurora Bridge in the early hours on Saturday; a fifteen year-old girl, dead on impact in a parking lot below. So anonymous, and brief, like a fifteen year lifespan itself. She didn’t have a name or a face then, no story. Except for the fact that I have a fifteen year-old daughter, and I still go into her room every morning and kiss her cheek as though assuring myself that she’s still safe in the morning, still my little girl tucked into bed with the cat.

On Monday afternoon my daughter came home from school and said, “I guess there was a suicide over the weekend, did you hear?” I realized that although I had read the notice, I hadn’t really heard it; I hadn’t allowed myself to think about another mother’s loss. But the loss of any child has a way of getting close to home. High schoolers may be a demographic that doesn’t read the newspaper or sit down to watch the local news the way my family did when I was growing up, but they have different ways, instant ways, of communicating now. So why couldn’t this girl communicate her desperation before it seemed insurmountable to her?

According to my daughter at least one student at Center School knew the dead girl personally. She went to middle school with her and is visibly mourning. At Ballard High School it is a high tide of grief. For this lost girl was one of their own; a sophomore. There are doubtless those who knew her, those who didn’t, those who thought they knew her well, but didn’t. Students wondering, why? Could I feel like that too? Was her desperation different than mine? Were her problems unresolvable? Were there warning signs? Was she drunk, was she high, was she lonely? Students asking themselves, why didn’t I know her better? Why didn’t I talk to her more in Biology, how could she do it, how could she do it, how could she do it?

Across the city, freshman and sophomores hear about the girl who took her life and wonder why. Former classmates pull out their class pictures from kindergarten and fifth grade. They study her lined up next to them. They look at the picture of her younger self and feel less certain, less whole themselves.

But on Wednesday the name and a newer photo replace the notice of an anonymous suicide. In a paid announcement the family reclaims their daughter as their beloved, they include her first name, middle name and last, they show her smile, her qualities. Their printed words seem to be trying to lift her back up, their words like arms that were not able to hold her before her fall.

Visit from the Gas Man

I’ve heard tales of elderly so lonely that they invent excuses to talk on the phone or have another human being visit. Calling 9-1-1 to generate a visit can lead to a visit to Harborview for psychiatric evaluation and charges of making a false report. At the risk of starting a trend of false reports, there’s another number to call that is sure to produce a knock on the door. This is a call to the toll-free number of Puget Sound Energy Services, formerly known for their flame building on Mercer Street and the simple acronym of WNG.

I really don’t like to call their toll free number when I smell gas because right from the first prompts, it seems to push my phone call into an emergency category that I don’t feel is warranted. I’d like another choice. “If there’s an infrequent, slight odor of gas, press 2 now.” But calling in any odor whatsoever prompts the two hour turnaround emergency service visit. Luckily there are no lights or sirens on this dispatch, just the distinctive hum of an industrial white van with a lot of horsepower. A service man, invariably smelling of cigarette smoke, knocks on the door and gives the relaxed smile of a man who is not expecting to blow up when he descends to my basement.

There should be a prompt for an odor that is so slight that it takes weeks to remember it once you’re away from the water heater and a few more weeks to actually call. “If you have an odor that only you can smell and you’ve been meaning to call for 6-7 weeks, please press 3 now.” In this case, I finally called at 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. I was smelling the additive odor that they create to warn us of the odorless danger more frequently. The real danger was that the slight odor was giving me an urge to light a match by the water heater just to see if I was imagining the smell. When I actually looked around for matches I knew it was time to call.

“It’s just a slight odor,” I assured the chipper voice at the other end of my phone call.

“I’ll put this report into dispatch,” she said, “and the next available service person in your area will respond. It should be within two hours.” She said service person but I would bet my box of matches that it would be a man on my doorstep. My daughter had reported back on the Women in Trade Day at Seattle Center and although the utilities might have recruited some young women with the pole-climbing in special shoes, the energy companies had not won over any recruits by having the girls move dirt from one side of a ditch to the other. Plus they didn’t have good candy.

“For the sake of caution, don’t turn on any additional lights in the area, but feel free to vent the space by opening a window or door.”

