Years ago I shocked one of my Thai language classes by writing on the whiteboard, “What’s worth doing is worth doing badly.” In a country ruled by perfectionism, this was heresy, I went on to explain that nobody does anything well at the beginning; practice was the key to perfection and practice involved doing things badly until they were finally done well. Then I proved the truth of my statement by speaking their language, an action that they all agreed I did very badly indeed.

I paid lip service to my twisted maxim but I rarely incorporated it into my life. I did the things that came easily to me and ignored the rest. My halting attempts to learn Thai were the exception–but if I didn’t stumble my way through that language, I was going to go hungry or worse. My first piece of language acquisition after getting off the plane from Seattle was “Where is the bathroom?” No matter how much I mangled this phrase, my tone of urgency and face filled with panic helped to get the point across. And although I knew what came out of my mouth was laughable gibberish, perfectionism was a frill I couldn’t afford.

Like every child in the 1950s, I was given a box of crayons as soon as the adults in my life felt assured that I wasn’t going to eat them. I fell in love with the colors immediately and gave each one its own personality. When I wasn’t putting them through silent dramas of my own invention, I scribbled happily. 

Then my younger sisters stopped eating my crayons and were given boxes of their own. Their scribbles rapidly turned into recognizable figures and landscapes that gave them the praise that eluded me and I decided the hell with this.

I still loved color but I transferred that passion to the clothes I wore and much later to the furniture I bought. Colors made me happy but I never willingly put them on a piece of paper–the lowest marks on my elementary school report cards were in Arithmetic and Art. I told myself I hated them both.

Seventy years after I stopped using my crayons, a conversation with a friend made me walk into an art supply store and buy paper, brushes, and four tubes of paint. When I brought them home, I spread my purchases on the table and wondered what the colors would look like on the paper. A couple of hours later, I stopped, only because the sheet of paper was completely covered. During that time I had no thoughts, no interruptions, and didn’t stop playing with paint even to get a glass of water. It was as though I’d been possessed and I suppose I had been–the colors had taken over.

Since then I’ve bought and have been given many more tubes of paint and different brushes. I use them with enthusiasm and with no idea of what I’m doing. Nothing I put on paper has any resemblance to an image–each sheet looks like a four-year-old’s session with finger paints. And I’m grateful for that. This is one thing I do without planning, without editing, and without any expectations. When the paper is full, I stop. In the meantime only the colors matter.

In spite of myself, I’ve learned a few things–which brushes are my favorites and why I like them; the differences between paper; the garishness of cheap paint. 

Yesterday an artist friend gave me two colors that astounded me and I know that from now on things will never be quite the same. Even though I’ll cling to my less subtle colors, I’ll always know there are other tints that catch the light and use it softly. I’ve discarded what I think of as color swatches, ones I did months ago, because now I can see how clumsy they are. But still I resist anything that will let me know what I’m doing. All I want is to have the delight and freedom that my perfectionist self denied me when I was little. All I ask for is to be in love with all the colors, in my second childhood–me and ROYGBIV, BFF forever.

Yesterday I had one of the best meals I’ve had in years, far from downtown Seattle, in a Tukwila food court. Next to a street that’s almost a highway, in a building that blends in with the library and community center, I sat on a plastic chair at a small table and ate with a plastic fork from a compostable food container. The food I ordered surprised me when I first looked at the menu; it wasn’t cheap. Dishes ranged from $15 to $20, but there was a selection of four different cuisines that are hard to find in this city: two from Africa, one from Afghanistan, and one from Cambodia. After reading a description of the different meals each vendor offered, I chose food from Gambia and Senegal made by Afella Jollof Catering.

Chicken kebabs and rice is a dish that is simple enough to be risky. There’s nowhere to hide; it rises or falls on freshness and flavor. I took a bite and stopped thinking until I’d eaten every last scrap in the food box. When it was all gone, I had a new food obsession–jollof rice. The chicken kebab was loaded with flavor but the rice was addictive.

“It’s broken rice,” the lady behind the counter told me, “We blend our own spices.” Suddenly I realized the price of this dish was too low–I’d pay a lot more to have those flavors in my mouth again. 

