Friday, February 29, 2008

All roads lead here

So Erin very kindly suggested that I ought to write a memoir, which makes me laugh a bit. I don’t know that I can sustain being interesting beyond more than the intermittent blog entry. But I’ll admit that I’ve actually had the title for my nonexistent autobiography for close to 20 years. And in explaining it, I get to tell a story and take full advantage of all kinds of Internet linkery in the process. I am so multimedia!

Okay. The Dog House Restaurant, a long-lost old-Seattle institution, opened in 1934 and operated 24/7 for more than half a century. Legend has it they might have closed for a night when Kennedy was assassinated, but beyond that they were serving up diner fare and camaraderie and poor attitudes every hour of every day for 60 years, during which period three generations of my family alone appreciated its many merits. The Dog House was seedy in all the most magnificent ways. People could still smoke in Seattle restaurants, during the Dog House heyday, and did they ever: the air in there was tangible, fog-dense with grease and nicotine. It could have been a lovely afternoon in May, no matter: in the Dog House it was always dark as two a.m. I have a vivid memory of standing up in a booth there as a very small child, and discovering that what I had thought were simply large brown squares placed at intervals on the wall were actually pictures. Photographs of scenic Washington vistas, Mt. Rainier and Lake Chelan, already all but obscured under several decades of tar.

Raymond Chandler would feel entirely comfortable in the Dog House, as would Richard Russo, and possibly the entire cast of characters from Mad Men, slumming. I would bet dollars to donuts that Kurt and Courtney whiled away more than a handful of hours in there over a plate of fries. There’d be drunks in one booth, a family with little kids in the next, ironic hipsters perched beside weary salesmen on stools at the counter. I had several awkward dates there, and several post-dates, trying to recover some dignity over gritty coffee. For years, my family went to the Dog House for Christmas Day dinner because, hell, it was open. On holidays, the elderly hostess would wear an eye-popping red sequined gown.

At least half of the waitresses had been there since its inception: irritable septuagenarians with towering white beehive hairdos and, after a lifetime slinging hash, zero tolerance for dithering. You’d damn well better know what you wanted when they asked for your order, or you were unlikely to get asked again any time soon. There was an attached cocktail lounge, too—you could thus order a cheeseburger and a chocolate ice-cream float, or pancakes and a Singapore Sling. The lounge, which I somehow never managed to legally enter, also contained a piano bar. I can remember sitting with my family at dinner and hearing occasional bizarre gusts of inebriated caterwauling blasting from the bar, in the days before karaoke. The noise was awesome, in all senses of the word. I could not wait to grow up and get in there to see the source of that racket, to make some of my own. I still can’t believe that I never did.

Up front, next to the cash register, they had a glass case full of other items you might want to buy while settling your bill: Hershey bars, packs of JuicyFruit, lottery tickets, cigars. The vice of your choice. A classic diner thing, that glass case of sundries just inside the door. I can’t remember the last time I saw one anywhere.

Above the pass-through to the kitchen was a large 3-D mural, replicated on the menus, the Dog House’s raison d’etre: a map, of all the other vices and foibles that would inevitably point you diner-ward. “All Roads Lead to the Dog House,” it proclaimed, and then the various paths were labeled with the sort of circumstances that might get you there. Most prominent among these: Blondes, Brunettes, Redheads. Though other vectors were also mentioned: Night Clubs, Taverns, Lodges, Private Secretaries, Boozers, Marines. Nagging. Usherettes.

When they announced the Dog House was finally closing, Seattle openly grieved. People made off with the fixtures and pocketed the menus, and yeah…Sis and I each have one (I’m pulling those road-to-the-Dog-House labels off of it right now). On one visit, we got to reminiscing with one of the veteran waitresses. In the early 1940s, my grandmother had been a carhop at the Igloo Drive-In, a rival restaurant a few blocks from the Dog House (it hadn’t held out nearly as long). Grammy’s boss would send her over to the Dog House in her street clothes, on spy missions: she was to sit at the counter with a cup of coffee and commit their menu prices to memory, see if the Igloo could undercut them a little. “Oh my God,” said the Dog House waitress when Grammy mentioned this, laughing and laughing. Turns out her boss had been sending her to scope out the Igloo, 50 years before. The Dog House’s final hour of operation was broadcast live on the local PBS station, and my hand to God, I sat in front of the television and cried. I heard, after, that they’d had to go out and buy a CLOSED sign, expressly for the purpose of flipping it over in the front window.

