Sunday Stew: The More Things Change

by Robert Zverina   

It was one of those crisp, brilliant Pacific Northwest fall days that made Jim glad to be back on the mainland after two years on Maui. Yeah, Hawai’i is great, but you just don’t get those kinds of days there and he missed them. Besides, the Northwest was his home and it made him feel good in a certain way that no other place ever would. It was where he was formed, its air and light bound up with his being on a cellular level.

He had to get across town to meet someone about a small job. In any other city Jim might have been an anomaly—a fix-it man with no motor vehicle. But in Seattle his car-free lifestyle choice didn’t seem so strange, was even a selling point to those with Sierra Club stickers on their Subaru wagons. The barely adequate Metro bus system would take more than an hour, traffic permitting, so he opted to ride his bike, a second-hand ten speed he picked up cheap that had served him well for fifteen years. It was a perfect day for it and would probably be quicker, too.

By living frugally, Jim managed to get by working just two or three days a week. That made him something of a vanishing breed in the country’s fastest-growing city. Rents were skyrocketing due to an influx of highly paid tech workaholics, which forced everyone else to work longer and harder just to keep up with the cost of living. He was one of the lucky ones. He’d inherited his parents’ tiny house, one of the famed “Boeing boxes” hastily built in WW2 during a peak in Seattle’s historic boom-and-bust cycle. He took a roommate and converted the garage into a rental. He preferred free time to money, but if you wanted to be a slacker in today’s Seattle it helped to own real estate.

He pedaled by one construction site after another. A craftsman home that had taken a painstaking year to build and had stood intact for a century could be leveled by two men in an afternoon—one operating a rented backhoe, the other hosing down the dust. Temporary chainlink fences cordoned off deep muddy holes that would become underground garages for condos, the displaced dirt hauled off by an endless parade of grinding, belching dump trucks. He held his breath when riding by newly framed, maximum square footage shoeboxes that emanated the distinct tang of OSB—oriented strand board, the cheapest way to sheathe a building. Good luck with that, Jim thought, finding it ironic that the new money people would be paying top dollar to live in toxic boxes where formaldehyde and other carcinogens would off-gas from their walls for years.  

The more Seattle’s population grew, the lonelier Jim felt. His friends were getting priced out, quirky old haunts replaced by high end, homogenous businesses, old-timers forced to sell due to rising property taxes. Soon, there’d be nothing left. The essence of the city was evaporating fast and when the next crash came, then what? Without being consciously aware of it, his anger and frustration at this train of thought translated into faster and faster riding. He soared down a sun-dappled boulevard, making great time, way ahead of schedule. A drink would be nice, he thought, so he got off his bike. There was time.

It’s possible to live a place all your life and still discover new things about it. We all get in ruts and Jim was no different. There were corners of the city he’d never visited and this was one of them, yet it still looked strangely familiar because most of it was new.

The prevailing residential style called for exterior cement board panels, cedar siding accents, and metal trim. It looked high end but in fact was the cheapest way to go. Garage doors had long since replaced front porches in these tightly packed townhouses. He noticed that with the new places, no one ever seemed to be home. He supposed that was because 90-hour work weeks were a badge of honor for those who could afford to buy in.

New office spaces were cavernous concrete hangars with dangling tube light fixtures, visible duct work, and cable-tied bundles of wire snaking above cubicle labyrinths. They looked unfinished but that no-frills corporate style was intentional, signified single-mindedness of purpose and the workers embodied that spirit, never once looking up from their screens as Jim stared in from the sidewalk, seeing if he could use his psychic powers to force eye contact with someone. After five minutes, he gave up.

It was only mid-afternoon but already the slick new restaurants were packed. The thing now was removable walls, either folding accordion-style or giant roll-downs, and all were open on this glorious day, insipid music pouring out, always a touch too loud, the patios boisterous with prosperous patrons. Jim didn’t like the prices or the people. They seemed supercilious and aloof, separated from the rabble behind unsightly barriers. To Jim they resembled penned animals, prisoners of their own self-regard.

“Where’s your helmet?” someone shouted from one of the cocktail corrals.

“You think I need a helmet to walk my bike?”

Well, that much about Seattle hadn’t changed. Self-righteous scolds still admonished strangers minding their own business. Jim held up his messenger bag, to which he’d strapped his helmet. He felt stupid for doing it, for even having acknowledged the busybody, but by then the guy had turned his attention elsewhere.

Jim tried to stay positive but it was getting harder to do. He could deal with the city changing, but he was afraid how those changes might change him. He’d been raised in the quasi-zen non-dogmatic agnostic Buddhist Northwest tradition and continually reminded himself that reaction to antagonism was just another form of attachment. At 6’4” and 220 pounds, his friends regarded him as a gentle giant, little suspecting what a struggle it was for him to keep his naturally short temper in check.