October 2020 was a bleak time when many Seattle restaurants went dark, others closed for good, and isolated residents resorted to Door Dash. Restaurant empires in this food-obsessed city struggled to survive by pivoting to take-out, their expensively designed settings empty and useless. It was an unlikely, if not insane, time to enter the food business, but this was when Spice Bridge began.

The brain child of a group called The Food Innovation Network, Spice Bridge has a mission. This is a restaurant incubator, a clean, well-lighted food court where a rotating group of female food entrepreneurs have kitchen and counter space. The setting isn’t elaborate but it doesn’t need to be. People don’t come for the ambiance. They’re here for food that they can’t get anywhere else, food that hasn’t been adapted for American taste buds. 

Once years ago I was in a Seattle taxi that was filled with an odor I’d never smelled before. It was rich and aromatic and unidentifiable. When I asked the driver about it, he said, “It’s my food. We use spices that you don’t.” I’ve been haunted by that wonderful smell ever since. Now thanks to Spice Bridge, I can taste where it came from, any time I want. I can’t wait to go back.

Once upon a time, boys and girls, there was no internet. Instead we had a weekly magazine called New York. As opposed to the New Yorker, New York didn’t decide to exclude the lady in Dubuque–or Fairbanks, Alaska which is where I was one of its subscribers back in the early 70’s. 

New York was where serious writers wrote about serious issues in a narrative style that may not have made its readers think but certainly gave them some lively topics for dinner table conversations. Gail Sheehy immortalized Red Pants, a midtown Manhattan streetwalker, in a story about prostitution in the Seventh Avenue Sheraton. Joe McGinnis brought the camaraderie of a baseball series to the political game. Gael Greene reviewed Manhattan’s loftiest restaurants as though she was writing softcore pornography. And then there was Michael Korda.

The editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, Korda wielded enough clout that it didn’t matter that he was a mediocre writer. He was a gifted gossip with ambitions of being edited himself one day, so he took an anecdote about having dinner with his wife and cloaked it in a mea culpa that examined male chauvinism. Suddenly everyone was talking about this—national magazines, the lady in Dubuque, Nora Ephron.

Korda and his wife were dining out at a place that befitted their social station–let’s say Le Pavillon–when a group of slightly intoxicated gentlemen were seated nearby. Apparently Mrs. Korda was quite the looker because as the evening progressed, it became obvious that she was the topic of discussion at the next table. The Kordas did their best to rise above the situation until one of the adjacent diners gave a waiter a card to present to Mrs. Korda. It was something he’d picked up in a novelty shop, an invitation for its recipient to become more intimately acquainted with its sender.

This was too much for Korda, who picked up a heavy glass ashtray (yes this was a very long time ago), threw it, and connected with the offender’s forehead.Because it was Michael Korda who launched the missile, he wasn’t escorted from the restaurant but his wife gave him hell. In a somewhat overwrought diatribe, she tore his act of gallantry to shreds. Suddenly Sir Galahad of Park Avenue became the poster boy for male chauvinist pigs everywhere. As Mrs. Korda pointed out, his violent reaction to a stupid drunk indicated that he saw his wife as his property, complete with a no-trespassing sign.

Korda, his editorial instincts sensing an opportunity, accepted her point of view and turned it into a piece for New York which he later cobbled into Male Chauvinism and How it Works. 

Even though Korda was one of the most powerful publishers in the country, it’s unlikely that this book would ever have come into being if his hurled ashtray hadn’t, as the kids say now, gone viral. What had been a minor case of aggravated assault flamed into a version of The Lady and the Tiger. Was Korda justified in defending his wife’s honor or was this something that should have been handled by Mrs. Korda herself? In the early seventies, when men were still debating whether their wives should enter the workplace, this was a true hot-button issue, one that Nora Ephron turned to ridicule with a few devastating questions in Esquire. What sort of restaurant would deliver a cheap novelty card to one of its patrons?  Was Korda’s reaction prompted perhaps by the idea that the awkward invitation had been meant for him? 

