Occidental Park

There is no grass in Occidental Park. In fact, the paving stones—red brick, mostly—are so uneven that crossing them safely requires sensible shoes and close attention. They’re more like cobbles piled upon the foreshore by a high surf.

The park is only a block wide—an easy stone’s throw—wedged between the narrow streets of Seattle’s Pioneer Square district, hemmed by red brick Victorians constructed at the turn of the century before last.

Benches in the park are thickly shaded by London plane trees—an incongruous comfort in the Pacific NW where the sky is often clouded and sunlight fleeting. Men sitting on the benches  dress in deeply layered clothing and gesture in emphatic conversation with themselves. Not all of them are old but even the young men look uniformly weathered as if they’d been living rough all their lives, sleeping in alleys and beneath bridges, shying from sirens and the sound of gunshots. Sometimes you can catch their eye in an unguarded moment, a moment lulled by sunlight and security, and the pain seems fathoms deep, mute and insensible, like the pain of a caged beast. At night they must live guardedly, lightly sleeping to keep from becoming prey. There are few places even on Skid Row where a man with no money can find a safe place to sleep.

But in mid-day the night is a lifetime away. Young software programmers full of caffeine and pizza walk through the park. Someone tosses a Frisbee over the heads of office workers eating  bagged lunches. Pigeons scurry across the paving stones and underfoot, oblivious to the fact that somewhere overhead, soaring on heated air rising from the city streets, a peregrine falcon is hunting them. I always watch for them among the glass and steel, the pair of falcons that breed high on the Washington Mutual tower, but I’ve yet to see them fall from the sky in that staggering dive that approaches 200 miles per hour. I’m told when they spread their wings to break their dive the wind through their flight feathers sounds like ripping canvas.

When the electric trolley approaches the stop at Occidental Park, the conductor sounds his bell repeatedly. The insistent clanging of the trolley bell is oddly incongruous, like an echo from the Depression that’s become unstuck in time.

Amid all this urbanity, the most incongruous sound is the wild trumpeting of the Glaucous-winged gulls. The gulls compete for scraps with the pigeons and crows. Their cries echo from the surrounding brick walls like sea cliffs and the distant traffic sounds like surf breaking against basalt headlands. The gulls cry is utterly alien, inhuman, and timeless. It seems to undo the very existence of the city, as if the city was merely a cloud’s shadow carried away by the wind.

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