I don’t have a lot of time. I never do.
My stints in cities are brief. In. Out. I glean what I can from the window of a hotel tower. Then I wave goodbye to the patchwork quilt of roads and buildings as the plane rises into the clouds.
But this time I have one night. It’s a brief moment. In less than 12 hours, I must pack up and leave.
I am also alone. Everyone else in my group boarded their own soaring mechanical birds and flew home already.
It’s just me and the city. I must make a choice.
I can stay in my tower. Eat mediocre hotel food. Go to bed early. Or I can descend the mirrored elevator and steal a few hours from the night.
The city’s lifeblood pumps through the veins of its streets below. It’s not much of a choice.
A 20-minute walk separates me from a neighborhood of rainbow-painted crosswalks and buildings steeped in iconic cultural history. Coffeehouses began their reign in its gray bricks. Plaid-wearing grunge rockers kicked their Doc Martins down its sidewalks. One of the city’s best bookstores warms its center.
Sliding a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems in my bag, because one should always travel with a book, I exit the hotel.
Outside, gray clouds shuffle in overhead, blotting out the sun. A drop of water falls on my pants and another taps my arm. Madison Street reaches up before me at a dauntingly San Franciscan angle. I debate turning around.
I know little of this city on the northwestern tip of the US. It’s been forged in my mind from 90’s movies starring Meg Ryan or Bridget Fonda. In real life, I’ve made only two other brief visits. During both, dark clouds and rain obscured the city’s unique flavor. Today they try again. But I won’t be deterred from exploring Seattle.
At my back, the hotel grows smaller. The chain restaurants and buildings with no use for the weekend grow darker. Suddenly, a mansion sprouts up in the shadow of a crystal skyscraper. The old Victorian looks like its caught in a time rift from another century.
Walking past, the hill finally crests and waves downward. A salty scent licks at my nose. Beneath me, small groups of people knit together in front of bars and restaurants. I’m almost there.
Onward I walk. Businesses morph into quirky bars with unicorn crests and art fills up large windows. A skateboarder grumbles by me. I enjoy the carefree hum of his wheels.
And then I see it. The bookstore. Elliot Bay Book Co.
Floors ripple with the amber and gold as I enter through the front door. Little ticket recommendations pop out from shelves. Book wanderlust overtakes me as I stroll through the rows and stacks of books.
Eventually, I settle into the philosophy section. I read excerpts from books I don’t plan to buy. No one seems to care, nor am I alone. Other patrons flip pages at the tables and chairs throughout the store.
A bookstore is a window to the soul of a city. With soaring timbered ceilings and a babbling cafe, Elliot Bay Book Co. blends the old with the new. A New York City-style loft meets log cabin. Eclectic. Progressive. Warm. Thoughtful. It’s beautiful in a rustic, intellectual way. Just like the city itself.
People with thick-rimmed glasses ask me if I need help. (If only you knew how much, I think.) “No, thanks,” I say. “Just looking.”
Although I want to purchase nearly every tome my fingers grasp, there is no room in my suitcase for even one more item. No matter. I smelled the paper. I drank the wine of words. Now my stomach rumbles for a more concrete sustenance.
The rainbow streets have become more crowded since I entered the bookstore over an hour before. I note how cities are so different from the suburbs where I live. At 5:30 pm the city streets are empty and at 8:00 pm they thrive. This schedule flips around in the suburbs. At 5:30 sidewalks team with kids and dogs. By 8:00 pm they replicate a ghost town.
My search to fill my grumbling tummy takes me to a vegan restaurant with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk through an open garage door. Bartenders whisper of bitters and herbs.
After ordering a ‘burger’ with sauteed onions and crisped tofu, I saddle up to the honey wood counter and pull the poetic leaflet from my bag. MGMT plays overhead and I indulge in a little Pablo Neruda.
As I wait for my meal, his words slither and ooze off the page, staining my mind with sensuality and rawness. In the dusty light, Pablo speaks to me of love and lust and the beauty of both. The famous poet has no association with Seattle. Yet, his poems fit perfectly into the moment, dripping with the universality of discovery.
Me and Pablo commune under the stars with a veggie burger and a ceramic bowl of fries. Around me the city buzzes. I am alone and not alone. I text my family, wishing I could share this experience with them. We exchange jokes and pictures. A pang of sadness twist in my chest. I miss them.
Then I close my book, pay my bill and walk back to the hotel.
The next morning, I drift into the skies thinking of rainbows, poetry, veggie burgers and the single night I spent in Seattle where, for once, I left my tower.