Just once, I wanted to write about Seattle without mentioning the weather -- i.e., the rain -- but I cannot resist. There is a bumper sticker worth quoting: "Seattleites don't tan -- they rust." And if you want my definition of local optimism, it's a line not infrequently appearing in the Post-Intelligencer's Page 1 weather forecast: "Decreasing showers.m High 65-70." Anywhere else it would say, "Continued rain."
Before dropping the subject, I should add that summer forecasts also read like this: "High today 80, low tonight 55. Chance of rain less than 10 percent." In other words there are days on Puget Sound from June to September when the weather is so shining and perfect (T-shirts in the afternoon, sweaters in the evening) you wonder why anyone would put up with life in the air- conditioned precincts of the United States, which is to say almost everywhere but the Pacific Northwest.
Gradually the good word is leaking out. People are visiting or moving in and finding that the city by the Sound is San Francisco without smugness, Minneapolis with mountains, Oslo with good restaurants. As I see it, if the noble salmon finds Seattle worth coming back to, there must be a reason.
On a cloudless Sunday last July, when all three deities were clearly in view -- Mt. Rainier, the Cascades, and the Olympic Mountains -- I stood at the Hiram N. Chittenden Locks and watched the sockeye salmon in one of life's great sagas. For ages, salmon and trout have come in from the Sound and through the locks just west of town on their mysterious odyssey to spawning grounds in Seattle's lakes and streams. In 1976 the Chittenden weirs were rebuilt so the fish would have a less strenuous time negotiating this series of cement steps, and an attractive visitors center was installed. Now yoy may peer through five picture windows and see the fish -- chinook, coho, sockeye, steelhead, cutthroat, depending on the season -- thrashing and tumbling in the frothy water as they struggle upstream. The mind reels at the thought of spending several days fighting through the Chittenden weirs and a month and a half covering the short distance from the Sound to the spawning ground in Seattle.
On that July 4 weekend the human struggle in the adjoining boat locks seemed equally titanic. There were long lines coming and going from Seattle -- fishing boats, cabin cruisers, sailboats. I watched the picturesque traffic jam from a steely terraced lawn shaded by palmettos and magnolias (in Seattle, everythingm grows). People lay about picnicking and sunbathing while in the water, two-food fish leaped in silver streaks. Of course fishing is prohibited in this fish-in-a-barrel setting. Later, as I sat in an outdoor waterside restaurant, Hiram's, I saw a police patrol boat stop a small private craft waiting in the endless line, confiscate some rods and reels, and cite the woman driver for a fishing violation.
Every city has, or should have, an essence (the all-important "there" that Gertrude Stein found lacking in Oakland), and for me Seattle's is the corner of Pike and First avenue looking down the hill to a large red sign PUBLIC MARKET and, just beyond, to the misty blue of Puget Sound. Pike Place Market is the best of its kind, a teeming, pungent Pacific Northwest Les Halles. Thanks to a several-block historic district boundaries, though I'm glad to say the added T-shirt, comic-book, and candle-dripping enterprises have been confined to remote corners of the tin-roofed emporia.
Pike Place's main bounty is seafood -- hills of oysters on the shell, steamer clams, halibut, Dungeness crab, the peculiar bivalve known as geoduck (pronounced gooeyduck), orange-tentacled Alaska King Crab and salmon in every form. Fish items can be packed and shipped home, the same for fruit. Northwest vegetables are a robust sight, too. After partaking of the local ruby-red beefsteak tomatoes, the leek-like Walla Walla Sweets, bursting home-grown peas in the pod, and the sweet, white Rainier cherries, I found it a comedown returning to the vaunted produce store I use on upper broadway in New York.
Seattle's fish and produce plenitude help make for good public dining. Seattle has to be one of the better food towns in the US. For straight seafood, Ivar's has a half-dozen outlets, but it's the imagination and variety of places like the Copacabana Cafe and Maximilien at the market; the Brasserie Pittsbourg, a Gallicized soup kitchen downtown at Pioneer Square, and the Green Lake Grill, a neighborhood diner unassertively gone continental, that give the city a good culinary name.
May be the operative word about Seattle is unassertive. Even as the Pike Place Market, the blocks around Pioneer Square, and Broadway in the Capitol Hill district take on shiny new stores and restaurants, one is not assaulted with trendiness. The King Dome, that indoor playground for the baseball Mariners and the football Seahawks, couldn't be less showy; its gray pedestrian design would have been a credit to the WPA. I also like the old Smith Tower, a 42-floor white skyscraper from 1914 that was recently rejuvenated by Ivar Haglund, Seattle's fried-seafood baron. From the tower lounge you can see the big ferries ploughing across the Sound and -- to the south, when it's clear -- the lonely and majestic Rainier.
Nearby at Pioneer Square, one of the country's earliest and best-done historic districts, the new has not totally obliterated the old. Mixed in with the galleries, book shops, and glass-fronted cafes are plenty of honest, old-fashioned businesses. The Western Union office, for example, has a working telegram counter with a museum upstairs. At the Seattle First National Bank branch there are iron teller's cages, ceiling fans, and a blown-up wall photo of a crowded sailing vessel putting out for the Klondike in 1897. I was going to say that the ceiling fan is unnecessary in this cool and comfortable city, but then I promised not to talk about the weather again.