The part that interests me about all of this is not only has this all been forgotten, it’s untraceable. Everything that’s ever happened is alive and well in the internet archives–except for the Korda episode. When I tried to fact-check–Were the Kordas at Le Pavillon or were they slumming at The Automat? Did Korda throw an ashtray that came with ashes and cigarette butts or was it pristine?–this cause celebre apparently never transpired. Maybe it’s enshrined forever in Korda’s cri de coeur, Male Chauvinism etc, but I really don’t want to scour used book sites to buy the damned thing. Nor do I want to subscribe to Esquire in the hope that I’ll be able to unearth Nora Ephron’s essay. (Maybe I would if she were still writing for it….)

Still I find this comforting. Not only does nobody remember Korda’s social faux pas, nobody cares. Someday in the future, poorly behaved celebrities of our time will be as moribund as Michael Korda and their misdeeds given not so much as a shrug. The sad part is misguided men are going to embarrass themselves and the women sitting beside them again and again–and for five minutes, we’re all going to be forced to pay some degree of attention to that.

My question is: Which is more humiliating, being struck with a heavy glass ashtray in an exclusive restaurant or receiving a restrained slap at an Oscar ceremony? I say bring back the duel. Pistols at dawn and be done with it.

(This has been revised after reading Korda’s brief account of his misdeeds in his publishing memoir, Another Life. It wasn’t a drink in the face, although I’m sure the assaulted man would have preferred that. Blood is so messy.)

Like most people who are good at leaving, I’m very bad at being left. I never would have been one of the crowd holding ribbons tied to a ship, calling bon voyage to invisible friends on the deck before the ribbons snapped and they all sailed away. I won’t even go to the airport with a departing friend, not because I don’t care for them but because sniveling on my way back home is so unattractive. I’m the sort of woman who’s packed two suitcases, given everything else away, and left people I care about more times than I care to count but who cried for a week each time a son left after he’d visited my new home. (In my own defense, that new home was far across the International Date Line–visits from people I loved weren’t a matter of “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop in.” )

These past two years have felt like a very long period of departure but a sneaky one. Nobody ever thought the absences would last this long. One day I had lunch with a friend and the day after that came the isolation era. In the months before, I came home from trips to see friends with no idea that it would be years before I’d see them again. 

I’m a slow learner. Only now, one-quarter of the way through 2022, do I feel the sorrow that didn’t erupt in 2020 because back then I was certain that shelter-in-place was a temporary state. “If this virus lasts for more than a month, I’m going to go insane,” was one of my prevailing thoughts. Two years later, although some may find this debatable, I’m still of sound mind but I’m holding an unresolved grief, with new forms of departure looming into view, deepening an unhealed scar.

A correspondence that has sustained me for years has slowed to a trickle, with that friend fading into an unfamiliar distance. My oldest son is preparing for a new job that may take him to another city and will certainly ensure his absence for long stretches at a time. In what I still insist on calling “normal times,” these things would simply be little glitches that are part of life, calling for an adjustment, not mournfulness. These days, when loss is still an open wound, I feel depressed. I feel sad.

Turning to my usual opiate, I’m mentally constructing a packing list. I have an air ticket. It’s a trip that will last only for a couple of days and no passport stamps are involved. But if every journey begins with a single step, who knows how far and how long this one is going to be?  Unfortunately, for the drug to be effective, I need to know how long it will last.

In one of the Scandinavian countries, they call this period of time “nearing the end of the tunnel,” when thoughts of suicide seem frighteningly close. In childbirth it’s called “transition,” the point at which women in labor decide they don’t want to have this baby after all so call the whole thing off. People who deal in cliches opine that it’s always darkest just before dawn. The only brightness that I can find is I’m neither suicidal nor wracked with labor pains.

I know this blanket of sadness is going to lift, that impending changes will settle into the new normal, but at the moment only one thing feels set in stone. No matter how much I love you, I won’t go with you to the airport. But although you’ll never see me do it, I promise I’ll cry.

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.


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.

My refrigerator contains a pitcher of iced tea, a jar of yeast, another of mustard, and, when the mood strikes me once in a while, a pot of lentil soup. Oh–and the vegetable bin is filled with a collection of baking pans.

I like it that way. When I fed young children in the past, this appliance resembled the overstuffed refrigerators that I used to see only in Sears & Roebuck catalogs. Pictures of shelves that held exotic food like fresh tomatoes and cans of sugary sodas fascinated me as I grew up in rural Alaska but when I finally lived on my own, a fully stocked refrigerator lost all of its appeal. It implied obligation and duty, a long line of dismal meals devoted to left-overs and the need to avoid waste. 

