Every Wednesday of 2021 I’ve exchanged poems with a dear friend. We started this project with no definitive rules, but I’ve since applied some to my side of the trade-off:
First, I don’t write the poem until Wednesday morning. I want it to be a snapshot of the moment I sit down to write it. Second, I don’t qualify the poem’s content. Which means I start the piece with the first thing that comes to mind. It could be anything, really. A book I’m reading, a memorable interaction, a current pondering, whatever. And third, if my friend happens to email her poem to me before I send mine to her, I don’t read hers until mine is done and sent.
Before she proposed this weekly exchange, my creative output was a trickle. Barely any writing or drawings or homemade cards or wooden spoons or paintings. This absence left holes in my bones, and I mostly gave into it.
My life’s routine was comfortable and steady, yet I spent too much time allowing surfacy distractions (like my job, social media feeds, and streaming movies) keep me from spending quality time with myself. The grind was cyclical—eat-work-sleep—and frankly I didn’t mind it much. But there’s no doubt it was leaving me half-empty.
The first few poetry Wednesdays became my week’s bright spots. The days started with an earlier wakeup, which meant an extra cup of coffee that I sipped watching the sunrise and listening to sounds of city birds. I’d open my laptop and within an hour I’d have a poem.
The best part of these poems was that we wrote them to be shared, and nothing else. No critique, no feedback on our use of poetic devices. We eschewed judgment in lieu of gratitude. Being simply thanked for sharing a raw poem was just what I needed to want to do it again and again.
And there’s that theme again—the doing is what matters.
This week I walked a relatively shortish three hours or so. I knocked out a twelve-mile section of the Riverside and Emerson/Garfield neighborhoods. I meandered through this older part of town and, per usual, enjoyed the aging architecture of the perfectly-sized homes. The SpokanePlanner website predicts this area’s future: “A mostly historic district, the traveler…gets to experience a variety of mixed land uses and the shabby-chic character of the street is ripe for a hipster explosion.” That last bit has me shaking my head. And not because I have a thing against hipsters. By all rights I am one. But the turn of phrase, “hipster explosion,” sounds more like a tongue-in-cheek name for a burgeoning new punk band or a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor. Places have histories and legacies that ought not be diminished to a cheap tagline suitable for mindless copy.
I’m still new to Spokane. And it’s likely that even when it’s time for me to leave, I still will be. But my outsider’s perspective may offer some insight.
I think Spokane is still trying to figure out what to embrace. The city’s infrastructure is ready to be rallied around, but its goal-identity is still a bit of a mystery. For thirteen years its slogan was “Near Nature, Near Perfect,” a fanciful play on word repetition.
But that “near perfect” bit isn’t much of a celebration. And it definitely isn’t a statement of collective belief. To me, it makes Spokane sound like the runner up to something. Like it won Honorable Mention. Nobody wants that award.
In 2017 the town upgraded the slogan to, “Creative by Nature,” which is a little better. Still, I wonder what it is the town is trying to say by being ambiguous.
Vague vision statements and slogans are great if they accurately call to mind the gamut of agreed-upon ideals and core values. But “Creative by Nature” remains cryptic. It doesn’t give me, a creative and nature-loving new arrival, any sort of deeper understanding about how I can easily fit into this place. But maybe I just need to give it more time. Sometimes to see a star, I have to stop looking at it.
After nearly six months into my weekly poetry project, I am often surprised by how similar our weekly pieces turn out. Similarities are rarely obvious in content or imagery, but very often the feeling of our pieces puts them in direct conversation. It’s fascinating how purposeful connection (albeit, virtual) aligns what might otherwise be disparate vibes. There’s great power in coming together.
Which makes me wonder how this could apply to Spokane and its people. Are we all trying so hard to be individuals here that we’re excluding folks whose presence makes us exist in the first place? I wonder if an approach of honesty, selflessness, and togetherness might affect Spokane’s definition of self.
I left St. John’s elementary for the newly formed eighth grade class offered at the local all boys Jesuit prep. Every day I put together an outfit of slacks, a button down long sleeve, a tie, and non-white socks. I coupled this with a tweed suit coat—one of my dad’s old ones that made me feel like David Byrne in the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense era.
When the class list arrived in the mail, my stomach dropped. Gone were the days of generic subjects and low expectations. At McQuaid Jesuit I’d be taking Latin, Theology, American History, Geography, Biology, and Algebra. These all sounded like college courses to me.
Mr. Post taught Algebra. From the get-go he was terrifying. He was tall, muscular, stone-faced and deep-voiced, and he coached the varsity football team. He’d meet all entering students at the classroom doorway and say something rude. Like, “Big zit on your nose, Griffen.” I rarely responded, so he spent his time chiding other guys. Post reminded me of an old, angry dog. Don’t get too close.
Terry Stoll, a long-haired stoner kid, regularly dished attitude and snarky comments back at Post. Stoll was super smart even if he didn’t look it. Just like the rest of us he had, after all, been offered one of the fifty coveted spots in the program. Getting in was a feat. Yet there he sat, among us, mumbling rudely and stirring the pot. Stoll definitely had a death wish.
