My Seattle Reading of the novel Temping

Photo: Sergei A. CC0/Public domain license.

My visit to Seattle was quick but feels not painless. In point of fact it feels like an axe through my head as almost everything went wrong.

I flew in on Wednesday evening and rented a car at Sea-Tac and within a half hour was in front of Charlie Krafft’s house. The house is a survivor — like Charlie himself — from other times — on Beacon Hill. All up and down the street are condos without any yard, as they want to use every inch of space. On the crumbling porch were Tibetan flags and in the yard was a Romanian iron cross. I could instantly recognize and feel comfortable in my friend’s lunacy as compared to the almost extreme logic of the surrounding condominiums utterly devoid of character.

I knocked and Charlie came to the door in very loosely fitting pants and shirt. A grey and white striped cat peered quizzically up at me and then satisfied that I was of no interest disappeared lazily into the interior of the house. A smell of smoke lit the room. A rat had apparently died in the oven the evening before and Charlie had lit incense to try to hide the stench. I couldn’t smell anything at all. I was just so grateful to see Charlie again. It’s been well over ten years. This was also well before he was outed as a neo-Nazi, which was news even to me.

We got into the rental car and went down through Belltown which has pretty much completely changed over from stumble bum hotels renting at 240 a month in 1982 to condos costing well over a million today. Charlie informed me that almost nothing was left of Bohemian Belltown where once many artist friends lived. The artists are gone, and the area had changed entirely. We went up through Queen Anne hill and over into Fremont, up through Fremont and out to Ballard.

There were a lot more chi-chi cafes and so on at every corner, but fortunately it was too dark to see how much the area had changed.

We circled back to a hamburger place on the far edge of Capitol Hill. I ordered a veggie burger and the youthful punky waiter who was heavily tattooed asked me how I would like it. I said I would like it, “Rare.”

He laughed. I had forgotten I had ordered a vegetarian burger and didn’t realize how funny this sounded. He thought I had made a joke, but I had just made a mistake.

Charlie ate most of his French fries that accompanied his sandwich while talking geopolitics and asserting strangely that he wanted to get a visa and visit Iran, where he apparently has many new friends from some internet site. Krafft’s viewpoint has the distinct advantage of never sounding like anybody else’s, but as he narrates it, he feels completely comfortable with it as if it was the ho hum and only possible truth. It sometimes feels that he takes the viewpoint that is furthest from anyone’s mind, and takes that, and runs with it.

The next morning I showered and used tar shampoo (a first!) and ayurvedic toothepaste (Charlie Krafft takes in India’s Goa once or twice a decade) and then said goodbye knowing I wouldn’t see Charlie again although he promised to come to my reading that evening and so I went off to teach a third-year Finnish class at the University of Washington.

The Finnish class consisted of five young people. I asserted that no one from outside of Finland would ever understand Finland, sisu, or anything else in that country, but that the people were a beautiful mystery remaining in a parallel universe in perpetuity. The students nodded, and I congratulated them for their earnest effort to take their safari hat into that least known and most mysterious of all cultures. I wished again I had their youth and my life before me when in fact I felt quite much that it was now in the past. At every step I didn’t recognize my younger self, even though in many cases I did recognize halls and rooms and stairwells where I had once temped (in the UW secretarial pool) some decades before.

I had about an hour to blow after the class and walked into the UW’s Padelford Hall. Where Comparative Literature had once been there was now office door after office door with a new discipline listed entitled, “American Ethnic Studies.” Whatever this was remained a mystery. What is it? Wasn’t this Ward Churchill’s department at the University of Colorado? I assumed that in those hallways there were Ward Churchills of a kind — each one wishing a thousand Mogadishus on America, my country. I hope not. I went away to Finland years before hating America like most leftists and then mysteriously returned hoping that it hadn’t changed, and that it was still there. It wasn’t.

I then went and met with Andy Nestingen, one of four professors of Finnish in America. He’s writing a book about Finnish film maker Aki Kaurismaki. We talked about Kaurismaki and how completely un-Finnish he is. But how he also has a deep unfathomable Finnish taproot made somewhat even more incomprehensible by his top English interpreter Roger Connah, whose book on Kaurismaki only deepens the incomprehensibility of his subject. Had I had another forty years to study that book, and all the references in it, I would have been happy to start over in the UW’s Finnish department with Andy as my professor.

From there I drove out to the excellent restaurant named Kritikka, located at the corner of 65th and Latona. I was fit to be Thai’d, and deeply enjoyed the succulent cuisine with a gentleman named Gary London. London has been married to a Finn for 45 years, and appears to have enjoyed the experience. Who wouldn’t? Finns are amiable, and they are perpetual mysteries. Keeping the romance alive!

London is also the head of the Seattle Finlandia Foundation after retiring from a lifetime of teaching political science at Everett Community College. He was the most oddly amiable man I’ve met, and looked satisfied with his existence. In fact, it was he who had put together this entire reading for me based on his having received a positive review of the book almost a year ago that I had popped into the mail. Gary ordered a hot soup with shrimp and I got a dish called honey mustard prawns, which was exquisite: prawns in honey sauce surrounded by slices of apple, pineapple, and oranges. It was delicious but light fare, but this leg of my visit was made weird by its proximity to a cabin I had once rented but which was now smashed down to make room for a luxury condo. I had lived there for five years but at this point that Seattle of cabins and lawns is a layer of history no longer in evidence and at every turn my heart bled for it.

