Roasted duck was on my mind when I went off to the library in Chinatown. In all of my years of living there, I’d bought tons of roasted pig and some chickens too, but duck always seemed too  indulgent and too expensive. 

I wasn’t quite ready to give up the feeling of Thanksgiving and what better way to end the festivities than with some poultry? At the Uwajimaya fast food counter, the sign said that half a duck was $18, so I ordered one, repeatedly asking that it be left in one piece. 

Cooked food is taxed so this bit of culinary delight clocked in at an even $20. Definitely a treat–I was ready to abandon the day’s rain and savor the joy of something warm and delicious. I took it out of its plastic zip-lock bag, put it on a plate, and began to sever its leg from its body. I failed. Ducks are obviously creatures with bones that aging women can only dream of.

Deciding I’d tackle the breast, I searched for that body part with little luck. This duck was flat-chested. When my knife penetrated its armor of skin, what I found instead was a substantial layer of what looked like blubber. Under this thick white mass was a thin strata of meat that clung stubbornly to its bones. 

I pulled away every tendril of edible duck and ended up with not quite enough to make a decent sandwich. The skin that looked delectable before I explored its hidden depths glistened with fat and it held much more blubber than it did hints of duck meat. 

Life’s little ironies are nasty and cruel. I’d bought the duck as a kind of antidote to all the butter I’d eaten in the past week’s baking frenzy. Never one to have worried about cholesterol in the past, recently I’d heard my arteries scream “Help! We’re drowning!” Now here they were, faced with twenty dollars worth of fat. 

After polishing off my scanty heap of duck, I turned to the sainted Laurie Colwin, who devoted an entire essay to the joys of that particular barnyard resident. Her advice was to put the carcass and all its scraps into a pot of cold water with a couple of crushed garlic cloves and let it simmer for six hours. Supposedly the strained broth, removed of all its fat, would make a lovely stock.

Somehow I expected more of my twenty dollar purchase than a brief taste of meat and a pot of broth. As I stared at the congealed fat that covered the submerged and refrigerated skeleton this morning, I began to wish that my scant number of domestic talents included soap making. But with my luck, anything made from this blubber would have me delicately scented with eau de canard.

I’ll settle for a decent version of stock and call it good.

It’s easy for the women of my generation to believe we aren’t old. We have the freedom to dress any way we like, behave however we please, do anything we have the energy and the money to accomplish. Birthdays be damned–it’s easy to make ourselves think that 70 is late middle age. We still listen to rock and roll (although it’s probably not what our grandchildren listen to). We still wear jeans (but the cut is more relaxed than what we looked for thirty years ago). We still travel (or we plan to as soon as covid has disappeared). Wotthehell, as Mehitabel once said, there’s still a dance in the old dame yet–except of course we’re not old–absofuckinglutely not. We’re getting older.

However this week I time-traveled back into the late 1960s, and let me tell you, nothing makes you understand the truth of passing time like returning to the days when you were truly young.

A few days before I turned 74, a friend gave me a copy of The Ladies’ Home Journal from August 1967. Although my mother was a devoted subscriber to this magazine, I’d stopped reading it years before this issue came into our house. By then I was getting the Village Voice every week (in Anchorage, Alaska yet!) and reading Camus. 

So it was with real curiosity that I scrutinized the pages of this magazine which made two things quite clear. Apparently two worries preyed on the women of that time–fading hair color and vaginal odor. 

“What does douching have to do with your husband?” “This new product will become as essential to you as your toothbrush.” “She spent an hour bathing and dressing but one oversight stamped her careless. How could she risk her marriage this way?” “Does she or doesn’t she?” “Blonding simplified.” And for those who had covered those two basic qualms, Lustre Creme Shampoo was ready to assure them that “Pink is for Girls.” 