I remember feeling sorry for Stoll. Though I was young and unworldly, it was obvious he was acting out for attention. And the more he got, the more he needed. It was early in the year and he already had a reputation for picking fights with other kids.
More than any kid my age I’d ever seen, Stoll could hold his own. He backed up his aggression with solid fighting skills. Like he was a boxer or something. I’d never seen a kid hold his fists up like he did. One close in by his cheek, the other reaching past his nose. His poise was often enough to back kids down, but if not, one of his laser jabs did the trick.
I remember reading something that said humans act out however they have been abused. Made me wonder about Stoll’s home life.
Post liked hell-raisers, but only if they were jocks. I distinctly remember him saying, “Wild colts make the best horses.” Stoll wasn’t a jock (though I once saw him hoop and was like, damn!).
Post ignored Stoll’s antics until they became too much. Then he’d either calmly kick Stoll out or, to the joy of his athletes, he’d berate him until the bell rang. “I didn’t know they let girls in now,” he’d say. Or, “Oh, I guess Stoll didn’t take his meds today.” Stuff like that. Stoll wasn’t quick with words, so he absorbed Post’s bullying with a reddening face.
As the bell marked the beginning of passing period, we’d all bottleneck towards the door and Stoll would occasionally kick over a desk or two en route. On those occasions, Post would smugly shout “JUG!” which was the acronym for after school detention—Justice Under God. Once I caught Stoll’s eye after Post hollered the punishment. “I don’t even care,” Stoll said with a snarl. “I don’t care about any of this shit.”
Thirty-six years later I’m remembering Post and Stoll as I walk the streets of Spokane. These are my memories. And memories are rarely accurate. But something about today called these to mind. The catalyst isn’t clear. And frankly these memories feel more like something I saw in a movie than something I lived out.
We take in so much. All these details and experiences. All these words and influences. And from our birth to death these memories create an unbroken line. If I am still alive in another thirty-six years, I wonder if this walking will seem like something I actually did. And what of Post and Stoll, will those times still be accessible? Will my memories be mine and not mine at the same time?
Folks always ask me what I think about when I’m walking and I often say, “Nothing.” This is the easier response, but it’s not really true.
Note: Names have been changed to ensure privacy.
Before every walk I look at a paper map and choose my destination. Square blocks are easiest to undertake, and so far that’s what I’ve mostly done in seventeen days of walking. These blocks, it turns out, are a design choice as much as they are a navigational convenience.
My little book on design states: “Suburban streets collect. Urban streets interconnect.” Merely looking at a map depicts the obvious difference between collecting and interconnecting. Suburban streets look like winding branches with dead ends. They are hierarchical—residential cul-de-sacs intended for residents only. Urban streets, however, are egalitarian. They are gridded, interwoven, and economical. They connect every street to every street.
Trap or flow. Solitude or socialize. This is how we live.
I don’t mean my comments to sound judgmental even though I do have a preference for urban design over suburban. But it’s 100% true that I am perceived differently in a suburban neighborhood compared to an urban one. If I’m not a known being in a suburban landscape, I become an outsider. Someone to keep an eye on. I can feel this, and I often imagine folks watching me out their living room windows until I have completely left their dead end nook. “Now who the heck is this guy walking down our street?”
In an urban neighborhood I’m simply another passerby. I never get the sense that the Neighborhood Watch phone tree has been activated. I simply walk the length of the street as I sink deeper into the landscape, passing through and along the long straight line.
During a previous walk, I happened upon a stretch of road that bisected a neighborhood with lots of younger kids. Yards had signs asking drivers to slow their roll, and there were a few of those plastic, flag-bearing crossing guard things posted at the beginning and end of each street. Chalk drawings filled the sidewalk, and random toys were left out one lawns without worry. Stuff like that.
As I marched down the thick of the street, I came upon a group of five children, maybe eight or nine years old. A few had climbed high into a tree and others were looking up at them from below.
As I approached, the kids on the ground level turned towards me and stared. From a few steps away, I said, “Good morning!” They mumbled a similar response. I then said, “Be careful up in that tree.” To which one of the kids in the tree replied, “I’m not gonna be careful!” I laughed, and as I passed the group, the one with the widest eyes said to the others, “Dang. I thought that guy was gonna kidnap us!”
At that moment I was thrilled to be walking a grid. I could keep on and get further away with each step. Didn’t have to worry about passing back, retracing my steps, maybe having to explain my intrusion to a concerned parent who’d undoubtedly question why I was in their neighborhood.
I knew with certainty I’d never see those children again. Quite possibly for the rest of my life. And knowing that sometimes the most benign childhood moments are often the ones we carry with us the longest, I wondered if that one kid will someday share the story of the day the man with the funny hat tried to kidnap him. And frankly, part of me hopes this how it all shakes out.
