The Drumming Unicorn of Elliott Bay and Other Terrors

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There’s someone who sometimes puts on a rubber cat mask and plays French music on an accordion down by the market, appropriately in front of Left Bank Books and to the left of a florist that has big displays of exotic looking flowers. It’s probably only because the music reminds me of the movie Amélie, or maybe it’s because the “cat” plays with such gusto, but I love seeing it.

 

Somewhere, I have a fuzzy photo of it that I snapped for you, but I can’t find it, and since you can’t see it moving jauntily in time to the tune, hear the music, smell the flowers, dodge the tourists headed to Pike Market, it wouldn’t make much of an impression anyhow.

 

So just believe me when I tell you this accordion playing cat is comic, yes, but also kind of glorious, and if you are ever in Seattle, you should try to see it and drop a buck in its accordion case.

 

Oh, wait. Z is invested in your understanding the glory of this cat (even though he is allergic), and found this photo online:

 

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I told you it was glorious.

 

But down on the waterfront there’s this other person who wears a rubber unicorn head and bangs the hell out of some upturned buckets and shakes his head wildly as he pounds out a beat, and I find it completely—and irrationally—terrifying. As in I grab Z’s hand if I’m not holding it, and if I am, I squeeze it harder, and try to hurry us along.

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Best enjoyed from a safe distance.

The sun might be setting, but it is still daylight. The unicorn is all wrapped up in the music and likely bears none of us ill will, plus there are plenty of people around even if it did. And still, I get chills that I can only equate to my first irrational fear, which was the Lincoln-Mercury TV ad that had a cougar that would rest on top of a sign and then let out a fierce roar as the announcer said, “At the sign of the cat.” I was a toddler, and the first time I saw that commercial I burst into tears. This may well be one of my first memories.

 

I can still hear the jingle Lincoln-Mercury  leads the way and get chills.

 

I ask you, is this not terrifying? Watch until the very end of the video.

 

My parents thought my overreaction to this ad was either hilarious or adorable, and so when the commercial came on—and it was always on—they would say, “Look Bethy! It’s the kitty!”

 

The kitty? THE KITTY?!

 

Eventually, I got used to the commercial but would sometimes feign terror in an attempt to recreate their original delight, though I didn’t have to feign much because just now when I was sifting through clips of those commercials to show you, I was, let’s just call it, uneasy.

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This is NOT a “kitty”!

Last night Z and I were doing laundry in the building’s basement. It is not a horrible laundry room—I’ve been in much creepier ones, specifically two in Chicago that were reminiscent of murder scenes in a horror flick. It is bright blue and well lit and has cameras in it. In general, I’m not afraid to be down there by myself. Even so, last night Z stayed behind to collect our items from a sluggish washer and sent me upstairs with the dry clothes to commence folding. I had the laundry bag in one hand and the doorknob in the other as I was leaving when he called after me because he needed another quarter. He was the only other person in the room. I know his voice. There was no chilling music playing. We hadn’t been talking about anything creepy or watching a police procedural with a serial killer. He said a very non-threatening, “Babe, I need another quarter.”

 

And yet I screamed. He might as well have been Freddie Krueger or the Wicked Witch of the West saying, “I’ll get you, my pretty!”

 

Like my parents, he thought my overreaction was hilarious.

 

I have an hyperactive amygdala, which accounts for the shrieks and squawks when I’m surprised, but I also have an overactive imagination which accounts for my inability to sort my fears into tidy categories like: irrational, rational, and rational but improbable. To me, everything is a possibility because I can imagine it is. So while I know everyone has to deal with the fears they might have about losing loved ones, jobs, health, new or strange situations, global nuclear annihilation, etc., I’m pretty sure the bulk of the population doesn’t worry about unicorn drummers chasing them down the waterfront. They don’t worry that a sewer rat is going to pop out of their 2nd story toilet on a Wednesday afternoon. They don’t worry that if they get rid of that one ugly sweater they really don’t like anyhow that one day they’ll be in a situation in which they have no sweaters and desperately need that ugly one to keep them warm.

 

They don’t—I’m guessing—fear talking to a stranger because they will never be free again to have their own thoughts but will instead spend the rest of their lives listening to this stranger chunter on.

