Travelogue: Seattle, Tacoma, Portland

Wednesday, July 29th:
We’re off! My sister Ingrid and I take the subway to Grand Central Station, then catch a shuttle bus to the Newark airport. Before our flight, we eat breakfast in our terminal. Our waiter tries to subtly warn me away from the Berry Brioche French Toast (“Just so you know, there are no real berries in it”), but I fail to take the hint. Rookie mistake: it’s ghastly. But at least it’s expensive. Virgin America doesn’t fly directly to Seattle, so we have a layover in San Francisco. Carne asada tacos at SFO help ease the memory of the French toast. Ah, California, where even the airports serve excellent tacos. You are truly a magical land. How I’ve missed you.

I’ve brought my Kindle, loaded with fiction. On the flight, I read The Maltese Falcon, because I’ve been on an old-timey detective novel kick lately, and William Gibson’s creepy, strange, bleak, evocative new sci-fi book, The Peripheral. The Peripheral gets a weird lock on my brain and continues to haunt me throughout our entire trip.

Upon arrival at SeaTac, we hop the light rail to downtown Seattle, then walk to our hotel. For the first two nights, we’re booked at our old standby, The Moore. The Moore used to be a semi-secret gem: cheap, clean, quirky rooms in a cool historic building mere blocks from the center of downtown. This time, it’s a bit of a disappointment—they raised the rates! they no longer fold the guest towels into swan shapes!—but it’s still a perfectly pleasant place to stay. It’s also teeming with uniformed sailors: There are two large Navy ships and a Coast Guard ship docked down at the waterfront, and as near as we can tell, everyone with shore leave is staying at The Moore.

We dine at the Old Spaghetti Factory. Anthony Bordain scoffs at the place, true, but this is in our blood: The Spokane offshoot was an important fixture of our childhood restaurant experience. Just the sight of the tasseled lampshades and the brick walls and the high-backed armchairs makes me swoon with nostalgia.

Thursday, July 30th:
Seattle is in the middle of a crippling heat wave. We get an early start, walking over to the Space Needle shortly after dawn. Everything is still closed—the Pacific Science Center, Chihuly Garden and Glass, the Experience Music Project—which suits us fine; we’re content to wander aimlessly. We head back downtown to the Westlake Center for patterned tea towels and socks at the Japanese discount store, and bath bombs at Lush to stick into our suitcases to freshen things up. We packed light—just the clothes on our back, plus pajamas and our fancy wedding outfits—and already we’re starting to stink.

We walk too far along a too-hot stretch of Elliott Avenue in search of a Taco Time. Our love of Taco Time is well documented, but nostalgia fails us here. Lunch falls firmly in the category of “ungood.”

After more wandering around the city—the Sculpture Garden, Pike Place Market—we share small plates and drink big glasses of wine at the Virginia Inn. It’s a big step up from Taco Time.

Friday, July 31st:
After a morning of wandering around Capitol Hill (a name that always kind of throws me for a loop—I mean, Seattle knows it’s not the state capital and hence has no Capitol building, right?), we check out of The Moore and catch a commuter bus to downtown Tacoma. After the noise and crowds of Seattle, Tacoma is a lovely oasis of calm. Neither of us have been here before, so we spend some time exploring. We lose our hearts to Tacoma, which seems quirky and cool and interesting. It’s hot and bright here, too, so we hole up inside a cavernous dark coffeehouse with tall glasses of iced coffee.

We’re staying at the Hotel Murano. It’s ritzy! It’s also hosting a child beauty pageant, which means the lobby is filled with swarms of young girls in tiaras and spangle-covered bathing suits. Our room, which is on the twenty-fifth floor, has a panoramic view of  the city, with Mount Rainier rising up gracefully in the background. We have lunch at the bar, where we conduct a scientific sampling of the hotel’s array of signature artisanal cocktails.

The purpose of our visit: My childhood friend Julia is getting married. We catch a taxi at the hotel. Our driver has never heard of the venue, a Japanese-styled pagoda in a large park at the northern tip of the city. Indeed, he seems inclined to doubt such a place exists, even after he programs the street address into his GPS, but we manage to find it eventually.

The wedding is lovely. The bride and groom are beaming and radiant. At the reception, we’re seated with a group of smart, lively conversationalists, thank god. The guy seated next to me at our table is a Portland-based working actor. He’s the dude with the erectile dysfunction in this Portlandia sketch:

Getting back to the hotel ends up being a bit gnarly. It’s too far to walk in heels, and the city buses have stopped running, so we call another taxi. The first cab company doesn’t answer their phone. The second tells us it’ll be at least forty-five minutes before they can pick us up. The third tells us it’ll be fifteen minutes, which stretches into an hour and a half. Per Google Maps, it’s a hair over five miles from downtown Tacoma to the wedding venue. We’re starting to suspect that taxis aren’t Tacoma’s most burgeoning industry. Our cab driver, when she finally arrives, is a total sweetheart, though she does flummox us a bit when she asks us, in all earnestness, if we’d like to take the direct way or the scenic route along the waterfront back to our hotel. With a glance at the running meter, we tell her the direct route will be fine.