The high point of my culinary career came when I lived in Bangkok, where I ate my meals at street stalls and my refrigerator held only fish sauce and bottled water. Now I live near a public market where I can buy fresh food on a whim, with its long lines of other shoppers with the same idea as its only drawback. This is why I bake bread, make that pot of soup, and fill my kitchen cupboards with spices, two different kinds of flour, lentils, and rice.

Although my refrigerator is a yawning cavern, my closet is full and I recently bought another bookcase. Priorities are important and I take good care that mine are observed. 

Seattle’s mercurial weather demands an assortment of coats. I have six: two raincoats, one for light summer drizzles and one for serious downpours; two coats for springtime’s rapid shifts in temperature; one for ordinary winter cold (not god forbid one that could be mistaken for a down comforter but a jaunty little faux-leopard number) and the ultimate weapon: a vintage wool coat that’s as old as I am, almost reaches my ankles and weighs at least twenty-five pounds even before it’s covered with snowflakes from a blizzard. These are all essential items of survival gear that occupy my closet space; everything else I’ve put there is garnish and pure therapy. When I buy clothes, my spirits are high. I keep each piece until it disintegrates and when that happens, the grieving period sends me out to buy more. The only downside to this is I never seem to have enough clothes hangers.

My closet brings me comfort but my bookshelves hold nourishment. I tell myself I buy books because I write reviews but the truth is I write reviews to justify my book purchases. While my supermarket visits are infrequent, rapid, and grudging, I can’t ignore a bookstore without feeling true pain and my flourishing relationship with keeps me connected to used bookshops all across the country. When I travel, I never feel that I’ve really arrived in a new place until I’ve found, browsed, and at least one of its bookstores. To hell with teeshirts. The souvenirs I bring home are books–and occasionally a new dress.

I’m beginning to think it’s time for my refrigerator to justify its existence. Its shelves are the perfect place for a sweater collection, with enough space to hold a lot of large transparent zip-lock bags. Over the years, I’ve lost a staggering amount of sweaters to moths and this just may be the perfect solution.

Carrie Bradshaw may have filled her oven with fashion magazines but she overlooked the true potential of her biggest appliance. After all, yeast and mustard don’t really need to be kept cold, drinks are easily chilled with a few ice cubes, and vegetable soup can go into the freezer. 

Although I once tried to use my refrigerator as a bookcase, that experiment was a dismal failure. But turning it into a closet annex that will deter moths as efficiently as a cedar chest? Yes, indeed, that works–at least for me. A full refrigerator at last! What a concept…

Karen Cheung was four years old when Hong Kong’s handover took place in 1997. She grew up believing that the policy of “One country, two systems” would be in place for 50 years and that Hong Kong was protected by the rule of law. The Sino-British Joint Declaration stated that Hong Kong people would administer Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s chief executive would be elected by its citizens or through local caucuses, a policy that would lead to universal suffrage and democracy. When this failed to take place, protests against a national security bill that would ban “sedition, treason, subversion, and secession,” began in 2003. From then on, Hong Kong held a thriving community of activists and dissidents.

There was much to protest, much to change: Hong Kong’s “land problem” that led to high rents, squalid housing, and government confiscation of rural villages; mental health care that was largely inaccessible even to affluent expatriates; and a disregard that bordered on intolerance for “non-conformist art.” When the protests of 2003 made Hong Kong’s chief executive withdraw the controversial national security bill and resign from office, it seemed as though change was possible. Instead the problems grew worse. 

Cheung grows up without a strong identification as a Hong Kong citizen. Until she turns 18, she is shaped by her grandmother’s Chinese customs and Taoist traditions and by the English language that she’ s steeped in at an international school for six years.  When she transfers to a public school run by Christians, where students are allowed to speak  Cantonese,  the curriculum is taught in English. After six years there, Cheung is fluent in English and the English literature that she has read compulsively convinces her that Western culture is superior. In Kowloon where 90% of the population is Chinese and English is considered “a snobbish anomaly”, she longs for a life in London or New York. When she at last goes to the island of Hong Kong and enters Hong Kong University which is “vaguely international,” she feels a step closer to the life she wants.  In 2014 she spends a semester in Glasgow and watches the Umbrella Revolution from another country, suddenly and painfully realizing her home is in Hong Kong, the place where her life is waiting. “We recognize all of its imperfections, and still refuse to walk away.”

