Travel Thursday Encore–How to mix pleasure with business–Seattle 05, Day 2, Part 2

Done with wandering, thinking up a plan, I found myself near the University Street entrance to the bus tunnel, where I came across a board of flashing lights eerily similar to the one in Union Station that was shut down because it caused an epileptic seizure {and has since been started again, huh}. A short trip, only a few stops, took me to Smith Tower, which to my surprise I realized I’d never been to.
Can’t believe more people don’t know about this! Most travelers to Seattle go up to the Space Needle to check the view, and never realize the city has an older, more original observation deck. Smith Tower is an almost-century-old and amazingly beautiful skyscraper which when built had been amongst the tallest in the US, if not the world. Now it’s dwarfed by its downtown neighbors to the north, but out here by Pioneer Square it sits alone and majestic, with only the Piazza San Marco Campanile facsimile at the train station keeping it company amongst the clouds.

All by its lonely on the right


Despite being afraid of heights, I couldn’t resist going up for some shots. It’s a completely different feeling than the Space Noodle (Yes, I changed that, I’m funny that way). For one thing, the design of the elevators–each car has a driver!–lets you see the people in the hallways as you zoom past them, which is fun in a voyeuristic kinda way. I was the only person in the elevator, apart from the operator, of course, who started the history lesson, and he didn’t sound bored doing it, either. He told me these elevators were the last manually operated ones on the West Coast, which is kinda fun to know. Some of us are so lazy we can’t be bothered to push a button.
Since a tourist has no need going to any of the business offices, the elevator zooms right up to the thirty-fifth floor, where you come out in a relatively small but very fancy room with a tiny gift shop and plenty of exhibits, but more importantly a wrap-around view of Seattle in its entirely. Suddenly you feel like you’re smack in the middle of Seattle’s skyline, even though you’re actually on one end of it. But that’s okay, because even if you’re not into looking at all the other sky-highs, you can see between them right to the Space Needle, the closest view you’ll get to its disk without being in a plane or chopper. To the east you get a fantastic view of Mount Rainier, while to the west is the Olympic Peninsula and its mountains, islands, and Puget Sound, not to mention the waterfront and the ferry terminal at your feet. And to the south, right below you, is Pioneer Square; if you see a long line of walkers, that’s probably the Underground Tour heading for the stairs. A little further up is the train station and aforementioned Campanile, and if you’re really into cheap seats you could probably watch the football game at Qwest from here. Safeco Field is right there too, but its architecture doesn’t allow for a good look at the playing area, oh well.
Above the windows is a running poster that goes all the way around and identifies all the prominent landmarks. Having been to Seattle many times, I still had never seen what looks to be a red fortress off to the southeast, maybe around the airport. I asked the guy on duty what the hell it was, and he chuckled like he got it all the time, which he no doubt did, and explained that it used to be the Pacific Medical Center–imagine Grey’s Anatomy set there–until it was bought by. . . Amazon!
And then you notice the door that lets you go outside onto a narrow walkway around the tower, and despite the fact the wire mesh cages you in and keeps you from walking on air, it is small consolation to the animal brain that screams, “If Nature had wanted humans to fly, she would have given us tickets!” Still, it’s a lot better taking photos from here than from inside, if you can stand it. I barely could.