It wasn’t long before a new (and, I’m sure, inferior) 24-hour restaurant opened in the same location—coincidentally mentioned on Seattlest just today. Apparently the lot is getting too valuable, and the replacement ironic-hipster dive will now suffer the same fate, though it probably won’t be so missed. I can’t say—I’ve never been. At any rate, the Hurricane CafĂ© hasn’t established multiple generations of clientele like its predecessor. I can’t explain exactly what it was that so captivated me about the Dog House, always, even when I was a little girl. It was like walking into a novel, every time: the regulars cheek-by-jowl with truckers and lawyers and street kids, the million stories in the naked city, circulating in the perpetual night-owl nighttime of the Dog House, over whiskey and coffee, Monte Cristos and liverwurst sandwiches. I’m looking over my stained and dog-eared (heh) menu now, and it’s a beautiful thing. You could get a Diet Plate, or a Shrimp Louie. You could get a veal cutlet or a glass of “Double Jersey Buttermilk.” In small print on the bottom of the right-hand page, it says: SINGLES IN BOOTHS MUST SHARE TABLE WITH OTHERS…and I cannot even tell you how much I want to travel through time, right now, to sit in a single booth at the Dog House, order a cheeseburger—the bun glistening with the line cook’s oily fingerprint—and see who the hell shows up to sit opposite.

Oh, right: the point of this. The title of my memoir. It’s another quote from the Dog House menu, actually, the tiniest possible text, probably six-point type, the legendary 60-year caveat printed beneath their $5.75 Rib Eye Steak (served with Tossed Salad, French Fried Potatoes, and Toast). Ready?

Tenderness Not Guaranteed.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What We Talk About When We Talk About Meta

How long had it been, since I'd seen you? From back before you were sober, so three years at least. There'd been the occasional e-mails, the rarer phone calls, but we'd kept a pixelated distance between us. I'll confess: I was mostly expecting you to be bald. I was surprised to be wrong.

We'd both worked with David Waggoner in the MFA program at UW, so when I heard he was reading as part of the lecture series at Hugo House, I asked if you'd be going too. I don't remember which one of us suggested coffee, before.

It was good to see you. It always is, in the moments of familiarity and affection we can't help. You look so much more like your father, who I always liked and missed. You pointed it out before I did. "Could be worse: you could be like me, and look more every day like MY dad," I suggested, and we laughed, hard, and laughing it is easy to remember: yes, this is my friend. I've missed my friend. I miss him.

It was hard to see you. Hard to hear about your struggles, different from mine but who can say whose are more miserable? It's not a contest. Hard to look back at who we'd been, hard to recognize who we are now. Hard to hear you are tentatively dating again, however much I don't want or need to invite more drama, or your drama, into my life. Hard to not know what it is I want anyway.

The Hugo House lectures each have a theme. This one made sense, sure, falling the day after Valentine's Day: "Love is the Drug." I'd given that a passing thought: we were going to sit together in the dark while writers read about love? I'm sure there are more fucked-up ways to spend a Friday evening, although in the moment I was hard-pressed to come up with any of them. The theme was love, and what we got was tales of failed and ruined love, relationships gone sour, longing after youth, after the lost, breakups and dissolutions and people left so lonely that they're experiencing the physical manifestation of the word, buying it at the store like a commodity. Two solid hours of devastated, broken-ass hearts. Okay, then. Are there any happy love stories, love poems? Nobody brought any, Friday night, anyway.

And so I sat there in the dark, beside you. Beside my reunited friend and my bitter bitter ex and the man I thought I'd marry and the man who broke my heart, and it was lovely (seewhatIdidthere?) and at the same time I waited and hoped to die, a little bit. Maybe a bolt of lightning, before the lights came back up? Coup de foudre, the French say, falling in love the equivalent of a lightning strike. Maybe Cupid, with a hollow-point bullet. It was all the meta I could buy for $20. I thought, after, that if Hugo House had commissioned a piece on love from me, for this series, I couldn't have made up anything truer than what I felt sitting there in the dark, laughing my ass off and stifling tears. I was telling this story later, and a friend wondered idly with me, how many other dramas were unfolding through that audience, that night, that we couldn't know about? How many hearts were healing and breaking? How many divorces, how many first dates? How many of us shaking our heads, saying yes, exactly, yes. Oh, no.