The subtitle of The Impossible City says it’s a Hong Kong memoir and that’s exactly what it is. “This book is about the many ways a city can disappear,” Cheung says. Her own story is told merely as a fragment of life in Hong King, used as an illustration in  “documenting disappearances.” Her personal narrative gives depth to the stranglehold tycoons have on Hong Kong’s real estate and how extreme wealth controls everything from housing to public services. To gain an apartment in government-subsidized housing can mean a five-year wait;  instead people rent bunkbed spaces in illegally subdivided apartments for over 400 US dollars a month. Others sleep in Japanese-inspired “space capsules”  or in “caged homes,” beds surrounded by barbed wire. SARS and a long period of political protests give rise to depression and PTSD. 

Student suicides jump 76% in the years between 2012 and 2016. “There are only around four hundred psychiatrists in a city of over seven million people.” where a government census showed “one in seven Hong Kongers live with mental health conditions.”

“What unites Hong Kongers,” Cheung says, “is pain.” Suicidal herself, she finds a new life in the creative energy and freedom of the city’s indie music scene. Surrounded by people who live “alternate lives” in a version of Hong Kong that Cheung wants to inhabit, she finds her way to the industrial buildings of East Kowloon and begins to write about what she hears and sees there. “Music is the archive of the times,” she says. From there she begins recording other forms of archives in Still/Loud, an online magazine that focuses on Hong Kong’s culture, not its lifestyle. 

Her examination of expat and Asian-American writers who dominate Hong Kong’s English-language journalism and literature, reporting and telling stories “through their lens,” is scathing. Hong Kong locals who write in English, as Cheung does,  are mistaken for members of the diaspora, usually as Asian-Americans, and she is told by a newspaper editor to write news stories that can be understood by “a Texas grandfather.” After three of her essays are published in the New York Times, other publications beg for pieces that tell “how it feels” to live in political turmoil.  As a Hong Kong writer with English fluency, writing for “the foreign gaze,” Cheung frequently feels like “a language traitor…betraying her mother tongue.”

Protests against a new version of the 2003 anti-sedition bill in 2019 are halted by covid. On June 30, 2020 the bill becomes law. National security police scour the city for forms of dissidence and police hotlines welcome people who will report on neighbors who breach the law. The maximum sentence for this is life imprisonment.

Although employees who work in city government offices take loyalty oaths and teachers are given “patriotic syllabi” for their classrooms, a writer on Twitter claims “It’s absolutely not that bad for the average Hong Konger…that is 99% of the population.” For Cheung and her friends, “Are you leaving?” is a frequent question. Cheung’s reply is “I’m not ready.” She’s still recording what she knows will disappear. “Hong Kong,” she says, “will be physically unchanged but there will be nobody here that remembers the place that once existed….The only ones left {will be} those who believe this is the best version of Hong Kong there could ever be.” In showing the the possibility that’s been taken away, The Impossible City is a record of what’s been lost. But, Cheung says with more than a trace of irony, “We are always so attuned to loss in this city.”

I’m not sure when the caution seeped in but I blame it on the lockdown. The year of looking at other people and seeing threats, of being unable to have friends and family come to visit, and of living without travel has left its scars. This past year has been a tentative one; going to a movie theater was as big a step as walking on the moon and meeting a friend for a glass of wine was a flickering pleasure that could be postponed when a new variant showed up. Even now the building I live in allows no visitors and when I walk down its hallways, I feel as though I’m living in an abandoned hotel. The streets outside look like a set for a Mad Max movie, with their smashed windows and sidewalk junkies. Dreams I had of living downtown and going to an evening symphony are laughable. I scurry home at sunset these days and even in daylight my excursions have been abbreviated ones.

Then my friend Chawadee came to town. She and her family traveled from Bangkok, explored the city, hit the ski slopes, and made a side trip to San Francisco. They all trusted their vaccinations and they lived fully within that shield and under their masks. After spending time with her, I saw how diminished I’d allowed my life to be.

