Saturday, June 09, 2007

Snarky in Seattle

In which Travels West travels North

I had been to Seattle once before, when I worked for Der Maus, but had only 24 hours in what I perceived then as a boutique little gem of a city. It was then, ducking my Disney handlers -- who always insist you have breakfast, tiffin, luncheon, tea, supper and dinner with the rest of the "cast members" so they can keep an eye on you -- that I first discovered Pike's Place Market. I loved the festive atmosphere and fish throwing. Though touristy, Pike's Place is very unlike, say, Fisherman's Warf in San Francisco. For one thing, locals still go to Pike's. I thought some of that atmosphere (though not the fish throwing) might permeate the rest of the city, if I only had had more time to look into it. I also remembered some excellent bookstores and small, crowded neighborhoods full of little bars and eateries. So when the chance came up to attend a Seattle conference for the office I jumped at it.

Checking into the Warwick Hotel didn't start the weekend off right. For one thing, they don't actually let you check in until 3 p.m. You can check your bags, but you can't actually go up to your room and freshen up after your flight until three. This practice is becoming more common in the hospitality industry. I guess those $5.35 per hour Guatemalan maids are really putting the squeeze on the hotel industry's profits. I mean, Paris Hilton can't even buy herself out of jail. So after wandering the streets for two-and-half hours, I went back to the Warwick, where I was greeted by the counter-jumper with the ghetto salutation, "Whassup?" I gave the fellow a look and said "What do you mean, what's up?" He immediately retreated into "professional" mode and got me my damned room key.

The Warwick is one of those ugly concrete carbuncles from the 1960s that looks like the slab from 2001: A Space Odyssey, only not as charming. At one point, probably in the 1990s, some mid-tier hotel group bought the place and decided to attempt to boutique-ify it. Truly, you cannot put Chanel lipstick on a concrete pig. Except fore the restaurant, Margaux, that project was a complete failure. My room had a view of the parking lot.

Say it Right, Damn It
And another thing. The staff all pronounce "Warwick" like it is spelt. That's wrong. "Warwick" is the name of a town in England, near where I lived in Stratford-on-Avon, and the surname of an ancient and noble English family. (According to the family history book, the present Earl of Warwick and I are descended from a common ancestor. You may kiss the ring.) It's pronounced "WAR-ick" with the second "W" silent. Philistines. There were several other such faux pas made by Seattleites during the weekend, like pronouncing Cirque du Soleil as "Circus doo Sole-ale," and pronouncing the Table in Sur la Table like the English word "table," but I digress.

Belltown, as the area close to the waterfront is called, is a great walking town, to be sure. And, to be sure, you can walk it all in an afternoon. Twice. I did that. I also took the monorail, probably the worst joke in the history of public transit, to the Space Needle. The monorail has exactly two stops. Disneyland's has four. Disneyworld's has 12 trains and some seven stops. Yes, Disneyworld has better (and cleaner) public transit than Seattle.

Seattle is located in an area of great natural beauty. On the flight in, we passed over Mt. St. Helens (or what's left of it) and very close to Mt. Rainier. Mt. Rainier is really a thing to see. "Enormous" doesn't begin to paint an image. The mountain towers, squat and brooding, above everything. Even from the air, at 32,000 feet, it looked gargantuan. In fact, it is 14,411 feet tall. I know this because on the elevator ride up the Space Needle the elevator operator asked if her riders had any questions. I asked, "How tall is Mt. Rainier?" She shot the answer back without even thinking about it. Clearly, she's one of the few people in Seattle who knows what she's talking about.

The Space Needle
Built for the 1962 Century 21 Exposition -- the world's fair so good they named a real estate agency after it -- the Space Needle is Seattle's signature claim to fame (outside of Kurt Cobain's headless body, of course). It remains a graceful structure, complete with a revolving restaurant at the top, a symbol of "things to come" in the new century -- flying cars, jet backs, meals-in-a-pill and poopless android pets. It's still fun to ride the super fast elevator to the top (for a mere 16 smackers). The gift shop needs work, however. A friend who collects world expo stuff texted me and asked if they had any Space Needle models that "light up or shoot flames." Now, not having a Space Needle that shoots flames is understandable. It'd be an insurance nightmare. But not having one that at least lights up? You gotta be kidding me.

Bored in Belltown
Think of Belltown as a San Francisco without the culture, as a Boston without the history, as a Pasadena without the sunshine or as a Helsinki without the hot Finnish blondes. It's got all the usual flotsam of the new urbania common in most left-coast cities -- the bums, yuppie hipsters livin' the urban dream, bloviating bums, beggars, knee-biters, whiners, fat people, political activists, nutcases, tattooed left-overs from the grunge days (buckets of these), plus a whole lotta busybody lefty granola-munchers. For all the coffee these people are alleged to drink -- there really is a Starbucks, a Tully's, a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a Seattle's Best or a Peet's on every frickin' corner -- it's amazing they don't get more done with their city, and faster.
From what I saw of it, Seattle is also one of the worst dressed major cities I've ever visited. This was explained by one recent transplant from Pasadena as part of "the outdoorsy thing." That may be so. People in L.A. dress casually, too, but they also spend a lot of time and effort picking the right stupid looking designer jeans, designer tee-shirts, designer shades, designer driving mocs and designer thongs. True, most Angelenos are complete douche-bags. But they're well-put-together (if not exactly will-turned-out) douche-bags. Downtown Seattle is just chock-full of slobs, both male and female, plain and simple. I'd have hoped, after a decade or so of Frasier and his impeccable younger brother, Niles, some of that dapperderness might have rubbed off. Not the case. Would someone please tell Seattle that the world buried grunge years ago along with grubby Kurt's carcass?

