Monday, May 19, 2008

A Very Very Short Life in Bellingham, Washington: Seattle 1987

This was when I lived in Seattle with Brock and Matt--in the Queen Anne neighborhood--next to Brock's father's printing shop and but a block or two from the Space Needle. The three of us had taken a little road trip up north, into the Cascades near Mt. Baker and into towns like Mount Vernon, Sedro Woolley, Concrete, but also to Bellingham. And I decided I was going to move to Bellingham by myself: find a job, write, look into attending Western Washington University and get a degree in education so I could teach. Before Seattle I'd been living in Florida's panhandle with a woman I thought I loved. But I left her, drove all by myself from Gulf Trace in Walton County to L.A. and then up to Seattle, where my old friends, best friends, were. A long and lonely trip. And after months of working and sleeping on the couch and then the floor in Seattle, wallowing in my own brand of self-pity and sadness, the Big Unknown Dread invading my body each night as I lay awake watching the lights of the city dance along the walls from the window, I was ready--told myself I was ready--to be off again. I wanted to live by myself in a new town. I wanted to write.
I recall that in Florida, the woman I lived with in a house on the beach who would go out on coke binges while I slept because I had to get up and paint houses in Seaside the next day, this woman, "T", who I did love and was still recovering from that love, she told me before I left her: "You'll never marry. You'll always live alone." So, maybe I was just trying to fulfill her prophecy.
I went ahead and made my plans for Bellingham--a smallish city along protected Pacific water near the San Juan Islands, east of big Vancouver Island, a blue-collar city of steep hills and trees and visible snow-capped mountains, a very rainy/foggy beautiful town--while living in the little upstairs under-repair apartment with Matt and Brock. I decided I would leave in one week, after I got paid (was working at the print shop for Brock's dad, also helping to remodel the apartment, also owned by Brock's dad). I was reading Bukowski and Rilke and Raymond Carver at the time. Then the end of the week came and I said good bye to my three friends, told everyone at the print shop I was moving to Bellingham and would not be back. And I put my belongings together, everything fitting into the trunk of my powder blue Ford Maverick (which I had bought from my parents in Des Moines a year earlier after dropping out of the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City). Then I hit I-5 North, worked my way through the traffic and treed hills, the towns of Everett and Mount Vernon, alone and driving once again, on up to Bellingham and a new life.
Or so I thought.
It was March--the 9th to be exact, 1987--and I made my first "encampment" at the Motel Six in Bellingham. There I sat with scattered newspapers and insipid TV shows, berating myself for my lackluster past, a guilt and shame tied in with leaving "T" in Florida and having withdrawn from the Writers Workshop in Iowa City the previous fall. With my perceived failure as a student, as a writer and lover and as a human being, I guess, I was very depressed and this move to the snowy/wet/green northwest corner of the USA was supposed to help me heal, help me reconnect with myself and invigorate my writing. All I wanted was to find some small place to live, scavenge for employment and write; then I wanted to meet some people, meet a new woman, maybe go back to school at Western Washington. I wanted to resurrect myself in that classic American way through migration and self-invention.
With the newspaper ads in hand, I drove around looking at places for rent. Stopped at the University for coffee. It sat on a big hill and I could look down at the city--the crumbly bar-infused downtown, the docks and port, the water and islands and the mountains on those islands. It was sunny, coldish, a few clouds roiling in like benign drunken uncles.
After a few looks, I settled on a big green house near the campus. The house was divided up into many apartments with a communal kitchen. It was a downtrodden, semi-slimy off-campus goo-goo-head student kind of place. But I liked it well enough to start my new life out. And it was cheap, rented month by month. So, I met the man running the show, gave him a $45 deposit on a downstairs room towards the back that looked down the hillside to the sea and the city. Again, not so bad.
But there was a catch. I couldn't move in just yet, the man said. He was a middle-aged bushy-haired Kurt Vonnegut-looking guy, maybe his name was Dave. And because he was a Kurt Vonnegut-looking guy, I trusted him when he said that a girl was living in the room right now but the apartment would be clear in a week or less. Hmmmm. Okay, I said and still handed over my 45 dollars and I had his number and so everything was cool except that it was on hold for a week. Or less.
Back then, the Motel Six was only about $20 a night. Back then, I didn't want to spend $20 a night, so I drove out to a rest area on the highway (I'd spent many nights at rest areas over the years whilst traveling.) I scoped out the rest stop, hung out, let the Big Unknown Dread retake my stomach and mind... That year, in Florida and Seattle was not a good one. As I said, I was full of depression, heavy like a cannon ball in my stomach, like a vulture on my chest, a nest of shipworms in my brain. I was still working through the exact problem: dropping out of the Iowa grad school, breaking up with "T" in Gulf Trace, the long lonesome drive, sleeping on the floor in Seattle and working small jobs, growing out of my youth--Thirty Years of Age was within my vision--was also on my mind. So this dread and sadness and self-hatred was always with me, a ghost, a shadow, a guilt of some kind. And at the rest stop was one of those abandoned cats. Some lost kitty all curled, cold and mean on top of a picnic table. I'd seen a lot of them on my transcontinental trip and here was another and I said, to myself:
