Saturday, March 22, 2014

the city is ours.

Kate was the first person to notice the way I move through a crowd when she saw me cut through a mass of people during rush hour in a London tube station. One blink and I’d be several feet away, looking back over my shoulder at the rest of my friends. “It’s like you TELEPORTED,” she said. It isn’t about shoving your way through, although sometimes a neatly deployed elbow is essential, but instead looking for pockets of space between the people around you. A sideways wriggle, a swing of the hip, a swift step forward and to the left, and you have leaped over a surprising distance the way a salmon leaps over the fish ladder on his way down the river and out to sea.

I thought about that crowded tube station again after lunch today as my dad and I walked from one end of the Pike Place Market to the other. It was noon on a Saturday, and there were throngs of tourists walking at a snail’s pace, stopping at random to look at postcards or windchimes or straws of honey. I realized then that it is the more than 25 years of weekend visits to the market that have honed my crowd-teleportation skills to a fine art. We came here all the time when I was a kid, and now we still come almost every weekend whenever my dad is back from Taipei. Back then there was a ritual: brunch at Cafe Campagne or Maxmiliens, croissants and eclairs at Le Panier, produce at Sosio’s, browsing at DeLaurenti’s.

I thought about how people complain about the tourists at the market, clogging the aisles and the sidewalks with their strollers and their camera bags and their insistence on lining up down the block outside the Original Starbucks. I thought about how my friends commented on the insanity of going to the market on a Saturday and then over to the University of Washington to see the cherry blossoms in bloom, on the same Saturday. The UW quad, like the Pike Place Market, was a seething mass of people from one end to the other, and more were pouring in from all directions, like ants converging on a fallen cupcake at a summer picnic.

I mention my friends’ comments to my dad, who laughed and said, “When you have lived in Seattle long enough, you are not afraid of crowds. You own the city.” At this point I should admit that we have two secret weapons: my dad’s infinite patience, and his handicapped parking permit. There is a third secret weapon: an understanding of what it is to be a visitor in someone else’s city. You cannot complain about tourists unless you have never been one, if you have never inadvertently blocked someone’s path because you were looking at the Tube map, or if you have never taken too long to order a gelato from a vast array of unfamiliar flavors. Or if you have never stood on the side of a road in a Portuguese town getting directions to the next town in the fractured French that you never properly learned. All of us have been at one time or another a stranger in a strange land. And if you practice your teleportation skills, you will never let a crowd stop you from wherever you want to go in your own city.

Friday, March 21, 2014

restaurant notes. the neighborhood phenomenon.

My family has been dining at Nishino since it opened, in 1995. Before that it was an Italian restaurant called Trattoria Carmine; one day we came to dinner and found an affable Japanese couple running a sushi restaurant in its place. For eighteen years now they have anchored a small strip mall off the intersection where Lake Washington Boulevard crosses Madison and heads into the Arboretum. Continue on eastwards, towards Lake Washington, and the neighborhood becomes leafier, grander, wealthier. To your left, a golf course/residential community called Broadmoor - once spoofed on ALMOST LIVE! - sprawls in all its manicured glory behind high brick walls as you get closer to the water.

The women of Madison Park are groomed and affluent-looking; they wear diamond engagement rings (of a reasonably moderate size, chosen by husbands at the beginning of lucrative careers) and diamond studs (the 20th anniversary upgrade, they are each twice the size of the aforementioned diamond rings). They play tennis, and their sport-jacket-wearing husbands play golf. And Nishino is their canteen, their neighborhood joint, their local diner, their clubhouse. There are parents with their preteens on school nights and couples on date nights and friends having a relaxing dinner together, letting their hair down now the kids have grown and gone. I have never spent any amount of time around WASPs, but watching the occupants of Madison Park greet each other over dinner seems to come pretty close to how I imagine them.

In the years since my parents moved back to Taipei, dinner at Nishino has just been with one parent or the other, so we now eat at the sushi bar instead of in the raised dining room. The restaurant has modern paintings on the walls and the light is a sort of peachy glow, all the better to smooth out crow’s-feet and minimize that Botox shine and illuminate the freshly highlighted and coiffed heads that are busy air-kissing across the tables. Every time I come here, I notice two things: the owner recognizes almost every single person who comes in the door, including my parents, and at least half the people in the dining room know each other. Another thing I’ve noticed: the sushi chefs are busily making boxes upon boxes of sushi takeout in-between serving us our perfect nigiri.

Since Nishino opened, more than eighteen years ago, I have never seen it not busy. It is always mostly, if not completely, full. Before we started dining mostly at the sushi bar, we sometimes couldn’t even get a table. This is extraordinary, because it is not an inexpensive place, and yet it is the most neighborhoodiest neighborhood joint I have ever seen in the entire city of Seattle. Tatsu Nishino chose to open his restaurant in a neighborhood where its inhabitants have both a great deal of money and a considerable sense of community, and also he and his wife remember and treasure their customers. This sense of community between the owners and their customers, and also between their customers themselves, this is what has kept them alive and thriving for almost twenty years. It’s the most amazing thing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

theatre notes. young playwrights program, I & II

Last weekend I went down to see the Young Playwrights Program at ACT. The previous fall some 200 students had participated in a city-wide theatre workshop, writing their own plays with the help of Seattle theatre artists. The program is led by the incredible Anita Montgomery, ACT’s literary manager and education program director. In addition to all this, she is unquestionably one of my favorite directors, tough and gentle at the same time, and extraordinarily open.

The eight plays chosen from that initial 200 were presented by various directors and actors, working closely with the young playwrights, who ranged in age from about 12 to perhaps 17. I was staggered by the array of talent before me; these kids were stunningly articulate, smart, hilarious, and heartbreaking. There were lighthearted mysteries and scathing social commentaries and meditations on life and death. I could see how these actors and directors gave their own shape to the words from these young writers, but they were true to their individual voices. The topics were often somber, but as grownups we forget that even the young are not too young to understand that the world can be a dark and complicated place.

What did I know then, that I’ve since forgotten? Did I know then, as these preteens and teenagers grasped so vividly, that out of the tangled maze of the world that surrounds us sometimes, art and its creation are like Ariadne’s thread leading us away from the Minotaur, back out, blinking, into the sunlight? Maybe I’ve always known this. Maybe this thought has followed me, always. Art is a solace, a companion, a guide, a mirror inward and outward. I hope these students will keep writing, or at least look back and remember how to put into words all the joys and pains of life, and then move on.