Although a full-color four-page fashion spread showed “the latest looks from Paris and Rome,” all of them with hemlines that reached mid-thigh, the ladies (or were they ‘girls”) were given American role models. Mary Lindsay, Nancy Reagan, Erika Kirk, Lenore Romney, all good wives of prominent politicians, wore “the contemporary fashion of the day–The Knit Dress” made in America, daringly grazing the knees that were  all swathed in nylons. (Remember nylons? Of course you don’t. But there’s an ad to jog your memory–”Sears Cling-alon Stockings fit any leg.”)

Half of the magazine is devoted to food, a section that is absolutely bloodcurdling from a 21st Century perspective. Recipes from “Grandma’s Kitchen” swim in butter, cream, and bacon fat, with a “Homemade Mustard” made from flour, sugar, salt, cider vinegar, and dry mustard. “No-Cook Frozen Desserts” depend on refrigerated pie mixes, cake mixes, and puffed rice cereal. Exotic Hot and Cold Soups, claiming global ancestry from the Ivory Coast to White Russia, all had their bases come out of a can. An ad urges “Don’t just have a steak cook-out. Have a bistecca di Firenze, instead.” And guess who reminds their readers just where Firenze is? Why it’s that lovable old Italian, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, who makes that steak Florentine with a can of his Spaghetti Sauce with Meat.

There are no cigarette ads–Virginia Slims were still to be invented. There are no ads for wine to accompany those grisly meals–nor do cocktails appear, although this was the era of the two-martini lunch. But there is a two-page spread for the Literary Guild of America, offering Philip Roth, Graham Greene, Bertrand Russell, and the Complete Works of Shakespeare in two volumes, all in hardcover, four for a dollar. (The only women who are part of this offer are Amy Vanderbilt and Fannie Farmer.)

There is however a condensed version of a novel by Martha Gellhorn included in this issue and the sort of short story that was a routine fixture back in the days when magazines still had fiction editors. Dr. Bruno Bettelheim quite daringly discusses Parental Nudity in a Dialogue with Mothers and there’s an article that takes up a surprising number of pages as it reveals The Real Svetlana Stalin Story  (written by two men). 

For real culture, the Longines Symphony Society offers “100 chances to win A Sensational Mercury COUGAR Sportscar, Fully Equipped and complete with all deluxe accessories,” to anyone who buys their four-record treasury, Port of Call…Romance.

But sprinkled among etiquette advice (“May I type my condolence letters?) and financial tips on how to spend “your husband’s salary” are small cracks that will eventually shake the world of LHJ readers. Can This Marriage Be Saved delves into the difficulty of blending families of divorced partners and another explores Why “Good” Sons Become Draft Dodgers.”

Yes. All of this is straight out of the Dark Ages, but those are the years in which I grew up. Quite clearly, this 55-year-old magazine from 1967 showed me that now at the end of 2022, I’m old. 

I admit it but I’ll be damned if I’m going to live that way. 70 may not be the new 50, but it’s not the old 70 either and thank goodness for that. Thanks for taking me back into time with the privilege of returning to the present, Ladies’ Home Journal.

From the minute that Julio Rodriguez was signed and most of us saw his glorious smile for the first time, baseball has been a wild and delightful ride. It wasn’t just J-Rod. For the first time in what felt like eons, we had a team, not a cluster of supporting members behind a single star. 

I blame it on Jesse Winker, as much as anybody. When he stormed out onto the field after the Angels had thrown a pitch at Julio’s head and then struck Jesse in the next inning, the resulting brawl made headlines. It was a team effort and that followed through for the rest of the season. J.P.Crawford, who went into the scrimmage with his fists swinging, said after his brief suspension that no matter what, he would always have his boys’ backs. Even Scott Servais was suspended, along with Julio. It was a weird baptism, but it worked. The Mariners proved that if you messed with one, you got them all and except for the occasional slump that besets every baseball team with the possible exception of the Astros, they played their hearts out, together. 

