It Was 20 Years Ago Today: A Love Letter to Seattle

I remember it because of the firsts.

It was my first big trip as an adult.

It was my first intercity bus ride.

It was the first time I’d crossed an overland border.

It was my first time in Seattle.

And it was the first time I met Nick.

It was early 1998 (ok, yes, not quite 20 years ago. Let’s not nitpick.)  Back then, the Internet still wasn’t really a thing. It definitely wasn’t a thing you used to make friends with strangers halfway across the world, and then arrange to meet them at a grimy bus station in a country you’d never been to. It wasn’t that thing at all.

I’d found the online world a few years earlier, thanks to a guy in one of my university classes. He was a fan of a text game based on the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, and using this “Internet” thing I’d never heard of, somehow you got to play alongside and talk to people anywhere in the world for free. Mind. Blown.

For a geek like me, this was heaven. I got hooked on the game, spending every spare minute playing it, then helping code new parts of it. My grades would have been far higher if I’d never discovered it — but then I’d never have met a whole bunch of people who remain friends to this day. Small price to pay, I reckon.

One of the earliest of those friends was Nick, who studied on the US east coast, and moved to Seattle not long before I planned to head to London. When I mentioned my flights went via Vancouver, Canada, he said “oh, there’s a bus that runs directly here, and I’ve got a spare room. Wanna come stay for a while?”

Yeah, I did. I didn’t know all that much about him and nothing of the city, except it was home to a bunch of bands I loved, and it rained a lot. It all sounded like a fun adventure, though, and I was definitely up for that.

And that’s how I ended up on a Greyhound one gloomy February day, peering out at the Seattle suburbs and pondering the question my girlfriend had just asked me. No, I didn’t think Nick was an axe murderer… and no, I had no idea what we’d do about it if he was.

He wasn’t an axe murderer.

Too many potato chipsInstead, he was a lovely guy, who was happy to give up his spare room to a couple of clueless Kiwis he’d never met before, show us around the city, and laugh at our endless fascination with the minutiae of Seattle life.

The enormous bags of potato chips, and the even larger plates of nachos. The amazement when a car would slam on its brakes if we even hinted we wanted to cross the road, and the lengthy conversation with the Subway staff about what we wanted in our sandwich. Gherkins are not a thing in the United States. They’re pickles, Dave. Pickles.

Nick introduced me to Indian food and shuffleboard, explained how tipping worked, and taught me how to pronounce quesadilla properly. When we finally rolled back out of town a couple of weeks later, I’d greatly expanded my culinary horizons, developed a newfound love for plaid, and made a kick-ass new friend.

Somewhere along the way, I’d also fallen in love with Seattle.

I’d done all the touristy things, but despite keeping my pressed penny from the top of the Space Needle for many years, they weren’t what attracted me to the city. They rarely are, I guess.

The home of grunge music a few years earlier, Seattle in the late 90’s was still itself pretty grungy. The few photos I still have from that trip are washed out, a little blurry, and that’s how the city is in my memory as well.

Seattle 1998

It felt run down, but not dangerous. Homeless people and buskers with badly-tuned guitars asked for quarters, and it was often hard to tell the difference. Walking around downtown meant avoiding water-filled potholes and dripping bridges overhead, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

When the rain stopped, we’d go to one of the city’s expansive, wild parks, or down to the waterfront. When the heavens opened again, we’d jump on one of those weird electrified buses downtown, ducking in and out of record stores and outdoors shops, or aiming for the nearest drinking establishment. Those pubs and bars were warm and fun, filled with loud, friendly people. I remember the cocktails being great, and the beer being terrible. The craft brewing scene hadn’t really hit yet, apparently.

Everything just seemed so different, so unexpected, so goddamn interesting, especially to a 22-year-old kid from New Zealand.The day after arriving in London, I remember wanting to get straight back on a plane to the Pacific Northwest. If I’d had the right to live and work there, I certainly would have.

