Bernie Sanders is in town. A week before, he filled Key Arena and thousands are left outside by the Seattle Center fountain to watch the stump speech on a portable Jumbotron. A week later he returns, this time to the five-times larger Safeco Field, where the line creeps down Fourth Avenue. I wait two hours. At the end, I watch a tiny wild-haired blur speak from a distant home plate. A group of young drunks makes tasteless jokes and talk on their phones in front of me. I can only surmise they have mistaken a political rally for a baseball game. When the crowd cheers, one of the girls falls over, laughing.
Five dollar Polish dogs have not filled me up. Bars and sports kitch do not appeal to me, so I ride the subway up a few streets to Belltown. Upscale food commingles with dive bars and cupcake places. The cupcakes here are not so good, so a candy bar is plenty. North of the soulless Bartell drugstore, the monorail snakes through Belltown. There’s a little grocery store there across the street from a park popular with the homeless, which irony puts diagonally across from The Warwick, a tony hotel. Ralph’s always makes me happy.
Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery was a fixture of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon. Back in the distant past when I listened to Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and read his books, I didn’t realize how unusual it was for an adolescent to find New Yorker style humor understandable, much less at all funny. The joke for Ralph’s was: “If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it.” It wasn’t fall-down funny, and I didn’t know any Minnesotans or Norwegians yet, but I understood that self-denial-as-virtue that comes from poverty and provincialism. Stores like Ralph’s–the tiny, overpriced selection dwarfed by shelves of mostly empty space, all inventory in counts of two, as if the ketchup and tissue boxes had emerged from a low-rent Ark–are everywhere, on county road intersections and grey cinderblock neighborhoods, in America and everywhere else. It’s always been there and always will be, never getting worse and never getting better. It’s the place you go when your car uses too much gas to go anywhere else. We are respectable people, say the lines in the hard faces that patronize these wheezing outposts. We work hard and hold our heads high, all right with the Lord. We do not walk.
Growing up in suburban-rural Texas, I knew of Karyn’s at one end of one county road, and Bennett’s where a larger, more-potholed county road intersected another at a bowed Y. Both had gasoline pumps and an air hose for pumping up bicycle tires; neither was safe to approach via bicycle, but there was no other way. By bicycle, my two friends and I could trace elaborate circuits through suburban cul de sacs, thin tar-and-chip county tracks, private driveways and holes in fences, coming around back ways that were survivable. At the end of a sixth- or seventh-grade day, Karyn’s offered whatever candy or sugary drink that could be had with leftover lunch money. Jason turned me on to YooHoos. He, Paul and I leaned on our bikes underneath a sprawling oak tree, sampling the chocolate cold, divining the label’s secrets. Karyn’s was dark with worn-out paneling, shiny with drink coolers, and musty like mud gone dry. It was work to get to, but its run-down escape paid off. Bennett’s was a bigger prize attempted only during summers. It required planning, perseverance, and a willingness to take one’s life in one’s hands.
Keillor’s fictional Ralph’s had more dignity than these two hovels. Its churchy decay bespoke the reverence of people’s hardship. But the two hovels were real places my friends and I could go to. To go anywhere from nowhere was a privilege.
From the wrong way–crossing over from Third on Bell, and heading south–the Ralph’s marquee looms in unfamiliar shadow. What should be illuminated in green and purple–the green logo and purple bunch of grapes–is dark against the Cinerama’s powerful glow. I stand on the corner of Lenora and Fourth, noting people walking past what looks to be an oddly lit store interior. Signs are in the windows.
At the locked door, I read the papers taped to the glass and feel the smallest punch in my gut. For a moment, there is a little less air in the world. Some other ocean of time freezes while everyone walks past, the city giggling. I’m hardly weeping, not even sad, if “sad” is to have meaning. I’ve learned something personal that everyone else knew months ago.
The guy playing the guitar sings a Dylan song and nods at me without interrupting himself. He doesn’t ask for money, but he smiles. Maybe I look pained. I wanted a candy bar but I got bad news. Ralph’s closed in December.
December 1997 brings a lucky break. An agency calls with a video editor job: a game studio is shorthanded and deadlines loom. It’s my first real Seattle job, having struck out in Seattle dot-com frenzy since summer. Weird hours and a revolving door of people complicate things, but it’s a real job, with Hollywood types, and it pays. X-Files is the game.