Usually I fall in love with a single player and I cheer him on, ignoring his teammates. This year, for the first ever, I loved all of them. I never knew which Mariner was going to make the deciding play that would give them the game, often at the last minute or in extra innings. They made baseball fun, as it was always meant to be, and when play-off fever raised its ugly little head, I didn’t care. This team showed me how to love the game and for me that was more than enough.

When the Mariners went into the postseason in 1995, I was in Thailand where baseball didn’t exist except for the rare day when there was no cricket match to put on the Bangkok Post’s sports page. In 2001, once again I was out of the country for almost the entire season. When I returned, September happened and whatever was happening in the ballpark felt irrelevant. So this year was my first intimate experience with the play-offs.

And it hurt. Whether they won or lost, my emotions were like violin strings, tuned to their highest pitch and easily snapped. The men who had been playing for the sheer joy of the game had become fighters, each one of them tested with every play, and I suddenly realized how young they all were.

The Astros rolled over them, but not easily. That single hit in the seventeenth inning made them the victors but the 1-0 final score proved their days are numbered. Next season they’ll face Mariners who have gone through the crucible of the play-offs and know what they have to do. 

But the game will have changed for them and for me. The photo of Julio after his final at bat, alone in the dugout, slumped over in misery, will haunt us all. He’ll never again play with the untarnished joy that was his hallmark this season and that makes me want to cry.

Later in the clubhouse, in response to a question about how he was after playing 18 innings, he replied, “I’m 21 years old.” That’s a warning to the Astros. The Mariners are a young team with many of them never before seeing a postseason. They battled their way through three games against a team who’s seen nine play-off years and now they know they can do this. The Astros may be masters of RoboBall but the Mariners will be back to challenge them, again and again. Next season will be much different.

The question is can I face that agony of the play-offs with my blood pressure unscathed? I have to–it’s baseball.

We lose daylight more swiftly in October than in any other month, I read recently. Today’s sky is brightening from dark blue to navy at a time when it would have already been white in early September. Last night the light was almost gone by seven while this morning a dim gleam is rising above the shortest buildings twelve hours later. For now we’re on Bangkok time, with night and day almost of equal length. 

In Bangkok darkness was soothing while here it feels like a threat. Even if we begin to gain light in January and February, what begins as a cocoon turns into a shroud after the turn of the year. It’s an atavistic season that holds unease. Will this go on forever? 

I know it won’t but that knowledge isn’t as strong as ancient fears inherited from Celts and Teutons. Centuries without science have left their mark on my genes. I’ve replaced solstice bonfires with candles and holiday lights. My bedecked and baubled evergreen tree has shrunk to an amaryllis bulb encased in a sphere of wax, a grenade of hope. The slow progress of its blunt green stem as it pushes its way above its container has more meaning to me than numbers on a calendar. When it blooms at last, it gives a promise that I begin to think might not be broken, even though I know it will be an interminable ninety days before other blossoms return.

The sky is pale blue now at 7:11. We’ve just entered autumn. The leaves haven’t yet lost their green and the air has that delicious crispness that makes me believe anything is possible. This year perhaps fall will last into November and the darkness that follows will seem comforting. Maybe there will be winter sun and the brightness of fresh snow during our abbreviated days. And who knows? Maybe once again I’ll feel the joy of watching the light return, inch by inch, as it slowly reopens the world.

In early 2020, when covid was at its height in King County, local government leased land in SoDo and built a center with 240 spaces on Sixth Avenue South “for assessment and recovery care for individuals who are not able to recover in their own homes, or do not have a home.” This SoDo facility was one of four, with the others in Shoreline, Interbay, and East Bellevue. The largest center was the one in SoDo with 240 spaces, accompanied by a 45-bed temporary enhanced shelter called the Recovery Cafe, “for people who need health monitoring for inebriation.” East Bellevue and Shoreline were tied for the second-largest center, each with 140-150 spaces.Interbay provided 72 spaces. 

