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Into Washington

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We drove north across the bridge over the Columbia River that separates Oregon from Washington thinking how odd it was to have been in Portland, where we had lived longer than any other place the past six years, for just one day. We had thought about coming back here to live, but after seeing the city again, we both knew that we would never live there again. Something almost indefinable is wrong there. Maybe it’s just too white. We were also thinking how weird it was to be almost every day dropping into a new situation, making conversation with strangers, trying to see something of a new town in a very short period of time, getting frustrated when there are problems with the book’s distribution, promotion, etc. We wonder what this is all about. I’ve concluded that it is about talking to people about changing our lives and our society, living in a less consumption-obsessed way, putting less focus on work (at least traditional employer-employee work), really seeing the world around us, getting angry enough to do something about the problems the book describes. One journalist in Pittsburgh called us “revolutionary tourists.” Maybe we are. Or maybe we’re “vagabonds for beauty,” as was the young traveler and artist Everett Reuss, who disappeared suddenly in the mid-1930s in southern Utah. Maybe we get frustrated sometimes because we see the United States, in terms of its likely political/economic/social evolution, as a dead-end. If the future holds anything radically different than the present, especially if this future is more egalitarian and less fervid about growth, then the United States will go kicking and screaming (and probably bombing) into it.

We have made two stops in Washington so far – in Olympia (the state capitol) and Seattle. Both went very well. I met a former student and a couple of others I knew in Olympia. The Orca Books store is owned by Monthly Review editor John Foster’s sister Linda. She is a friendly, down-to-earth person, and she and the staff made us welcomed. Before my reading, we walked around town, stopping at the fine covered farmers’ market and for a stroll near the water. We hadn’t realized that the water from Puget Sound winds south all the way to Olympia, nor that the water here began the famous “inner passage” to Alaska. The state capitol grounds are, well, stately, and we enjoyed a visit there too. Every time I am in a state capitol, I can’t help but think of all the money-making deals that are being cooked up there. State politicos remind me of car salesmen – always on the hustle. A lobbyist’s paradise, at least for those not ready for the big time in Washington DC. Our motel, a super clean Best Western – Tumwater Inn – with an excellent staff, was a few miles out of town in Tumwater (Take Exit 102 from I-5). We recommend it highly. The road into the town from our motel was a pleasant surprise – neatly cared for homes with lots of flowers and trees. When you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you are surrounded by greenery, including gigantic pines and trees. But no wonder. It rains so much here! The weather has been damp and cool, remarkably so to us, given that we last lived in Tucson and it is now nearly mid-June.

Our visit to Seattle was made both comfortable and interesting by the couple who invited us to stay in their home. The man was a jokester and told me I was at the wrong house! He had me convinced. The first night, they invited some friends of Monthly Review, who participate in a monthly discussion group, to dinner. We had grilled salmon, a great treat for us. We talked about politics, family, and my book over dinner and afterward. We got to bed late, tired but happy to be in good company. On Saturday (June 9) our hosts drove us into downtown Seattle, to the venerable Elliot Bay bookstore. The store is large but cozy, with several small rooms of books on two floors. Downstairs there is a café, and off this is a separate reading room. Many famous writers have read here, sometimes recorded by C-Span, and I was pleased to be a guest. The talk was scheduled for 2:00 PM. At ten minutes til 2, no one had come, and I was nervously pacing. But within fifteen minutes a good crowd had arrived, and I gave my reading and talk. The audience was enthusiastic, and we sold lots of books. I signed a few more for the store’s stock, always a good sign, since the store won’t return these to the publisher. Again the staff person, a young woman from Boston, was friendly and efficient. We left the store and went back to our hosts’ house. Later we had dinner at an exceptional vegetarian restaurant (Café Flora at 2901 East Madison Street). Back to the house, conversation, to bed and after breakfast, to Tacoma.

Seattle is where I was “victim” of a clever homeless scam. We were in the city to celebrate my birthday in 2004. My birthday is January 30 (same as FDR), and it was chilly in Seattle. The day after it was periodically rainy, and we went for a walk during a brief respite from the showers. A man bumped into me. I said “excuse me,” but he immediately went into a tirade about the newspaper he had dropped onto the wet pavement. I apologized profusely and helped him retrieve his paper. But he would not be calmed. He continued to rant, somewhat threateningly. Finally, to keep things from escalating, I gave him two dollars to buy another paper. Karen asked him why he was so angry. We started talking and it turned out he was from Portland. He began to speak in a friendly manner, as if we were old pals. It wasn’tt until we left that I realized I had been scammed. He probably got a discarded paper from a nearby Starbucks and then bumped into me and dropped the paper intentionally, figuring he had a good chance to hustle me out of some money. I applauded his ingenuity. I admire a good scam, and he no doubt needed the money.

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