I wake up in the morning in a house perched upon a hillside. It is Mercer Island in Seattle's Lake Washington, and I am staying with old friends, Jordan and Susan. We were housemates 20-odd years ago, when Jordan was trying to be both artist and anthropologist. (He's an artist now.) Beyond the far shore the peaks of the Olympic peninsula loom among clouds. Every evening Jordan soaks some steel-cut oats and in the morning cooks them with dried fruits and nuts. Susan has already gone off to work at a school district to the north. There is fresh coffee in the pot, and I eat my share of the oatmeal.
I'm here to work - on a week's sojourn in Washington state talking to people about taxation, government, community and such things. The first two days I did a few longer sit-down interviews and walked the parks on Lake Washington talking to the young immigrants and others who were enjoying the rare sunny day. But today, I don't have any appointments lined up, so I load my equipment into the car: a small video camera on a tripod, a pair of maps, a little black notebook and a laptop computer.
I drive southward, finding the 515. I stop somewhere near the town of Kent in a land of strip malls and franchises. I find a pair of African American women sitting in their car waiting for a Chinese mechanic. They don't want to be taped, but I talk with them - about what it means to be a single-mother Black woman in Washington state, about taxes and community, and the priorities of the powers-that-be, about what might change and what won't. After 20 minutes of so, when their mechanic arrives I thank them and leave. I step into a vacuum repair store, but the proprietor won't talk to me, and a leather store where the proprietor's Mexican brother is willing to talk, though he knows little enough about Washington state. I spend a quarter of an hour in a nail salon. (The old Vietnamese woman who owns the place tries to destroy my camera with a glare, but when I close it up she ignores me and returns to giving the manicure.) A Black girl with indigo toenails and a young Mexican couple with a toddler talk with me about the state and about taxes and jobs and getting going in life.
Soon I am driving further south. Route 515 has ended, but with the Cascades on one side and Puget Sound on the other there is only so lost I can get. I come across a large and bustling community college, where the guard seems uninterested in me. I first interview a half dozen Danish students, but their take on things is pretty irrelevant to the task at hand. A pair of landscapers are willing to talk and I video tape a chat with an Alaskan Vietnam vet, who's been in Washington since the 70's. And I talk to a pair of friends sitting by a fountain - one Black one White - neither of whom seem particularly bright, but that's a demographic, too. I get a trio of students - one African American, one half and half Italian, and a half-Anglo-half-Mexicano. They are sharp and articulate and trying to find a way in a society more or less indifferent, if not hostile to their success. It's a good, long, rich, far-ranging interview there in the bustling center of the college. They take me into the main building to introduce me to others who'd have something to say, but I have to move on after some brief, polite interrogations.
Down out of the hills I find the run-down center of Auburn. A construction crew is tearing up the central avenue because of some water main issue. I interview a conservative union contractor outside of a bar where he'd stepped out to have a smoke. I interview a liberal man out walking his dog. But I'm hungry now, and a local woman directs me to a Vietnamese restaurant. I have a soup and a mango bubble tea with black tapioca pearls in the bottom.
I get back on the road to Tacoma. I walk the streets of Tacoma. I shoot some video of the port across the river mouth - with its piers and ships and billowing smokestacks. I'm pleased by some shots with a curious gull in the foreground. I'm not finding many people to interview. A parking attendant, a quartet of state workers on a smoke break, but the conversations are brief. Probably I'm done for the day. The ability to charm or cajole a person into a spontaneous conversation with a stranger is a delicate thing, and once that ability falls away, there is little chance of gathering useful data.
In any case, I need to offload my video and write down my notes for the ones that weren't taped. I stop in a cafe in Des Moines for a couple of hours. I drink a peppermint tea and tip the high school girls 5 dollars for letting me work there in peace. I drive back north along highway 99 toward Seattle - past all the seaside industry.
I find my way to Freemark Abbey upon Phinney Ridge, where a poetry reading is scheduled. An old friend has a new book out and she is reading from it tonight with some other poets. (There's a conference of writers in town.) I know it must be 15 years since I saw her last, because I remember showing her my son Porter as a babe in arms. She's surprised to see me there on the corner outside. I can't stay long - but enough to hold hands and stare at each other and marvel at the trajectories of life.
There is another reading across town I've promised to go to - friend I've known since high school. There is nowhere to park near the bar where he is reading poetry. I drive around for a while until I settle on a little pay parking lot, buy my coupon, lock up and go off in search of the place. It’s a gallery actually, but move down past the art and there is a bar in the back. A beautiful woman with olive skin and a black dress is reading the last couple of her poems, and I settle in with a glass of red wine. The poets read and I listen.
Afterwards, we go out for dinner and conversation - a couple of poets, a publisher and his wife, and another woman. The first restaurant we try is packed, but upstairs is the Tin Table. (Across the corridor is a hall filled with a swirling mass of dancers -- every age sweating and spinning, coming out in the hallway to cool off and stretch. The sound of swing music reverberates.) This restaurant doesn't have any tables either, but they settle us in a rough circle of easy chairs. They bring me grilled trout and my friend has wild boar sausages and we split a bottle of Verducchio.
When it is time to go my friend and I walk the couple of blocks to where my jeep in parked. As I go to unlock the door, it takes me a moment to comprehend what I am seeing - that there is a glittering constellation of glass all over the back seat. When I comprehend it, I mutter to my friend that someone has smashed in the window. He curses and curses again when I tell him that the thief took my camera, laptop and all the video that I shot over the past three days. I set about picking up glass that has fallen onto the front seat, mentally going through the inventory of things that are gone.
He asks me if I want to scream, but I don't want to scream. I'm annoyed that I parked in such a dark corner, and that so much of the past days' work is lost. But it has been more than 25 years since I've been robbed. In that time I have intentionally not worried myself and I have trusted much and taken my chances. That seems like a pretty good deal. My coat and gloves are gone, though the thief left the second-hand novels that I'd bought for the plane. The thick purple straw from the bubble tea is gone -- along with most of what I'd left there from lunchtime. My friend takes pictures of the damage and talks to the police about how to report the crime. But it is nearly midnight and there is nothing that a police officer could do tonight. I will file the report tomorrow.
I take my friend back to his lodgings, and drive out across the bridge toward Mercer Island. The open back window creates a throbbing, reverberation in the car that threatens to give me a headache. But the day is nearly over.