Finally back inside, I wandered the exhibits, which if you see them will explain why it’s called the Chinese Room in there. The plaque and/or the guide will tell you the dark carved furniture were gifts to Mr. Smith–who made him money in guns and bullets. . . making them, not committing robberies–from the Empress of China. The very biggest deal of these furnishings is the wishing chair, which has carvings of a dragon and phoenix, which when combined is supposed to signify marriage in the Chinese mythological lexicon. So someone came up with the idea/legend that any woman who wants to get married will do so within a year of sitting in the chair, and uses Mr. Smith’s daughter as an example that the good luck works. Well, I sat in it and I’m still floundering in the sea of love, so if it indeed works, don’t bother, guys. It’s strictly for the estrogen-powered.
Damned sexist chair. . .
After that, wasted some time in the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Ever since the demise of Killing Time–what a fantastic name for a mystery bookstore!–in the University District, this is Seattle’s best mystery bookstore. Seattle seems to have a disproportionate amount of mystery novels written about it. I mean, how often do you read a book set in Atlanta, or Houston, or even Chicago? {That was rhetorical, no need to list them!} Emerson, Jance, Peirson, and even a few good one-offs.
Close by was a sporting goods store, whose name I can never remember but I visit every time in town, the only place I buy Seahawks gear; I remember one time talking to a large black lady about Brian Bosworth, or Not Worth, as I called him, in the checkout line, but why dredge up bad memories? This time they were selling UCLA stuff! Which reminded me of the time at the U bookstore with that checkout gal, where I asked her if I was safe wearing UCLA gear around town. She said as long as it wasn’t Wazzou. . . or Oregon, which led me to ask the store guy, who told me this story: In 1948, Oregon and Cal tied for the Pacific Coast Conference football championship. When the member schools held a vote to determine which school would represent the conference in the Rose Bowl, Washington voted for Cal and encouraged Montana to do the same, keeping Oregon at home and kicking off the loathing. Considering Washington was successful for decades and Oregon was a perennial loser till recent years, I think the hatred must have been pretty one-sided on the ducky side, but I guess if someone hates you, you tend to hate them back.
Couldn’t find a shoe buffer! My poor boots. . .
Had bought my ticket for the underground tour earlier, but had to wait a few hours till my appointed time, hence the trip to the bookstore and sporting goods and stuff. Got an ice cream at the pizza-by-the-slice place, ate it while watching the tourists and trying to guess their hometowns and countries as they passed by, and finally went inside and had a soft drink while waiting some more, though I knew how it filled up and left some standing, which is why I went in early as I could. Sitting next to me was a hung-over-looking chick–it was three in the afternoon–who begged me to tell her a joke involving sperm; trust me, I could not make this shit up. Luckily I knew one, and now you will know one too. . .
Guy comes into the sperm bank wearing a mask and holding a gun. He goes right up to the nurse at the front desk and demands that she drink that sperm sample on the desk. She refuses, and he pulls the gun up threateningly. . .
So she drinks it.
The guy takes off the mask; it’s her husband, who says, “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Which sets the tone rather nicely for the underground tour, don’t ya think? You would if you’ve ever been on it and remember their corny, though cute, commentary.
Hint: if you’re from California, do NOT raise your hand when the MC asks, “Is there anyone here from California?” We get more flak than even Texans! He also said that some people got married down there! But because of the generally dingy condition, you shouldn’t wear a big frilly white dress, let alone heels. At that point there was a cry of dismay from the back; she never stood up, but considering the woman who squealed had painted blonde hair and tons of makeup, I’m guessing she wasn’t looking as forward to the tour as she had been a minute before.
You can’t spend any time in Seattle without soon enough hearing the story about how the town burnt down in the late 1880s, then was rebuilt on top of the ruins. Or, as the introducer to the tour says, “The ruins of Seattle are not as old or famous as those of Pompeii, but they’re the only ones we have. A further advantage is that they are right here in town and not across the ocean someplace. The Pompeiians couldn’t have buried their city without a considerable contribution from Mt. Vesuvius. Seattle’s was a do-it-yourself project. . . though Mt. Reiner is close at hand in case we failed to do it correctly the first time.”
As you might expect, large portions of the underground were still inhabitable, and used for all the stuff you couldn’t do legally aboveground, but even that eventually petered out and the whole level was forgotten, until Bill Speidel found it and thought it would be fun to give tours, which are so famous and popular now you need to buy a ticket a few hours in advance to reserve your spot.
Eventually we were introduced to our guide, who turned out to be a funny redhead with incredible blue eyes, dressed in overalls, such a fantastic contrast to the squealing woman just mentioned. She led us outside and around the corner, where our first stop was a triangular parking garage. As we stood there, annoying pedestrians, she explained the history of the area, how it had been slated to be torn down, how it was saved, and how things stood at present. Then she pointed out a fake owl on the upper floors of some of the surrounding buildings, apparently placed there to keep pigeons away, but according to all the white stains wasn’t working so well.
With that part done, she led us across the street to a nondescript door between buildings, where everyone filed down some wooden staircases that reminded me of the line at Disneyland for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Finally we were all gathered in what might have been the lobby of a small hotel over a hundred years ago, with a bar/counter and other remains all around. It was about twenty degrees cooler down there as she continued the lecture, peppering it with plenty of corny jokes—think Jungle Cruise at Disneyland—and stories about the founder of the tour, as well as the politicians of the time. My favorite: “He’d steal tobacco from your mouth if you yawned.”
From there we traveled through tunnels that looked like mine shafts, stopping at various places to gawk at the history left behind and hear more stories. I know I’m not making it sound very interesting, but it truly is, as well as a lot of fun, though maybe a bit tiring if you’re not used to all the strolling and standing.
There was one part that really stood out in my mind: if you walk on the sidewalks topside, you might notice there’s some bubbles of colored glass here and there; she pointed them out before we went downstairs. Well, now we were looking at them in the opposite direction, and she told everyone to yell when they saw someone walk by. So it was really hilarious when one guy did indeed stop and look around to see who was yelling at him.
The end of the tour comes out back in their building, at the gift shop of course. There are plenty of interesting books on the history of Seattle, as well as a few hilarious tomes written by the man Mr. Speigel himself; be sure to use the code word for the discount. And of course you can get key chains and postcards and such, and, believe it or not, Gummy cats. Not as good as Gummy Babes, but interesting enough.
And in case you get to the end of the tour and the guide hasn’t mentioned it, ask about the problem of elevation and the backflow from the toilets in the early days, which leads to a particularly bawdy joke dealing with the “frenemy” relationship between Seattle and its neighbor Tacoma. . .
It was interesting for me to realize–well after the fact–that I had a headache before and after the tour, but not during. . .
Now thoroughly tired, I hiked back to the bus tunnel for another short ride back to Westlake Center, delighted to realize I knew my way through the tunnels and had no trouble remembering exactly where I wanted to go. After the escalator to the Mezzanine Level, I decided that. . . THAT alcove was the one that led to the almost-hidden straight-shot elevator to the monorail platform. Of course there were signs pointing to it, but they only confirmed what I already knew, I swear.
And as the elevator doors opened, I caught a glimpse of the monorail pulling away. Well, there’d be another one in ten minutes, so I went inside the mall, remembering I hadn’t gone through my usual ritual in this place: buying gummy bears. That had to be remedied stat.
Westlake Center, despite being about four floors and airy, is really your typical overpriced mall, the only saving grace being the monorail stop, so I’m not going to bother reviewing this. I did have a chuckle as I passed a display of shades, because I had just read somewhere that people in Seattle bought more sunglasses per capita than any other city in the States, which seems ridiculous at first glance, but now I saw there might be something to it: you buy a pair on a sunny day, and the next sunny day is so far away that you forgot where you put them and have to buy another pair at lunchtime, and so on. Considering the glare off the bay, I could definitely see the necessity, though I doubt many had forgotten lately, since there’s been nothing but sun since I’d gotten here. A friend back in El Lay told me it was raining, which figured, considering how much I love rain and am hardly ever home for it.
As usual there was hardly any line to pay and walk into the waiting area or, as was the case now, right into the waiting monorail. On the trip you pass by these two hotels/condos that look like corn on the cob, except the corn’s been eaten and you’re just left with the ugly-colored cob. What made this funny was that there’s a duplicate hotel next to the Long Beach airport, as well as one pretty damned close to UCLA, and they all look like used corn. I’m sure I’ve got a photo of them somewhere. . .