Irony in Bronze
Saturday evening I met a web acquaintance, Tim, from the forum, who took me out to a PG-13-rated circus-cabaret called Circus Contraption. It was in a warehouse in an area called the Fremont district, on the other side of the canal from downtown, a nice-looking neighborhood near the water. Passing through the central area of Fremont, a place of shops and eateries I determined to visit again later, we came across an enormous statue of a one Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik revolution. It had been brought, my host told me, from Red Square after the collapse the Soviet Empire. (Actually, it was put up in Czechoslovakia a year before the Czechs tore it down in 1999 and bought by an English teacher who brought it to Seattle to sell it for scrap). Now it stands in front of a Taco del Mar shop, Seattle's chain Mexican food joint.

Ah. The irony.

My first reaction was to get a snapshot of me with it (which I did, clearly). My second and third reactions were more along the lines of, "I wonder what would happen if I put up a statue of Pol Pot, say, or Mussolini in my front yard?" It's a pretty tastless joke when you think about it, but I imagine that for many of the academic communard granola-munchers of the Fremont district it's not a joke at all, but some kind of "edgy" anti-establishment statement.

Look! Breasts!
Anyway, Circus Contraption was amusing enough in its own clichéd way. It's one of those Teatro ZinZanni affairs that mixes slightly gothic, somewhat ribald burlesque with tumbling, juggling and rope acts. The company we were seated with was quite nice and friendly, however. And the booze was cheap.

Next day I took the monorail once again back up to the Space Needle, where I went to the Science Fiction Museum. This is well worth the price of admission. The Needle itself, of course, was supposed to be a symbol of the future, so a Sci-Fi museum is a perfect compliment. Surrounding the Needle, outside the museum, is a set of rickety, cheap-looking carnie rides run by sleazy carnies with rat-tail mullets. (Carnies. Shudder!) Upon exiting the future, as shown in the Sci Fi museum, you're left wondering where the future you were promised, the one with the above-mentioned jet packs, went to. It ain't in Seattle.

Arty, Farty
I then made my way back to the other side of Belltown with a plan to hit the Seattle Art Museum, or "the SAM" as the yokels cleverly call it. I took one look at the "installation" in the lobby -- a group of white, 80's-era Ford Tempos suspended from the ceiling with neon rods passing through them -- and decided to mosey down to Pioneer square and get a belt instead.

Pioneer square is the oldest part of town and for a long time was Seattle's skid row and bohemian haven. Three decades or so of gentrification have transformed it into party row, with nearly a dozen nearly identical bars lining the street. I didn't do the Seattle Underground walking tour, but I hear it's great. There are also some good bookstores down there.

I decided to hop a bus back out to the Fremont district and started asking around about which bus to take. I had to hit up no less than seven natives to get an authoritative answer. Finally a shoe shine guy knew right off what bus I should get on. Of course, that meant I had to get my shoes shined. Cost me $15 to get to Fremont, $16.25 if you count the bus fare. Luckily, Seattle buses offer round trip transfers.

There are also lots of bars in Fremont, as well as the statue of Lenin and another sculpture made from the fuselage of a cold-war era missile. Seattle abounds in the lefty irony. Wink. Wink.
That night I went to see the new Pirates of the Caribbean, which was playing across the street from my hotel. Just when I thought Seattle couldn't get any more disappointing…

Next day I was up and at 'em for my conference, at the Bell Harbor conference center, right on the water. Nice, but the conference center has no windows. The conference itself, SMX Advanced, was quite good, however, and I made a lot of contacts and got a lot of material to use on my day-job blog.

I missed my flight back Tuesday -- the dopes that run Alaska Airlines decided to change gates at the last second -- and then my bags were lost. I finally got them back Friday.

Things might have been different had I gone up to snowboard or take a boat ride or do something where I could have enjoyed the beautiful natural surroundings of the area. But I had gone up early to explore Seattle's urban environment, such as it is. Maybe I'm jaded, but as cities go, I think Seattle thinks just a wee bit highly of itself. I should have rented a car and driven to Mt. Rainier.
And if you think I'm the only one who thinks Seattle is full of shit, think again.

Rating: ♠♠ 1/2
This town needs work
Warwick Hotel
401 Lenora Street
Rating: ♠1/2
Say it right: "WAR-ick"

The Space Needle
Rating: ♠♠♠♠
The gift shop only gets a ♠♠ for not having a Space Needle model that lights up and shoots flames

Circus Contraption
Rating: ♠♠♠
More boobs, please

Science Fiction Museum
Rating: ♠♠♠♠

Pirates of the Caribbean
Rating: 1/2

Flying Fish
2234 1st Ave
Rating: ♠♠♠♠
A nice fish restaurant where I had the best fish-n-chips I can remember, and a very funny bartender from Boston

SMZ Advanced Conference
Danny Sullivan really knows how to give a confab
Rating: ♠♠♠♠