“Okay, okay,” I agreed. Two hours, or less. I’d better get in the shower and get dressed before he showed up. I did consider that taking my hot shower two floors above would cause the pilot in the water heater to light the jets beneath the tank. If there was a gas leak the whole tank could explode. As I shampooed my hair I thought of how an explosion would probably blow the top off of my house. I hoped that the shower stall would stay intact, my own glass elevator into the sky.

There was no explosion. I didn’t really expect one, but then I hadn’t expected the Nisqually earthquake another time that I was beneath the showerhead. The gas man knocked at 9:15 a.m., a mere 45 minutes after my phone call. I was just dressed and my hair still dripped at my shoulders. He smelled of cigarette smoke and carried a big, yellow flashlight. He was downstairs for perhaps five minutes before he mounted the stairs and announced, “you’re not going to blow up. There was just a little leak at the pilot tube, but I’ve tightened it up.” He went to the big white van to complete the paperwork. In the box marked Leak Investigation, he had checked yes by methane present? I wondered if he was humoring me. I signed my name and he was gone by 9:25 a.m.

It takes me so long to check off other things on my list. I’ve been calling for 8 weeks about a billing error with Dynacare and I’ve spent over an hour in the last month tracking down an optical reimbursement. My tax guy is running late on my taxes, he made me do an extension just because all sort of delinquents decided to file this year. But one phone call to the gas company and 45 minutes later there’s a man with a flashlight and a smile at my door. He always comes when I call.

Thirteen Coins for Breakfast

The Elephant Car Wash still washes cars but the Big Pink Toe is no longer where Lincoln tows the cars. At least for now, Seattle is a two newspaper town and the PI writers produce their copy beneath the revolving globe. But there’s a sense of change all over the city; the sounds of change. Every day in Ballard brings the sound of single family residences being demolished. There’s a distinctive crunch as the claws grab the walls and crush the timber and plaster unto rubble. It feels like Chicago after the fire or San Francisco after the earthquake. I happen to live in a house that’s still standing. But for how long? What is our fire?

I don’t take any place for granted anymore in Seattle. One day the Twin Teepees were there, another day they were not. The sign for Thirteen Coins Restaurant, off Denny on Boren had long struck me as another example of an abandoned icon. An old-fashioned sign all that was left of an institution that was long gone. So I was surprised when a visitor from Berkeley, California suggested that we meet there for breakfast. He said the food was good and there was parking. As I made my way between the Seattle Times employee parking lot and the main offices I realized that I had never driven on that particular street before. After eighteen years in Seattle I often wonder what percentage of the streets have I traversed, five percent, maybe even eight? There was the restaurant itself that I had never actually seen.

A heavy-set man was also entering and he held the fortress-like door open for me. I had the impression that I was crossing back in time by two or three decades. I felt slightly out of place as a single woman, probably because I felt like was entering a dark bar that would have been off limits in childhood. Outside it was a cloudless day, 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in May. Inside there was just a hint of daylight, as though the interior was waiting out the daylight hours the way that you await the freedom of the evening cool after an unbearable hot day.

There were oversized coins on the restroom doors and a framed explanation by the posted menu of the story behind the thirteen coins on each table. Along the long bar fronting the line chefs there were swiveling, studded, high-back chairs lined like thrones or torture chairs. The chairs looked like they had been designed for the knights of the round table. Along the “window” side there were booths divided by walls that connected with the ceiling. The hostess and manager were both very pale. Not meant to be seen by the harsh light of day.