Corncobs at middle-back

Once arriving, I noticed that, from the monorail platform, Seattle Center looked like the Prater–Vienna, Riesenrad, anybody?–with the little rollercoasters and rows of win-something booths and such.
Quick stop in at the business place to see if there were any new developments before tomorrow’s meeting, or if anyone was so blown away they wanted to see my photos again. Instead I got the secretary eyeing me and claiming, “You look like you slept in your clothes.”
“I napped in them, so technically it’s true.” Hey, I don’t get paid for my looks.
She went on and on about some kind of standard set in this place, which first of all I didn’t care about, since I would never be working here, and second of all, seemed incongruously out of place from someone so low on the totem pole. . . hey, I had to get a totem pole reference in while in Seattle, right? Finally I told her, “Excuse me for speaking–or dressing–my mind instead of following you off the cliff like a lemur. . . er, lemming!”
See, that trip to the zoo HAD been worth it!
More importantly, she flushed and shut up.
After another quick stop at McD’s, mostly out of fatigue than dining preference, it was back to the hotel to rest up and ice my feet, so they wouldn’t swell up and be unavailable for tonight’s fun. I really can’t tell ya what happened for the next two hours, not because I don’t want to but because I don’t remember it. I was pretty out of it.
This time bothering to have an actual sit-down meal, good but not worth writing about, I headed over to Belltown, remembering a previous visit when the whoosh of the monorail in the rain. . . no rain so far, dammit!
Anyway, I’ve been coming to Seattle enough years to see what a change has taken place in Belltown. From slums to a Patagonia store–that’s when a neighborhood knows they’ve made it. Kudos to the people who bought up the buildings before the renaissance.
Too early for the concert when I first got to the place, so I wandered around and found a FedEx, where I went in to get on the internet to catch up on e-mails and such, and to check the band’s myspace to make sure they hadn’t canceled or anything.
Okay, let’s be honest–the concert wasn’t good enough to be blogged about. On to the next day. . .

;o)

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