"Damn, I can't stay at this godforsaken urinal stop with dying house pets at my heels! I'm driving back to Bellingham to put some beers down my gullet, maybe play some pool with strangers and take a chance on meeting some woman who will take me home with her for the night. And if that fails, then I will come back along the highway and try to sleep in the coffin of my car."
I don't remember exactly why I stayed in the Bellingham area, since I couldn't move into a room for a while. I didn't really have the money to waste for a week's wait. Was it that I thought I might have my apartment sooner? Was it because I'd told everyone in Seattle that I wasn't coming back? Was I prepping for the life I envisioned in this sea-mountain town? Don't know, but I had only a few beers in depressing nowhere bars in Bellingham, then came back to the same rest stop. No kitty in sight. Spent a lousy cramped night in my car--worrying, worrying--getting up with the shady sun and driving back north.
But the drive reinvigorated me. The beauty of the landscape was inescapable, tamping down my neurotic doubts. Low mountains forested with hairy pines, abutments of cloven rock and the snowy big peaks in the distance. Cool and fresh and green. Views of placid Pacific waters. So I again returned to Bellingham, goofed around, and again left, this time to spend a night at a State Park south of the city. It would be better than living in my Maverick, or sleeping on the floor in Seattle. Nature would be my salvation--at least for another night.
And Larrabee State Park was just the ticket. I had borrowed Matt's tent and some gear--how nice of him to lend it to me when I wasn't coming back--and set up camp away from the mainstream sites. A place you parked and had to walk into--not far--that was close to the shoreline: big trees and ferns, slugs and frogs, water pure and captivating with the mountainous San Juans out there looking isolated, like self-contained lives belonging to someone else, someone happy and settled. I hiked a trail to Fragrance Lake--alone, no one else anywhere, not even fresh bear scat for company--then occupied myself with wood gathering and canned-chili-eating until night's darkness plummeted upon me and the Great Loneliness plummeted into my heart once again.
Inward inward I traveled. Self-pity my best friend. Mistakes the only memories I could muster.
But I stoked up the fire. Sliced some pepperoni, some cheddar, ate it on top of Wheat Thins. Realized that this was the first time I'd ever camped all by myself and that the last time I'd camped was at Falling Waters State Park in north Florida with "T". Ahhh. Companionship and conversation. Wine and smoked oysters from a tin. Sex in the tent. . .
And in the night the wind picked up, heavy but dry. And there was a great groaning, moaning in the forest. I could not sleep. And so I ventured out of my tent and the moon was full, it cast a bright yellow light upon the woods so that I did not need a flashlight. And in that daffodil light I saw that the moaning was from two big trees whose trunks had grown across each other and the wind was moving them, rubbing them together and I couldn't help but to see it as a arboreal orgy, some deciduous sex up in the canopy of the night.
Man, I was lonely.
And I eventually went back to sleep. Woke to another beautiful day. Another hike. Packed my belongings and Matt's tent into my powder blue Maverick and did not head to Bellingham. I drove back to Seattle.
But I went back to work for Brock's dad. Went back to drinking cheap beers in the bars of Queen Anne. Breakfasts at the Mecca Cafe. Sleeping on the floor. Jokes and smokes with my amigos. Still lonely, lost and downtrodden, my plan was to return to Bellingham and the life that awaited me there. I had the Vonnegut-looking guy's phone number. And I'd call and call but never could get him on the phone. 
After maybe two weeks, I gave up. Said goodbye to my $45. My Bellingham dreams.
Seattle is not a good city to be depressed in: grayness and rain and gloomy bums wandering its streets. Come summer, I left. Went back to Iowa for a spell and then went back to the beach towns of Walton County, Florida. I did not go back to "T".

For quite a few years I still thought of Bellingham. Thought about how my life would be different if I hadn't run back to Seattle. If I hadn't of given up so easily, hadn't been so lonely and cheap and unwilling to stick with my vision. Would I have succeeded there? Would I have committed myself to my writing any better than I had? Would I have met someone or gone back to school and become a teacher?... Can't say, of course. And, yes, it's a common thought: what would have and only if. But it's also a profound question/thought. Apply it to yourself, what small venture or plan did you abandon? What if you had not? Yet, as said, this only crossed my mind once in a while, for a few years.
I later lived in Missoula, Montana and returned to Seattle quite a few times after that, even took a trip to the San Juan Islands. Brock was still in Seattle then. I got married in Seattle, to an Illinois girl. But now I haven't been to Washington State in--what--more than fifteen years.
And I've never been back to Bellingham.

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