The surprising thing is that, two decades later, I still feel the same way. I’ve been back to the city close to a dozen times since then, and if I could easily move to Seattle for a few years, I still would. I’ve somehow ended up getting to know a wonderful, diverse cast of people there — travel writers and programmers, CEOs and architects, their professions reflecting the changes both in Seattle and myself over the years. It’d be easy to slot in.

It’s clearly not the same place it was. Tech giants (first Microsoft, now Amazon) have transformed Seattle. Entire neighbourhoods are barely recognisable (hi there, Capitol Hill.) It’s not a music town any more, not really. Traffic has got much worse. It’s become frighteningly expensive. Hell, it didn’t even rain for months this summer — although it decided to start up again when we got into town a few weeks ago.

Seattle from the ferry

Even with all that going on, though, it’s still an easy place to love. On a sunny day, a cold beer and Korean tacos at Marination on the beach (yes, a proper beach) in West Seattle, looking out over the water towards the glistening towers of downtown, is an unbridled delight. The ferry ride to Bainbridge Island, and the island itself, should be on every visitor’s itinerary… although when I take the trip myself and there’s hardly another tourist to be seen, I’m glad it isn’t.

I’ve got an ever-growing list of favourite bars, pubs, and restaurants, from little neighbourhood joints to high-end spots, and everything in between. I don’t know that I’ve ever managed to find a bad coffee, even though the city now seems to have more cafes than residents. That said, I’m still not convinced the world actually has a need for hemp chai lattes. No, I didn’t order one. Yes, Lauren did.

Showing my parents around last month, we wandered from Pioneer Square up to Belltown, ending up at the Olympic Sculpture Park as evening started to fall. In one direction lay the Space Needle, framed between the skyscrapers as if posing for a postcard. In the other, the setting sun lit up the harbour, the glow bathing the entire city in a glorious orange light.

Olympic Sculpture Park at sunset

Unprompted, we all sat on a nearby bench and watched the artwork unfold. The sun had come out, and it was still warm despite the hour. A few people lay reading on the grass, racing to finish the last few pages before nightfall. A couple of joggers passed by, and then all was quiet except the muted rumble of nearby traffic. A distant ferry headed for shore. Hundreds of birds swirled overhead.

The sea, the sky, the green space. They were part of what made me fall for Seattle in the first place, and they’re what’s kept me feeling the love ever since.

It’s been a great twenty years, Seattle. Let’s keep doing this for twenty more.

 

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A love letter to Seattle

5 Responses to “It Was 20 Years Ago Today: A Love Letter to Seattle

  • Great post, Dave. As a native, this made me homesick… I’m glad you got to experience Seattle before gentrification gutted it. One of the things Western Washington has always had in spades is natural beauty and the good thing about that is Amazon will never own the Sound or the Cascades.

    • I wonder how long it’ll be until Amazon starts building luxury floating apartments and underwater server farms in Elliot Bay? :-/

  • I have the same fond feelings for Seattle although I didn’t love it on my first visit in 2010, it was only on my second visit in 2013 that I really fell for it – and I have been back three times since that visit and love it more and more with each visit. I imagine it would have been quite different 20 years ago but I’m glad to hear you still love it despite its changes. I am really hoping to live there for at least a little while once I get my green card – I have even convinced my fiance who has never been there that living there would be a great idea. Although I also love where we are partly based now too – Denver – it has a similar vibe to Seattle (although they need to up their coffee game in Denver for sure!)

    • I only saw a little slice of Denver, for a couple of days a few years ago. It didn’t grab me at the time, but honestly, I saw such a small amount that I shouldn’t make any judgment at all. Maybe it’d be like you with Seattle — I need to return to fall for it!

  • What a great piece – sounds like you have some great memories from there. Seattle in the late 90s would have been an awesome place to be… Great to hear that it still rocks (but in different ways )

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