Sunday, June 16, 2013

City of Dreams

I’d forgotten how rural and old and dreamlike Port Townsend is, how the old brick and stone buildings that line Water Street at the base of a high cliff seem to permanently gaze into the dreams and aspirations of the late 19th century, when high-masted ships like the Glory of the Seas or the Susie T. Plummer lay at anchor in the waters by Union Wharf and bars and bordellos provided entertainment for the sailors and bolstered the booming economy. Port Townsend is quintessentially western, but salt air and fresh breezes blowing in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca ruffle the puddles and invigorate the nerves, imbuing everything with a distinctly marine character. Even if you don’t sail or dive or do much in the water except drink it and look at it occasionally the vastness that is the ocean reddens the brick and makes the glass shine harder.
Roberta and I rolled into town about 2:30 last Friday afternoon and looked for a place to get a snack. We’d gone to Port Townsend to visit a friend and just relax, just be somewhere different than Seattle for a day or two and spend the night in a hotel. We love hotels. Motels, too, but mostly hotels. There is just something inherently fun about spending a night in a hotel. We parked in a lot outside a promising series of shops, the largest of which was quaintly named Quimper Mercantile, on Water Street, which is a community-owned company. People of the Quimper Peninsula own shares in it. Quimper Mercantile didn’t have the kind of snacks we were looking for, but they seemed to have a colossal miscellany of everything else: shoes, bed linens, towels, fishing gear, jack knives, fat woolly socks, climbing carabiners, boots, raincoats, frying pans and gardening supplies. It served the purpose of an old-timey general store.
Outside, while we standing on the curb wondering where to go next in our search for snacks, a friendly woman who had overheard our request for beverages and snacks gave us directions to a small deli called Getables, a few doors down past Taylor, offering cheese and pickles and baked goods and a variety of beverages. I fished out a concoction of mandarin orange from a barrel-shaped container full of ice while Roberta nabbed some water and two sandwich halves stuffed with lettuce and turkey. We paid for our "getables" at a beautiful counter of wooden laminate. I remarked on the counter to the owner who told me he’d bought it at IKEA and then added that he’d coated it heavily with polyurethane, which gave it a high gloss. It looked new, but was over a year old.
We’d made reservations online at the Washington Hotel, which we located between a dealer in rare books on the north side  -  Rare And Antique And Collectible Books  -  and a boutique of vintage clothing to the south which wrapped around the corner. The boutique was aptly named the Wandering Wardrobe. We found the address and sign for the Washington Hotel, inscribed in modest black letters on a white background, but no grand entryway, not even a lobby. Roberta punched in a code and the door opened. We walked up a long flight of beige carpeted steps at the top of which a giant fleur-de-lis reposed on a small table. Our room was toward to the back. Classical music played on the radio and CD player adjacent upturned wine glasses and coffee mugs. An abstract painting of white and black hung above the commode. From a distance it looked like zebra skin, but upon closer examination it looked more like black water moving sinuously among chunks of pure white ice. A blue vase with a bouquet of cattails reposed on an end-table to the north of the bed. I looked out onto the graveled parking lot, where our rental car was parked in front of an old wooden door upon which was written “Overweight Mermaids,” underneath which a large white arrow pointed to the south, ostensibly to another cellar door that was hidden from view. It was odd not seeing anyone as we got situated in our room. It felt as if the hotel were run by fairies who chose to remain invisible.