My host was late. I toyed with the idea, “Stood Up at Thirteen Coins” and felt regret that I might not have an excuse to stay much longer. But then Alan arrived and we were shown to a very private booth. There were absolutely no sounds from other patrons; just an occasional exchange between wait staff and the hiss as beaten eggs hit the surface of a very hot skillet. Our meeting was to discuss the success of the academy model in Seattle Public Schools. UC Berkeley was wrapping up years of support and preparing a final report. I don’t think any other venue could have seemed as distant from public high schools. With its dark leather and dark walls, Thirteen Coins still seemed shrouded in smoke. The high-walled booths seemed to brag of their clandestine histories, the assignations and reporter meetings with informants, the long martini lunches with baked potatoes and sirloin steaks served rare. Thirteen Coins seemed to be its own island within the myth of the outdoor, friendly city of Seattle. Its darkness boasted that Seattle could have its own share of mafia moments, its own political machine, its own dark side. There was no sound from the outside world. For the first time n months I didn’t hear construction or demolition, freight trains or airlifts, jets or sirens. I was at Thirteen Coins for breakfast and if the city was crumbling all around me, I wouldn’t have known for as long as I stayed within its fortified doors.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Giving Up on May Day

Giving Up on May Day

When I was growing up in a small town in New England, my younger sister would fill baskets with flowers early on May Day and leave them secretly on the doorsteps of neighborhood mothers. Seventeen years ago, on my first May Day as a homeowner in Ballard, there was a sharp knock in the late afternoon, but no one at the door. On the doorstep was a bedraggled little heap of flowers. My own rhododendron in bloom was still shaking. For the next hour there were knocks and the sound of children running away; little magic deposits on the doorstep. It was the street of my dreams. When I became a mother my daughter and I would make flower cornets on May Day and deliver them secretly. Emily would arrange the flowers from the time that she was three years old, mingling bluebells with bleeding hearts. For nearly ten years the May Day surprises were prepared with her best friends, two brothers from up the street. Some years they did them before the school bus, other years in the late afternoon, creeping along the bushes. Then other bouquets would appear in turn; a rapid knock on the door, flowers clumped on the welcome mat.

For the last few years I’ve had to coax the kids to make flower arrangements for May Day. The younger brother was the only one willing to deliver last year, although my daughter still enjoyed creating the bouquets, ensuring one lilac for every bundle. I would cut more flowers and watch them wrap stems in wet paper towel and aluminum foil. Every year something different was blooming on the 1st of May. I would remember the year that I was in France and how the French exchange Lily-of-the Valley on this day, their Labor Day. Meanwhile I would cajole the kids into delivering the baskets one more time, trying to rekindle the sense of joy that I’d passed to them and they had held as their own for a few years.

But I’m giving up on May Day this year. The older kids leave for their Metro bus at 7:30 a.m. and the younger brother bicycles to school . They have teenage lives and iPods in their ears. They would be embarrassed to be caught leaving flowers, just as they have stopped participating in the street’s 4th of July parade and talent show. They still have the water fight and play on the traffic-less block until long past the grand finale of the fireworks. But they feel they have outgrown certain rituals. The parade is for the younger kids on the block.

I haven’t outgrown my love for May Day, but I’ll stop forcing it - for now. I’ll call an old friend with a new baby who loves Lily-of-the Valley. I’ll call my sister as I do every year and reminisce on this anniversary of when she learned that she was finally pregnant with twins. I’ll remember the phone call from a neighbor who said that her mother was dying, her two year old had the flu, but that the flowers on her doorstep had given her strength. I’ll remember my first kiss on this day as an exchange student in France; a day when the city workers were on strike and there were no buses. But I’m giving up on forcing the children to fulfill my May Day fantasies of childhood and community. I have a very hard time letting go of the past, and a very difficult time imagining the future. I’ll do what I need to do to celebrate the return of spring, the Worker’s Day. I will try to stop wishing that my daughter still believed that this day was so special that she should wear her angel wings to daycare.

The seeds have been planted; they may not mature for ten years, perhaps even fifteen, but all along the street the seeds have been planted. I’ve had a chance to relive the childhood magic of May Day, and someday so will the children of this street. There will be new traditions just as this year’s crop of babies will be paraded on the 4th of July in decorated Red Flyer wagons. It’s the first of May and throughout the U.S., immigrants are marching and shedding their invisibility and throughout the world, workers are marching. But somewhere there are also bundles of flowers and little baskets being left on doorsteps to celebrate the return of spring. And for all that I claim to have given up on this day, I keep glancing outside my front window to see if there are any flowers on the doorstep.