Of the four centers, two have been chosen for expansion of homeless alleviation services. East Bellevue is perhaps the most long-ranging, with plans for a 100-bed men’s enhanced shelter and services center, 92 supportive homes for people referred from Eastside shelters, 360 homes for low-income wage earners, and a 10,000 square foot early learning center. This has a completion date of 2023 and will cost “about $186 million,” according to a press release from the King County government.

Plans for the SoDo shelter concentrate on preserving the status quo, with no current plans for people transitioning from the protection of shelter spaces into permanent homes. A press release from King County in March of 2022 says this complex “would consist of five projects and will cost nearly $66.5 million. It expands the existing shelter which now offer 270 spaces and “adds capacity for up 150 additional persons in separately operated and co-located services. The hub will also serve as a frequent site for other services such as the mobile medical unit and mobile behavioral services.” 

(The smaller shelters at Shoreline and Interbay appear to have been moved to different locations and are not facing expansion plans.)

While plans for the Bellevue project are specific and involve participation by the Plymouth Housing Group, the Inland Group, and Congregations for the Homeless, the SoDo complex will be “a partnership between King County, the City of Seattle, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.” The initial press release from King County Executive Dow Constantine “shared his proposal for the expansion, including a preservation of the existing 270-person shelter, with added capacity for additional enhanced shelter for “up to 150 persons in separately operated and co-located services”, including “micro-modular shelters, a sobering center, and supports for RV residents,” at the cost of “nearly $66.5 million.” 

Although the SoDo complex of five projects offers shelter space and treatment of behavioral health problems, unlike the Bellevue site there’s no planning for where these sheltered people will transition. At present, the existing shelter says at least 90 of their sheltered are employed but  they were unable to say in what capacity–part-time or full-time. (Even if some of the residents are fully employed at minimum wage, they’ll be hard-pressed to find an apartment in Seattle with that salary.)

The imprecise language used to announce the SoDo expansion has provided many different interpretations. The International Examiner reports the expansion will “add 150 units of shelter, tiny houses, a 40-person high acuity behavioral health shelter and other services.” The Northwest Asian Weekly gives King County President Debora Juarez assertion that the expanded shelter will bring the total occupancy to 420 people, but points out that it’s unclear whether this figure includes the approximately 50 people in micro-housing and “approximately the same number brought in by an RV camp, both on the same land.” The Seattle Times says the complex will provide “a total of 419 beds, adding room for RVs, tiny homes, and mental health and addiction treatment.” 

Within the Chinatown-International District, which is adjacent to the shelter expansion, this proposal puts a strain on the area, which already contains the 75-bed Navigation Center and the 152-bed William Booth Center, and has an abundance of homeless shelters within a mile of its borders. Residents of the District fear the creation of a “homeless ghetto” will destroy their community and they demand a voice in the creation of this five-project complex.

A recent tour of the existing SoDo facility was prefaced with the view of a squalid unsanctioned encampment that has sprung up outside the walled-in and locked shelter space. Although a spokesman said there were approximately 30 people living in this impromptu camp that appears to be served by two portable toilets set outside of their self-imposed boundaries, a person who works nearby said a substantial number of campers had been cleared out before the tour.

Within the wall of the existing facility, the contrast was sharp. The surrounding street was as clean as any in South Lake Union and the shelter space was positively antiseptic. The spaces are the size of a small bedroom, each with a single bed and ample room for the occupant’s belongings, but without a door that will provide privacy. (The building’s glaring warehouse-style lighting is turned off at night to allow occupants a night’s rest.) The immaculate bathrooms are unlike many other shelters in that they provide private cubicles, with doors for toilets and showers. This, a spokesman admitted, is because the facility had been originally constructed for covid patients and privacy for personal hygiene was provided with them in mind.

The shelter occupants receive three meals a day, delivered from the kitchen of the William Booth Center across the street (and within the CID, it bears repeating.) The shelter is 24/7, allowing occupants to remain in their spaces during the day if they wish and giving them a place to hold what they carry with them. Unlike the facility that will succeed it, this shelter isn’t low-barrier. If occupants are found drinking or using drugs, they have to leave. According to a spokesman, at least some of the ejected are now in the unsanctioned encampment next door.