The studio was located two blocks up from Ralph’s. I first went to Ralph’s with some of the main studio players–Paul, who remains a good friend, and Cassandra. Cassandra, the head artist, was an is a stunning beauty. The first afternoon there I buy a Snickers. She eyes me and it down her long aquiline nose. “That’s healthy.” She doesn’t speak to me for months. (She much later comes out as a punk rocker type, and we get along fine.) Despite my disorientation, my bad marriage, my dismissal by yet another attractive woman, Ralph’s shines out. I have Arrived.
Every workday until October 13, 1999–when, the game complete, we last four are laid off–I walk past Ralph’s. I get sandwiches there, made fresh on a grill. You can buy fifty dollar wine and fancy mushrooms and Theo chocolate. There is the plain stuff too, and Ben & Jerry’s. I didn’t spend much at Ralph’s, but it was always there, and I took great solace in its dependable green glow, warm lights, rich smells. Taking a break from screens, a 2 a.m. two-block walk to check in with other night owls cemented me to the wonder of the real.
The new millennium put me on the other side of Lake Washington, at Microsoft, the belly of the beast itself. I missed the camaraderie and the sense of working a job in line with who I felt I was. I missed the city and I missed Ralph’s. I wasn’t in New York yet, but Belltown and Ralph’s made it seem possible to get there. Things were looking up.
Since then, every travel through Belltown had Ralph’s as a signpost: I was there. I am here. I know this place. I met friends there, stopped there after interviewing for jobs, had a date there. When Cinerama reopened, it was a great place to get a good meal and buy candy to sneak in. It was beautiful the way a bolt is, or a pencil. The perfected needs no more work. Pencils and bolts persist with us, their utility too strong to go without. Ralph’s has succumbed to market instability, says the Seattle Times story taped to the door glass. Another way to say this: some things can be too good.
Other things are going too, succumbing to a wave of Chinese investment. Above, an old transmission shop, part of Seattle’s dumpy gritty past, is now a hole that will become condominiums. I walked past this for years too, wondering how a transmission shop could survive downtown. Why isn’t there a real building here? Soon, there will be.
The Spitfire has taken over from The Sit & Spin. A bar-laundromat was an idea whose time had been coming, and had come by 1997. I loved watching hipsters stare at their tumbling undies, old-style giant TVs with tubes in them hanging from massive ceiling-bolted cranes. Its change machines were lifesavers for me: every day exchanging a few dollars for quarters to feed the meter. (My hours were too squirrely to assure a bus ride home.) I don’t remember the food, and I don’t drink, but I remember resting there one Friday afternoon with workmates, floating in blue glow and the scent of soap. The Sit and Spin was demolished in the mid-2000s, replaced with a condo tower. The Spitfire is a forgettable sports bar, its great screens no compensation for terrible food.
Yuki’s Diffusion is unchanged from 1997, as is the Security House building where I worked. I imagine the salon as some mobster’s tax dodge, its chairs always empty, attractive Asian women reading magazines on their high high heels. The sign blinks in rhythm, like a 1980s movie about the dark future. This is comforting in a small safe way, like a bento box that protects not food but era.
I am not one to bemoan things passing. I roll my eyes at the typical Seattle greybeard, his ponytail wrenched in a violated bunch as his favorite falling-down single-story asbestos-clogged faulty-wired dump that was a bar-restaurant-dive-library-dive-apartment-bookstore-dive-honkytonk-dive-disco-dive-artspace-theatre-dive-dive-dive has failed in its drive to be recognized as “historic” and will soon feed bulldozers. Great! I say. Can’t happen fast enough. To all the hipsters that complain about soullessness, I counter with ratless, bugless, energy-efficient and earthquake-compliant straight lines and windows that close. Amazingly, the once and future rents are comparable. Those Chinese make a good building.
I don’t mourn Ralph’s going. It is not 1997, 1999, 2001, or any of those former years. They belong to the past now, and that is as right as you and be being in the present, facing forward, moving ahead. Nothing lasts forever and there is no arguing, even as we may be confused as to what or who has changed. Perspective takes a while in coming, and once attained, is one more thing to let go.
Seattle Times: Saying Goodbye to Beloved Ralph’s Grocery