For writing practice, I’ve been capturing the nuances of my days since August 12th in a long-form essay I’ll eventually release called “Time Travel Toxicity.” These Travelogue Trivialities essays take that idea, where I might write about going to some thrift stores for the first time in months, and focus that energy on a one-day adventure noteworthy or touristy. With that in mind, these essays will not be overly academic or objective. They’re written there.
[Travelogue Trivialities] International District: August 2019
August 28th, 2019. Wednesday.
Morning. Sunny, cool, and dry.
The International District of Seattle, Washington, for me, represents the best of what old Seattle has to offer. There are great elements of the new Seattle, where skyscrapers can appear if you don’t keep vigilant for six months, where business is booming, and where there’s enough to keep you entertained if you happen to be wandering through at 2am on a workday.
This series, Travelogue Trivialities, is my attempt to capture those subtle moments about a location as I experience them. What I value differs from others. Whenever I think of rare collectible anime figurines, my mind will usually wander to one particular cash register at the Uwajimaya grocery store that anchors the International District as “somewhere to go,” because even if hobbies are different, food is food, and we all get hungry. If we’re waiting in that register’s line to buy some random food, drinks, or import toys, then behind us would be a food court, to our left an exit outside, past the register and a wall the Kinokuniya Bookstore, and to our right a bustling blast of beautiful bounties to buy. I’m not sure why that location specifically speaks to me. I don’t have any strong emotional ties to this register. I didn’t ask out the girl of my dreams here. I don’t even typically buy things there. I guess, subconsciously, scenes like that with its overhead televisions playing some show or another, represents that feeling of going to Uwajimaya as the most convenient location to buy things I can’t buy at any other grocery store, or seldom any hobby shop.
The International District represents somewhere that I can visit for a quick 30-minute glance about Uwajimaya to grab some snacks before heading further into the northern parts of Seattle. Only once have I driven and parked there. Otherwise, like today, I take the bus.
When I’ve worked in downtown Seattle, we would always pass through, and I’d rarely stop. I used to walk down at the end of my work weeks, get dinner, then bus back home, but I’d seldom take the bus and stop after work because I was always tired after work, and didn’t quite appreciate the nuances or subtleties of places as much as I do now more than three years into this writing avocation, or when I was in college where everything was fresh, and nothing was overly cynical except in theories.
The bus is one of those rare spots where you are in public and private simultaneously. I am sitting next to a nurse that got on at the last stop before entering the highway. In front of me is a woman reading what looks like fiction, glancing over the use of quotes with a black text on white background aesthetic similar to how I’m writing now. The highway is clear. Almost everyone is at work. Actually, we’ve hit our first major slowdown. The glass of the bus is dirty, but we can still see the trees and mountains from outside the screens of our smartphones.
If I have the time to dig into the International District, like I do today, I will often wander the streets looking at life as it is. While fiction’s greatest value is capturing thoughts into palatable bites, observing reality is the best way to find more of those thoughts. I’ve oftentimes struck up conversations with strangers, usually around a framing device like a situation that occurred, most of which have helped to expand my frame of reference outside myself and my interpretations.
We’ve stopped now. It’s just after 8am. I planned the itinerary of my day around stores that I wanted to visit and when they’d be open. Many parts of Seattle aren’t as attractive for tours in the earliest mornings. Most are going to work or setting up their work. By around 9am or 10am, stores are open, people are wandering around on their breaks, and there’s more to see, whether it’s the glistening of the threes in the late summer sun, architecture, foods, or people to meet in person or in your imagination.
The traffic is moving along at an acceptable clip. A majority of the drivers are by themselves in their cars. I must admit that a 30-minute drive is usually more appealing than 60- or 90-minute bus rides. I can’t write while driving. I’m sure I could practice dictating. The thing is, there’s a meditation with writing that allows all your focus to remain on one fundamentally positive thing. Driving can go from carefree to cautious in a complete second, whereas here, there’s just the bus rocking back and forth with the stop and go traffic, like a boat undulating on the water.
