Wednesdays at Mr. West

mr. west, seattle, matcha latte

Matcha lattes at Mr. West.

The thing I don’t like about writing is that it’s an exercise in not living in the present. If I describe yesterday, for instance, I have to transport myself back to that day, imagine sitting on the bus, walking through downtown past the Amazon drones, basking in the sea of tranquility of Mr. West, enjoying the chic cafe atmosphere as I grade papers and wait for my friend. I have to imagine my friend’s granite handshake, waiting while he orders tea, our conversation, and then the fact that he pulls out his pay stub — his pay stub! — makes conversation, and I’m flabbergasted, not because he’s pulled out his pay stub but because my matcha latte is gone and I want another one. God, how I want another one but they cost $4.40 each and I always feel obligated to tip, you’re an asshole if you don’t tip in Seattle, so the idea of buying another one is out of the question. Plus, I’ve eaten nothing all day and a matcha latte probably isn’t the best idea. I need real sustenance. I need a burrito.

If I think of yesterday I remember the time I asked my friend something and he looked away and I thought, Why are you looking away? I remember the way the tea smelled like hay and had a neon green sheen like spandex, and I remember how in Mr. West it always feels like you’ve wandered into some little pocket of 1920’s New York decadence, a place where everything’s perfect, everyone affluent and moving up in the world.

But I don’t feel this way where I am now, which is Starbucks. I don’t usually go to Starbucks, not because I have anything against the place but because it’s usually too crowded and I prefer the silence of Peet’s two blocks away. Walking into Peet’s is liking walking into a mausoleum. It must get 10 customers a day. Which is great when you’re one of the customers because you feel special, like at any moment the employee could slap you on the back and invite you to his lake house, provided of course he had a lake house, which of course he wouldn’t because he’s working at Peet’s and making minimum wage for a company that probably gets a a fifth of the business Starbucks gets, scratch that, a tenth, and the only way he’d ever have a lake house is if his parents owned a lake house, and something tells me his parents could. Because this is Seattle. There are a lot of lake houses.

Back to Mr. West. I’m sitting in Mr. West, my friend comes and shakes my hand and we talk about nothing. There’s a firetruck across the street and men carrying oxygen tanks. A cloud of dust hangs in the air resembling smoke — if you want it to resemble smoke — but mostly it resembles dust. I think about what it would be like to order another matcha latte, how I would feel, but hold off because they’re prohibitively expensive. The only reason I could justify it is because the weather’s gorgeous, it’s in the 70’s in Seattle and everyone’s wearing bikinis, and it feels like the right thing to do. If it feels like the right thing to do, do it. Don’t think about it, just do it. This can be tough, because often times the right thing to do is hard work. For example, the other day I was riding the bus and I felt like I should get off at Montlake and walk across the Montlake bridge. It would be glorious, the sun was setting, and I could imagine how I would feel standing on the bridge, looking down at the water below, looking at the sky in front of me. I’d feel like Jay freaking Gastby. I’d feel on top of the world. But I didn’t do it! I stayed on the bus. I stayed on the bus like a coward because I didn’t want to walk too much. And I missed out on this experience that I knew was the right thing for me at that moment all because I didn’t want to do a little extra walking.

When you know it’s the right thing, do it.

Back at Starbucks, today today, my tea is almost gone. It was Earl Grey and now it’s the temperature of dirty bath water. The regulars to my right have left, and I’m glad. They were talking about politics and all the problems in “this town.” They kept calling it “this town,” probably to emphasize that they’ve been living here since it was just a town. I debate whether or not to work my shitty online job and decide not to. Instead, I’ll take a walk around the lake. Shitty online job or a walk around the lake? The choice is clear.

Confessions of a Light Rail Fare Dodger

It’s a sunny morning, but it might as well be drizzling as I leave the Greenlake neighborhood in north Seattle and make my way into the interminable sprawl south. I must make it to Capitol Hill, and I must make it to Capitol Hill as soon as possible. But I also have very little money, and if there’s a way I could do it without taking the bus I must take advantage of that method, for to spend money on several bus fares today — not just one but several! — would be folly.

I am not a criminal.

