by Steve Shay
(Swans - November 2, 2009) In 1995, Dr. David Noever and his colleagues at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center studied the webs spun by common house spiders dosed with several drugs, including LSD, marijuana, benzedrine, chloral hydrate, and caffeine. According to that study, caffeine did the most damage as that spider's web showed no sign of the "hub and spokes" pattern fundamental to web design.
The same can be said for the three grid patterns of roads in Seattle as well as other phenomena in the Emerald City that locals here find perfectly acceptable, and new transplants like me find perfectly bewildering.
The two fuels that keep Seattle churning are the stuff that cascades into its Boeing tanks and the coffee poured into its residents' stomachs. Starbucks and other coffee giants are headquartered here, and countless ma & pa latte shops hang a shingle on their storefront or stand. On rare occasion one meets a Seattle native who says, "I don't like coffee." That is akin to a Hershey, Pennsylvania resident who doesn't like chocolate.
Like that caffeinated spider's frenzied web design, Seattle's intersection designs are nonsense to newcomers and serve only to obscure houses and businesses. You want to visit your girlfriend near the University District, and she is a student who lives at 4545 Northeast 45th Street. You may easily end up at her professor's house, at 4545 45th Avenue Northeast, about one block away. No problem. If you crack the code you can walk to the right address. Just make sure she does not live at 4545 45th Avenue Southwest. That's just a few blocks from my address, but quite a schlep from the University. And do not, God forbid, journey to University Place, a Tacoma suburb 30 miles southwest of here.
Equally treacherous is when a new Seattle transplant refers to one of Seattle's 97 neighborhoods, each with its distinct designation, including Magnolia, Capitol Hill, High Point, and the others. You will get a skeptical stare and quick correction unless you get this right: You live "in" Magnolia, but you live "on" Capitol Hill. You may reside "at" High Point, "around" Green Lake, "by" the University District, "above" Alki Beach, or perhaps you live "down" in Auburn, "out" in Olympia, "up" in Everett, or "below" Mount Rainier. Got that? Oh, and on a clear day in Seattle, the locals say you can see Mount Rainier "when it's out."
Naming-nonsense fans out beyond Seattle. Seattleites say, "We're off to Vancouver for the weekend." Well, now we have a problem. There are two Vancouvers; one the chic and sophisticated Canadian metropolis soon to host the Winter Olympics. That one is a two-hour drive north of Seattle. The other Vancouver is more provincial, one of Washington State's most populated cities, and is a two-hour drive south of Seattle, near the Oregon border. The locals will never simply tell you which Vancouver they mean, but, with context, they may inadvertently tip their hand.
If they tell you they are visiting their niece and grandkids, that's the Vancouver south of here, and they'll probably be eating Cocoa Puffs for breakfast. If they say they are "off to check out Vancouver, it's been a while," that's the Vancouver north of here, and it is quite likely they'll be relaxing at an outdoor café, puffing on weed, not cocoa.
With confusing streets come confusing signage. Try to decipher those large splashy signs plunked in gravel in front of the ubiquitous, new four-unit townhouse complexes around town that read "60-Percent Sold!" Just how does that fraction pencil out?
Washington State's long-time residents pride themselves on celebrating multiculturalism, evidenced by its many communities named after Indian tribes the settlers kicked out. Many of these towns sound alike to newbies. Be cautious, as the locals have a low tolerance for syllable mishaps.
Not only are you expected to properly pronounce the towns of Skokomish, Skykomish, Snohomish, Sammamish, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Sequim, which rhymes with "rim," you better learn quickly which town is where or you may receive a sanctimonious slap on the wrist. But don't feel too badly. The Indians in these parts pronounce the towns differently too.
The ultimate faux pas committed by the newcomer to Seattle has nothing to do with city streets or pronunciations, and everything to do with spelling. Seattle's favorite son is Hendrix. If you ever write, email, or text the name of this iconic artist to a long-time local resident, do not misspell "Jimi's" first name or you may soon find yourself surrounded by an angry mob and placed on the first bus to Vancouver. Which Vancouver? Your guess is as good as mine.
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