Seattlelandia: Episode One, “Ladies on the Loose”

Sometimes life is too much like Portlandia.

The scene begins with a morning trip to the neighborhood artisan bakery for a scone for her and a ham and cheese (excuse me, ham and gruyere) croissant for him. On the way, he throws the chickens a yogurt tub of chicken food and lets them out to run freely in the yard.

Only much later, as she takes a break from working on her tortured masterpiece of fiction and eats her artisan bread/organic butter/homecanned tomato/sustainably-caught-sardine lunch concoction does she notice that the back gate is open. Dunh dunh dunh…. She rushes down into the yard, the dog at her heels. Ruba, Diamond, and Licorice Chick are gone! Only Puff remains, brocking a lonely brock in the empty dirt.

Soon they are both searching the block for the lost ladies. “Excuse me, have you seen any chickens?” they ask again and again.

“I know how to hold a chicken rully rully good,” says a proud child on a pedalless bike (which, like all modern and trend-setting children she rides instead of a trike so that she will never have to use training wheels).

“We had two hundred chickens when I was a kid,” says another neighbor, who now has three small free-ranging dogs. “If I find yours I’ll chuck ’em over the fence.”

Next thing, she’s putting up LOST CHICKEN signs and he’s wandering the alleyways. Then she has to abandon the search to go to a bodywork appointment, which she has strategically timed so that her drives sandwich rush hour (this is Seattlelandia, after all). When she gets out, walking regally and in pristine balance through the golden Wallingford air, a text: They’ve been found! Someone read a sign! Someone called! Diamond resisted capture, but he prevailed, and the ladies are home!

She drives home listening to an obscure band sing about saber-toothed tigers and drinking water (as instructed) from a reusable glass juice jar. There is traffic on the University Bridge. Two cops have pulled some people of color over on her street. She feels incensed and drives on by, then uses her turn signal on her driveway, just in case the cops care. The chickens pace in their run. He cooks dinner. She walks the dog. Happy violins play and the sun sets behind the construction site.

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A Tense, Polite Distance

I nanny in Columbia City, an area in South Seattle that is supposedly the most diverse zip code in the northwest.  I have nannied there for years, first for two boys, then for their neighbors, a family with three girls.  It’s the kind of neighborhood where people know the kids by name and if we go to the playground we always see people we know.  At the girls’ house, we can hear chickens from three directions.  There is a booming farmer’s market that does not feel too swanky and a park where we see eagles, kingfishers, and salmon.  And of course, there are all sorts of people.  Having grown up in North Seattle, where there were more children of lesbian couples in my school than there were black kids, the diversity in Columbia City is a revelation to me.

Yet at the same time, when I nannied the boys, the neighborhood always had a little bit of an oil-and-water feel to me.  There were lots of different people there, and everyone was generally friendly, but they mostly stuck to their own race.  Yes, one of the boys was one of just a couple of white kids in his class and had friends from Mexico and East Africa, but his brother, in the Montessori track of the elementary school, was in a class of nearly all white kids — clearly there was some kind of safety-valve segregation happening.  Mixed in to that was the classic Seattle link between money and elevation.  Richer people live on hills; poorer people live in hollows.  Columbia City is steep, therefore it is class-diverse, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people mix up and down those hills.

But since I’ve started nannying the girls, my experience of the neighborhood has changed.  Sometimes it really feels like one big happy soup of people.

So, I should explain, that the boys, as well as the family I nannied before them, look just like me.  Not only are they white, they are blue-eyed, dirty-blond, small featured, compact kids.  Except that they aren’t, they look like they are mine.  The girls, on the other hand, look nothing like me.  First of all, they are black.  And tall and limby.  Hypothetically, my straight-haired, sunburnable genetics could be buried somewhere in there, but it isn’t most people’s first read of the situation.  (Though when I walk around with the baby, people do often think she is mine.  No one flirts with you when you have a baby on your chest.  Just saying.)

This all means that I am not constantly negotiating people’s impression that I am the kids’ mom.  But beyond that, something really interesting has happened.  My interactions in the neighborhood have shifted.  When I interact with people of other races, sort of tense, polite distance has lifted.

Some of it is probably — hopefully — a continued shift in myself as I become more comfortable with the spectrum of humanity.  It’s a continually resurfacing thing, this uncomfortableness I find inside myself.  Mostly, I think, it’s a fear of offending someone.  A fear of being hated, of being hate worthy. Of being one unconscious, entitled asshole in a long line of unconscious, entitled assholes.  It makes me, sometimes, completely unable to discuss race.  Look at my first novel, for instance: there is a Cuban ex-revolutionary and a Native mayor, but other than that, no one has a race that I mention.  Which of course somehow makes them white.  I don’t even picture all the characters as white, but damned if I could communicate that in the book. My own need to be seen as a non-racist person keeps me from actually dealing with race. Mix that awkwardness in with some doubt in my own ability to filter out passed-down cultural fears from genuine dangerous situations, and what do you get?  Tense, polite distance. Sometimes — maybe even more and more — I can get past this, but it’s not gone yet.

When I am out with the girls, other people treat me differently.  It’s like because the girls’ parents trust me, I can be trusted.  Or because I love these kids, I pass some test. I’m on the same side of some invisible thing. People of color nod at me, smile at me, talk to me, and there is this relaxedness, this benevolence, to the interactions that is only sometimes there when I am on my own.  And it’s frickin cool to feel.  It gives me this hopeful lovey-human-family feeling.  More than that, it gives me a sense of what is possible.  A reason to roll up my sleeves and really grapple with my feelings about race.  I can’t do anyone else’s part, but I might be able to get past my own awkwardness.  At the least, it will help me write truer fiction.