I make my way south and soon I’m in the University District, home of the University of Washington and budding minds everywhere. Oh, to be young again! To cruise down the Avenue on my skateboard, smoking a cigarette, flashing the bird at a driver who gets in our way. Laughing with friends. Mobbing around the town. Getting on the bus and making our way straight to the back where we recline like kings, our feet up on the seats.

But that will not happen today.

The sun warms the trees in the U-District, but in my mind dark clouds have gathered. How to solve this conundrum, how to make it halfway across town while spending very little money. And then it dawns on me: the light rail, Seattle’s nefarious transportation system. Ah, the light rail, you devil. I can ride you free, as long as they don’t catch me. Of course, they’ll never catch me. I’m nimble as a goat and can jump like a gazelle. Even if they run after me they’ll never catch me. And even if they DO catch me they still won’t catch me, I’ll disappear from my overcoat and the only thing they’ll be holding is a couple of rags.

But I digress.

The light rail lies in a deep dark cavern at the foot of the campus next to the stadium. I make my way down countless sets of electric stairs, deeper, deeper, and deeper still! What recess of the hearts and minds of men lies before me? What abscess? What excess? As I descend deeper my thoughts descend deeper as well. I suddenly think of every bad deed I’ve ever done and shudder with regret. With remorse. Am I a terrible person? Yes, yes, it is decidedly so. But now is no time for introspection. I must be fleet of foot, but more importantly, fleet of mind. For I am on lookout for the men in the blue coats. The men in the blue and black. The secret police. The fare enforcement officers.

When I lived in the Old World, in Hamburg, the fare enforcement officers were much more cunning. They were dressed in plain clothes, like any regular Joe Hardy, and halfway through the ride they would stand up — a man who a minute ago was a regular passenger reading the newspaper looking in need of a good shave — and exclaim, “Fahrkarten!” Oh, how I would tremble when they would say this, but not because I wasn’t a paying passenger. No, no, I always paid. I was an upstanding citizen! Things were good when I lived in the Old World! I ate Greek yogurt everyday and sometimes even grapefruit! Pamplemousse! And then of course there were Thursdays where I’d have the pizza. Ohhhhh, the pizza. How it lingered on my tongue. The salami. The provolone. Was it provolone? No, definitely not. It was mozzarella. Or mascarpone. One time I did put mascarpone on a pizza, and was chastised for a week because of it. I never committed the same error. I only need be chastised once to learn my lesson. I’m like a dog.

The fare enforcement officers in Seattle, however, they announce themselves. They wear clothing that says “Fare enforcement officer.” Ha ha! What fools! Ahhhhh, but they’ve played right into my hands. Don’t they realize that I’m manipulating their world? That I, actually, am the fare enforcer? Of course, the fares I’m enforcing are of a different variety. I enforce the fares upon their souls. Please, sir, give me two quarters. You don’t have two? Fine, give me three. There, that’s it. Now, tomorrow please have your fare ready.  Today is just a warning, but tomorrow…..

I don’t see any fare enforcers on the platform. The train is scheduled to leave in 3 minutes. Perfect, perfect. This is going just according to plan. I stand in the train car, just inside the door, looking this way and that like a weasel. They may come, but I’ll see them coming, and if they do come I’ll either get off the train or change cars. But they’ll never catch me. Oh, they’ll never catch me. One minute left. A girl comes dashing on the car and gives me a fright. Sit down! I say. Sit down right now and don’t move a muscle! Still no fare enforcers in sight. That man, that man there, is he wearing a uniform? Yes, but it’s a green uniform. This distinction is important. The green uniforms are Light Rail Security. So I’m saved, for the time being.

Finally, a bell chimes, and the doors begin to close. I take a deep breath and look up at the ceiling. God, see me through this. See me to my destination without losing a foot or a hand. Without losing face. God, help me, for I am a sinner, I am a fare dodger, but I am not a criminal.

I am not a criminal.

Spendy Seattle


Bus more, want less.

Oh God, what is happening. Three dollars for a cup of tea? And the name of the tea is “smarty pants?”

And yet, it’s sort of worth it. It’s gotten me a warm table in a cafe. It’s given me time to think and reflect. It’s given me a chance to lurk on the people around me, to spy. And it’s gotten me writing, which is always a good thing. So maybe three dollars is actually a good deal. Maybe I should’ve paid more.