One of my favorite movies is Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. The scene in it I like the most is where one of the main characters, Spike, is chasing down a lead. He wanders around town. It’s a similarly bright day. He’s on a mission and has the time to smell the roses. He leisurely walks across streets, sees the sights, and relaxes. A bluesy song ties it all together into a montage that world builds, develops character, and advances the plot. That scene also appears in my mind when I think of the International District in the beautiful decay of buildings through graffiti, rust, or grime. Unlike the gentrified northern business districts of corporate Seattle, or the warehouse district with vagrancy, this is what I think of when I think of Seattle. I suppose all of this expository preamble is only here because of the time I’m here on the bus. Our stop is up soon. I think the nurse and fiction reader will both leave for different parts of the International District than me.
Nope. Just myself.
I’m sitting in the corner of a bus shelter now looking out at the newest buildings in the area. The road is splattered with droplets of oil and vehicle excrement. The roads are worn and cracked. It’s all clean enough, but the grit of lingering cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust, and honking horns makes this spot somewhat uncomfortable, although I’m leaning up against a corner, so it’s as safe as it can be, the dangerous part of town in Pioneer Square just a few blocks past these newest buildings in the area.
Much of the area is the same as other parts of Seattle. There are big businesses you’ve visited in your parts of the world. It’s the subtle differences I love. Not just the Chinese symbols drawn in neon light or architecture. It’s this medley of people, each on their own way somewhere, be it here in this bench, looking at the Historic Chinatown Gate, going to any of the local businesses or big businesses you’ve visited. The sun is massaging my chin. It’s 8:44am and details like the morning heat tell me it will be a blistering afternoon.
The scaffolding outside of Uwajimaya is new. The fountain just across the street is not. The bus tunnel turned train tunnel has changed. The lingering smells of bodies unclean has not. There may be more business people and cops around here than when I was in college, or maybe I just never stopped to listen to the persistent sounds of water cutting through the frequent bus engines behind me and the infrequent speed walking conversations between me and the fountain.
The Uwajimaya food court is now just opening at 9am, so instead of hanging around there, I walked past the Wing Luke Museum that opens at 10am, and am now seated in the Danny Woo International District Community Garden. If I can describe this area in a few words, its form following function. The buildings are inefficiently designed for modern use, which might be why big businesses haven’t torn down underutilized storefronts to build shipping lockers or other vestiges of success. Rather, multiple colors of coats of paint cover objects. You can leisurely jaywalk. Brick buildings are not façades or ornamental. They’re used, and though you can see newer buildings through alleyways and some alleyways even look like they could be clean, that’s not the wonderful character I think of when I think of the International District.
This park is nice. Despite the smell. Despite the cigarette butts, unprintables, and graffiti. To my left, some graffito about treason. I put my phone away and someone after a silent nod walked from right of my view, past me to my left, sat down for about 30 seconds while I stretched my leg up at my knee, past the graffito, then quickly returned past me to walk down that same path to the right of my view. I don’t fear situations like that. I might fear talking to people sometimes, but I’m out there in the world. The only thing we should worry about out here are guns, weapons, and missing our buses.
I walked past a vagrant hole, littered with cardboard and someone’s postcards from an older San Francisco, on my way to the tallest point of this park. It smells like vinegar here next to this lemon tree. The community garden is gated off.
They’re paying a nominal fee for a nominal amount of work cleaning up the gardens. If money and rent weren’t a big concern and I lived nearby, it would be a nice way to help. Too bad that’s a sign that the community has depreciated the garden. Many people walked through. Most were on their way somewhere else.
“Funny stuff there, man.”
“Yeah, funny stuff.”
“Yeah, I’m just here waiting for the bus…”
I stood and waited to see if he had anything he wanted to say. Nothing.
“Well, have a good one.”
I had just taken a photograph of a utility box that had been wrapped by a local artist that draws designs for many local businesses. I met him at an art fair a few years ago and bought some of his stuff. Even now, I might still buy more. He’s either iconic or has a style that is easily reproduced.
Two Seattle Police vehicles passed. I’m leaned up against a bus shelter, to my right, a man is smoking and I am downwind, past him and another shelter is the funny stuff guy, and past that, the Japantown side of the International District. They all caught the bus.
A man walked past me as I wrote that last sentence. It’s 9:36am and he’s already smelling like cheap beer. I’m hungry and interested in seeing the brighter side of this area. A tour bus crossed the street as I got to the intersection. “Show Me Seattle: Local Sites.” I bet that’s what you’ve been looking for more than the grit of the city?
