When I was visiting my daughter in Seattle a few days ago, a man appeared on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building. He seemed to be constructed out of the dreams children sometimes have that wake them with a shout. His head was large and covered in garishly colored tattoos, his mouth distorted by silvery plates that had been cleated to his upper and low lips. His nose was ordinary enough, but he had adorned each side of it with large green gemstones. His neck was a densely covered Rosetta stone of words and designs that may have gone down his back. I could only see as much as his open collar allowed. There was really no part of his face that was plain except for his eyes, which were calm and thoughtful as they peered out from his psychedelic head. His hand held the leash of an arthritic old pug who wheezed past me and turned right toward the door of the building. A young couple greeted this human wonder as if he were an old friend. He responded warmly and fished out his key and went inside.
I later learned his name was Nick. He had a small apartment on the third floor. His passing left behind a dullness of mere shrubs and the bleached sunlight that ironed flat the dirt and the slabs of pavement. Nothing else could equal the imaginative chaos of this figure, whose strange head seemed more like the helmet of some exotic science-fiction alien, a robot whose stout, short body was the human half of this hybrid creature.
He wasn't the only one who had transformed himself into a grotesque art museum. The sidewalks of Capitol Hill were dotted with young slender girls who had covered a thigh or the bottom half of a leg in a scrawl of tattoos, or wrote on the backs of their necks similar sorts of word pastiches. One young woman told me she wrote her lines of poetry on her neck by holding a mirror up to a second mirror so she could see where to dot her ink needle. The words slanted down crookedly into her collar, and the wisdom she inscribed herself with was about as stunning as her pale, narrow face: "Poetry is the truth we feel long before we know what it means." Her long thin arms were untouched; her eyes were the same reposeful and ruminative eyes of Nick.
The majority of people I saw covered in such tattoos were white millenials; the men were gauntly thin and sallow from sucking on bongs too long. The women were attractive but listless. This northwestern corner of the country seems to have imposed a strange imperative on many of them -- to color in the blankness of their skin, to impose on their otherwise bland lives a kind of exotic garden of dreams and possibilities they otherwise couldn't reach. So their legs moved like the patterns in a kaleidoscope, flashing dragons in one moment and long winding serpents with red fangs and blue tongues the next. The iconography was drawn from comic book art, from fantasy literature, psychedelic poster art from the '60s, and allegories from Durer and Bosch. William Morris would have been delighted with the drawings, and would have charged some of the users with plagiarism from his Kelmscott Press edition of The Canterbury Tales.
This is a city that was long a fishing grounds of Indian tribes; the Olympic mountains soar straight up into the blue sky and stand almost all of the year in snow-draped isolated splendor. The Humboldt Current keeps the shore line fairly warm much of the time, and milks the continuously warm sky of rain almost ten months of the year. The city is moss-covered, and soft earthed, with luscious gardens sagging with heavy vines and flowering trees. Parks abound with ancient redwoods and evergreens, and deep emerald lawns. Black ponds shimmer like vast broken mirrors under the winding branches of the trees. Clearly nature dominates this curious enclave of tropical abundance. Fat squirrels own the open spaces and move about without fear of any passing humans. The role of human life seems dwarfed by the wild, barely contained fertility of nature's will.
But humans own the place, and their luxurious porched houses sprawl along the streets where middle-aged Latinos tend the gardens and paint the rain gutters, clip hedges, and cut down dead limbs with the same placid stolidity you find almost everywhere in the country. The lesser souls of the downtown streets live in apartments that might have been the models for some of Edward Hopper's desolate buildings. Seattle slept much of the 20th century until the tech boom spread from Silicon Valley north. Now Amazon's campus sprawls where old neighborhoods once stood. Tower apartments of glass and balconies flooded with light rise over the once somber life of earlier decades. Interstate 5 roars day and night, its sound amplified by the cement walls containing all the restless, sleepless traffic pouring through. The city has hardly begun to cope with the sudden compression of energy in its boundaries. The poor and the elderly, the uneducated all suffer from the steep rise in the cost of living, and many have gone homeless after their buildings were razed. The streets of this curious, contradictory city turn into Calcutta in some places, with men and women sleeping under blankets, their bags of clothes and food forming walls around them.
What does such an ancient landscape dream about, I wonder. New life seems superficial, temporary as the tech economy takes hold. The young are migrating from half-dead cities in the east and the rust-belt Midwest, looking for a foothold in the start ups hanging out newly painted shingles here and there. The feeling is one of promises and opportunities that may nor may not come to pass. But to be young and ready to put in a twenty-hour work day on the frail belief that something will find its way into the mainstream is about as much as one needs to catch a plane, rent a studio apartment, and beat the streets with a list of leads from internet job sites. When the first blush of hope begins to fade, these same young turn to each other and are goaded by a restless desire to feed the heart with some affordable wonder -- the tattoo, the pierced nostril, the Ubangi ear rings, the scrawled messages that start under the chin and roam down into the chest and back. The jobs are fewer than one realized, and are handed out on a system that welcomes friends and relatives more than it does total strangers.
Nick is not of their generation; he's pressing sixty or older. He limps a little. His story was partly revealed to me one night on the roof of my daughter's apartment building. The property manager, as he is called, let us up to view the roofs of the city ranged all around us. When I asked him whether Nick would let me photograph him, he chuckled and said, "Only if he's in the right mood." He told me Nick had gone to Harvard and became an architect. That he lived well in New York, on Mercer Street, and had worked for a time for Donald Trump. His lover of many years died of AIDS after a long period of withering and decay. Nick couldn't save him. When he died, Nick took off for Seattle and left behind his old life. He was now the janitor of the building and swept the floors, maintained the laundry room.
In the evening he played fugues on the harpsichord he built himself. He has two in his apartment, and if you are passing along the hallway you could well imagine you are in some 16th century palace with all the ripples of that tense music pouring over you. He owns forty of the instruments, many of them kept in storage. He may be quite well off, the manager surmised, and doesn't need to work at all. But he likes having some responsibility to attend to. He might well be a genius for all of his interests and knowledge. He simply went to pieces when his lover died. Each time he sinks into depression over his loss, he goes to a tattoo parlor and has another patch of his skull decorated. He's running out of space, and may now turn to his hands, his arms, his back. What all the fragments of color mean, as a whole, no one can tell. You merely glance at him as he passes, and catch some chaotic assembly of half-stated thoughts, sentiments that are only partly articulated. But his head is a kind of tombstone venerating the love that had filled his life once.
In this far corner of a continent, where nothing human prevails for long, dreams seem to emerge out of the dark of nature's will and find themselves interpreted on the thighs of women, the thick arms of men who wander the streets in the twilight. And this man, with his head encrusted like an African crown, with his lonely, penetrating eyes gazing upon you with a willing openness.