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Stateside: Christmas in Seattle

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There is only one word for San Francisco. It's an affront. Last Christmas Day I walked out from the tourist hotel I was staying in at the top of Market St and could have fired a gun down that usually thronged thoroughfare and hit nobody.

That is if you're inclined to think that 183 homeless people are nobody. That's how many homeless people died on the streets of SF during 1999 and that's approximately how many I saw on Market St that Christmas Day with the veil of workers, shoppers and tourists removed.

My enduring image of SF is of the gilded City Hall (millions spent on its architecture award-winning refurbishment) in the background as an old man crawled out from his shelter between two supermarket trolleys. With utter dignity he found something to use to pick up a human turd left on the pavement beside his home, depositing it in the gutter.

"Some people are worse than animals", he said.

Well, hopefully many of those people just got voted off the Board of Supervisors and some way will be found to provide what surely is a far more basic human need than the tons of gold leaf plastered on City Hall. A group of artist activists this week plastered silhouettes of the dead homeless around the city with the words "Preventable Death" and a number, in an attempt to shake people out of the inure-ty they put themselves into to cope with the disparity of what they see on the streets.

So it was that I decided this Christmas to leave the golden brick road and head for the Emerald City - that "rain-soaked village midway between San Francisco and Alaska", as Alistair Cooke once called Seattle. I caught Amtrak's Coastal Starlight at 10pm Christmas Eve eve and woke up next day as dawn touched magical Mt Shasta.

There was a light dusting of white on the ground which became steadily thicker as we got further north into Oregon until, for about 3 hours, we were travelling through a continuous Christmas card of pine trees in the snow. You have to hand it to Whomever upstairs - it was a stroke of absolute genius to take the most common chemical on earth and add a drop of temperature to create something so simple and elegant and pristine that it stirs the soul of everyone - naughty and nice - on the planet.

By the time darkness fell a new kind of Christmas card appeared - Christmas lights. Whole subdivisions, shopping malls and just individual homes - large and small - were outlined in lights or festooned with stars and deer and anything at all that caught the decorator's fancy. I ventured to ask my dinner companions - a retired couple returning to Seattle after visiting friends in Portland - if there was a power shortage in Washington state. "There will be if you Californians keep taking it from us", the wife replied, adding that their power bill had just doubled.

Dubbed "the grid that stole Christmas" by SF media, Pacific Gas and Electric had to resort to getting the federal government to order other states to sell power cheaply to California when the local energy wholesale market went through the roof. Stories of an impending ban on Christmas lights had PG&E rushing to put on radio ads about the number of porch lights that go on to welcome people home and the miles of gas pipeline it maintains just so they can have a hot shower when they get inside.

Caught between the tag end of regulated retail pricing, a shortage of generating plant and a completely free market in wholesale electricity and gas, PG&E staggers from day to day racking up billions of dollars in debt. If Standard and Poors disses its credit rating because of that, the utility company will be bankrupted before the end of the year. This year. Y2K.

But hey, it's Christmas Day now and I'm in Seattle, where they thoughtfully supply a hazmat container for syringe disposal in the "family restroom" on the Washington State Ferries that ply Puget Sound. On the bus going from the ferry terminal back to my twee B&B in the University District, I overhear street people comparing the Christmas dinners supplied by different charities. "They're serving now," said one of the place he'd just come from, "but they wanted us to listen to a church service. No way."

As the bus goes past "Bozotronics" - which sounds like just my kind of hi fi store - I glance at a photo in today's Seattle Times. It shows the southbound Coastal Starlight going past a pile of kindling. It seems that late Saturday, a chartered Amtrak train carrying sports fans home to Portland slammed into a house that was being moved by a contractor. He'd checked for scheduled trains so thought he was safe.

The event was much to everyone's surprise, as you can well imagine. But the story just gets more interesting. The house had been bought at a charity auction for $580 by a young couple who then didn't claim it because it would have cost $20,000 to move it. The moving contractor then offered to take the house off the original owners' property for free if he could live in it or sell it, which is what he was doing at the time of the accident - while under the influence and with his licence suspended, so the paper says.

Now here's the spooky part - the charity auction had been held to benefit the daughter of a woman killed in an air crash earlier in the year. Could it be that the ghost of mother past looked down and saw a rascal about to profit handsomely from a charitable act not meant for him at all and sent a posse of Seahawks fans out to get him? Whatever. Nobody was hurt much and the contractor was arrested then sent back to help in the clean-up.

Ah, Seattle. Not much different from SF I guess except that it's cold and damp and it was too overcast to see the partial eclipse of the sun on Christmas morning. And yes, the B&B had some singularly depressing Leonard Cohen playing at breakfast. ("Don't be scared", the young manager in his horn rims and black outfit said, when I commented on it.) But there's snow-capped mountains on every horizon to balance the deep, flat, black waters of the Sound. And something in the air.

Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year, y'all.

Lea Barker
Christmas Day 2K (PT)

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