The biggest change to Uwajimaya is that they have expanded out their endcap of eclectic toys into a whole area for gashapon capsules, model toys, and a posted security guard watching over everything. It took me a while to decide on buying an orange Ramune drink and salmon musubi. The restroom code is still the same. After this mild snack, I’ll explore the Kinokuniya Bookstore.
I thought I’d take another paragraph to soak in this food court. It is a thin aisle of chairs against a wall on one side, tables in the middle facing either wall or restaurant, and on the other side what I’ve called the least adventurous restaurants in town. If you don’t want to leave your comfort zone too much, these venerable restaurants have been around for years, so unless you have specific allergies, then you should be fine. There’s also a set of tables one next to another to emulate the communal cafeterias of compulsory school.
One more paragraph. The tables are rickety and have a gaudy design, like someone etched red, green, and blue pastel paint into an aesthetic closer to scribbles, but at least the yellow curry stain just past my right-hand blends right in. There are paper lanterns hanging from the lights, above them lime green water workings; this being Seattle, designers want us to see the plenum space whenever possible so the ceilings are “warmer,” “less claustrophobic,” and maybe even “synergizing.” It smells like fried rice here. There is soft hip hop playing over the speakers, contending with the clanking of kitchen instruments, people talking, and kitchen workers yelling at each other.
I took a 15-minute wander through the store. There are some things I might buy there, like stickers by that aforementioned artist Enfu, Studio Ghibli merchandise as part of a tie-in, and some art, manga, or literature books. The store is a nice stop if any of that sounds interesting, otherwise, it does quickly feel oversaturated.
“Excuse me, do you know where the train station is?”
I was sitting cross-legged and looked up from my phone. I wasn’t quite sure so I figured I’d ask the common troubleshooting question of ‘what were you trying to do when it broke?’ but applied to real life.
“Uhh, where are you tryin’ ta go?”
She was definitely dressed for the part in tie-dyed clothes.
“You’ll wanna go over there. “I held my smartphone in my right hand and pointed with my left hand over to the train station.
“Oih, it’s right over there… it’s got a sign and everything.”
“No worries…!” They were off.
When you’re in a strange area, no matter if it’s the International District of Seattle, Washington or even your backyard, I think there’s a common rule that traveling anxiety limits your view. You’re trying to catch your connecting vehicle. You’re probably thirsty, hungry, sleep-deprived, fatigued, and the last thing you can do is what you should do: breathe deeply, stand still, and assess your surroundings. I’ve been lost. Signs are never as clear as they can be, so I don’t mind helping out.
It’s a nice day in the shade. I walked up a few blocks away from the light rail station and Uwajimaya, past the $1.50 store Daiso, and found a curious building that would have been sold off long ago, bulldozed, and turned into skyscraper condominiums. It’s a one-story brick building, gated off with chain link fencing, and besides looking dilapidated, doesn’t appear to have been used for anything for years. It could make for a good horror movie set, I guess.
It’s now 3:15pm. I’m in the Uwajimaya food court. There are definitely more people here now and it feels more like what you might want out of a tour of the International District. Not that it being livelier means seeing more weirdos, but just that if you’re in town for the first time in a year or so, it’s more refreshing seeing bustling crowds.
Now that I’m on the bus heading home, I’ll write some concluding thoughts about what the International District still means to me. Seattle is great for its sense of autonomy, and what the International District represents most is the sense of autonomy in spite of others. Be bold.
Whenever I feel not quite autonomous, like I have to rely on the stoplights of others as I’m driving along the roads of life, the International District reminds me that sometimes there are only stop signs and if you’re a pedestrian you have the right of way, even if you dart out into traffic.
|Quotes: See above.|
|Sources: My personal experiences.|
|Inspirations: Writing about my experiences of life in “Time Travel Toxicity” and thinking about doing it with more locations. This ended up being too much for me to want to edit extensively, and was a mental block almost too much for me to want to even deal with, but I like the result well enough, and would do others now that I’m more practiced in this style.|
|Related: Other Travelogue Trivialities essays? This is the first one. That “Time Travel Toxicity” essay will be done once it hits 1,000,000 words. This essay, by comparison, is under 3,000 words.|
|Photo: The International District, for me, represents the future and the past simultaneously.|
|Written On: August 30th [114 minutes, mobile]|
|Last Edited: October 17th [Just some clean-up.]|