Tuesday, June 13, 2006
As Mike noted recently, the end is nigh for the current incarnation of Seattle's Garfield High School. After 84 years of use and abuse, there's little left to save beyond the ornate Jacobean brick facade. The scheduled remodel is intended to gut the building and, presumably, fill it with shiny new fixtures and Internets and drinking fountains that don't corrode your brain cells while you wait.
I graduated from Garfield in 1988, almost precisely a generation ahead of Mike's kids. The school was a limping hulk even then; during my senior year, we enjoyed both an electrical fire and a flood: a main water pipe in the attic burst, one pre-dawn winter morning, and we arrived to find water pouring down the southeast staircase like a fish ladder. The wooden classroom floors warped and buckled under the deluge. If memory serves, Holly and I cut that day, waded off to the Dilettante for coffee, and sat drinking it in the eye-watering teal-blue chlorine warmth of the pool building.
Several folks sent me information and links to the farewell-party-open-house shindig that alumni and supporters were hosting on Saturday, June 10: The Bash Before the Smash! I'll admit, it took me a while to decide. I had fun in high school, sure...I was no prom queen, but I was smart and witty and I got by with the average amount of teen angst I would've had anywhere. For years after I graduated, though, I had recurring anxiety dreams about the school, always the same basic thing: it was the end of the semester, the day before the final, and I hadn't studied or gone to class in...oh, fifteen years. I was in the school, standing in the main hallway, on the checkerboard tile between the trophy cases, and I couldn't find my locker. Night falling, the final coming and COMING on like Tax Day and Christmas, and I'd wander the empty figure eight of the hallways, searching and searching, increasingly desperate as the shadows lengthened. Again and again I'd retrace my steps, start over: left at the auditorium, up to the second floor, past the chem lab...no, wait. In the dreams, the building took on the dimensions of an Escher drawing, too: staircases that ended in blank walls, a fourth level I'd somehow never noticed, the walls and floors angling away like a funhouse maze. I never did find the locker, the book I intended to frantically read; I always woke up still lost.
Despite this, yeah, I figured I'd go. Drop in, get the layout straight in my head once more and bid it goodbye. I imagined a handful of people would turn up, maybe.
Holy crap, was I wrong. It was a mob scene, hundreds and hundreds of people milling through the school--a line to get in and sign the register. They'd opened up the soggy playing field to parking, ribboning rough lanes off between the goalposts. I drove in on the dirt track I'd never managed to completely run around, in the mercifully brief time I'd spent in P.E. Inside, I couldn't stop laughing in sheer amazement at the crowd. All around me people screamed and hugged each other, beaming and pointing. Mini-class reunions were staged in different classrooms--'68 over here, '54 over there. Rumors rippled through the crowd: I didn't see him, but others insisted that a 90-year-old member of the class of 1924, the first to graduate from the building, had turned up for pastries in the cafeteria.
Jazz combos jammed and swung in the dingy auditorium named for Quincy Jones. (It's a source of some controversy--the plans call for the space to be stripped and converted into a student commons, and a new performing arts center will be built, but people are freaking out about destroying Mr. Jones's namesake. Just name the NEW building after him, people. Problem solved!) The lunch line dished up hot dogs; the cafeteria was as inexplicably hideous as I remembered, its bright lavender and orange (orange?!) paint untouched. Cameras flashed in every direction, people calling and waving and saying "Jesus Christ, those BATHROOMS." It was uncomfortably warm. The tiny classrooms were magically even smaller, twice as tall as they were wide. The lead-laced drinking fountains were wrapped up in black garbage bags and duct tape.
I saw Dave's little brother Greg (who's thirty if he's a day), with one of his small daughters on each arm and his newborn son in a sling across his wife's body. Apparently the whole family has been exchanging e-mails, trying to decide what statement to make on a Garfield memorial brick. Between the five siblings, there was at least one Wong child in that building for 15 years straight, Greg told me. A dynasty. (And lord, how the administrators must have slumped to the ground in exhausted relief when the last brilliant, prank-mad Wong burst out through those purple doors.) I saw my 9th-grade bio teacher, who kindly pretended to recognize me, in the Marine Science classroom that still smelled like dirty ocean and formaldehyde. He's teaching at another school, now, but "I put up that poster, and that one, and those fish pictures," he said, pointing around the room at decor left untouched for a decade or more. I saw three beautiful black women doubled over, pointing at each other's hairdos in a 1969 yearbook and screaming with helpless laughter. I saw more purple outfits than seemed statistically possible.
Everybody was taking pictures of each other, their old classmates...but I found myself taking photos of the building, actually waiting for the moments when a hallway would clear and I could capture it, empty. At the time I wanted to capture those details, the battered, grimy surface almost obscuring the weird old beauty we'd all taken for granted. It's not going to be here, I kept thinking, this isn't going to be here any more.
I look at the pictures now (you can too, that link is to the set on Flickr) and it's kind of odd, actually. The place was teeming with people, old Bulldogs come home, and I was surprised by how much that moved me. The crowd was so diverse, all colors, all ages, reflecting the atypical racial and cultural stew that was and is Garfield all along, a lucky accident of geography. We milled and mixed and grinned at each other, crowded the tables for sweatshirts and bumper stickers to take home, all of us different, none of us minding. Another beautiful thing we took for granted, once.