Saturday, August 1st:
We walk to Tacoma’s Greyhound station and board a bus for Portland. We haven’t been to Portland since… 1997? Something like that. We’re staying with our cousin Karl, who meets us at the station. Even though we haven’t seen Karl in a decade, even though this our first time meeting his wife and son, we fall into an easy, comfortable groove. They are impeccable hosts during our stay. Beer and conversation flows freely.

Karl works in CG at a commercial studio; he show us his reel, which is loaded with cool projects we’ve seen dozens of time without ever realizing he was part of the creative team behind them. Karl has a formidable science fiction paperback collection and a great old house crammed with gadgets—dude, he has an Oculus Rift! His teenaged son, who is a brilliant, blazing supernova of a kid, shows us the drone he recently built from scratch, a quadrocopter with a front-mounted camera, which he sails around the backyard. He’s amazing. Ten years from now, he’s going to be ruling the world.

Sunday, August 2nd:
Our uncle Joe, dad’s younger brother, stops by to visit. The last time we saw Joe was at dad’s funeral, which had been immediately preceded by the long, grim, unfathomably sad weeks leading up to dad’s death, during which we all shared in hospice care duties. It’s been three years since losing dad, and almost seven years since losing mom, and Ingrid and I still feel shell-shocked, crippled, stunted, wrecked. It’s really, really good to see Joe. Every time I see him, I want to cling to him and never let him go.

Our cousin Erich, whom we haven’t seen in maybe eighteen years, drops by for dinner. He and his fiancée arrive straight from a weekend-long music festival, their bare feet covered in mud and scratches. They are awesome and hilarious.

Monday, August 3rd:
Back to Seattle, this time via a Bolt Bus from downtown Portland. We meet up with Julia, the new bride, in Seattle’s International District and get caught up over sushi. Julia and I have known each other since second grade in Spokane and have kept in touch throughout our lives; for a time, she lived just down the street from me in Los Angeles. Since the last time we saw each other, she’s lost her father, and Ingrid and I have lost both our parents. Growing old sucks.

We take the light rail to our SeaTac-adjacent hotel. In the grand tradition of airport hotels, ours is a little dismal. It has a tiny indoor pool, but it’s bursting at the seams with happy and rambunctious kids, so we decide to pass on a swim. The room service menu fails to thrill, and we’re starting to pick ridiculous fights with each other, so I head off on my own to forage for dinner. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, I manage to find decent (okay, edible) French dip sandwiches and—wait for it—champagne at, uh, a gas-station convenience store. We enjoy a fine, fine repast while watching Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie in our hotel room.

We are secretly very pleased our vacation is drawing to a close.

Tuesday, August 4th:
We catch an early-morning flight to Los Angeles, then kill time at The Worst Terminal At LAX waiting for our connecting flight to Newark. You know that terminal—it’s the one with the Gladstones and the Starbucks and the Burger King and precious little else, except for a conspicuous lack of adequate seating for the vast hordes of grumpy and exhausted passengers. I have spent half my life at that terminal. Seriously, they could double the number of seats in that terminal, and I bet people would still have to stand. It’s terrible. We hide out at Gladstones, eating good fish and nursing balloon goblets of wine, for as long as we humanly can.

The gate beside ours is boarding a flight to JFK. The beautiful and fabulous Retta—Donna on Parks & Recreation—and the entire Special Olympics team from Puerto Rico are waiting for that flight. We sorely wish we were on that flight, too.

Shortly after boarding, I somehow manage to sit on my Kindle. It breaks. I immediately choose to interpret this as a grim omen, as the last time I broke a Kindle was on the day our dad died. Our flight to Newark is punctuated by deeply frightening bursts of turbulence. I remain about 25% convinced we’re going to crash, right up until our unusually bumpy landing.

Our plan is to catch a direct shuttle bus from the airport to Grand Central Station—hey, we’ve even prepaid for the tickets!—but no buses are running, due to a fatal accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. After an hour of waiting in vain, we pop a (metaphorical) Mentos and quickly change plans. We catch the air train to the New Jersey Transit station, then take a train to Penn Station. A couple of subway trains later, and we’re back at our apartment in Queens.

It was a wonderful trip, but it’s so, so good to be home.

All photos are courtesy of my sister, Ingrid Richter, who took a lot of pictures on her iphone while I huffed in impatience and made snotty comments about looking like tourists. Everything considered, it was mighty nice of her to let me use them here.


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