I’m in my seventies. I can’t afford to lose this kind of time–at least not anymore than the two years we all had denied to us. So the other day, I made a small incursion into what my life once held. I left my neighborhood and walked to where I used to live.

I’ve been to Chinatown recently but only on the light rail. I’d been taking the train since last summer, after seeing a partially naked woman solicit customers from the doorway where she lay sprawled with her companion and having figures lurch into my pathway in silence, if not menace. But I wanted my life back. I walked down First Avenue and found it was regaining its life too. Shops were open, restaurants had customers, and I wasn’t the only pedestrian on the sidewalk. Murals painted on protective sheets of plywood still covered windows but the ones that had removed those shields were unbroken. It felt as though the city was slowly opening its eyes, stretching, and moving out of a prolonged nightmare. And so was I.

I walked through the freeway underpass that divides Chinatown from Little Saigon for the first time in two years. One side was lined with tents; the other was empty. My favorite banh mi spot was still open and the sandwich I bought was as delicious as I remembered. Near the library a plum tree was already in full bloom and the cherry blossoms on Jackson Street were growing fat. The world as I once knew it is still there. All I need to do is walk into it.

When I walk through my neighborhood, I count the fresh sheets of plywood that cover newly broken windows. I try not to look at the people who are crouched over bits of tinfoil, preparing their next hit. I watch as street entrepreneurs pull stolen merchandise from backpacks, duffle bags, and wheeled suitcases, setting up their sidewalk stores, complete with shopping bags for the convenience of their customers. There aren’t as many as there used to be, now that the downtown Target has beefed up their security with city police officers, but the hauls seem to have gotten bigger. 

On my latest trip to Target, I saw a man carrying a blender into an elevator. Minutes later he walked toward the exit, holding nothing but his backpack and duffle bag. “That man has an appliance in his bag,” I said to one of the police standing near the door. He shrugged.

There was a shooting at Third and Pine three days ago. A man died on the street in broad daylight, at 12:28 on a Sunday afternoon. Third Avenue is the bus corridor through downtown and the busiest stops used to be the ones on Pike and Pine Streets. I don’t think I’m the only one who walks several blocks out of my way to avoid them. In fact I avoid Third Avenue as much as possible, only going there for trips to the post office.

The downtown post office occupies most of the block between Union and University Streets on Third Avenue. Its windows are covered with plywood and only one of its doors allows entry. This isn’t a security measure. The glass in one of the doors is smashed; a sign suggests using the set of doors beside it. Those doors are impossible to open from the outside so we all use the door set in the frame that also holds the one with shattered glass. So far this hasn’t sent the damaged glass flying from its frame but the possibility adds a note of adventure to what would have once been a routine errand. But this probably won’t happen since it’s been this way for months. A smaller door that faces Third Avenue was wedged open, immovable, when I walked through it yesterday.

The sidewalk tents have disappeared. Now people huddle behind opened umbrellas in doorways of businesses that have been abandoned, or they sit among their sprawl of possessions and garbage near hotels with rooms that cost hundreds of dollars a night. Welcome, tourists.

Once upon a time my husband and I came with our small children to stay in Seattle’s downtown hotels, which at that time were comfortable but not luxurious. We shopped at Frederick & Nelson, I. Magnin’s, the Bon Marche, Eddie Bauer, and Nordstrom. We bought books at B. Bailey in Rainier Square, had a choice of movie theaters within walking distance of our hotel, ate and bought flowers at the Pike Place Market, stood on the outer decks of ferries and took pictures of the city’s skyline. Now all the department stores are gone except for Nordstrom. So are the movie theaters and Rainier Square. The last time I was on a ferry, passengers weren’t allowed outside on the decks and the waiting area at Colman Dock felt like a processing center for refugees. 

The Market is still in place. Its shops, restaurants, and vendors are doing all the heavy lifting for downtown Seattle, doubtless because its doorways aren’t occupied by people with improvised tinfoil pipes. Market Security staff are vigilant and since I live in the Market, I’m grateful for that.

I marvel that the same city that marshalled its forces against protestors who broke several windows and the handful that looted stores in the summer of 2020 has decided to ignore a landscape of shattered windows and theft that’s a form of daily looting. I’m amazed that downtown Seattle has become a place where drugs are so legal that they’re consumed in public every day. I wonder why the avenue where buses travel has become so desolate and dangerous that commuters may never return to it.

