Hidden Seattle

The Case of Capitol Hill's Mystery Soda Machine

And more tales of things hiding in plain sight.

By Allison Williams and Hayat Norimine February 27, 2018 Published in the March 2018 issue of Seattle Met

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Even the City's Most Enigmatic Beverage Dispenser Isn't Immune to Price Hikes

In a time of uncertainty, Capitol Hill’s mystery Coke machine may be the city mascot we deserve. No one quite remembers when it showed up on John Street with a button marked ?MYSTERY? that might dispense a can of Peach Citrus Fresca with one push, a Coca-Cola Cherry the next. Whoever operates, stocks, and profits from the alfresco machine remains stubbornly anonymous. 

Long ago—like 2007—only one of the six buttons lured passersby with the promise of ?MYSTERY?. The other five granted solemn certainty: Mountain Dew, Coca-Cola, Barq’s Root Beer. But then the machine went viral via The Stranger, Slate, even Vice; over time all six morphed to ?MYSTERY?. The price leaped from 55 cents to 75 cents; now it’s a dollar. Was the machine merely a golem of Seattle gentrification, our collective manifestation of the knowledge that the future is unknowable but definitively expensive?

These days, it’s mostly a Seattle quirk that every new resident has to discover for themselves and obsess over on social media. It still stands, across from the Capitol Hill Light Rail station, and it still offers no answers. Which seems fitting: Between our insane cost of living and the threat of a world-ending tweet, we, like the soda machine, live squarely in a time of ?MYSTERY?.  —Allison Williams

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Thistle stairs in West Seattle. 

Seattle’s Public Staircases 

Walk through Seattle and you’ll inevitably notice stairways carved out of the hillsides, each shooting up as a steep vertical into oblivion or snaking through wooded inclines.

The city in fact contains 650 publicly accessible staircases, a number topped only by Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Many of them were built over a century ago as a way to link Seattle’s altitudinally varied neighborhoods to the nearest trolley stop. In 1911, for example, the city installed a staircase where East Howe Street ends, just west of Volunteer Park, so riders could connect between the Capitol Hill and Eastlake trolley lines. (The Howe Street Stairs remain the fourth-longest staircase in the U.S. with an asthma-inducing 388 steps.) Today? Well, those stairways don’t provide a practical function so much as a network of scenic urban trails. —Hayat Norimine

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Warren Buffett’s Secret Seattle Connection 

We thought we knew our local billionaires: our Gateses, our Bezoses, our Allens. But Seattle also has a number of ties to Warren Buffett, the famed Omaha octogenarian who drives a midrange Cadillac despite being worth $90 billion. Some of these connections are no surprise—the Berkshire Hathaway chairman has pledged much of his wealth to the Gates Foundation, of which he’s a trustee. Buffett, a famously discerning investor, also has a hand in some familiar Northwest companies; BH owns Seattle’s Ben Bridge Jeweler, regional power provider PacifiCorp, and what was once called Prudential Northwest Realty, plus more than four million shares of Costco.

But few people know that the Fremont running shoe company Brooks became a Berkshire Hathaway holding in 2006; the staff designs a sneaker for BH annual meetings, complete with a tiny caricature of Buffett on the heel. You know what they say: Dress for the billionaire you want to be. —AW

Public Transit Art 

At the Beacon Hill light rail station, large bright-green, purple, and blue translucent aquatic creatures hang above the platform. If you’ve ever taken public transit in Seattle, you’ve passed by art installations like this one without a second thought. Walk by a construction wall and maybe you’ll notice their vibrant paint, with contemporary drawings, shapes, or phrases. Sound Transit dedicates 1 percent of its funding to public art—turns out that can go a long way. Dozens of those installations appear throughout the region now, at bus stations, ramps, train stops, and light rail tunnels. And the funding is growing. Sound Transit’s proposed 2018 budget dedicates $2.1 million to the STart program, which solicits artists, many from the Pacific Northwest, to contribute collections that appear on commuters’ journeys. —HN

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