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Pioneers All

by Linda Thomas

Pioneer Place marks the founding site of Seattle, Washington, though the original city was devastated by fire in 1889 and now lies beneath the twentieth century Seattle. The Place is a tiny triangular park of fenced trees, flowers, and a cast-iron pergola that shelters underground bathrooms. At the apex of the triangle is a park bench guarded by light poles meant to resemble gaslights. From each pole hang baskets overflowing with white, pink, and red impatiens. Just behind the bench is a Tlingit totem pole--well over thirty-five feet tall--its carvings an indication of the cultural and religious lineage of its maker. Tourists sit on the bench to pose for snapshots that they take home, show to friends, and store in boxes.

Sounds lovely, right?

There's more. Pioneer Place is the heart of a larger district called Pioneer Square, a conglomeration of nightclubs, retro-kitsch and t-shirt shops, and rescue missions. Yesler Way, the street that borders the park, is Seattle's original Skid Row, the road to a now defunct waterfront lumber mill and present home to people who can't find the next chance. Combine the tourists gawking at the totem pole with street people angling for change, and you hear stories like this:

"I'm originally from Texas. I need to get back there for a construction job. I can get there for two fifty."
Or, "My dog here [see black terrier mix puppy poking head out of a paper sack tucked into speaker's jacket] hasn't eaten since Thursday. If I could get a couple dollars I could get her something, and maybe me too."

The totem pole itself has a story. According to the guidebook, the original totem was stolen in 1890 from a Tlingit village along the north coast and placed in the heart of old Seattle. In 1938, the totem pole burned down, and city officials sent a check for $5,000 to the Tlingit people requesting a new one. The Tlingit responded, "Thanks for paying for the first one. Send another $5,000 for a replacement." A Seattle trolley guide enlivened the story by telling me that the totem pole thieves were drunk, that the first pole was torched by an arsonist, and that the replacement actually cost $10,000. Who knows? Either way, it's a fortune to the guy from Texas and to the woman with the pup.

I am here in Pioneer Place on an early Saturday afternoon in midsummer because I want to see the totem pole. On a bench nearby sits a man waiting for the city bus. He is African-American, wears a Seattle Supersonics bomber jacket, and listens intently through a headset to the sounds coming from his radio. Suddenly, he whips off the headset, looks at me, and says, "Shots were fired in the Capitol. CNN. Two dead." Then, he climbs onto a bus that has plowed into the curb, churning up dirt and exhaust, and he is gone.

My head swims a little with the dislocation. I am in Seattle, far from California, thinking of Texas, now of D.C., when suddenly across Yesler, a man wearing a bright orange ski cap darts into the street against the traffic light. Cars screech and stop. No drivers honk their horns. The man is mid-sixties, shabby, bent urgently forward in his rapid walk, and he speaks to all of us in the crowd of tourists, locals, and street people in a loud, monotonous tone that at first strikes me as a foreign language. A few words untangle themselves: "Crazy man, crazy man, crazy man," he says. "Make him dead, make him dead, make him dead." As he rushes past, I see that his feet are wrapped in plastic grocery bags secured with red rubber bands.

A man wearing a nylon fanny pack says to no one in particular, "We don't want him dead. He might be hired. We want to know what ayatollah hired him." I realize that they are talking about whoever fired shots in the Capitol.

Only then do I look at the bench, the one where tourists sit to pose for photos in front of the Tlingit totem pole. The bench is covered in graffiti, all in red paint so that I study the letters to see if perhaps the same person wrote each message. The messages share a similar outrage: "My graffiti won't make a difference," says one. Another says, "Welcome to America--if you were a black lab you would be loved." Still another says, "The pain of having no chance."

And it strikes me that whatever is true about America might be right here in front of my eyes. Not Pioneer Place so much as the events of these few minutes and that they could occur here in this gemlike city on the cliffs above Puget Sound: the totem pole as revered as a crucifix or Buddha, stolen; a rotunda, tourists, a man with a gun, blood and dead people; a tall, robust, and handsome man who stares at his feet as he asks strangers for bus fare; an insane man who wishes another insane man dead; an American who jumps to the conclusion that an assassin must be a foreigner.

We are so frightened, so sure, so bold. Just two days ago in the airport in my hometown, I passed through the metal detector at the departure gate just behind a young woman with two children. One child, a boy about six, brandished a silver metal toy pistol at the security guard. In a flash, three guards appeared, took the toy pistol, and assured the bewildered mother the toy pistol would be stored at the airport information desk for later retrieval.

The bold child points his toy pistol in a fantasy that recreates the frightened badman leaving town in a hail of gunfire, or the good guy protecting his mother from harm, or the insane man blasting his way into the capitol. The frightened guards, sure of the law and the actuality of handguns in America, disarm a child. The scene would be laughable were it not such a haunting reflection of other such scenes in which the gun is deadly, such a reminder that all innocence lies behind us.

Though it may sound innocent now, I hope now that the boy recovered his toy. I hope that the man found his way home to Texas and that the job pays well. I hope the puppy got a burger. I hope that the Tlingit people laugh. And most of all, I hope that we all find in ourselves the will to shelter the sick, the homeless, and the shunned.

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Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature. All photographs accompanyingRambles are taken by Linda herself.

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