(ed. note: this is the final installment in this summer series of travel essays. If you've missed any, you can find them all here.)
1. I’m aware that it’s a cliché for people to return from vacation and announce that they’d love to move to the city they’ve just visited, but when LauraBeth and I came home from Seattle, we both said we would be happy to move there. It’s the only place we’d ever visited that we agreed we could live in full-time. In a four-year period, we traveled to Seattle three times, for a number of different reasons. If it weren’t so expensive and so far away, we’d probably go back again this year. Even though I’ve lived in New jersey for the last ten years, nearly my entire adult life, I have always defined myself specifically as a Philly guy. A friend recently introduced me at a reading as “the most Philadelphia person I’ve ever met.” I wrote a memoir partly about shaping my whole life around this particular identity. Philadelphia is not like Seattle. The people are different, the weather is different, the air is different. The buildings are all newer, and the culture seems less pointlessly antagonistic than in Philly. But within two days of being there, I felt at home. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I liked about that city, besides that when I was there, I felt better. In every city there is good food, and in every city there are nice people and scenic views. But there’s some intangible thing about a city where you feel comfortable right away, like you’ve finally arrived at your destination. Though there are serious logistical hurdles to moving, I’ve applied for teaching jobs in Seattle each of the past three years. Does this all mean I’ve evolved and become a Pacific Northwest person rather than an east coast Philly guy? Or does it mean that my whole life, I was never truly a Philly guy at all and I’ve been living in the wrong place? And why did I feel a sense of shame and embarrassment to even consider these questions? It would explain a lot of things if I’d just been born in the wrong city. Maybe everyone is born in the wrong place and they have to spend their life trying to locate their rightful home. Maybe most people never find it.
2. I assume actual Seattle residents hate the Pike Place Market in the same way Philly locals sneer at tourists who go to Pat’s and Geno’s for cheesesteaks. But we went there because that’s where you’re supposed to go. It’s overcrowded, but so is every tourist destination. The fish-throwing spectacle is a novelty, but only entertaining for about fifteen seconds. As I gathered notes for this essay, I asked LauraBeth what I should say about the market, and she said: “You should write that they sell amazing cookies that are bigger than your head.” Which is true. They do.
3. We spent most days exploring the city on foot, trying to avoid the steepest hills. One afternoon, we headed toward Pioneer Square in search of an independent bookstore. About half the people we saw there were homeless. Passing a parking garage, we saw one homeless man drop his pants so another could inject him with heroin. LauraBeth will walk through places with me that she never would alone, because I walk with confidence in most places. It’s a fragile confidence, based on having grown up in a city and feeling like I know how to project a specific unapproachable energy, but whatever version of me could credibly pass as a city boy is long gone; I’m in my mid-thirties and softened from a decade as a college professor who lives in the suburbs. If someone demanded my wallet, what would I do, fight them? I haven’t been in a fight in twelve years, and that ended with me being body slammed through a bar room table like an extra in a Clint Eastwood movie. A middle-aged black man, clearly homeless, started shouting and jogging toward us. “Yo,” he yelled. “Yo, Temple!” I was wearing a Temple University t-shirt. He unzipped his jacket to show me his own Temple shirt. “I graduated from Temple!” He’d grown up in North Philly, graduated from college, and made it all the way across the country. I gave him five dollars and shook his hand. There were two decades worth of blanks that he didn’t fill in.
4. Easily the most decadent experience of my life occurred in Woodinville, a suburb of Seattle, where we enjoyed a dinner that cost more than my flight. This was the second time in a week we’d gone out to celebrate our anniversary, but it’s easy to rationalize extravagance on vacation. We ate a nine-course meal that took three hours and came with wine pairings for each course. I understand how obscene it is to spend that much money on a single meal. I have relatives and friends who sometimes need to borrow cash to pay the bridge toll to drive into Philly; the only reasons I can afford indulgences like this are because I lucked into a decent job at the right time, LauraBeth makes more money than me, and we have no kids. It’s not like I deserve any of it; I just stumbled into fortunate circumstances. But my guilt in moments like this is useless, because I don't do anything about it. I just get sad during the meal for a while and later write some notes and then even later write some self-conscious sentences about my guilt so I can feel better. Around the fifth course and wine pairing, I started to get drunk and forget my guilt.
5. Did you know there is such a thing as a super pod of orcas? A super pod is when several pods of orcas all gather in close proximity. There are three pods of orcas considered full-time residents of the waters in the Pacific Northwest, and we saw all of them at the same time. A super pod is when you are surrounded by dozens of orcas. It is when you are standing on a boat in the waters off of Washington’s San Juan Islands with your wife, the boat’s engine turned off so that the whales won’t be scared away, and you’re trying to decide whether to take hundreds of pictures or just look with your human eyes. It’s when no matter what direction you’re facing, you can see dorsal fins rising up like teeth from the ocean, and you can see a mother swimming alongside her calf, and whales are leaping and splashing everywhere. It’s when, after a decade of false starts and missed opportunities, you get to finally see whales in the wild and it exceeds all your expectations.
6. On the Seattle Underground tour, we walked through a network of passageways beneath the city streets, and learned about the massive fire of 1899 that burned down thirty-one city blocks. Every city seems to have a Great Fire in their history, but the fire itself is less interesting than the aftermath. In Seattle, rather than just rebuilding, they took the opportunity to dramatically alter the face of the city, essentially building a new city on top of the old one. Now you can tour the remnants of the old marketplaces that operated while the rebuild was ongoing. For a while, there were two Seattles, and now there’s one, and the original is just a memory. Two versions of the self can exist simultaneously, though one eventually has to go dormant. It’s natural to go through periods of razing and rebuild, and over time, it’s perfectly natural to look at yourself in the mirror and realize the face you’re seeing is totally different from the one you remember, different from the one you thought you were projecting. One version of you burns to the ground, and after a rocky transition period, the new version stands on the old one’s shoulders and sees everything from new heights.
7. On our anniversary in 2011, LauraBeth and I sat on the patio of a French restaurant in the Pike Place market and accidentally plotted out my next book. I’d published my memoir the year before and had spent three years struggling with an unpublishable 600-page novel about a pro wrestler who fakes his own death, and I felt stuck. And then in the middle of dinner, we came up with the story of a young man trying to overcome the grief about his wife’s sudden death. We talked about him carrying her ashes on a road trip across the country. I spent the next couple years working on that book and thinking about what I would do if she’d died, and I realized that the thing I feared more than anything in the world was losing her. All of my writing is about my fear, about articulating it and lashing out at it and trying to tame it, and as I worked on that book, I realized that everything I was writing, maybe everything I ever would write, would in some way be about LauraBeth and how lucky I feel to have found something so good, and how afraid I am of losing it all.