Despite being many things, Seattle is not cheap. In fact, it’s wretchedly expensive. But with a little ingenuity you can still keep the costs down. Take samples, for instance. Everyday I go to Trader Joe’s and I get samples and free coffee. These are the things that lure me in, but the convivial atmosphere is what makes me stay. There are other people doing exactly the same thing. Usually they’re older, male, and unkempt. They conspicuously lack shopping baskets, probably because they’re not shopping. Sometimes they even talk to me.

“I take my coffee like a drug,” one guy said.

“What other drugs do you take?” I wanted to say.

But of course I would never say this, because it would be demeaning, and these guys are drifting through the same Seattle I’m drifting through, figuring out how to stay afloat (and hopefully thrive) in a sea of shimmering affluence.

I’ve also figured out how to save on the bus. The Orca Card, the transit card we use in Seattle, is not the best (unless you have a monthly pass, which I currently don’t). It’s better to pay in cash. When you pay cash the driver hands you a physical, paper transfer, and this transfer (depending on the generosity of the driver) usually lasts longer than the two hours you have to transfer with the Orca Card. And even if it doesn’t, there’s always the possibility it will, there’s always the possibility that she’ll give you a transfer for 16 hours and you’ll be riding the bus all day with your tongue wagging. But with the Orca Card this chance doesn’t exist.

The best way to save, though, is to want less. It’s still something I’m learning. I yearn. I pine. I covet. But when you want less you spend less, as my friend Gilbert nicely summed up in a recent article. There was also the time I was talking to a Dutch guy, he’d been biking for the past five years and smelled like an alleyway behind a restaurant, and he told me, “Man, at some point I just stopped wanting.”

At first I didn’t know what he was talking about but now I’ve had time to think about it and realize he was some kind of Germanic-speaking, smelly Buddha. It’s that simple: You just have to want less.

Except for the Trader Joe’s samples. I’ll never stop wanting those.




The view from the top.

I’m sitting in a hospital bed in a cancer research center near downtown Seattle, tubes dangling from both my arms. The machine whirring next to me is collecting white blood cells, from which will be extracted stem cells. I’m officially a stem cell donor. Though it might appear to be benevolent, my intentions aren’t so pure. I’m mostly doing this for money. OK, let me rephrase that: I’m completely doing this for the money.

I found out about the study by searching “donate plasma” on Google and seeing an article that said “Donors paid up to $800 for giving plasma.” I signed up on the website, got a call a few days later saying there had been a cancellation and could I come in, and then bam, here I am now, the centrifuge humming next to me as it happily separates the plasma and white blood cells from my blood.

Yesterday was tough. Yesterday the draw was twice as long and my arm ached by the end of it from constantly making a fist. I was worried I wouldn’t make it out of here in time to make it to my class, so when it was finally over I signed the consent form saying I knew I should restrain from strenuous activity and then promptly sprinted to the bus.

Today however, is much easier. My nurse is from a small town in Eastern Europe I’ve actually been to, and has a daughter the same age as me. She keeps asking if I want cheese or juice to replenish the calcium that’s stripped by the machine (calcium bonds to plasma), and I turn her down because I already have to go to the bathroom and don’t want them to have to bring the jug you pee into when you can’t hold it. I bide my time when not talking to her by texting people on WhatsApp and softly making a fist even though there’s no need to. The sooner I can get out of here the better.

“11 minutes left,” she says.

Thank God, I think to myself. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to have any needles in me. Last night my roommate’s mom said “bless your heart” for doing such a nice thing and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was just doing it for the money. Or maybe I did tell her, but it was more of a mumble.

Finally the machine is unhooked and the needles are taken out. I apply pressure to a patch of gauze my arm doesn’t bleed. The nurse wraps me up and this time I do accept the snacks, a smorgasbord of Tillamook cheese and apple juice.

“Thank you so much,” she says, her eyes glowing.

“Thank you too,” I say, “and I hope to see you for the follow-up study.”

I make my way downstairs, drinking an apple juice, and outside it’s sunny.  I head south around Lake Union, towards Aurora, and this time I don’t have to run.