He was imagining what a pleasure it would be to smash that jerk in the face with his helmet when he saw The Scupper. It stood out like a soiled bandage. A little sliver of a bar, blank brick façade with just one small window, minimal signage, unchanged since the time when morality codes dictated discretion and patrons were permitted to drink only when sitting down. It looked good to Jim. Like a way out. An escape from the tawdry uniformity that was swallowing his city.

Jim was old enough to remember the time before cell phones and flat screen TVs, when a neighborhood bar was where you went to hear the latest gossip or fall into philosophical conversation with someone you just met. There were few like it left and it gave him hope to find this hidden gem. He smiled at the metal bucket of sand outside the door, empty itself but surrounded by cigarette butts as if the smokers had deliberately missed. Classic.

Stepping inside was like descending into a storm cellar, seeking shelter in a musty, unfamiliar place. After his eyes adjusted, he saw it was a relic from the days when outlying neighborhoods were still forests and big timber was as much a nuisance as a resource. There was so much lumber then they used it more like building blocks than framing. The walls were solid 2×4, stacked against each other like books on a shelf; the high ceiling was similar, 2x6s or 2x8s or maybe even 2x10s, laid on edge and pressed against each other, bomb-proof as a concrete bunker.

Everything was wood. Wood floors and wood booths and an ornate curved wood bar with neo-classical wood pediments holding up a wavy wood-framed mirror. Wood shelves, wood doors, wood moulding, wood stools, and a wooden bartender standing wordlessly, arms folded, looking superior and bored. The only splash of color was the disarranged dots of an abandoned pool game, green felt faded under hooded light. There was a small TV at one end of the bar, mercifully off.

It was quiet. No music playing, no clatter of dishes in some unseen kitchen. A worn-out woman twisted on her stool and smiled at Jim as he came in, then nervously looked back down at her clear drink. Jim took the thin, grey-haired man at the far end of the bar for the owner. With his tight haircut and trim moustache, he looked like an ex-cop. He had a half-empty Miller gone flat in the bottle and never looked up from his crossword puzzle, just continued muttering clues to himself, working the boxes with a pencil, cursing with every erasure.

The counter had been rubbed by generations of elbows, stained black from contact with decades of skin, infused with ten million exhalations of nicotine and tar. Smoking was prohibited now but there was still a subtle undertone emanating from the porous walls. A yellowed poster of the Kingdome hung above the antique cash register, showing the season schedule for the inaugural ‘77 Mariners.

Jim plopped down squarely between the two barflies, three vacant stools to either side. He set his bag down on the one immediately to his right.

Mr. Crossword looked up, sour. “Someone might want to sit there.”

Jim made light of it. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

He ordered a beer and nodded at the poster, said to no one in particular, “Thirty-eight years later and they still haven’t made it to the World Series. How do you win 116 games and not go all the way?”

The woman came to life. “I know! What year was that?”

“2001.”

“Yeah, well, that’s when my husband finally gave up on them.” She stirred melting ice with her straw. “He died a year later. I’m Sandy.”

“Jim. Pleased to meetcha. The 1906 Cubs won 116 games. They made it to the World Series, but lost. Maybe 116’s an unlucky number?”

Mr. Crossword put down his pencil. “Baseball–who cares?”

Jim had to admit he didn’t really care either, not since the ’94 strike ended up canceling the whole season, but he enjoyed the tradition of it. “When I think of baseball, it’s in black and white.”

The bartender, silent until now, said, “Interleague play is what ruined it for me. What’s the point of a World Series if the two teams already played each other earlier in the season? I like soccer now. More action, anyway.”

“Yeah, but no suspense,” Jim said.

“You have to know how to watch it.”

“No thanks.”

“My husband always said, ‘Baseball is a game, not a sport.’ Maybe that’s the difference?”

“Can we change the subject?” Mr. Crossword folded his paper and pocketed his pencil in disgust. He turned to the weather page and muttered to himself, “Where is it not hotter than 80 but never snows?…”

Jim, ever friendly, asked, “Looking for paradise?”

“Aren’t we all?”

“Eighty and never snows? Sounds like Hawai’i, though it does snow above 10,000 feet. If you’re looking for paradise, I’d say that’s it.”

“Not for a white man.”

Jim kept himself in check. After two years there, he saw it not as the 50th state, but an occupied nation. He supported the sovereignty movement and saw this guy with his dull pencil as everything wrong with the tourists and carpetbaggers who saw the natives as either picturesque servants or inexplicably surly threats.

“Ever been there?”

“Like I said, it’s no place for a white man.”

“In a way, you’re right,” Jim said archly, but the man missed his point.

“You know where it’s not too hot and almost never snows?”

“I can’t wait to find out.”

“Right here! Seattle!”

“It does get cold, though.”