 

Which brings me to the Silent Reading Party at the Sorrento Hotel. I love the Sorrento, which is near our apartment building. It’s loaded with old world charm—a dark lobby with a fireplace, wood paneling and deep sofas that harken back to a Seattle I wish I’d known. While it doesn’t seem like a quirky place, on the first Wednesday of every month it hosts said silent reading extravaganza and people wait in line for a place to sit and crack open a book. I’ve been meaning to go to it for as long as I’ve lived in the city, but I never have because it seems like such a weird thing to do: sit in a room full of strangers a block from your actual apartment and read in a dimly lit room in silence.

But also, like that accordion playing cat…how glorious. Every month I mark it on my calendar. Every month I “accidentally” forget to go.

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Aside from the weirdness, here are the main reasons I haven’t gone:

 

  • What if there are rules you have to follow that I don’t know and am then chastised for not following?
  • What if I hate it?
  • What if I meet someone there who ropes me into becoming part of their book club or writing group or cult and I’m never free again?

 

These are pretty much the fears that have shaped my life:

  • not knowing rules/breaking rules I didn’t know existed/being chastised for breaking said rules
  • hating something/being bored by something that I’d previously thought I would enjoy (ex. calling Z from the restroom at intermission of Wicked and begging him to phone in a bomb threat so I wouldn’t have to watch the second half) and still having to sit through the rest of the event
  • getting trapped by other people because I don’t know how to excuse myself or say no

 

 

A college classmate of Z’s who I know emailed to see if I’d be interested in going to the silent reading with her. We were both English majors and the few times we’ve seen each other, we’ve talked about books. This seemed like a win because I wouldn’t have to go to the Sorrento alone, she had been before and thus knew the rules (don’t talk between breaks or you might get shushed!), and we would be there to read so were she inclined to try to get me to join a cult she’s in*, she’d be shushed when trying to hypnotize me. Likewise, if some stranger tried to rope me into their pyramid scheme, she would shush them and save me from having to shill Amway for the rest of my life. So we agreed to meet.

 

Our first attempt was a failure because despite arriving almost 40 minutes before it started, the place was packed. We tried again the following month, and I arrived an hour before it started and was ushered to a long, communal table in the back to wait for my bibliophile partner.

 

I was disappointed. I’d imagined us across from each other in two solitary wingbacks by the fire in a room—I will admit—that was virtually empty, save for a lone man with a newspaper and aroma-less pipe in a similar wingback on the other side of the room. Instead, the reality was that we would be sitting at a long table reading across from strangers who I imagined to be 87% smarter, cooler, and more literary than I am. What’s worse, I had no idea what the etiquette was of talking to people at the communal table before the actual reading began. Was it encouraged? Expected? Mandatory? Rude to attempt?

 

I felt like I was at some reading cafeteria on the first day of junior high. What to do?

All around me people who seemed to know each other buzzed and chittered and seemed thrilled to be there, and all I could think about was how soon I could order a cocktail and how soon after I finished it I could escape.

 

The woman across from me asked if I’d been there before, and admitted that she wasn’t even from Seattle but had read about the event and thought it was too weird not to attend. She was exactly the kind of stranger I’m happy to bump into because she was friendly without immediately assuming that I wanted to spend the rest of the evening listening to her talk. A man came up and sat at the corner of the table between us, and asked about her cocktail so he’d know what to order. He had been to the Silent Reading Party before and said that he invites friends but then tells them he won’t save a spot for them because it makes him uncomfortable and seems unfair since, at this point, people were lined up outside hoping to score a spot to perch so they could read. I decided I liked him too. He was similarly undemanding and pleasant.

 

My friend arrived and we ordered appetizers and drinks and passed time before the witching hour by talking to each other and asking our new neighbors questions. The woman was from Brazil and had been traveling for the past 18 months to see a bit of the Americas. There were only two stops left on her trip: Chicago and New York, and she wondered if we had any suggestions.