Be careful what you wish for–I longed to live in downtown Seattle and now I do. I believe it may become the city’s vibrant, attractive, and safe heart once again before it turns into a dystopian slum forever. And to anyone who thinks this could never happen, I invite you to join me on a walk along Third Avenue –it’s already here.

Will the common cold ever seem common again? Will we ever hear coughs and sneezes in public without flinching and glaring? With cold symptoms closely related to those of covid, will we someday be able to sniffle without fear?

What about the good old American custom of “powering through” an illness? “I have pneumonia,” I announced cheerily over the phone to an employer, “But I’ll be back tomorrow,” to be answered by a resounding “You will not.” He was an anomaly. A bookstore I worked in for many years all but gave out purple hearts to those who came into work with coughs, cramps, or low-grade temperatures. Calling in sick evoked suspicion and outright disdain. Once I was applauded for coming to work with a hangover so severe that I looked like a plague victim, but of course that wasn’t contagious. 

Somehow I doubt that customers will ever again look dispassionately at a sales clerk who clutches a tissue in one hand while ringing in their purchases. Neither will their co-workers. The days of being a “plucky little trooper” may have been buried, along with the Western aversion to wearing face masks.

I used to scoff at people in Bangkok and Hong Kong who wore masks during flu season. “It’s like wearing garlic and a crucifix. That won’t protect them.” Despite a friend’s reproof of “You’ve never lived through SARS,” it took two years of covid for me to realize that protecting themselves wasn’t the point. 

At the very beginning of 2022, beginning on New Year’s Day, I wore two masks every time I had to leave my apartment for almost two weeks. My dry cough, painful nasal congestion, chills, and headache were probably nothing more than the kind of virus I used to shrug off. But who knows? DIY tests were as hard to come by in my neighborhood as toilet paper was in the beginning of 2020 and local testing centers were overwhelmed with people who have reasons to be in the world. I do not. I have the luxury of staying home when I feel suspicious symptoms closing in.

The idea of seeing a friend right now was an impossible dream,   a breach of etiquette, and an act of criminal irresponsibility. “Oh I just have a little cold.” “Yeah. Right.” Apparently once all symptoms vanished, I was no longer be Typhoid Mary. Most of the contagion is believed to be at its peak before the symptoms appear and it wanes as the illness does. Tests are advised before resuming social contact–pardon me while I take time out for a short and bitter laugh.

“Don’t be a hypochondriac,” my mother used to snap at her children while sending them off to school with handkerchiefs that would be sodden well before lunch. A touch of hypochondria may be exactly what this country–and the world–needs to nurture. 

But that probably won’t happen. This covid time is only a century after the Spanish Flu filled graveyards worldwide and any lessons that came from that were eventually submerged in Spartan resolve and economic necessity. That germ-ridden bookstore wasn’t the only employer who provided insufficient sick leave and disregard of contagion, although it could have given lessons in that behavior to any meat-packing plant. 

It’s a pretty thought to consider: that people will keep masks as a permanent accessory to their wardrobes, that businesses will discourage sneezes in the workplace, that calling in sick won’t be seen as a personality disorder. This may happen but I doubt it will last longer than a decade or two. The smallest children who made it through covid with only minor discomfort and no personal memories of this time will become adults who will discount the next pandemic and there will be no widely taught history to contradict them. Covid will be as distant to them as the Spanish Flu was to us. “Oh right. Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Never got around to reading that.”

The history of pandemics is written by the survivors and humanity is a selfish species. Given enough time, masks will be quaint and stoics will be the norm again. “I have a little cold but it’s nothing serious. Want to have lunch?”

Coda: My family delivered two covid tests to the door of my building in January. It wasn’t until a couple of other tests in February did I realize that the faint little T line on my first that looked like a shadow when compared to the robust line for C wasn’t a blip, but a diagnosis. I thank vaccines on bended knee and am glad I stayed in almost total isolation for twelve days. Covid is a sneaky little devil but it’s not invincible. I’m hanging onto my face masks and plan to stay home every time I feel unwell. You just never know…