“I didn’t say I never wanted it cold. I just don’t like it too hot, and I don’t like snow. Hasn’t snowed here in years. Where you from?”

“Seattle.”

“No, I mean where were you born?”

“Seattle.”

“Yeah, well my grandparents were born here. Both of ‘em.”

“Only two grandparents? I guess people were a lot closer in those days.”

“You’re damn right they were!”

It got quiet again until Sandy, noticing Jim’s bike helmet, changed the subject.

“I have a client who’s so afraid of the Next Big One she keeps a helmet by her bed and bottled water in every room. She carries that helmet with her all over the house. I think she sleeps with it on. She was in that big California quake–“

“The one that interrupted the World Series?” the bartender interrupted.

(“Baseball again,” mumbled Mr. Crossword.)

“That’s right. San Francisco.”

“I’d rather not live in that kind of fear. In that case it might be better to be oblivious.”

“There’s fear and then there’s knowledge,” Crossword said.

“Fair point,” Jim conceded.

“Oh, my teeth hurt!” Sandy said as she finished her drink, implying it was for medicinal purposes as she ordered another double gin and tonic.

“So, go to the dentist,” Crossword said. “What’s the matter—you afraid?”

“I don’t mind the drill; it’s the bills that scare me.”

“My friend got his work done in Thailand,” Jim said. “Worked out cheaper even with airfare and hotels than getting it done here.”

“Yeah, if you want to trust your life to a Third World country,” Crossword sneered.

“I dunno. He said their equipment was more up to date than what he’s seen here and crowns didn’t cost a thousand bucks a shot.”

“I couldn’t get away from work, probably,” she sighed. “What kind of bike you got?”

“Nothing special, just an old 10-speed.”

“I used to have one. French.”

“Mine’s French–Motobecane.”

“I gave it away. Just left it on the curb and in five minutes it was gone. I just got too scared riding in the street.”

“It’s only getting worse. More cars, more distracted drivers.”

“My husband got doored. That’s not what killed him. Broke his collarbone, though. That’s when I quit.”

“My girlfriend got doored,” Jim said. “She wasn’t hurt but she got knocked into traffic. Luckily, the cars stopped in time.”

“Probably their fault,” Crossword said.

What was it Jim had read? People who upset you are really there to teach you? He tried to keep things civil, saw this as a chance to enlighten the misinformed.

“Not according to law. There’s precedent. It’s the driver’s responsibility to look before opening their door.”

“Not in my book. It’s simple–most of you guys are assholes.”

Jim sat very still. To look at him you’d never have guessed the effort it took. He asked, dead flat and level, “Are you the owner of this bar?” After all, he figured, a man’s entitled to express his opinions, no matter how ignorant, in his own bar.

“Thank God, no.”

“Well, I don’t like what you’re implying. You got more to say?”

Jim didn’t know what he’d do next, only that it hinged on what the man said next.

Somewhere, a bird flew into a window. “Naw, it’s time for me to go.”

Jim untensed, half sorry for this peaceful resolution. “You won’t be missed.”

The man left some bills on the bar and stepped to the bathroom. As soon as he was out of earshot, Sandy leaned close and stage-whispered, “That’s Frank–he’s an asshole!”

“That much is obvious.” There was no joy or promise in Jim’s last gulp of beer.

When Frank came out he offered Sandy a ride home. Despite what she’d said, she accepted. That left Jim alone with the bartender, who talked about wanting to move to Arizona because a former governor had had the balls to rescind MLK day.

“Gee, that doesn’t sound racist at all.”

“That’s not what is was about. Don’t get Frank wrong. He’s an asshole, but the best kind.”

“The man’s a bigot.”

There wasn’t much more to say after that, from either side.

Jim looked around and felt more alone than ever.

In the parking lot, Frank and Sandy talked across the hood of his Cherokee.

“Jesus Christ, Frank! Are you crazy? Did you see the size of that guy? He was ready to kick your ass!”

“Don’t I always know when to pull back?”

“But why do you do it? What fun is it pissing people off?”

“Guys like that have it coming.”

“Guys like what?”

“I don’t know. I can just tell.”

“One of these days you’re gonna push the wrong guy too far.”

“Not as long as I’ve got back-up.” He pulled the pistol from nowhere.

“I wish you wouldn’t carry that.”

“I’ve got a permit.”

“I don’t like it. And I’m not getting in with you unless you unload it.”

“Sure, babe. Anything you say. You’re always safe with Frank.”

He dropped the magazine out of the grip and pocketed it, forgetting there was still a round in the chamber–a common error. Then he tucked the gun into his waistband and shot his dick off.

No one would miss it.

Except him.

Robert Zverina writes (www.buzzthebook.com), makes videos (www.robZtv.com), and plays music (www.4shado.ws). He’s been posting creative non-fiction, poetry, and activist screeds on his Picture of the Day website since 1997 (www.zverina.com).

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