It happened again, just before Christmas. My parents have a dog, and my boyfriend and I were walking him around their Seattle neighborhood. The dog, a genial black Labrador named Beau, trotted ahead of us, his coat shiny in the light rain, while we walked silently, the hoods of our jackets swushing past our cold ears. Like the rest of Seattle, my old neighborhood has grown richer over the years, and as the homes have acquired electronic gates and sport-utility vehicles, they seem to have lost their people. We had seen no one since we left the house. And then we saw them.
The only people dog walkers tend to meet are other dog walkers. A block ahead another couple, tall and dark-haired, appeared on the corner. Their dog, a young russet retriever, dashed across the street, barreling toward us and then reeling away, delighted to see other living creatures. â€śLucy! Lucy!â€? her owners called futilely after her. She circled us a few times and then led us up the road. We said hello to her owners. They were young, like us, and smiling and open-faced. The woman carried an umbrella over her head; the man wore a University of Wisconsin sweatshirt. They seemed like new arrivals, exploring the neighborhood for the first time. â€śDo you live around here?â€? asked the woman, eager.
I hesitated. â€śNo,â€? I said, â€śbut my parents do.â€? And I gestured vaguely toward the southeast, as if my parentsâ€™ home were visible across open fields instead of obscured behind hills and other houses. Beau stood patiently at my side; Lucy leaped a low wall and began pawing under the bracken. We talked for a bit, the rain pocking off the womanâ€™s umbrella. I said we lived in Eugene, but that I had grown up here, in Seattle. We introduced our dogs, but not ourselves. I liked the young couple; they seemed bright, and energetic, and interesting. But I wanted to keep walking, to avoid telling them my name or where, exactly, my parents lived. I used the dog as an excuse, and we parted, they moving down the hill and we moving up. At the top I paused, slowed by regret. Nice people, nice conversation, and yet I had told them nothing. I had been polite, but not truly friendly. Thatâ€™s what people from Seattle are always said to be like: aloof in spite of ourselves.
Every time I catch myself being a Seattleite, Iâ€™m too late. I did it once on a Seattle city bus, when I was in high school; I tried to give a fellow rider directions, and realized only after the bus had rumbled off how much simpler it would have been to have shown her the bus shelter around the corner instead. On Christmas Day last year, just a few days after that dog walk in the rain, I fell victim once more. It was late at night, after the holidayâ€™s big dinner party, and as I carted empty wine bottles outside, a taxi driver hailed me from the street.
He was a young, tired-looking Somalian who had gotten turned around so many times in my neighborhoodâ€™s winding streets that he had given up. The address he wanted wasnâ€™t far off, but it wasnâ€™t ours. He kept repeating it, hopeful, willing me to finally succumb and admit that yes, actually, I did need a taxi. I tried to give him directions. He didnâ€™t have a map. I could have gone inside and gotten my parentsâ€™ old Kroll map of Seattle and shown him where to go. I could have drawn a little map for him. Instead, I apologized and said I hoped he found the address and went back inside and shut the door.
I didnâ€™t even wish him a happy Christmas.
Some people, like my college professor whose English accent remained crisp even after decades in America, do not shift on the outside. I do not have the strength, or perhaps the rigidity, to display always the same persona. When I visit relatives in Georgia and North Carolina, my voice begins to drawl; my casual â€śHey, momâ€? elongates into â€śHello, mother.â€? For two years, when my family lived in London, I had the voice of a middle-class English girl who ate sweeties and went on holiday. And for more than a dozen years, I lived in Seattle. I absorbed the distant friendliness of my Emerald City neighbors and mimicked it perfectly even while recognizing its chilliness. I even missed it when I lived elsewhere, in cities in the Northeast or California, where the cool politeness of the Northwest seemed like a balm compared to the astringent, demanding squawks of people wedged into more crowded lives. But then I moved to Oregon.
On one of my first days living in Portland, I walked into an enormous Fred Meyer and began wandering the aisles. A clerk looked up from the shelves at me and broke into a toothy grin. â€śHey, how are ya?â€? she asked, her voice full of the genuine enthusiasm of seeing an unexpected friend. I stopped, startled. â€śFine, thanks. And you?â€? I answered. She was not, as I had momentarily thought, somebody I knew; she was simply an employee doing her job, greeting customers. But she was the most sincerely cheerful clerk Iâ€™d ever encountered. I smiled back, stepped past her boxes of inventory and slunk around a corner.
Within a few weeks, I realized that she had not been preternaturally happy; every time I went into a store or public library, total strangers seemed delighted to see me. Even the socially maladjusted, such as my next-door neighbor, liked this idea of verbal exchange; when I walked past her one morning with just a nod and a smile, she yelled at my retreating back, â€śHey, whatâ€™s your problem? Canâ€™t you even say hi?â€?
More than half a million people live in Seattle; about the same number inhabit Portland. But nearly six million people reside in Washington, while Oregon can only lay claim to about three and a half million. Even in Portland, Oregon felt smaller, quieter, cozier. People talked about being Oregonians. I guess I used to be a Washingtonian. But nobody I knew ever spoke of being such; I was a Seattleite first, and â€śfrom Washingtonâ€? if pressed.
The year we moved to Oregon, my boyfriend and I went to see his family in Boston for Christmas. We had to do some last-minute shopping and joined several dozen other people in a tiny store full of pop-up birthday cards and wind-up plastic sushi. At the cash register, the woman ahead of me got out a vividly colored twenty-dollar bill and spread it flat on the counter, framing it with her hands. Like a magpie, I eyed it admiringly. â€śIs that one of those new twenties?â€? I asked. â€śTheyâ€™re so pretty.â€?
The woman turned her head and looked at me, expressionless, before turning away. She hadnâ€™t taken out her cash to enjoy its charm; sheâ€™d wanted to show that she was in a hurry: Her money was ready, come on, letâ€™s move! She paid and she left. I should have felt chastised. Instead I was amused. Whatâ€™s the hurry? I wanted to call after her. We could have had a nice chat.
This year, a few days after I met the taxi driver, my boyfriend and I went walking in downtown Seattle. It was dusk, the western sky still a bright turquoise below the first stars. We had eaten an early dinner and were walking, arm in arm, south along Second Avenue, below the symphony hall and above the art museum. He had just told a joke, and I was laughing; on the corner, an old woman, swaddled in a heavy purple parka, held out her hand to us, asking for spare change. Up the street a group of people walked toward us. I was looking at my boyfriend and the sky and the woman and ahead; the group, I realized, was a family. And it was a family I knew, the family of a friend I had long lost touch with. We had had a falling-out several years ago. Now here she was, her arm tucked into her older sisterâ€™s, walking toward me. I looked, and I looked away.
Did she see me? I donâ€™t know. If I had stopped, and said hello, we might have had a conversation. One of those reticent Seattle conversations like baked Alaska, warm on the surface, frozen on the inside. It was much easier to be the happy couple, walking obliviously by, unembarrassed, unconcerned. Better, maybe. But hey, then, whatâ€™s my problem? Canâ€™t I even say hi?
This essay was a winner in the 2005 Oregon Quarterly Northwest Perspectives essay contest.