An assembled “pallet shelter” was open for inspection. This is a prefabricated and insulated shed, with just enough room for two cots on opposite walls, although a spokesman said most would be for single occupancy unless the occupant wished otherwise. This space is grim, with less area than the three-sided rooms within the shelter. The one advantage is privacy with a door that can keep the outside world at a distance. “These will provide every service but plumbing,” a spokesman said. Toilets and showers will be placed nearby in what is called, on the map that was provided to the tour group, the “micro-modular enhanced shelter.” 

Across from this is the “Existing SoDo Shelter” and the “Enhanced Behavioral Health Shelter.” Beside it is a “Temporary Sobering Center.” Across the street is the nebulously identified space that is called “RV Support.” One spokesman told a member of the tour that this wouldn’t include permanent parking spaces for RV occupants. The additional area of the 6-plus acreage is given over to two parking spaces, a “Provider ‘Fusion’ Office,”  “Warehouse 3 Temp. Property Storage,” and a “Future Additional Services Space.”

A question posed by a member of the tour group as to whether the occupants of the unsanctioned encampment and the unsheltered who live on the streets of the CID would receive priority occupancy within this complex went unanswered, unlike the Bellevue project which will be filled with “people referred from Eastside shelters.” There was no reply to the question of what was the next step beyond transitional housing nor an answer to what would be done with the unsheltered of the CID and SoDo who refuse space within this shelter. 

There are so many unanswered questions. What is clear is that the residents of neighborhoods near the shelter complexes in Bellevue and in the CID are going to need support. Community services and amenities such as parks and libraries are going to receive a new influx of patrons, and the auxiliary components of the unsheltered population such as drug dealers and sidewalk thieves’ markets need to be deterred from moving in. 

Community participation in the planning of shelter complexes is a key part of the process. People who have made their homes in the impacted neighborhoods must be assured that these projects won’t jeopardize their security–and measures to make this happen must be codified as requirements of county, city, and state governments.

No matter where we live, all residents of King County bear the responsibility of ensuring that solutions to the unsheltered emergency are equitably spread throughout the region and that no existing community suffers because of adjacent shelter spaces. This is on all of us. Stay informed. Speak up. Make government officials listen and take appropriate action.

When I went to see the lion dancers on Saturday, I saw silver hair that I instantly recognized, on a small person who was wearing a joyfully bright sweater– someone whom I don’t know well but who makes me happy every time we meet. She’s urban in the best possible way, a fast-talking lady with her own impeccable style. Although the music after the performance blared too loudly for any kind of conversation, that brief visit with her and her husband buoyed me for the rest of the day.

Connection is the life’s blood of the Chinatown/International District. Its small shops guarantee that repeat customers are remembered and greeted in a way that “customer service” training will never replicate. No “Did you find everything okay?” in this neighborhood–here an elderly shopkeeper scolded me once for not coming in more often, another, after I bought a slab of roast pork, gave me a piece of rum cake that his friend had brought back from his vacation in Jamaica.

One late summer afternoon, I finished a hard day of writing with perilously low blood sugar. I walked outside with plans to get banh mi from a bakery down the block and was disheartened to see the lady who owned the shop making her way across the street, hand in hand with a small grandchild. 

“Oh no, you’re closed,” I said and she immediately responded “Are you hungry? Come.” She and her grandchild reversed course, with me following obediently behind. She unlocked the bakery door, swept in, and told her son, who was immersed in closing procedures, to stop and attend to my purchase. That’s the kind of moment that breeds lifetime customer loyalty and in this shop, that moment extended through generations. At another time, as I bought my banh mi, I told this lady’s granddaughter how much I loved the Thai chili that she put on my sandwich instead of the jalapenos that other places used. “Oh we grow it here,” she said and led me to the sunny front window where a massive green plant held center stage, covered with ripened little Thai chili peppers. “So many,” she said, “Here, take some home with you.”

