Friday, April 4, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Two: The Very Center

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After spending the night in a rest stop, bass drum for a pillow, Shawn rolled into Tacoma, traffic zipping by on either side. He turned into downtown, operating on five-year-old directionals,  a high-school field trip to the State History Museum. What he remembered most were the hulking brick buildings, past lives painted on their foreheads: F.S. HARMON MFG. CO., ALBERS BROS. MILLING CO. He passed the inverted copper teacup of Union Station, then took the A Street exit.
            Climbing 9th Street, he found a five-way intersection that felt distinctly New Yorkish. It might have been the Pantages Theater, high white walls with cornices and ornaments, or the stone sculptures marking off a lawn-covered island. But the center of gravity was a triangular building to his right, squeezed to a point by the streets of St. Helens and Broadway. The ground floor hosted a coffeehouse, the tip occupied by a single table, surrounded by glass. That was the spot.
            He parked in front of a guitar shop, dashed around the corner and marked one of the terrarium chairs with a windbreaker. He sat there with his coffee and surveyed the new territory: lunching office workers, a beaten-down wanderer with a ragged leather backpack, two old ladies with a Dalmatian. Caffeine had no chance against rest-area sleep, however, and he soon began to doze. After three involuntary head-jerks, he decided to take a hike.
            A few blocks uphill he found the Merolino Art Center, overlooking the Pittsburgh-like smokestreams of a paper mill. He turned catacorner to find a square of limestone brick, giving off alternate hues of tan brown and margarine. Nearing the entrance he noted three flags: the Stars and Stripes, the emerald green of Washington, and the Union Jack. The latter was quickly explained by tall letters spelled out over the entranceway: THE CAMBRIDGE. Shawn fumbled with the intercom until he found a button for the manager.
            “Hello, Cambridge Apartments.”
            The voice was female, friendly but direct.
            “Hi, um… I wanted to… Do you have apartments available?”
            “Sure. What are you looking for? One-bedroom? Studio?”
            I got no friggin’ idea, he thought. Hell, two days ago he was livin’ at Mom and Dad’s.
            “Um… studio’s probably fine.”
            “Good. ‘Cause that’s all we got.” She let out a chirpy laugh. “I’ll be down in two minutes.”
            “Okay. I’m on the hilly side.”
            “Right. Where the intercom is.”
            “Oh. Uh, yeah.”
            Shawn was running a hand over a ceramic-tile gryphon when a remarkably young-looking blonde stuck her head out the doorway.
            “Are you the guy?”
“The guy? Yeah, I guess I must be. Um, Shawn.”
            She shook his hand. She was thin and wiry, blue eyes set in a small, bird-like face.
“Zasu. And yes, I’m old enough to be the manager. One of these days, I’m going to stop getting that look from people.”
“Like Zasu Pitts, the silent film star.”
“Hey! Brownie points for the new guy. Come on in. Let’s start with 308 – it’s my favorite.”
They stepped into an elevator, one of those old-fashioned jobs with the accordion-style gate.
“I hate this thing,” she said. “Gives me the creeps. I shouldn’t even show you 308, you know, because I go up there late at night to write my poetry. But it’s really small, so I’m going to knock the rent down from 395 to 380.
The poetry comment had Shawn pretty primed, but he liked it even more when he saw it: hardwood floors, long entranceway, huge old-style bathtub, and two large sash windows framing the downtown skyline. There was just one other thing.
“Can you see the mountain?”
“Sure,” she said. “Take a look.”
Perhaps that was how you fell in love with a mountain – a little bit at a time. Rainer was peeling a scarf of cloud cover from her snowy northern shoulder. Shawn painted in the rest of her, hovering just-so over his cityscape.
An hour later he sat on the sidewalk across the street, tucking his paperwork into his windbreaker, when something occurred to him. He found his apartment, just over the Washington flag, and started counting. Five stories, his was the third. Thirteen sets of windows – his was the seventh. The very center.

Photo by MJV

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