March 2020—

The plum blossoms were a surprise, gleaming under the Seattle streetlights as I rolled my suitcase toward a friend’s house. Last year in March those branches were frosted with snow. Last year I would have sworn on any bible that the pavement I walked, from the street car until I reached the hill I used to live on, was flat. But after my months of wandering through the even ground of Tucson it was quite obvious that this street had a definite incline that steadily increased. Only by Seattle standards was this slope level.

Flights of any length make me tired now and even though the journey between Arizona and Washington was under three hours, it had disoriented me by its change of universes. A vague hint of vapor from salt water had replaced the dry air I’d breathed earlier in the day. Trees had taken the place of cactus and I could smell green leaves. As I walked toward the house I’d left in October, I felt as though I was coming home.

But it was a home that had been subdued by the region’s first deaths from covid-19. When I met a friend for breakfast at my favorite noodle shop, we were the only customers for hours until two more tables were taken at the start of what used to be the lunch rush. “I’ve never had such an easy time parking in Chinatown,” the friend said. His car was only inches from where we sat, on a street that was usually lined solid with parked vehicles and delivery trucks.

The next morning another friend and I had a popular breakfast spot in the Pike Place Market all to ourselves and afterward strolled past flower stalls where we were the only admirers.

The eeriness of being uncrowded in spots that were normally thronged hadn’t yet hit me. Living in Bangkok during bouts of avian and swine flu had made me cavalier about viral outbreaks; Tucson had accustomed me to quiet streets and empty sidewalks. During this visit, Seattle was still functioning. Two days after I left, it shut down.

Schools, libraries, museums, and zoos closed. Public transit stopped accepting fares. The airport’s lines were scanty. Microsoft and Amazon told employees to work at home. Many bars and restaurants closed their doors and there began to be a real fear that the smaller ones might never reopen. Neighborhoods like Chinatown and the Pike Place Market might never recover, falling prey to generic corporate businesses that would change them forever.

And as lights went out all over the city, Seattle started to wonder when it would be cordoned off from the rest of the world.

As all this happened, I checked one-way tickets and made mental checklists of what to give away, what to pack. A city I had never valued enough proved to be a place I need to have, one I was eager to support and fight for. It holds the people I love, the water I yearn for, and the roots I’ve denied. It won’t be tomorrow, I decided, but I’m going back–and I did.

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That was two years ago. Because so little has changed since then and the change that took place has come slowly, it feels as though it was only last year. We all lost 2020. 2021 felt as if we were chipping at an iceberg with a nail file–or at a pandemic with our vaccinations. To make a dent we needed to all do it together but only half of us did nationwide. 

Downtown Seattle lost almost all of “the generic corporate businesses.” The supermarket that recently opened is a local one and the shops that dot the city blocks are too–Fran’s Chocolate, Sandy Lew, Watson Kennedy. The area that claims the crowds and the lines of waiting customers is completely local–the Pike Place Market–and Chinatown’s shops and restaurants have survived too. This speaks so well for Seattle; it shows what its residents value in their city. (Even the global behemoths that have remained are locally spawned entities. Amazon and Starbucks were born here.)

We have a chance that last came our way over a hundred years ago after the Seattle Fire. Once again we have the ability to rebuild what’s been lost. Let’s not blow it, Seattle. Dance with the guys who have stuck with you, not the ones who cut and run. Buy local. Eat local. Foster the locals who stayed and welcome the locals who come to join them. They’re the ones who care about this place. They’re the ones who are bringing it back to life.