It was good to love you. It was hard to love you.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Do I need a Twitter account?

Because I wanted to share, and yet am not sure this fact merits an entire blog post: at 2:15 PM, mid-conference with my boss, I realize I am wearing two different earrings.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Rhymes with "raucous"

Mike has a nice post about attending his local Democratic caucus on Saturday, and the broad general details of his experience don't differ much from mine. I too was a first-time, strolling the four blocks to Whittier Elementary (go Wildcats!) to cram myself in with the rest of my progressive-minded neighbors.

Democracy, it turns out, consists of a lot of standing around, temperature and volume rising, while you wait to actually Decide Things. Nonetheless it was strangely thrilling, for me, to be witness to all that newfound political enthusiasm cramming into the cafeteria/auditorium, 700+ strong. Babies in strollers and on shoulders. A guy on crutches, a woman in a motorized wheelchair. A clump of daycare classmates at my table set to coloring with vigor. People gave up their seats on the long narrow cafeteria benches for white-haired old ladies. My precinct officer, and the subsequent speakers, climbed up on the tables, straining to make themselves heard, and people helped them clamber up and down, clapping politely for each.

A little kid in front of me in the sign-in line clutched a copy of Duck for President. Learning Opportunity! "Dad, vote for Duck! Don't forget," the kid remarked urgently. "Okay, I'll write him in," his dad murmured absently. They weren't in my precinct, so I am not sure whether Duck has a lone delegate heading off to the county caucus. I do feel a certain obligation to point out that, whatever his platform, Duck appears to be yet another white male.

More exciting than the vote, in the initial milling-around phase, was getting to gossip with the other folks from my street about Those Neighbors: rental tenants whose long-time-coming, two-month eviction process finally wrapped up in the wee hours of January 2nd. They had two people living in the garage! someone noted. They were burning chopped-up furniture in their enormous barbecue smoker! a second person said. They'd stagger out to vomit in the alley! announced the guy from the north end of the block. Wow. I didn't even get to tell the story of how one of the cavalcade of stars resident in That House had crashed into my car and driven blithely away. Oh, Trashy Neighbors, now inflicting fresh miseries on someone else's block. They were entertaining, in a way, with their half-dozen shitty vehicles and their monstrous above-ground vinyl pool and their band practice...but I gather that they are not in fact missed.

Where was I? Right, right: democracy. I'm proud to admit I'm part of the Obama tidal wave that swept all four states in contention this weekend, though I'd willingly, gladly vote for either eventual nominee. I am frankly stunned, and thrilled, and humbled, to have such a choice to make. Even last year, a history teacher at the high school Mom worked at told his students point-blank, you will never see a black man or a woman as a Presidential nominee. Not in your lifetime, he informed those kids, a full generation behind me. Not in my lifetime and not in theirs. Well, well. You'd better start swimmin', or you'll sink like a stone, there, Teach.

Mom and Sis both caucused in their respective precincts as well, first-timers all. I wanted to point that out, actually, as a marker of Sis's political evolution. When she turned 18, she felt so disenfranchised, she didn't bother to even register. I think it was at least a decade before she went so far as to secure a ballot at all. This weekend, Sis volunteered as an Obama delegate for the county caucus at the next level. That? Makes me glow, a little bit, way inside.

A privilege, to feel a part of this, of something amazing and unprecedented and so, so hopeful, happening.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The vision thing

Actually, two vision things today, vaguely. First: you know what's kind of awesome? Being in a meeting where someone's Seeing Eye dog is snoring really loudly, under the table. Awesome, and hilarious.

Second: last week I made a visit to the eye doctor. It had been about three years since my last appointment; my prescription hasn't changed that much, but my contact lenses are just worn and scratched enough that they're starting to collect little calcium deposits (so says the doc) that no amount of by-hand scrubbing will remove. The little bleary, smeary speckles drifting across my field of vision were driving me nuts; plus, I'd like to be able to switch things up occasionally with an up-to-date pair of glasses. Hence the visit.

