The more cycles of the seasons I live through in Seattle, the more I realize how dramatically the city’s collective psyche is affected by the weather. It’s almost cliché to some that Seattle is a “bipolar city,” brooding and introspective in the winter, ebullient and extroverted at the first sign of real sun I know, I know we had our share of sun before, but actually sitting outside in the sun is different!
I saw another demonstration of this right after the first day of spring, eating my lunch in Victor Steinbrueck Park, just north of the Pike Market. It was a warm, sunny, and a Friday, and the market and park were mobbed with people. I sat down on one of the wood tables at the northwest corner of the park, overlooking the Viaduct and Elliott Bay.
I was enjoying the day but not paying too much attention, being absorbed in my newspaper, eating my burrito. Then a fellow sat down behind me, but just barely at the edge of my peripheral vision. He was singing an old Three Dog Night song, “Black and White.”
“Any requests?” he bellowed. “It’s free…I sing anything from the 60s through the late-80s. I don’t sing any fifties tunes because they’re infantile…that was the infancy of rock and roll.” With no further encouragement, the guy launched into a rambling, sloppy medley of pop songs. The guy, not unsurprisingly, had absolutely no talent at all. He’d hum a verse or two, then fake it or move on to something else when he didn’t know the lyrics. Like he promised, it was everything from the 60s to the 80s, from “Norwegian Wood” and “Moon Shadow,” to “Rebel Yell” and … but, you get the idea. Oh my dear, and this in my beautiful Seattle!
The songs were awful, the situation itself was quite amusing. I started looking around to see if others were laughing. No one seemed to be noticing much, but my own attention was drawn to several other small spectacles nearby. A man was playing bongo drums while a tall, lithe woman with billowing checkerboard-patterned pants and a pair of tiny, rose-colored spectacles undulated slightly foolishly about the park.
Two guys on a bench had been chatting amiably since I arrived. They looked like well-worn drunks, with disheveled clothes and faces like weathered catcher’s mitts. They seemed to be surreptitiously sharing a bottle, but their gestures and expressions showed more lucidity than one might have expected. Then one of them pulled a battered boom box out of his pack, and turned on an AM radio station, playing loud.
I expected music, but after a moment I realized it was a Christian station, and the amplified voice was just launching into a harangue about scientists who were working to conceal the obvious proofs of evolution. “Don’t let these scientists make a monkey out of you!” the voice cried out across the park. Curiously enough, the men continued talking, seeming to pay no attention to the creationist boombox, despite the fact that it was placed between them on the bench. It kept me absolutely sleepless, Horrible!
Watching all these minor dramas, I pondered the fact that no one seemed overly perturbed or amused by any of it, and wondered if all of this had any greater significance. One conclusion is clear: Public space is great. None of these little vignettes would be seen in a shopping mall, or any of the other growing spheres of pseudo-public space, where the slightest expression of spontaneity is deemed a threat to the public good.
What I saw at lunch the other day seems a benign episode of collective delirium, the sort of thing one can see a lot of in Seattle in the spring. A final thought comes to mind, though: What if all of these folks had been magically transported into Westlake Mall or Pacific Place. Or vice versa?