What I took home with me every day when I lived in the CID was the warmth that comes from genuine human interchanges. Sometimes it was my favorite supermarket clerk at Uwajimaya peering at me and saying in a worried tone, “You look tired.” Sometimes it was a street person lurching out of an alleyway to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day. But I never left my apartment without returning from an encounter that made me happy to live in this place. It’s given me one of my dearest friends and a woman I think of as my daughter (I should be so lucky!).

Now I live in a neighborhood so overrun with tourists that nobody has time for more than a flash of recognition when they see a familiar face. But my old neighborhood is less than a mile away. Although I no longer have resident status, a fact that still hurts each time I walk past my old apartment building, I still see people I know when I’m on my way to its sweet little library or when I need to buy Mama noodles or when I’m starving for Tai Tung’s noodles and Harry Chan’s smile or when I come down to follow the Mak Fai lion dance troupe as they bless the neighborhood with drums, gongs, and firepower.. I may never live in the CID again but I’ll always use it, I’ll always love it, I’ll always find essential connections on its streets.

Don’t let it fade away. 

I’m too revolted on too many levels to write coherently this morning. The new regional authority, with Constantine and Harrell, are planning to build a multimillion dollar homeless alleviation complex–an RV parking lot for fifty and another fifty tiny houses plus a shelter for 500 with social services on under seven acres behind Dearborn Street. There was no consultation with the ID, nor advance warning. The only information given to the community is a May press release from Bruce Harrell. 

This is what has enraged the CID, since it would never have happened in any other downtown-adjacent neighborhoods. There were no community hearings, no requests for input from residents, nor any environmental impact studies on the effect that at least 600 new residents might have upon local businesses and the community’s quality of life. 

There are over 1000 aging people in the CID, many of them who would find it quite possibly fatal to live anywhere else. They use their neighborhood in a way that other residents of wealthier areas don’t. They walk to buy food, go to the doctor, make a trip to the post office or to a bank. The CID is close to self-sustaining. I know because when I lived there, I had little reason to go beyond its boundaries except to visit family and friends.

After the rally, my friend Lei Ann and I walked through the park, past a man who lounged under one of the pieces of exercise equipment that were once used solely by adult exercisers. His can of beer was close at hand, as it is for many a lounging gentleman at the close of a summer’s day. I couldn’t observe him as carefully as I would have liked because I was much too busy avoiding human excrement on the pathway. Two men sitting at the little tables watched our shoulder bags approach in a way that was clearly predatory and as we walked down a staircase that let us take an empty path, Lei Ann shuddered. “The man behind us is urinating. Do they think this is their toilet?”

I walked to the rally and when I went through Pioneer Square I was stunned by its recovered loveliness. A year ago it was filled with tents and people who were obviously mentally ill. Now they’re gone and the CID is paying the price for their relocation. The community will only survive if we all support it. Please do.

While drinking my morning coffee and scrolling through Facebook yesterday, I came across a friend’s photos of Bangkok’s river and tears immediately began to prickle at the bridge of my nose. They blindsided me and I couldn’t stop them for almost an hour, not sobbing but brimming. My throat ached with my longing to be on a boat in the Chao Phraya with no destination in mind, simply succumbing to the pleasure of being a river flaneur,drifting on a current, seeing what I could see.

I grew up near a river, in a place so tiny that this was its only claim to fame. From the days of my first memories I was fascinated by its motion. Its currents and eddies led straight to a branch of the ocean, where stretches of sand held shells and seaweed, the only playground in town. 

Every summer our little “wide spot in the road” filled up with people from all over Alaska and beyond, drawn by the king salmon that made their way down the Anchor River to Cook Inlet. The glassed-in refrigerated display case in the grocery store held fish that were often bigger than I was, some weighing in at fifty pounds. Then the dead fish went off with the people from other places and the summer carnival came to an end.

