TCS Daily

Letter from "The Other" Washington

By Ilya Shapiro - February 21, 2006 12:00 AM

SEATTLE -- From the moment I arrived (on Alaska Airlines flight No. 1, which neither starts nor finishes in Alaska), I knew that this trip would be unlike others I had made in my quest to discover further enclaves of Purple America. This was not about finding tattooed Christian rockers in San Diego or market-savvy hipsters in Greenwich Village. I surely wasn't going to come across the languorous paradoxes of the Gulf Coast, the soulful emptiness of west Texas, or the unappreciated beauty of New Jersey. Instead, as I savored my Alaskan rockfish taco (best airport food I've ever had), I realized that in this, my first trek to the Pacific Northwest, I would encounter the bourgeois bohemian ("Bobo") sensibility that at times takes hold of Purple Americans.

On my initial ambles through its hilly downtown areas, Seattle seemed like a smaller, chillier, and more rugged San Francisco. This might have something to do with the gorgeous sunshine and nary a drop of rain that, I was often told with a hint of understatement, was "not typical" for the place. Along with the profusion of high-end boutiques selling up-market low-end products. (Top-of-the-line hiking boots for that Segway ride through the Microsoft campus? Check. Rough-hewn peasant-style salad bowls and hand-crafted serving spoons? Check -- with cookbooks offering recipes using eco-friendly balsamic vinegar, double check.) And naturally, dread-locked multi-pierced modern-day hippies (often going by the colloquial name "snowboarders") were in abundance.

But this impression did not last long, as under the surface -- there is (or was) a whole city underground --of the holes in the wall selling bowls of Vietnamese pho bigger than your head for $4.75 and the eye-catching toy shops (for the young, young-at-heart... and decidedly adult) lay the soul of lumber and other maritime commerce. I walked into Central Saloon in historic Pioneer Square and discovered both the oldest bar in town and the birthplace of grunge (along with several other establishments, it takes credit for Nirvana's first public concert).

Natalie, the purple-haired bar wench, provided me with a quick local history, a nifty non-touristy map, and more tacos that made me think that maybe San Diego was a more apt comparison. Mark, my handlebar-mustachioed erstwhile drinking buddy (think a grizzled Larry Bird) then launched into an architectural critique of the city. The new Public Library is, all agreed, an ill-fitting specimen (think a glass-and-steel version of the Florentine baptistry's cupola).

After sampling the sights and sounds of the Pike Place market (part flea market, part gourmet food outlet, anchored by the incomparable choral fishmongers) and experiencing every climactic corner of the futuristic Experience Music Project at the base of the Space Needle, it was time to move on. (By bus; the transportation of the future, the Seattle Center Monorail™, being down for repairs.) But not before a bar-dancing waitress slapped and spat water at me at a poor man's Coyote Ugly called Girls Company, Inc. (two words: mechanical bull).

Yes, there are a whole lot of fun and nice and wacky things and people in Seattle, but I'm not sure how many of them are Purple -- blue-state tastes abound (try the sushi at Shiro's in Belltown), but not many red-state values. (The closest I found was an Elliott Bay Books recommendation for John Lewis Gaddis's latest tome: "Yeah, he's conservative, but I still think he wrote the bible on the Cold War." Or the sportingly bipartisan sign that read: "If you think the Seahawks were robbed then you know what it feels like to be a Democrat, or [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Dino Rossi.")

So on I went to Washington state's second-most-visited tourist destination, the sleepy Bavarian village of Leavenworth -- decades ago the city fathers rescued the town from extinction by rebuilding it in the style of a "Sound of Music" soundstage -- just over the Cascade Mountains. Leavenworth sits in a sprawling Congressional district that, being far enough from both Seattle and Spokane, votes more reliably Republican than many of Tom DeLay's gerrymandered wonders. Yet if it were any bigger, and perhaps a little closer to Central Washington University in Ellensburg, it would be what David Brooks calls a Latte Town -- with all the Bobo bells and whistles that entails.

Most of Leavenworth's 6,000 inhabitants, who drive SUVs and hefty pickups because they actually need the four-wheel drive, gain income that is in some way related to tourism or recreation. They are a hearty lot, humble and unassuming and self-sufficient, as one would expect in a place where the same building houses the town hall, the library, and the police station. Yet you can still get a shiatsu massage at the Solstice Spa, pick through antiques that cost the same as in a New England college town, and buy the latest fashions from Milan (and points north of Milan -- this being ski country, after all).

Most importantly, several public establishments and cafés (cafés!) feature authentic Germanic cuisine, like Weisswurst that melts in your mouth if you wash it down just right -- with a Hefe-Weizen that could be straight out of Munich's Hofbräuhaus.

It is this blend of intuitive conservatism and open-minded cosmopolitanism, of course, that is the essence of Purple America. Even if the epiphenomenon lies more in men's hearts than in their houses, I was happy for once to find my Purple affinities resonate in the mountains' majesty, far from the urbane centers where it is increasingly hip to be square.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer whose last "Dispatches from Purple America" column provided an update on his green card blues.


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