Seattle – Space Needle, Downtown Waterfront, Gum Wall

The next few days in Seattle would see me whipping the arse of my fairly well-established claustrophobia, starting with a trip in the lift of the city’s Space Needle.

Wait. Before that we had a very exciting ride on the Seattle Center Monorail from Westlake Center to Seattle Center (it also goes the other way). The monorail was built in 1962 for the World Fair as an example of the transport of the future and with the intention of eventually extending the line. But that never happened, and now instead of being the transport of the future it is testament to the ambition and imagination of the 60s. And also a monument to overreaching one’s abilities.

Anyway, it’s great fun, especially when you’re sitting right at the front next to the driver, as we did.

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Son examined the Space Needle from our position on the ground, his head angled back and his eyes squinting up into the sky. “The pointy bit at the top is the needle. And the round bit is where you push the…” He paused. “Actually, it’s more of a pin than a needle. It’s the Space Pin.” And thus the city’s most famous and well-loved landmark was renamed in an instant.

So, that first stand against my fear of enclosed spaces was taken in the lift up the edifice, into which they squeezed what I would consider an unnecessary number of people. Since daughter and I were first in, we were squidged to the back by much larger bodies. I reminded myself of the time we had been in a lift up Taipei 101, and focussed on the lift attendant. What with manoeuvring daughter through the bigger bodies so that she could see out of the window, and laughing heartily at the lift attendant’s wit, the 41 seconds flew by, and an impending anxiety attack was comfortable diverted.

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The Needle (I’m going to call it by its proper name, even though we didn’t for the four days we were there) is currently undergoing some maintenance, so only half the observation deck was open to the public, though that was more than enough for us to take in the Seattle skyline, the seas and distant mountains. Also the bravery of the builders who were working outside, 520 feet above ground, in a modern day re-enactment of Lunch Atop A Skyscraper, the photo of builders eating lunch on the Rockefeller Center girder.

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In the end, though, the Needle is better appreciated from outside – it is not the highest tower in the city, and I’m sure more far-reaching views can be had elsewhere. What is unique about the Needle is its shape and history, which can be appreciated from the ground for free (our trip to the top, even with half the observation deck being inaccessible, cost $73 for one adult and two children (£55 at time of writing)). (Having said that, I must reiterate that we visited when half the observation deck was closed for refurbishment. Once that is finished, and visitors are also able to eat once again in the revolving restaurant, I’m sure it’ll be a must-see.)

We spent considerably longer in the gift shop; and then stopped off at a caricaturist just outside for the obligatory cartoon picture of son and daughter. (It’s not obligatory, of course it isn’t. I have ignored pretty much every caricaturist I have inevitably encountered in every city I’ve visited.)

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From there we ambled back to the monorail, via a very circuitous route which took in the Best Fountain In The World Ever* and yet another playpark. (I am thinking of writing a sort of Lonely Planet guide to the world’s playparks.)

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Another front-seat-next-to-the-driver monorail ride back into town, and we caught the light rail back to Columbia City. By now I was “getting” the place where we were staying. I could feel and understand the community atmosphere, and was seeing more and more of the prettiness of the area. It was a delight to catch the train back “home”, grab a snack from PCC and chill out on the apartment balcony.

That evening, we headed over to Full Tilt, an ice cream/arcade outlet that was the perfect blend of good wholesome snacks and entertainment. I mean, what could be better than a big tub of rocky road, a bottle of cold Beck’s and a game of Ms Pac-Man? Daughter displayed a surprising immediate love and aptitude for pinball machines, which I am sure will stand her in good stead at some point in her student future.

Our penultimate day in Seattle saw the children and I catch that light rail back into downtown and head to Waterfront Park, ostensibly to go to the Aquarium. On the way, however, I spotted the Great Wheel, and in a moment of bewildering stupidity suggested to the children that we go on it.

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Well.

I know I have pointed out more than once my occasionally debilitating claustrophobia, but it really does need emphasising in order for you to understand the foolishness of this proposal. What the hell was I thinking? But  there it was. I made the suggestion out loud, the children shouted their enthusiastic agreement and I couldn’t back out of it. Tickets were bought. The queue was joined. I recalled the diazepam in my bag and took a few pills. I’m not sure how quickly diazepam takes effect but I’m prepared to accept that it has an immediate placebo impact, since I immediately chilled out and bought the children a slushy each.

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The cabins were tiny – far tinier than those on the London Eye – and would house only up to six seated people with any degree of breathing space. But the policy seemed to be to allow each family or group of friends their own cabin, so we three clambered into a pod and settled down. There were open ventilation windows, and a cooling, settling breeze wafted over my face.

It was a surprisingly calm 15 minutes, as we drifted round over the bay, circling in the sun and hypnotised by the sparkle of the sea.

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Eventually we did actually make it to the Aquarium, which, though small, is perfectly formed and hugely educational. The aquarium’s vision, “Inspiring conservation of our marine environment”, is seen throughout the venue, with facts and figures about climate change, rising sea levels and plastic pollution plastered on the walls.

Highlights included:

  • The enormous alien-like Pacific octopus, which clambered through its tank like a many-tentacled sack of spuds;
  • The Underwater Dome, in which visitors navigated a short tunnel to a glass-panelled dome under water, and watched as divers outside the dome fed the gathering fish, explaining through a sound system what they were doing and what we were looking at;
  • The jellyfish in the Tropical Pacific section, which, like those in the London Aquarium, were lit up by neon, giving them a dreamy firework quality, as they drifted and pumped their way round the tank, glowing like advertising hoardings.

Checking the map as we left the Aquarium, I realised that the Gum Wall was nearby. Husband had told me about the Gum Wall, saying his conference duties had taken him nearby. Husband has very particular ideas about health and hygiene and, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were now seeking counselling, having come into such close proximity to this … well…

I’ll let you decide.

There is a place near the waterfront called Pike Place Market, and apparently this is where we should have gone, since it is a bustling site of speciality foods, locally sourced produce, arts, crafts, buskers, mementoes and collectibles, any one of which I could have wasted my dollars on.

But we didn’t go there, no. We went to the Gum Wall, which is near Pike Place Market on Post Alley. Bear with me, I’m just going to look up how the Gum Wall started…

Okay, so apparently it was the result of patrons of the Market Theater removing their gum and sticking it to the wall next to the theatre doorway, before they went in to enjoy a night of civilised entertainment. You have to wonder why the theatre didn’t just put a bin next to the entrance.

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As we wandered down the alley, we passed a doorway into a restaurant, a doorway that was liberally and completely encircled by splodges of multi-coloured gum. Ew, I thought. Imagine having to walk through that doorway to get to your dinner.

And yes, it was that very restaurant that husband had visited, and that very doorway he had had to walk through. Seriously, he should be having therapy.

Apparently not long ago the gum was all scraped off the wall – but it returned. Returned on a magnitude that reminds me of rebellion, revolution, anarchy. Perhaps the Seattleites thought the wall was a public artwork and that the City’s act in removing it was the vandalism. Anyway, while daughter and I stood holding our breath and looking on in both awe and disgust, son insisted on contributing to the artwork, and popped out his blue chewing gum before carefully choosing a space on the alley wall and squeezing on the gum.

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I smothered his hands in antibacterial gel, and we returned home, home to a neighbourhood I had thankfully come to value. A neighbourhood of vitality and diversity, friendliness and warmth, history and a progressive eye to the future.

The next day would see even more of that claustrophobia arse-whipping…

 

* According to the children

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