They told me it was the worst time to arrive. Early December, the days dark and drenched, the people with friends and cars fleeing to Stevens Pass and Whistler on the weekends. Sounders games in the rearview, festivals and block parties months down the road. Nightlife confined to the not-so-great indoors. Seattle winter was peak Freeze, locals warned me, and they weren’t talking about the temperature.
I didn’t ignore the pessimists I met after a job offer from Seattle Met lured me to this rainy city at winter’s outset. To be certain, some of their prognostications proved accurate. In the first two months after I touched down at Sea-Tac, Seattle didn’t see one truly sunny day. I often journeyed to and from work in total darkness, head-under-hood, blind to my new surrounds as the sky spit at my face from impossible angles.
But Seattle’s shortcomings didn’t come close to overshadowing its appeal to me, a 29-year-old single guy who likes live music and tech and climbing a mountain or three. In the Berkshires, the rural, westernmost sliver of Massachusetts I’d called home for the previous two and a half years, the landscape was beautiful, but also cold, quiet, graying—stagnant. I desperately needed to shake that sense of stillness, to revive the more pulsating aspects of my urban twenties I’d ditched somewhere along winding gravel roads and switchbacks. Seattle, introverted but low-key unruly, seemed like the perfect place to escape that isolation.
And, at first, I was right. I wiggled into packed shows at Neumos and the Crocodile, wandered historic cobblestone streets in Pioneer Square, perused crowded aisles at Elliott Bay, relearned (learned?) pinball games at Unicorn, reveled in the Rainier Vista on the campus of the University of Wash—excuse me, “U-Dub.” A series of weekend visitors from back east allowed me to indulge in touristic delights like an Argosy harbor cruise and a mosey up to Kerry Park, and I surrendered to the restorative powers of a 3pm Americano after years of coffee resistance. Even as new friendships were still budding, I felt a certain socially verdant season of my life had returned, and in the flipped-over tables on soaked patios and grand contours of distant mountains, I saw the architecture of an even more invigorating spring, a blissful summer. If you just get through winter, the pessimists admitted, you’ll love it here.
My first work-from-home day came before I’d ever started calling Seattle “home.” Early March, the days lengthening, the Sounders’ season just underway. The previous night, Amazon had announced that many of its employees would work remotely to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, and others, including this magazine, followed suit. That was just the beginning of Seattle’s social constriction. Concerts and other large gatherings would soon be canceled. Restaurants would shutter or assemble takeout operations. Parks would close. In a matter of weeks, I watched the lifeblood of a city I barely knew dissipate, a slow-motion tragedy unfolding right outside my window but in a place that still felt mostly foreign.
This peculiar case of coronavirus dissonance, I bet, isn’t unique to me. Perhaps as much as any city currently plagued by Covid-19, Seattle teems with newcomers. Over the past decade, the Seattle area tallied the most population growth north of the Sun Belt. If those numbers and Bumble profile descriptions (“looking for a tour guide!”) can be trusted, thousands of people have likely settled in this city since even I arrived. And if recent history serves, they didn’t just hop over a county or state line. They uprooted from California and Texas and New York, drawn to a progressive playground for outdoor and technological risk-takers, the rare city still defining itself 170 years in.
Yet, when everything came to a halt, and longtime Seattleites understandably withdrew to less fledgling relationships, newcomers were suddenly isolated not only from locals’ support but also from their—our—connection to this city, like passengers quarantined from the crew on one of those stranded cruise ships. We belonged to the place, but the place didn’t belong to us yet.
In mid-January, some Berkshires friends happened to be staying at a couple’s house in Lake City. Knowing that I still might be on the hunt for some new pals, they invited me to their hosts’ weekly “family dinner.” “They invite anyone and everyone,” one of my friends assured me via text. Though I would be late after working on a piece for the magazine that night, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to see my old friends after such a long trip west. I nabbed a bottle of wine, picked up some dessert, and hopped in a Lyft to the address on my phone.
I arrived to late-supper scraps and a chatty table with more names than I could possibly hold in my head. Some of these guests’ connections to the hosts appeared rather tenuous, and their backgrounds were impressively varied—a teacher from Oregon here, a data scientist from Alabama there. What united them, I realized as they gobbled up my cupcakes, was not only their relationship to one another but to Seattle itself. Even though some of them had moved to the city in recent years, they could extol Seattle’s virtues with ease and bemoan its flaws just the same. They didn’t distance themselves from these qualities; they owned them. They had become part of this place. I hadn't yet, I could tell, but maybe someday I would.
Once stay-at-home went into effect, these family dinners went virtual. I’ve missed the first couple (work, malaise), but I’m eager to hear how those who have grown so accustomed to Seattle’s vibrancy are adapting to this city’s standstill. For lifelong urbanites, I imagine it’s been jarring. For me, it’s felt like a return to the isolation I thought I’d fled.
On the day before I flew to Seattle, I gave my barren one-bedroom a final once-over. The previous hours and days had been frenetic, a solo culling of my belongings made infinitely more complicated by a blizzard that dumped two feet of snow on the Berkshires. Donation centers had slashed their hours. Craigslist buyers were holed up. My building’s owner had refused to salt or shovel the back stairwell down to the parking lot—precarious footing for a third-floor-unit holder carrying massive household items down to his car. A sense of quiet desperation accompanied my exit.
