Kurt Cobain, skid row, and Starbucks. What do these three things have in common? They all got started in Seattle.
Thus I prepared myself mentally for grunge music and counter culture, homeless people and mocha lattes on the overnight flight back to the Mother Country for some Fourth of July fun.
To preface…An unexpected email a month prior had persuaded me to splurge my pitiful Peace Corps savings on a trip to the Pacific Northwest to ….you guessed it…play in an ultimate frisbee tournament. Besides the lure of processed food and fireworks, microbrews and patriotism (a.k.a. red, white and blue desserts and people randomly shouting, “America!” in questionable Texan accents), I rationalized the expensive American Airlines ticket with the mantra, ‘when else in my life will I get to see all of my college friends in one place at one time?’ (The answer: My Wedding. Disclaimer, if my current 3 year singledom is any indication of my romantic future then my $1,000 was well spent on the Seattle adventure…dubious a ring will sneak its way onto my left fourth finger before my friends are mixing mai tais in a Tucson retirement center common room.)
Were my life-givers upset that after 6 months living in a foreign country I would fly all the way back to the United States of America but not to see them? Hopefully not. They thankfully understood my irrational sports obsession and were supporting side-liners during the tournament from afar, calling to get score updates everyday.
Day 1: Wednesday June 29th. Arrive at Houston airport and am shocked at how big people are. At 5’6” I tower over all 8 members of my Ecuadorian host family and am the 3rd tallest person in my community of 675 people. In Houston, however, I felt positively miniscule in stature and circumference; it seemed that Texans had eaten themselves into obesity in my absence. But my god it felt grand to be able to eavesdrop on every conversation I passed and not be complimented on my stunning blue eyes every 10 minutes; in other words, it was pleasant to just be another face in the crowd, to be part of the majority again.
Landing in Seattle I realized with a certain degree of panic that my Ecuadorian cell phone did not function internationally and I would have to wrestle with a pay phone to contact my close friend from high school, Dimitri* (names changed to protect my stories from credibility sensors), who was also in town for the tournament. Bags in hand I lumbered to a cluster of intimidating metal structures resembling a miniature Vegas slot machine with a phone hastily thrown on as an after thought. After three failed attempts I realized I had been inserting Ecuadorian quarters and after a frantic cavity search, I also realized I did not have any US quarters anywhere on my befuddled person.
My now more distraught than stunning blue eyes cast about for a savior or just a kind face. A bored but benevolent looking blonde high schooler with a NEED HELP? t-shirt on caught my attention. Aha!
Breathless from the abundant atmospheric pressure and humidity I rushed to her like a leper to Jesus. The gum chewing teen-ager took a precautionary step backwards. “This might be asking too much but I’m a Peace Corps volunteer home for a funeral and the pay phone isn’t working…” when in doubt, lie. She tried not to roll her eyes when I requested that she punch the numbers in for me (6 months with a Zach Morris worthy cell phone has rendered me technologically retarded). “This is Dimitri, leave a message.” Aughhhh. Please powers that be, take pity on me. I did not fly so far to be stranded in a strange airport with a girl that smells like the entire Clinique perfume counter sneezed on her. “Thanks anyway,” I muttered to the do-gooder.
Outside the airport I collected my thoughts and had nearly settled on a linear plan of action when someone rapped on the glass behind my left ear. Dimitri!! The nervous energy coiled into my GI tract released and I farted involuntarily, the gas bringing a smile to my face because…alas, it smelled like my little corner of Ecuador.
TIME WARP: The rest of the trip blurred together in a laughing continuum of good company, good food (so delicious it brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions), and great weather. Though normally contrary to Colorado’s 300+ days of sunshine, the Seattlan goddesses granted me my one wish, a leg tan.
At a neighborhood park we joined the visiting baseball team’s parents to rally on their losing sons, complete with a few not so subtle heckles thrown passionately at the opposing team. Later, as the 9th inning stretch became a distant memory, we commandeered a grassy corner of the outfield to play kickball. Short on numbers but not on enthusiasm we invited all munchkins present on the slides and swings to play with us. Even the most rebellious looking of the bunch responded, “Lemme go ask my mom first.” Unfortunately, the mothers of Seattle are not a trusting bunch. Not just one, but EVERY child we invited declined on account of his or her mother. Keep in mind that, though we presented an eccentric band of 20 something year olds, not one friend had visible tattoos, extreme piercings, nor scandalous clothing. After nearly three years of living in a world where children are raised by the entire village, where a ‘missing child’ can more often than not be accounted for by the more edible food of a neighbor’s house or the new television set in the local beauty parlor, I felt personally offended that complete strangers wouldn’t let their young children play with me. The slight cut deep into my camp counselor psyche. “I’m a trained role model!” I wanted to shout, and plus, we really were short on numbers. Two boys and three girls (one of which had never before coordinated her feet and eyes) make for an unequal kickball game when the best player proposes gender based teams.