My current optometrist runs a little mom-and-pop office in my neighborhood, literally: he and his wife run the place, and last time I was there they had their baby son rolling around on a play mat in the lobby. (He's now three, and across the street at daycare, heh.) It's always a friendly, chatty visit, resoundingly different from the incredibly intimidating old bastard who examined my eyes and exuded general disapproving menace when I was a kid.

The doctor I saw as a child was located downtown, in the Cobb Building, a beautiful old brick pile now converted to luxury condos. At the time, I found even the building itself frightening, for two reasons: one, its ornamental trim featured enormous terra-cotta busts of an Indian chief in full feather headdress, and I was perpetually afraid that one of these would come loose and crush me on the street below. Beyond that, they just looked angry. Two, across the street was the even more terrifying Rainier Tower, an office building that tapers down into a slender pedestal, like a pencil point. I didn't know shit about structural engineering, at eight--still don't--and (as the photographer for the link above notes) at the time I found it hella creepy. If the Indian heads didn't get you, the teetering tower surely would.

Add to that the fact that going to the optometrist was just...scary. I can't remember the guy's name, but he was old and brusque and had little patience for children. "Which is better, one or two? Oneortwo?" he'd bark, flipping sample lenses back and forth in the huge black phoropter (thanks for that $10 word, Wikipedia!) clamped to your face like a cast-iron torture device. Omigod, what if you got it wrong? What would he do to you then? I lived in dread of finding out; the way he'd irritably peel back my cringing eyelids for the stinging dilation drops was awful enough. I think Dr. Mean Bastard triple-booked his appointments, too, just to feed his own self-importance; I can remember waiting and waiting with my mother in the grim green lobby.

Most of the equipment in my current optometrist's office is sleek and modern and computerized; the phoropter is smooth, molded beige plastic. The doctor and I got to chatting about my medieval reminiscences, and I mentioned how huge and deadly the device had been in the 70s. "Well, probably it seemed a lot bigger when your head was like this," he suggested, holding up his hands to suggest the span of a honeydew melon.

He had to dilate my eyes this time, so while we waited for my pupils to start looking like Jim Morrison's, I strolled around the lobby glancing at swanky designer frames. "Want to try some out?" asked Dr. Mrs. Eye Doctor from behind her desk. I hedged. "I'm cheap; I just want to take the prescription to, like, LensCrafters," I said.

"Oh, try 'em on," she scoffed, and came out to hand me approximately 30 more varieties of frame than I would have selected myself. (In this way, it was not unlike a professional bra fitting.)

"Nothing too square," I said, squinting crazy-pupilled at myself in the mirror. "My face is already little bit square..." She handed me a particularly angular pair and stepped back.

"Oh, I see what you mean. About your jaw," she said pointedly. Yes, my head is actually a perfect cube, lady. Let's try to de-emphasize my Rockem-Sockem Robots qualities, shall we? Naturally, we did end up finding at least half a dozen that were perfectly acceptable, and for only a few hundreds of dollars. She wrote all the models down for me, so we wouldn't forget. Sigh. I will have to drag Sis along for a second opinion, I think.

At last I looked sufficiently swacked out of my mind, and the doctor took me back into the exam room and set me up in front of another examination device, this one connected to a digital camera and a huge LCD monitor. I twitted the doctor a bit about his operating system of choice--no comment--while he snapped a series of photographs of the insides of my eyeballs and projected them on the monitor, the size of basketballs. He pointed out my optic nerves, a tiny bit of retinal scarring, while I stared fascinated and a tiny bit squeamish all at once. Blown up to that size, lit orange-ish from within and traced with red veins, my eyes resembled Mars, as much as anything. Strange scanned planets, or...breasts, honestly.

My new lenses would arrive in about 10 days, they told me. Unprompted--but perhaps inspired by my general interest in the whole computer end of things?--the doctor printed off a souvenir glossy photo for me. Of my eyeballs. Postcard size, left and this dimension, more like blood oranges, or bizarre cocktail olives, but still faintly obscene. If you didn't know what you were looking at, at first, you'd think, inappropriate! Actually, you might still. Windows of the soul and all that. Little red planets. "Here you go," the doctor said, handing me the print. "Um...thanks," I said dumbly, slipping it into my purse.

I have it pinned to the corkboard above my desk at work, now. You question the legitimacy of my leaving early for an appointment, you say? Take that, suckers!