It was, as advertised, a quiet room. I wasn’t sure whether the adjacent building of antique cars was intended as a warehouse, a garage, or a parts shop dealing mainly in retail in which old men with crinkly faces and white hair sprinkled astute queries with colloquies of helpful advice. However, I could not see any human activity, just murky silhouettes of what appeared to be machinery, oil cans or transmissions. I tried closing the blinds, but the cord wouldn’t budge. I fussed with it a little, pulled the valence out a little and tried to peer through the little hole through which the cords ran, but couldn’t see any switch or gear or toggle I could try to loosen. The cords remained as frozen in place as if they’d been nailed to the window sill. Well, I thought, why worry if there’s no one in the antique car building. It was a continuing frustration, however, to look at those cords and not believe that there was probably something very simple I was overlooking, some little switch or button, and so bring the slats down with a mild clutter and bring shade and privacy into our room. Roberta speculated it might even work by remote, like the radio and TV, but there were only the two remotes for the radio and TV. No wand or doodad that might be connected with window blinds.
I have trouble with gadgets. I have trouble with icons. I don’t understand what they’re intended to mean. The windows on our rented Camry were electronic, and all but the windows on the driver’s side refused to go down. I thought the wiring had gone awry, but discovered later, while we were waiting for the Seattle ferry that the two little icons representing padlocks that were indented in white on the two little buttons above the small levers that maneuvered the windows up and down, locked and unlocked the windows. Locking car doors made obvious sense, but windows? What was the purpose of locking windows? Roberta surmised that it had to do with keeping little kids from playing with the windows and falling out of the car. I found the lack of a manually operated window and all this electronic gadgetry maddening. I was used to muscling the windows up and down on our old Subaru, not to mention every car I'd owned in the past. This dependency on electronics unsettles me. I like levers and buttons. I like things you can push and pull. I like dexterity. I like engagement. I like the joy and sensuality of a well-designed object. I am especially perturbed, as in the case with our new dishwasher, when even the buttonness of buttons go missing and there is only the mere implication of a button on an otherwise smooth surface of shiny plastic. Pressing a sign or an abstract image instead of a tangible device is disquieting. I need physicality. I need solidity. A world of pure signage makes me nervous. I know how slippery signs and symbols can be. Here, at least, was something tangible to press. I clicked the “off” icon and Roberta’s window rolled down with a gentle hum. Sea breezes wafted through the car. I could hear the ruffle of paper as the whitehaired woman in sunglasses read the Sunday paper in the white Lexus parked in the lane to our left.  
It felt good to walk around Port Townsend. The pace was decidedly slower than Seattle, and the people appeared to be normal people, not the zombie-android-smartphone addicts I see on Seattle’s sidewalks and streets staring fixedly in hypnotic trances at a smartphone or iPad. And they were friendly. People offered information with gladness and zest. There were no homeless people, no one cadging money. Everyone seemed to feel very much at home. I counted at least five bookstores, high glass windows in Victorian buildings of brick and stone revealing the spines and tantalizing covers of hundreds of books, including stacks of Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life. I felt simultaneous ascensions of joy, nostalgia, and loss in seeing all these bookstores and living testaments to the enduring invention of the book, colophons and vellum and luscious Moroccan binding inviting the eyes and fingers for communion with the word, the beautiful printed word. Not the word behind the cold corporate plastic of a computer screen, but words embedded in paper. Fully committed words. Printed words. Words in frigate cohesion creaking with yardarm ideas. Words between visions and propositions. Between funny feelings, heady sensations and radical speculations. Between firm, tangible covers. Between tender buttons. Between fables and caves.
Port Townsend appears to be a remarkably literary town, which may be either a cause of, or side effect of, Copper Canyon Press and the annual arts festival called Centrum. Centrum, unlike Seattle’s Bumbershoot, where the literary arts have all but disappeared and have always been treated like the poor bedraggled cousin to the pop music acts which now dominate the fair, continues to showcase the literary arts.
