I was standing in the middle of the street, intently looking through the viewfinder at a neon sign on the roof of the Pike Place Market, when I heard a shout from inside the market and a fishmonger pointing at me:
My first thought was: “hey, you talkin’ to me?”
Then my brain kicked in and I turned around to face the threat–a dark sedan sliding somewhat sideways down the hill directly toward me. Adrenalin pumping, I backed off the street as the car managed to slide into the turn successfully at the bottom of the hill. Death averted.
Seattle and snow blend about as well as slugs and salt. It just isn’t something that people here deal with very often, so Seattlites don’t have the infrastructure or the driving ability to deal with these snowstorms that happen every few years.
This storm brought perhaps 5″ of snow to downtown Seattle. If you come from a part of the country that experiences macho snowfalls (as I did, coming from Syracuse two decades ago), 5″ will seem puny–hardly worth dragging out the snowblower for. But Seattle has hills … really steep hills right downtown that cause your calves to scream with rage as you hike upslope. And there are few snowplows. During a big storm in the 1990s that took many days to clean up, I remember the mayor saying pitifully that “we only have seven snowplows!”
There is also a Seattle aversion to salting the roads. In the last big snowstorm, several years ago, the city government expressed a horror about the environmental impact of salt and the salty runoff trickling down into Puget Sound. My first reaction was incredulity, as in: “Puget Sound is already … SALTWATER!” Fortunately, the old salts prevailed and the city now uses salt, though not really enough.
Snow affects Seattle politics. In December 2008, then Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was the guy who refused to use salt on the roads, so they were icy from December 13-27, causing traffic problems and accidents for the whole two weeks. I remember barely making it to the airport that year for our Christmas flight, after getting ensnared in a traffic jam on back roads that were so completely coated with ice that they looked like skating rinks.
Seattle’s mayor had a second PR problem in the snows that year. I recall a media report that the city’s road maintenance department took it upon themselves to plow a road directly from the mayor’s home to city hall, rather than plowing out major streets first. Of course, citizens were outraged, even after the mayor exclaimed that he had nothing to do with that decision. Largely as a result of the snowstorm problems, the mayor didn’t even make it through the primary elections the next year.
On the morning of the heavy snowfall this year, Karen and I trudged from our Bremerton apartment to the ferry bound for Seattle, wearing waterproof L.L. Bean boots, the parkas we wore on an Antarctic trip a decade ago, heavy mittens, and woolen hats from Kathmandu. Karen was heading to her job in the marble corridors of a law office, and I was going to spend the day documenting the Seattle snowfall. It was a cold and wet day, with constant light snowfall, but I was able to get the selection of photographs you see here.
Seattle was virtually deserted that morning, save for a few hardy office workers who were able to take transit of some sort, since ferries, light rail, heavy rail, and some buses were operational. The buses wore chains, as did most delivery vehicles. That night, when returning home, Karen had trouble descending the steep hills on foot, as the colder evening temperatures turned slush to ice. The problem? Not enough salt to keep the sidewalks safe. So she telecommuted the next day.
The Smith Tower, once the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi, rises above one of the old brick buildings of Pioneer Square. The brick building has a faded ad for the Washington State Ferries that says “Have Lunch Over Seas,” which is a playful thing to do when crossing Puget Sound.
The homeless were still on the streets during the storm; after all, where else would they be? I asked one homeless man if I could take his picture; he was wearing a gray snowflake-covered blanket draped over his head, and he was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, exhaling a cloud of blue smoke that hung in the air in front of his dark face. Alas, he said “No, I don’t think so.” I offered him money, and he said he didn’t need any. So, that one great picture will just have to stay forever etched in my mind.
Home of The Jetsons–actually, it is the monorail from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair passing through Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s addition to the city–the EMP Museum (think Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana), designed by Frank Gehry
By the way, here are a couple of not-to-be-missed videos of a skier launching off a high park in Seattle:
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