KING 5 Interview with Nathan Vass
In case you missed the broadcast earlier this week, here it is online! Hope you enjoy!
A huge thank you to Joseph Suttner, Suzie Wiley, Julia, and of course Michael King, for their graciousness and enthusiasm.
UPDATE: the book is now available for purchase online through Elliott Bay Books, here. Alternatively, you can email me directly (and get a signed copy!). We're finalizing agreements with other bookstores and libraries as we speak!
Read more about the The Lines That Make Us, a personal curation of the best stories of this blog, here and here!
Nathan on the Sev- Whoops I mean 21
I suspect my early formative days, spent as they were in the predominantly black and otherwise ethnic neighborhoods in South Central LA, have left within me with a certain positive bias, a subtle sense of long-ago comfort toward certain culture groups. It's not really a sensation based on specific experiences; just a feeling, the everliving hints of your earliest self.
Should we really be surprised that my favorite Seattle neighborhood to work in, Rainier Valley, just happens to comprise almost exactly the same proportional demographics as South Central LA? Some things don't change. Our yearnings reveal the children we once were. Writes the German poet Novalis, more than two centuries ago: "I am always going home. Always to my father's house."
Recently I was driving in West Seattle. I'm doing the 5 and 21 this shakeup for boring contract-related reasons pertaining to reblocked shifts and forced overtime on the 7 that I wish to avoid. I miss the 7/49. I'll get back there soon enough. I always get back.
For now I'm a visitor enjoying my tour of duty elsewhere, genuinely enjoying it, getting to know the entirely different, far less garrulous, more subdued, but still genial crowds in Greenwood and West Seattle. I'm a stranger out there though, and I can feel it. In the land of office workers, bankers and mid-level managers, my brand of loquacious kindness is an anomaly. These guys don't need friends. They just want to go home. I've gotten spoiled, spending so much time in neighborhoods that don't have the Seattle Freeze...
There I was in any event, southbound at 35th and Morgan. A young man waited at the stop. Early twenties maybe, or late teens even, the way kids can surprise you with their growth spurt. He wore a knit beanie and sweats upon sweats, the athletic type, everything a noncommital dark blue, sagging low with no logos.
Yes, he was black American. No one else in sight was a person of color, unless you counted my hapa-happy heritage. Something about him relaxed me. Formative Nathan, the child from LA touching some lost memory, textures I used to dream in. I thought about how like him, I too prefer to wear clothing with no logos.
I opened the doors and nodded the upward nod.
"Hey," I said.
That's all I did. I didn't even do anything... Or did I? He was tense before, numbed on edge, but now, upon looking at me, hearing me, he instantly relaxed. Instantly, reader. His head wagging in a sideways grin now, shoulders going down, the crook in his step practically a dance. Instantly. He nodded in return and swung his arms in an X over each other, rapping silently to the beat of his happiness. He wasn't a stranger anymore.
How did he know, though? He has no idea of my background, where I'm from, anything. My appearance indicates none of that. I'm just some skinny Asian-looking guy with nerdy glasses. How could he possibly know I felt comfortable, respected him, that I welcomed him as an equal? Could he perceive that he was accomplishing the very same comfort for me that I appeared to be giving him? Is the human brain sharp enough to delineate the worlds contained in a flash of bearing, everything about our storied lives that made me feel at ease?
I was a stranger in a strange land. We both were, and we made each other feel less so.
Seattle is many things to many people. You carve out a niche, and it becomes your understanding of the place, your very own personal city. All the other ways Seattle can be, ways the city is, recede from view. You get to take part in giving it a name.
For me, Seattle is very friendly. It's always been mostly ethnic: Asian and east Indian in my childhood, spent largely in Redmond during the days before Microsoft.
Do you remember Redmond then? Tall grass, bramble bushes, a bus once an hour, older immigrant couples taking walks after sunset, hands clasped behind their backs, the neighborhoods where you could meander down the middle of the street. It would become one of the tech centers of the world. That wasn't us. When we were there, we fed sheep and horses.
I don't usually bother telling people under fifty about the portion of my childhood that took place in Redmond. Because when you say Redmond, they think Silicon Valley meets the Hamptons. And that's got nothing to do with you. They don't think of cheap and quiet land, where a plumber could support his whole family with money left over to feed the dog. It's important to remember that suburbs once existed separate from affluence and status. As I've written before, living in the 'burbs didn't used to mean anything. It was just a place to live. In the '60s, a waitress' salary could fully support you, a single mother raising your child, like Mildred Pierce does before things go up and over. Tall grass and trees and a library, the perfect counter to riot-ridden south LA. That was our Redmond.
With the thought of those contrasting origin spaces, you can understand where I'm coming from with my Seattle. It's a mix of the two.
My Seattle is generally black, American or African, with a healthy smattering of east Asian and Latino backgrounds. The respect carried in smiles and nods are the common language here, a predominantly working-class town, earthy. Vocal, sometimes too much, but who's counting; the white folks are artists, filmmakers, writers, servicemen and women, thinkers rich and poor, always generous in their outlook; everyone stimulating to be around, with overlap for days.
What a fine bunch.
Yes, mental health, drugs and desperation bubble in the periphery. Either those or the problem of influx, new money, the downturn of politics and education. There are conversations. But mostly, we shake hands with our words and eyes, accepting, vibrant, living in the place where we have things in common.
Part of this island of identity we build has to do with geography in the literal sense. I once did a photo project in art school focused on Rainier Beach, only to discover nearly all my colleagues had no idea where that was. On another occasion, a friend told me how white she found Seattle, and I asked her which neighborhoods she spent most of her time in. When she answered by saying "Queen Anne and West Seattle," it was hard not to chuckle. For a lot of young people, Seattle just means Capitol Hill, the U District, and Belltown. That's fine. That's their Seattle. But mine's bigger.
We know South Seattle is larger than its northern counterpart, but I think we forget by exactly how many orders of magnitude. Take another peek at the map. Look at the size of those southern tracts. Seattle also means Columbia City, Brighton, Hillman City, the Beach, the Valley at large, Beacon Hill, the International District, South Park, White Center, Skyway, Boulevard Park, Ambaum and beyond, the veins of the city pointing outward from its jagged southern limits. Let's not even get into the inarguable vastness that is South King County, or "South End," as they say on the street ("South Side" referring to within the city proper).
Aside from geography though, there's simply who you choose to associate with. Nevermind which neck of the woods you're in. To your neighbor, Seattle might be a collective of twenty-something bearded developers in plastic-frame glasses who love talking about microbrews. To you, it's lively discussions in your native tongue about grandchildren and cooking and politics back home.
I know my Seattle is small. I know it's a minority view, and probably sounds ridiculous. A warm, welcoming, earthy, vibrant, friendly Seattle? What?
But everyone's version of the city is authentic, because their experiences are valid. For myself, I continue to be surprised by just how sizable my lil' Seattle is. By how many of you wonderful blog readers there are. How hundreds (hundreds! Plural!) of you came out to my recent book launch. Who are excited about the attitude and perspective the book and blog embody.
How many thousands of smiling faces I see, night after night and years in and out, nameless or otherwise. Faces that respond to kindness, to me, the little boy still acting like he lives on the end of a small-town neighbourhood block.