Roberta got up early on Saturday morning. She made coffee and read Colin Jone's Paris: The Biography of a City, making herself comfortable on the gigantic leather covered daybed in the spacious sitting room. The bedroom was filled with sunlight. As soon as we got dressed we went out to have breakfast at Sweet Laurette’s. Roberta looked it up on her smartphone, which gave her a google map in diminished size. Only one of the streets were named. The restaurant looked further away than I’d imagined. We walked south on Washington street to the Haller Fountain, a half-naked young woman in dark bronze strides gracefully forward above two cherubs riding monstrous fish, an apparent hybrid between dolphins and demonic goldfish, water arching from their snouts, the cherubs blowing into conch shells from which water also jets in spritely arcs of fountain classicism. The woman holds a swatch of thin drapery above her head, her right arm in a graceful upward curve, her left arm descending gracefully to her hand, whose fingers extend delicately in feminine charm. The fountain was the donation, in 1906, of Theodore N. Haller, intended to honor his deceased father and brother. Haller’s dedication speech included a poem about the Greek sea nymph Galatea. The statue first appeared in 1893 at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It is said that a local bar owner in Port Townsend named Charlie Lang placed trout in the pool at the bottom of the statue and trained them to jump through hoops. The Taylor Street stairs behind the fountain lead to the uptown business district, where Sweet Laurette’s is located.
We found Sweet Laurette’s easily enough, but it was about 7:15 a.m. and restaurant didn’t open for breakfast until 8:00 a.m. We sat on a bench in front of the restaurant but it was too shaded and chilly so we got up and walked around. Roberta noticed a crow pecking at a freshly killed mouse. The crow picked up the mouse and flew to the corner of the building across the street.
We visited an old yellowish clapboarded building that looked like a grange hall but was in fact a movie theater. Today’s feature was Man of Steel. The agitations of the crow we’d seen earlier caught our attention and we saw a young gray cat playing with the dead mouse which the crow must have dropped from his perch on the corner of the building. We wondered if it was sheer carelessness on the part of the crow, or if the crow had seen the cat and dropped the mouse in order to get her teased and agitated. The crow hunched down and let loose a barrage of squawks on the cat while the cat pranced around the mouse not quite sure what to do with it. She eventually surrendered the mouse and the crow flew it to the top of another building.
Port Townsend’s Rose movie theater, which first opened in 1907, was close to our hotel, but we hadn’t time to go see a movie there this time around, which didn’t matter, as we’d already seen the feature film, Mud, with Mathew McConaughey, which is a damn good movie. The main character is none other than the Mississippi River. Mud is an appropriate title for this movie. The imagery is so visually intense you can smell the water and catfish, you can feel the current and the pain and bewilderment and joy in the voices of the people. You can feel what it’s like to start an outboard motor and the complex emotions of being betrayed and loved by a woman simultaneously, in very much the same way a river brings sweetness and bounty but can also kill you.
Sweet Laurette opened its doors where a small group of hungry people had gathered. A young woman led Roberta and I to a table in the center of the small restaurant and gave us some menus. I was leaning toward pancakes when we first entered, but started worried about calories and being stuck in a car all day and gaining weight, and written in small letters beneath the three offerings of pancake (Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, Lemon and Blueberry Dutch Baby, Apple and Pear Dutch Baby) was the warning that it may take a little extra time to get these dishes made. I decided to go high protein and ordered a Croque Madam, “all natural honey baked ham, gruyere cheese, two fried eggs and mayo-Dijon spread on griddled sourdough, served with griddled potatoes.” Roberta ordered the Farmer’s Market Scramble which consisted of griddled potatoes and toast and whatever the “season dictates” in the way of fruit and vegetables. June was dictating cantaloupe and honeydew melon. Roberta said the potatoes weren't quite crispy enough for her taste, and the coffee could have been a little stronger, but everything else was fabulous.
The wait staff at Sweet Laurette’s were all women and were liberal with the coffee, which I thought was strong and tasty. I noticed some odd scripture tattooed on the wrist of a young woman refreshing my mug of coffee and asked her what language that was. I thought it might be Hebrew. She said it was Sanskrit, and was a prayer from the Bhagavad Gita meaning, roughly, oh lord please remove all illusion so that I may see the truth. I told the waitress that we may be illusions and she cracked up laughing. 

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