When I first arrived in Bangkok the Chao Phraya seemed like a carefully guarded secret. It flowed through the entire city but was annoyingly difficult to find, unless you were one of the lucky few having tea at the Oriental Hotel. When I finally found my way to the dilapidated piers and on the deck of one of the many commuter boats that traveled for miles, I felt as though I’d been given the keys to the city.

The Chao Phraya was alive with traffic, all of it utilitarian. Barges, small and colorful cross-river ferries, the longtail boats that were the riverine equivalent to motorcycle taxis and traveled up the canals, and the large, clumsy tubs that went up to another province almost clogged the river in a water parade that I loved.

The last time I was in Bangkok, I stayed at one of the riverside hotels that didn’t exist when I first lived there. The Chao Phraya traffic now included “tourist boats” for sightseers with an abbreviated route that stopped near the Grand Palace, smaller boats made of teak, gracefully taking hotel guests to the upscale shopping areas, the dinner cruise boats that appeared after dark with their flashing lights and blaring karaoke-esque music. The piers were more substantial than before, offering coffee, souvenirs, and touts. The river, always a commercial lifeline, now is a major artery of tourism.

When I first came to Bangkok, there was a story in the Bangkok Post of how an overcrowded floating pier had sunk, carrying a number of commuters to their deaths. Later I was on one of the large commuter boats when a squall blew in from the western bank and every passenger, man, woman, child, and monk rushed to the eastern side of the boat. It listed in a menacing fashion and I got off at the next stop. These events have always made me well aware that once I was on the river, I was at its mercy. I’d lived in Thailand long enough to be positive that there weren’t enough life jackets aboard to go around and the ones that were available probably had holes in them. Since I never learned how to swim, once I got on a boat, I was doomed in any emergency.

But even with that in mind and with the pounding noise of the boat’s engine and the stabbing shriek of the boat boy’s whistle and the smell of the exhaust that filled the air on the rear deck, I would get on one of those boats in a Bangkok second if I were able to right now. And although I flirt with the idea of seeing other countries, I know damned well that my travel mantra will always be Thailand First. See you soon, Chao Phraya–I hope.

A city without crowds isn’t a city. It needs people on its streets, on their way to work or shop, off to see art at a museum or to meet a friend for lunch to give the place its pulse. Without that, it dies. It becomes a collection of neighborhoods that all function separately, without a living heart to unite them into an urban whole.

What’s keeping Seattle’s downtown alive is its tourists. Although no demographic among them has been identified, it seems that most of them are here because they’re waiting to sail off on one of the many cruise ships that loom white and massive in the sound, like 21st century Moby-Dicks. The passengers have to be here because Seattle is the starting point and the end of their voyage. This means our streets are being animated in large part by a captive audience.

Will they come back by choice, eager to spend more time in this city? That depends on what they see when they aren’t on the ship. The waterfront can keep them amused for a day and then they can spend another at the Market. And then? Well, thank heaven for Nordstrom and the monorail that will whisk them off to MoPop and the Chihuly Garden. 

When I fell so thoroughly in love with Seattle that I persuaded my husband to move here, it was because of downtown. The Market and the waterfront were delightful but it was the vibrancy of the city’s core that was the real draw. Within its borders were four department stores, little shops that seemed left over from the days of World War II with names like Buddy Squirrel, Mode O’Day, and Toys Galore, at least four movie theaters, and a bounty of bookshops. Restaurants catered to all income levels, from the lunch counter at Woolworth’s to the luxury of the Olympic Hotel’s Shuckers and the Georgian Room. There were a few high rise buildings but the ones made of brick and terracotta were filled with shops and cafes. There was even a small but thriving red light district that was benign in its unobtrusiveness and beyond that Pioneer Square’s gorgeous old buildings contained shops selling everything: art, books, kites, capes made of Irish wool, and loaves of freshly baked bread.