 

I have many, many opinions about what is best and least best to do in Chicago, but on the spot, I could think of nothing outside of taking the architectural boat tour on the river, which may not even run in March. She looked at me expectantly since I’d just blathered on about how it was my favorite city in the U.S. and I had nuthin’. Ride a boat in what will inevitably be a Midwestern deep freeze when you are there. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

 

The man said he loved to read but had no time to read, so once a month he came to the Sorrento for himself. He’d been reading the same Ruth Rendell novel for months. I admired his backpack. He admired the novel I was reading, Here We Lie, by my friend Paula Treick DeBoard, and took a photo of it so he could read it whenever he finally has time to finish the Rendell. I forced everyone to look at my name in the acknowledgements and congratulate me as if I had written the book myself. (It is really good. You should probably read it. And also, admire my name.) The piano started playing and the silent reading began. (Note: it is silent in that no one talks, but there is delightfully unobtrusive piano music. At one point I heard a very classical version of what I think of as Darth Vader’s theme song, The Imperial March.)

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All of Paula’s books are my favorite, but right now, this one is my most favorite.

Despite the fact that Paula’s book is riveting, I couldn’t concentrate. Instead, I was horrified because what kind of city advocate am I if I can’t even cough up five things someone should do in a place that I love? I ripped a page out of my journal and started listing things she should do in Chicago, views to admire, buildings with architecture I adore, the miniature Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, which line of the L to ride for the best vantage, which bus would cart her up Michigan Avenue, etc. I passed the list to her. She read it and smiled. I read Paula’s book and stuffed focaccia bread in my mouth. Soon she shoved a piece of paper across the table and whispered, “We’re like school girls, passing notes.”

 

Here’s her note:

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I was already in awe of Jacqueline because of her solo traveling adventure, but I was further in awe because she clearly enjoys interacting with strangers and finding out their opinions about what is worthwhile to investigate. She wasn’t worried I was going to try to get her involved in a pyramid scheme or join a cult. She was just enjoying humanity.

 

There was a break and she packed up the journal she’d been writing in and asked the server for the bill. The Ruth Rendell man said he’d like to pay for her drink and the food she’d ordered. She thanked him, but said no, and though my superior intuition and his excellent backpack had figured him for a safe bet, I realized that if I were traveling alone, I wouldn’t want arbitrary people buying treats for me no matter what they were reading. He said, “I insist. You are our guest here.” She thanked him, thanked us for the travel advice and told us to have a good evening, and then left.

 

I don’t know what it was about that wording of his, but I could feel my eyes get full and my face flush. You are our guest. There were two things there that I liked: the notion of a visitor to the U.S. as a “guest” but also the way he used that “our.” As if he were including me, my friend, all of us at the communal table—even the people at the end so far down we couldn’t talk tot hem or even see what they were reading, everyone in the Sorrento, everyone in Seattle, everyone in the country…and saying, we’re glad you came!

 

After Jacqueline left, I leaned over and thanked him for buying her meal and drink. It certainly hadn’t crossed my mind to do it, though I had considered asking if she had a blog so I could spy on her travels. I told him that I appreciated it because of Z and how he’s feeling these days about this country he loves but doesn’t always feel welcome in anymore, and about how good it was for me to remember that this is what I love about Americans—that at our best we’re friendly instead of suspicious, generous instead of showing everyone the holsters under our jackets.

 

He waved me off. He said he’s traveled a lot and people have always been welcoming to him and he likes to welcome other people. But just the same, I thought it was such a lovely gesture that the memory of it warmed me all week, as did the memory of Jacqueline investigating the Americas and deciding that something as quirky as a silent reading party was worth her time.

 

I’m never going to prefer solo travel, though I’ve done it and would again if the only alternative was staying safely at home. I’m never not going to squawk and screech when something gives me a fright, even if it’s my own husband asking for a laundry quarter.

 

Most of us are inclined to fears of some sort, and we have to figure out how to best navigate them. I would argue—with myself, with you, with the world—that life is going to be more fulfilling if we focus on the accordion-playing cat moments, and—even if we do have to race past the rubber-headed unicorns banging drums—we shouldn’t let those moments shape our days, influence our interactions with strangers, make us isolate ourselves completely for safety’s sake. The world is too big and weird and wonderful to cut ourselves off from that. It’s kind of glorious.

 

*She is very nice and very rational and not cult inclined. This is just hyperbole.

 

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