On Thursday night the generous host and hostess threw a pre-Independence Day party and though I could have stayed in the hot tub and licked hummus off my greedy fingers til sunrise, I had bigger fish to fry. Around 9pm I wedged my pruny hot tub feet into my Chaco sandals and biked downtown to catch the light rail back to the airport to pick up my best friend, Shamram*. Some well-meaning but intoxicated party goers had advised me to get on the train at a certain well known location…well known for being the stomping grounds of the city’s riffraff and destitute. My Vibram souls crunched a hypodermic needle or two as I awkwardly tried to lock the borrowed bike to a sturdy looking pole; the same pole that a man dressed in yesterday’s bad news was urinating on. Golden shower narrowly avoided, I spotted a uniformed city employee to my relief. “Excuse me, do you know where I can lock my bike up?” I’ve seen that look before. The look that makes me shake my mental fist at the naive words of my kindergarden teacher, “There are no stupid questions.” Maybe there truly are no stupid questions because ‘common sense’ is derived from experience and experience is relative to geography and culture. But there are definitely questions that, once aired, the engendered response makes the asker feel not only stupid but also unworthy of vocal cords. This was one of those moments, one of those questions. “Girrrlll you park your bike here and you can kiss those two wheels goodbye. Pedal that butt up 2nd til you get to University.”
When he said “up” he wasn’t kidding. Seattle, though constructed next to the sea, is hilly enough to build a solid gastrocnemius out of the twiggiest of legs.
Out of breath and out of time, I locked my bike next to a pair of suits dining at a plush sidewalk cafe and rushed to the light rail/subway entrance. Or what I thought was the entrance but was really a locked commercial building. A middle-aged woman stood at the corner, eyeing the cars on the street as though she were waiting for someone.
Though she didn’t have a NEED HELP? shirt on, I tried my luck. “Excuse me do you know -” “GET THE F$&K AWAY FROM ME OR I’LL KILL YOU!!!” she shouted as she lunged towards me. I shrieked as I ran away from yet another homeless person.
Playing Ultimate has never been a choice for me. Jane and John used to wake me up at 4:30 AM on windy winter mornings to practice my ‘inside out’ forehand throw and in 7th grade I gave up first chair violin to perfect my defensive mark. Or at least that’s how it goes in my dreams.
Forgive my enthusiasm, but there is something so fun about Ultimate that many a time my subconscious has overridden my voluntary mental powers to ensure more playing time, even at the price of more rationally important things. I’d like to think that my career in neonatal neurosurgery would have absolutely taken off if I’d only spent more time with my nose in a book (read: preposterously boring medical tome) than on an Ultimate field. As it stands, I’ve chosen Ultimate as my sport of choice – nay my passion of choice, and never looked back.
During the tournament I picked up with a local co-ed team who graciously over looked my sloppy throws and rusty field spacing because of my fanatical grin and positive encouragement (usually towards myself…”You got this Julie, no more meat hooks for hands, try that impossible hammer throw again – after all they’re short a few female players and can’t afford to kick you off the team”). That same weekend, in fact at the same fields, I got to play with a slew of my old college teammates in a concurrent tournament. Though we matched up against once heated rivals, the tone of the game was more casual (as dictated the recently emptied beer cans littering the sidelines).
Each team congratulated or consoled the opposing team with a drinking game of sorts. My team, “Plants vs. Zombies” manufactured vodka jello shots in the shape of brains lately lobotomy-ed. Huge success! Teams of four (2 men, 2 women) raced a short distance to a waiting plate of alcohol laced brains where they had to consume the delicacy lying prone on the grass, foregoing the use of their hands, while their competitors pelted them with tennis balls. In situations like these my thought is usually, “If aliens landed right here right now, what would they assume the purpose of this exercise to be?”
At night the dominant social activity was similar to my Peruvian hey days, namely walking in circles. Whereas I had a town square or ‘plaza de armas’ in Peru, outside Seattle I had an enormous field complex with hundreds of tents pitched higgledy-piggledy around it. Armed with mischief and a boombox, I roved with other sun-burnt like-minded bandits. Like modern gypsies we traded goods and services when necessary or advantageous (“Say, is that a keg yonder?”) until we exhausted our stores. One memorable tent contained a death circle of chair sitters whose initiation rite centered on slapping the gentle epidermal tissues of the rear into necrosis. The slapper and the slappee seemed chosen at random…so we rock papered scissors on the way past to see who would become the proud new bearer of a hand print belonging to a complete stranger. Poor Anastasia* took her lot with the heavy countenance of someone condemned to the guillotine. Surely our verbal fortification made the journey to the center of the circle easier, “This is going to hurt sooo baddd!” “You have insurance right??” Victim selected, the knights of the round space elected their slapping henchman; a robust lumberjack looking fellow stepped forward, his gargantuan hand opening and clenching in preparation. Anastasia’s eyes widened at the size of the henchman’s hands. She looked back at us. Most of me wanted to create a diversion (“Look! Body shots!”) to facilitate my teammate’s escape, but reneging on a rock, paper, scissors agreement is comparable to lying under oath, or stealing from nuns. So I sheepishly shrugged my shoulders, like the coward I was. She took a deep breath and lowered her torso to a 45 degree angle. We held our breaths.
Anastasia jolted forward from the force. We rushed to her rescue (“Let me see the hand print!”) The knights nodded approvingly and we moved on to the next tent.
My 4am flight back to Ecuador on July 5th meant many things, principally that I could bear witness to ostentatious firework displays across the greater Seattle region the night prior to my departure. In a word, awesome. From the steep rooftop vertex, Dimitri and I toasted high school memories and all things star spangled. I counted 7 distinct displays before I settled on one to watch all the way through. Then, around 11pm I blew a kiss to the chilly night time sky and made my way to the airport via the light rail, where I realized not for the first time, that South America had taught me how to lie, about everything.
Thanks for reading!