It was when the male flight attendant in the Seahawks jersey shrieked his fourth bird call into the P.A. that I thought, Success ruins everything.
My brother and I had scored cheap round-trip airfare to Seattle to rendezvous with a friend who was traveling about 70 miles southeast from Sequim (pronounced Squim), a small coastal town shrouded by the giant redwoods of a nearby rain forest.
The trip was a lark for me—hatched from a never-been-why-not attitude that, in the past, has led to some of my favorite small-time, low-expectation travel adventures.
As a native Sacramentan, I haven’t had much first-hand experience with success, especially of the sports variety. And while it’s true that sustained failure can harden into a yoke, it can also deepen the wells of humility and compassion in those strong enough to carry it.
Success, on the other hand, just seems to turn people into jerks. Or else it twists and tortures those who can’t stomach its trappings. Seattle has known both fates, laying to rest grunge rock beside its shotgun-faced progenitor; today it’s cultivating a much different movement, one made up of vicarious jocks.
By coincidence, we arrived seven days after the Seahawks’ improbable comeback victory at home against the Green Bay Packers, one that propelled this city into its second straight Super Bowl.
Not being an American football fan of distinction, even I marveled as Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and his wily coach authored three late-game scoring drives, using every rabbit in Pete Carroll’s top hat, including a successfully recovered on-side kick and a ballsy two-point conversion.
The game reached a sense of inevitability in overtime, when the Seahawks bullied their way 80 yards for the definitive touchdown.
My brother later informed me that some 'hawks faithfuls who left the game early weren’t allowed back into CenturyLink Field when they caught word that all was not lost. Good, I thought. The only thing worse than a maniacal sports fan is an insincere, maniacal sports fan.
All of which is to say there was a buzzy cockiness in our Southwest Airlines cabin on the Friday afternoon that we landed. Lots of people swaggering through the terminal clad in weather-inappropriate jerseys and shorts, as if to dare Mother Nature into a confrontation with Marshawn Lynch.
That vibe would really only turn noxious late at night, though, as we bar-hopped toward the Unicorn & Narwahl, a multi-level establishment with schizophrenic entertainment options—DJ! Karaoke! Pinball! People in unicorn headdresses!–that felt like dropping into a Nicki Minaj dream being directed by David Lynch. On our way there, a car filled with drunken hooligans lurched down a crowded street in Capitol Hill—the passenger a jersey-draped primate hanging his entire torso outside the window while gesturing a fifth of brown liquid and bellowing, “Woo! ‘Hawks! You like the ‘Hawks?! The fuck! I’m talking to you! [Indecipherable!]”
Moments later, a trio of squad cars bunched into the avenue where the car had idled slowly on its solitary parade march.
It would be a typically busy night for Seattle’s finest.
A few miles away, in Belltown, a white Camaro was reportedly involved in a drive-by shooting near 1st Avenue and Blanchard Street. Officers found a trail of blood at the scene, but no victim, though a woman did call 911 after a bullet whizzed through her apartment window.
The car later crashed in the 900 block of Dearborn Street. The driver fled, leaving two occupants behind, including a 20-year-old female passenger that police arrested for the shooting. A 9-millimeter handgun was retrieved at the crash site, police logs state.
The following night, officers responded to another shooting, in the Denny Triangle neighborhood, and separately arrested a 37-year-old man who allegedly chased two men down a Capitol Hill street while waving a knife and yelling homophobic slurs.
By comparison, Sacramento police responded to five shootings and one carjacking during the same period.
I don’t know why, but the night gave me cause to ponder the intersecting destinies of our two cities. My first Sacramento Kings playoff memory is of the five-game series against the Seattle Supersonics in 1996, when Mitch Richmond and a ragtag squad of b-ball Goonies briefly threatened the West’s top-seed, led by savage dunker Sean Kemp and point guard Sean Payton.
A decade later, Seattle lost its beloved team to Oklahoma City and, after initially commiserating with Sacramento during a botched relocation attempt, tried to nab the Kings themselves. Which is basically like being consoled about your marriage troubles by a divorced friend, who then tries to steal your wife.
Still, local politicians have swiped a few architectural ideas from Seattle, which has erected its share of posh high-rises and upscale hotels around a downtown that literally boasts a Starbucks on almost every corner. It’s no secret that Sacramento aspires after bigger metropolises like Seattle, but what does that really mean? During the day, Seattle actually reminded me of the fictional city of San Angeles, from 1993's half-clever Demolition Man, where a running joke is that Taco Bell has become an omni-present and well-regarded restaurant.
But beneath Seattle’s sleek veneer and compulsive professionalism is a distinct vibe colored by weather and geography. A city wrapped in Germanic greenery and Stephen King atmosphere. Mixing modern architecture and older, classical facades gutted of their insides. Shading a visible homeless population under impossibly expensive apartment buildings. Demographically hodgepodged with rowdy college kids, tech-moneyed baby boomers, working class whites and an emerging immigrant population of East Africans and East Asians.
Plus lots of snowboarding, beer and music enthusiasts, judging by a cursory safari through Tinder, which tells you everything you need to know about a city’s self-image in 20 quick swipes.
We didn’t stay in Seattle long enough to study how these elements interacted or collided. But more than one local described the phenomenon called the Seattle freeze. Not a geographically specific STD, as I surmised, but a recognized term for a permeable aloofness that makes it hard to crack cliques or cultivate real friendships. It’s the idea that, in Seattle, the circles in a Venn diagram never truly intersect. They rub up against each other politely, then return to their spherical isolation.
I could sort of see what these townies meant, not so much from what our trio experienced than what it didn’t. In other cities—including Seattle’s cousin in northwest cool, Portland—we racked up more random conversations per capita than we managed here. The interactions we did have were generally warm and friendly, but the vast majority of those happened with people who had financial stakes in the outcomes: the cocktail waitress who teased us in that way that men like to be teased; the tender who polled her bar about nearby pool halls on our behalf; the steakhouse server who pretended not to overhear a disturbing sexual dream—sure, maybe they’re genuinely considerate people on top of being good at their jobs, but can you ever really tell?
Can a pit-stop tourist like myself ever know where smiling commerce ends and that knotty, complicated, thrumming consciousness we call a city emerges?
I pondered this late one night as I exited a 7-Eleven—lit with an intense fluorescent strobe like a landed UFO—and stumbled into a sales pitch that caught me stupid.
“Didja buy a swesher?” said a round-eyed man in a beanie.
“Do they sell those in there?”
“Ohhh, a swisher. No.”
“’Cuz if you did, I got some good dope here.”
“Go buy a swesher.”
“I don’t want a swisher. Or a sweatshirt. Or dope. But thanks.”
Unfazed, the salesman returned to his crew, huddled around a parked sedan, and waited. Back inside the convenience store, half a dozen under-dressed working girls clicked their heels toward the counter to purchase cigarettes and energy drinks.
Not one of them wore a Seahawks jersey.