And there were crowds. Yes, they all disappeared at six o’clock but even after they went home, my husband and I took our children to movies at night. The hoboes we encountered after dark were always friendly fellows. If anybody was shooting up or nodding out, they weren’t in plain sight.

Seattle was a pleasant place to visit then. Now I have friends coming from Tucson in a few weeks and although they’ll only be here for a day, I feel weirdly ashamed of what they’ll see and what they aren’t going to find.

I had a conversation yesterday. On the street. With strangers. In the newly expanded area formerly known as South Lake Union, now swiftly becoming downtown Seattle. Some call it Midtown. I call it Blight.

Because this all sprouted up without my knowledge, I’m now horribly fascinated by it and yesterday I saw almost seven miles of it on foot. Mile after mile of exploration showed me a whole lot of mediocre architecture that houses offices and the people who work in them. In their bases were a couple of chain drugstores and quite a few restaurants and bars. I found one place that sells clothing–it’s a Goodwill store. There are no bookstores of course but even more tellingly the only newspaper box was in front of the building that houses The Seattle Times. It’s an area that’s crushingly bland and almost horrifyingly clean. But then there are few pedestrians to sully the public hygiene. 

When I finally reached the portion of this that lies on the upper reaches of my street, I felt drained. I would have stopped for a soft-serve ice cream at the charming little Japanese-style cafe but the line stretched out onto the sidewalk and I knew from my past visit that service there is slow. I started to walk away when I caught an unmistakable scent. There, sitting on a bit of public seating in a place where this is rarely used were two women–and one of them was smoking a cigarette.

I almost reeled in shock. Instead I began to look around me, trying to figure where I could stand unnoticed and take her picture. Then one of them spoke. “Do you need help finding something?”

Even in the old portion of downtown, this is a rare question. Usually the only people who speak to me on the street are incoherent or so verbally violent that I wish they were. I walked over and asked “Do you live here?” 

When I found out they did, I said, “Then you’ll understand how puzzled and confused I am by how this has changed in the past few years.”

“Yes,” the smoker said. “We’re moving to Mexico next month.”

She was speaking my language and we talked for at least ten minutes. When I moved on toward home, I still felt hungry. 

I wander alone in the streets of Seattle and I live alone in my little cavern. Perhaps once a day if I’m lucky, I’ll exchange a few sentences with the people who live on my floor. Once a week or so, I meet a son or a friend for a visit. Otherwise I’m silent. 

The cities I love and the ones I think I could love are personable ones where street interchanges are integral parts of their fabrics. Even in Tucson where the streets are as empty as ours, random chat with strangers is a staple of that city. Here in Seattle there are days when I use my voice only when I tell my cat to stop scratching his favorite chair.

The only other time I ever felt quite so alone is during my introduction to Bangkok. There I moved into my first-ever solitary apartment where I struggled to enter the postcard and become a part of my new city. But that took only a couple of months. This current solitude threatens to stretch for a thousand years.

In Bangkok, in those early days when I lived in an apartment with no kitchen, there were evenings when I was too tired to go out for street food. That was when I stopped in a little corner shop and bought instant noodles, Mama noodles. They came in a little square packet with seasonings, like ramen, but unlike ramen, they had flavor all by themselves. Some evenings I crunched them into bits and ate them straight from the package, a common practice I learned later, but I thought I’d invented it. Lonely.

But there was something about Mama that was comforting and I ate countless packages of those noodles when I lived in Bangkok, when I stayed in Hong Kong and Penang, during my time in Tucson, and here in Seattle. Last night I had them for dessert after finishing my supper of strawberry ice cream.

I don’t smoke anymore, I rarely drink alone, and I’ve stopped eating meat out of consideration for my case of macular degeneration. But you’ll have to pry those Thai instant noodles from my cold, dead fingers, palm oil, preservatives and all, because there are days when I need my Mama.