The sailorettes sang Rum and Coca-Cola while I browsed through books on anti-colonialist movements and Wiccan feminism. (Left Bank also has Stieg Larsson mysteries, Toni Morrison novels and plenty of “mainstream” lit.) I hesitated over the F-bomb T-shirt. Profane, yes, but it’s what every English professor secretly wants to holler at every quasi-literate college student. I imagined wearing it around campus at Florida State University, where I teach. Then I imagined the awkward meeting I’d undoubtedly have with the dean. I put the shirt back and bought a button that says “Union Thug” and a copy of Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues.
Alexie lives in Seattle, as do his fellow National Book Award winner Timothy Egan, PEN/Faulkner Award winner David Guterson, travel writer Jonathan Raban, thriller novelist Nicola Griffith, cooking memoirist Kathleen Flinn, cyberpunk fabulist Neal Stephenson, poet Emily Warn — it’s a dauntingly long list. Why does this place grow so many writers? Something in the water? “It’s dark here a lot,” says novelist Urban Waite, a Seattle native. “Dark and wet. We’re forced to engage our own imaginations.”
Maybe it’s the aloof, mystical Mount Rainier, a visible (unless the clouds hide it) emblem of the sublime and a live volcano, that inspires so much literary creation. Maybe it’s the Omega 3s. Seattle is a salmon town, too. They’re everywhere, stylized in Native American art, laid out seductively on cushions of ice like piscine centerfolds, undulating and bright as quicksilver in the green water of Ballard locks and, of course, on the menu. Salmon is brain food; I swear that just walking through Pike Place Market, eating the samples of alder wood smoked coho the fishmongers hand out, my IQ went up a few points.
That evening, it may have gone up a couple more, though I may have also killed off some brain cells with several glasses of the peppery and fragrant Columbia Valley Cabernet that accompanied the Salmon Sampler plate at Ivar’s Salmon House on the shores of Lake Union. Founded in 1938 by Ivar Haglund, a one-time folk singer who used to go around with a pet seal named Patsy, Ivar’s is a replica of a longhouse, decorated with totem poles and old photographs of Chief Seattle (Si’ahl) and his daughter Kikisoblu. The restaurant’s simultaneously gorgeous and kitschy, but the fish is nothing but exquisite, the salmon ranging in color from delicate rose to deep carnelian.
Seattle reminds me a bit of London. The rain, yes, but also the sense that the city is actually made up of a lot of idiosyncratic villages that gradually grew together into a crazy quilt of a metropolis. On my second day in the city, I hauled myself up to Capitol Hill, where Victorian mansions with rainbow flags hanging from their balconies nestle beside paint-peeling Beaux-Arts theaters and coffee shops.
There’s no capitol on Capitol Hill: The name may have been an attempt to lure state government from Olympia. There is, however, a hill, 400-plus feet high. This seems right, since Capitol Hill is the Parnassus of Seattle cool: Dan Savage, the author and sex columnist, lives here. The Richard Hugo House, a literary arts center with a writer-in-residence and community workshops where anyone can take a writing course, is there right across from Cal Anderson Park. Grunge was born here; native son Jimi Hendrix is commemorated with a statue at East Pine and Broadway. And, of course, there’s a great bookstore.