Seattle, as a young city on the farthest edge of America, was built by and for a large immigrant population (though the argument could be made that with the exception of indigenous peoples, all early Northwesterners were immigrants). These immigrants came in large blocs of ethnicity and nationality: a wave of Chinese immigrants, until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, followed by Japanese and Fillipino laborers who were brought to the US, largely because of their not-Chineseness. During the late stages of the 1800’s and the early 1900’s, first generations of European immigrants left their land claims in the upper midwest and traveled farther West to stake new land claims and seek employment in the timber and fisheries industries that were growing exponentially with the rise of the industrial age. Many more immigrants arrived to chase the dreams of ‘easy’ wealth in the Klondike Gold Rush.
This is how I got here. My great-grandfather left his homestead in Mandan, North Dakota,
to make a new life in the more hospitable (my grandmother told me, ‘Even the coyotes were smart enough to leave a decade before we did’) Pacific Northwest in 1902. The gold rush was played out, but the land rush was on, and my family homesteaded in the fertile alluvial plains in the most northwestern corner of the state near the Canadian Border. As an old woman my grandmother had dreams of the cherries and the apples of her childhood, of the joy her father felt at a life free of smallpox and death-dealing winters, and her brothers who had survived the harshness of the Dakota winters thrived as timbermen and commercial fishers.
But many of these European immigrants settled in Seattle, and the Scandinavians particularly in an area called Ballard, known to old-timers as ‘Snoose Junction,’ a colloquial name that has lost meaning for most. Snoose Junction was the collection of shanties and shotgun shacks, one-room unplumbed homes and single level tenements that covered the marsh flats around what is now the last part of in-city industrial land in Seattle. Essentially a ghetto with umlauts, this was the base where the Swedish and Norwegian poor sought work in shipyards and fishing boats, and in the sawmills that were already starting to disappear from the city. This is where my ‘new’ office stands, on converted Scandinavian tenement land.
While painting my office on a hot and sunny August afternoon, I was changing out of my sweat-drenchy work shirt when I heard a woman speaking. The words were indistinguishable: from my location in the slightly-below-grade storage area, the muffled voice came from slightly above my head and to my right. I went outside to see if someone had gotten inside the fence. I walked around the building and found no one, and no one inside, either. As I peeled off my sodden shirt, I heard her again. Her voice was accented, Northern European-ish but she spoke in English: ‘We are out of time! There isn’t any time!’ Clearly distressed, she sounded near to tears. I looked out again and saw no one, went into the upstairs office space, empty save for paint cans and cleaning supplies. I returned to my clean shirt, changed in the middle of the empty warehouse floor. As I pulled the shirt over my head, six inches above my shoulder and a whisper’s breath from my ear: ‘There’s no time!’
Except there was no breath, and no speaker. I am not given to fancy, and there isn’t much I fear. But even as I type my hairs stand tall over gooseflesh, the chill as deep in me now as it was that hot August afternoon.
I have wondered, Time for what? To get the doctor for a sick child, to pay the overdue
rent? My feeling at the time was of a tremendous sadness, a pleading explanation. I was not being threatened, I was only being told. I have not heard her since: perhaps she thought I was a husband returned from the logging camp or a long fishing voyage; maybe, in this building vacant for a couple years, she thought a new and sympathetic ear had arrived and only missed a listener. I don’t know. I have not heard from her since. I wish her rest, and just a little more time.