Nearly twenty miles from my apartment to the Whitman neighborhood and back. Gorgeous spring day to spend five hours sauntering some Spokane streets.
This year, the website RoadSnacks put Spokane’s Whitman neighborhood in the city’s top 10 worst places to live. Whitman’s “Snackability” score (*sigh*) is based on a few bits of statistical data: Population, median home value, median income, unemployment rate, and crime. I won’t bore myself (or you) with particulars, but I will say this website fully bums me out. It’s the sort of publication that promotes fear, even if this likely isn’t its intention.
As I walked across America, many people warned me about upcoming towns. Some adamantly insisted I change my trajectory to avoid places riddled with crime and, as one police officer called people on an Apache Indian reservation, “riff-raff.” I never heeded these warnings. In fact, in most of these places-to-avoid I received a hospitable welcome from its residents.
I don’t want someone else’s fear. Statistics are curious and say a lot about a place. But if they are employed to feed fear, (ie. RoadSnack’s “10 Worst Neighborhoods in Spokane for 2021”), they are persisting a bigger problem.
That word, “worst,” is a dagger. And it was a choice by the website’s editors. Replace it with “opportunistic” or “affordable” or “diverse” or “less-pretentious” and suddenly Whitman is enlivened. If nothing else, it forces the reader to visit the place themselves and formulate their own opinion, rather than rely on some cheeky writer’s quip that others a less-fortunate neighborhood.
Today I finished up the Nettleton and West Central neighborhoods. I was mostly struck by the abundance of astonishing turn-of-the-century homes and buildings. One in particular on the corder of Oak and Sinto caught my interest: A robust three-story brick beast with the words “BROOMS BRUSHES” boldly painted on one side. Its north side faces a spur line of the old Oregon Washington Railway, and the building’s original receiving dock sits just high enough to accept deliveries directly from a railcar.
The building stands tall among neighboring revitalization. Some may see the boxy red monster as an eyesore, but really it’s a beautiful piece of Spokane’s thriving past.
Like many of the older buildings in town, the original owner’s last name is inscribed on the top center band just below the roof. This is the Meese building, built in 1905 to replace a preceding wooden one destroyed by fire in 1904. It is named for Gustav Meese, a businessman from San Francisco.
The Meese building housed the Washington Broom Factory, and was one of the first industrial factories built in the West Central neighborhood. The factory produced more than one thousand full-sized brooms and whisks per day and, at one point, was the largest broom manufacturer west of Minneapolis. In its heyday, it employed eighteen workers and had a monthly payroll of $1500.
After Meese’s death in 1934, the building changed hands and became home to McDonald Seed Company. In 1961, the Northwest Bean and Pea Company moved in. Today it’s a warehouse—or so says the internet. I was thrilled to find a scrap wood pile on its NW corner. I snagged a few nice pieces that fit in my shoulder bag and will use them for upcoming painting projects.
When I finished the easy walk, I returned home to do a little research on the building I’m currently living in downtown. I thought I knew a few things about it already, but I learned I really didn’t know much at all.
I reside in the Oakley building in Spokane’s historic district. Built in 1908, it’s a three-story, buff brick structure that, according to the WayMarking website, “retains excellent integrity.” R.S. Oakley, the building’s original owner and later vice president of Spokane Paint and Oil Company, paid $25,000 for the building’s construction. The design is believed to have always been mixed-use—businesses on the ground floor, and single-room occupancy hotel rooms above. But there’s no record of either the architect or builder, so such confirmations are lost with time.
One of the Oakley’s first occupants was Interstate Rubber Company (1909). It specialized in belting, hose, tires, and all kinds of rubber footwear and clothing. Interstate Rubber shared the space with the Spokane Scenic Theater Company whose stay was short-lived. Alfred Jones, the owner of the theater company, closed up shop in 1912 when he moved to Arizona due to poor health.
The rubber company departed in 1915, at which time the Oakley was upfit to accommodate the General Machinery Company. But it vacated during the Great Depression, and the building remained empty during the 1920s.
The O.K. Furniture and Fixture Exchange moved in and stayed until the 1960s. Spokane Stampworks, which had been in the Golden West Hotel since 1932 (on W. First & Washington), took occupancy in 1976. When I moved to Spokane in December 2019, the current owner of the Oakley, Steve Eugster, told me that Stampworks’ original printing press is still in the basement. Apparently its size makes it difficult to get rid of.
The Whispering Falls massage studio and Prime Realty occupied the first floor when I moved in. The massage spot has since closed, and I’ve never seen anyone in the realty office. The pandemic, I assume, is to blame.
It’s thrilling to learn the ins and outs of Spokane’s older buildings. Especially when there are remnants and curious artifacts of businesses and people who came before.
These histories, these ghosts, have plenty to share with us if only we’ll listen. I, for one, am leaning in.
Stories are what make us fall in love. And I promised myself that when the day comes for me to leave Spokane, I want to feel the sadness that comes with leaving something I love behind. The more I walk, the more I fall in love. My strategy is working.