The reading itself was at the Finnish Lutheran church in Ballard and was attended by about fifty people some two-thirds of which had Finnish ancestry. I laughed, they laughed. Why? This is a mystery, too, as my novel is tragic. Or, at least, I felt that my life was tragic. That I am now fifty, and my adventures are largely over, and what remains is to get my children to first base, and to choose a burial site. I would never be able to afford to be buried in Seattle. In fact, I felt, I would probably never even see the city again. But, I sold nine copies of the novel, and met Solveig Torvik, who has written what promises to be a more realistic account of Finland entitled Nicolai’s Fortune (University of Washington Press, 2006). Solveig told me mysteriously after the double reading that I have become Finnish.

I think one’s nationality is determined by where one wishes to be buried. Where? Probably still my heart is closest to Seinajoki, the small but beautiful town my wife is from.

I said goodbye to Jerry Gold, my beautiful editor, in the parking lot, and went off with a couple of old friends (Mark and Robert) who showed up unannounced at the reading. We drove to an Irish Pub on Phinney Ridge to reminisce and to giggle about zoophiles — the latest thing. Robert informed me that a man had paid to be raped by a horse but had died from the experience when his anus was ruptured. Is that the new Seattle? I remembered a Seattle of working men and women, supporting an odd Bohemia of intellectuals and grunge singers and so on. I posited a new layer of people who have arrived with inherited money and displaced the older people. They had come from California. Selling their homes there and moving up the line with ready cash. Mark and Robert and I had lived in a group house in Leschi and the rents were about $100 per month. There were about eight of us in this house in the mid-nineteen eighties. At the time it was La Vie de Boheme with struggling artists and a few graduate students in the sciences. One old friend of ours who became a top scientist for the EPA turned gay on a whim at age 60 after a lifetime struggling with heterosexuality. Another got menopause and wrote a moderately successful folk song: her first hit number it was joked. We said goodbye shaking our hands and heads at how things have changed. Time had not stood still but somehow our friendship had arrived without us having even seen or heard from one another for fifteen years.

I slept that night at a friend’s house in Lynnwood. It’s an odd town thirty minutes north of Seattle. Once a sleepy redneck haven it has recently gotten some of the overflow yuppies whose housing prices are more in the 3-4 hundred thousand dollar range. My friend is a Bohemian renegade who has seemingly managed to survive in the general exodus of the lower and middle classes from Seattle. If you didn’t buy real estate in the late 80s or early 90s then you can’t afford to do it now.

Seattle was once a cheap place just twenty five years ago. I could live in a group house (as I did) and make less than four hundred a month and live like a Bohemian goofball… well, at least there was food on the table and you could see a film on the weekend. Today, 400 dollars is the price of just the monthly fees at the average condo. On top of that you have to pay the mortgage, and all the rest. Who can afford this? Who? A few of my friends have managed to survive. A great number of them have left. I know that I will never be able to return to anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. Too many others have come with money to throw at homes. The black middle class that once lived in the Central District is said to have gone ten miles south down the Ranier Valley. Who has come to take their place and still have money to moonlight as a zoophile? Once upon a time I could sell a story to a porn outlet and not have to work for six months. Today I would not be able to take fifteen hours to construct a story, and now no one buys porno stories, as they are all over the net. What does anyone buy of the written word? Every minute would be used on the treadmill just to pay the rent. It is probably no longer possible to make it Temping (the title of my novel) in the city in which the experiences that informed the first half of my novel were once had.

As I walked into the University Book Store I saw that there were animal rights DVDs for free as I walked into the lobby. Someone was able to afford to make these DVDs and leave them for free. And somehow these same people are now so in love with animals that they pay to be sodomized by them? The scenario I had built up in my mind seemed so grotesque and so sad. I drove out of the Pacific Northwest looking out over the pristine Cascades as Seattle had a rare sunny day. It’s been drenched for weeks, but mercifully dried up so I could see the yellow trees and the beautiful neighborhoods that were once my home for fifteen years. I was grateful that a few of my Bohemian friends had survived and were still able to live there, and that older people like Gary London and my editor Jerry Gold had found their feet there. But I knew I would never see it again. I could never afford to live there again. Always just a few feet before the knife of capital, as I have been all my life. I thought of my nervous days of running out of busses and up the steps of university buildings to arrive at 7:58 in order to report to a new boss. Back then I could run a mile without breaking a sweat. Today I can manage at best a block and I have a jiggling sensation and am short of breath for ten minutes.

When I came home to Delhi in the Catskills my daughter had decorated the house with cakes and letters to welcome me back. It was nice to sleep in my own house again, and to wake up as if the whole trip to Seattle had been a dream to the land of OZ before I returned to my beautiful children and wife. Delhi is a small village that has slowly been losing citizens for two hundred years. One hopes that it will never be discovered and that I can die and be buried here relatively cheaply.

The Seattle I had seen over the last few days I didn’t recognize. It had taken on a proud new importance. Pounds heavier and laden with responsibilities and wrinkles, I doubt if Seattle recognized me, either. Goodbye to Seattle as we flew out of Sea-Tac also felt like goodbye to my youth.

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