It wasn’t a new emotional passenger. Before moving to rural America, I’d spent my entire life in cities—Newton, the Boston suburb where I grew up; Boston itself; Ann Arbor (college); and New York, where I’d packed a borrowed car to the brim one May morning and drove into my new rustic reality. A regional daily, The Berkshire Eagle, had offered me a job as its arts and entertainment reporter that spring. Amid undulating hills dotted with renowned arts institutions, the A&E beat in the Berkshires seemed like a pretty ideal gig. And as an introvert who wrote his college thesis on Emerson’s idea of self-reliance, a rural retreat sounded romantic, a time for me—26 then—to focus on various forms of writing without interruption, to be prolific, as one friend urged in a dingy East Village bar right before I left the city. Besides, I thought, I could do without the hangovers and crowded subway cars for a while.
Instead, I quickly realized that silence and stasis, once they’re permanent states, can be their own distractions. When I hiked near my new home, I would often bring a notebook with me, thinking I’d catch a lucid spell of inspiration from the surrounding landscape—the vast meadows, the gurgling brooks. But my concentration actually faltered in these settings. Sometimes, nature can be so sublime, so cyclical, as to render our individual efforts meaningless in its presence. These hills have been here for thousands of years and will be for thousands more; nothing your stupid story says will change that. Without anybody around to encourage my pursuits, to even just offer momentary diversion, I let self-doubt fill my mental void, and it was deafening. When I lived in Boston, I wrote a novel while holding down a full-time job and a fairly robust social life. In the Berkshires, I couldn’t finish a single story or essay in my ample free time.
These days, amid self-quarantine, I’m only slightly more productive outside of work hours. I’ll start a story, only to find myself questioning its significance in a post-pandemic world that won’t reflect my cultural memory for years, if ever again. That sense of creative cowering has returned, swapping out nature’s grandeur for the enormity of a public health crisis. (I also fall victim to lassitude and, apparently, trashy dating shows on Netflix.) I yearn for the Sunday afternoons in Seattle I’d spent at local bookstores and cafes, when I could crank out 1,000 words amid a hum of activity.
This background noise shouldn’t be taken for granted. City life can be intrusive—the honking horns, the braggadocious cocktail party spiels, the pushy pedestrians—but in each of these daily irritations, we intuit a collective rebellion against inertia, attempts, however misguided, at progress and improvement. We absorb this constant state of motion and, in pursuit of our needs and wants, push ourselves forward too. I never realized how much I, Mr. Self-Declared Self-Reliant Writer, needed that ambient thrust until I’d deserted it for the Berkshires, a place where Norman Rockwell lived and a museum still preserves his brand of midcentury Americana, a precious, obstinate time capsule.
When I decided to move to Seattle, I felt the tug of a thriving city in a liminal phase—the opposite of a place frozen in time. I hadn’t visited since I was a kid, but I knew this hub of the Pacific Northwest blended the best of everywhere I’d lived—the mountains, the ocean, economic vitality, intellectual curiosity, nightlife.
My flight from Boston landed on a Thursday morning. By that afternoon, I’d found a studio in Capitol Hill, a neighborhood, I’d been told, home to many college students and aging party animals. It can get pretty loud, my building manager warned as she showed me a first-floor unit. I glanced at the people walking by on the sidewalk below, heads down, somewhere to be. I recalled my Berkshire boredom. I think I’ll be OK, I said.
Now I peer out through those same windows, just above my plants, the only other living organisms in my apartment (hopefully), and can barely conjure that bustling scene. A few people roam the adjacent street, often wearing masks. Some cars take advantage of relaxed parking rules, but not many. Saturday nights, once marked by drunken hoots and howls just beyond my walls, are as hushed as any other evening.
Like my neighbors, my world has, once again, retreated inward. I haven’t spoken to anyone in person here in over a month, and I only leave my apartment to run, walk, or stock up on groceries. When I do go outside, I find myself staring down the empty, cascading streets like I once did the dusty country roads in the Berkshires, a mix of longing and curiosity consuming me. Like then, I wonder how people are coping, where they’re finding fulfillment.
Eventually, my gaze moves from the asphalt to the Puget Sound, and my mind shifts to my second day in the city. My rental agreement was locked down by that bright (almost sunny!) Friday, and I awoke with the rarest of freedoms in adult life: a weekday without work or any other obligations. Still on Boston time, I decamped from my Airbnb that morning, eager to explore my new surrounds. I started where you’d expect, snaking through the throngs at Pike Place Market, before winding my way down to the Elliott Bay shoreline. I stood next to the water, trying to make out a mountain range I couldn’t yet identify, and let the lapping waves and salty air soothe me. It had been a long journey, but I’d arrived at a place that married natural beauty and the buzz of a big city. I resolved to visit this spot again when the weather warmed up. I’d bring a book, maybe.
Now, when I consider retracing those steps down to the water from my perch on Capitol Hill, I worry about how many people I’ll have to encounter along my route, how “essential” this kind of voyage really is. I think about how six feet apart now feels like a country mile.