“What’s your ‘beat’?”
I should have expected that question. I was, after all, applying for a job as a writer. But once she asked me that most obvious question, I realized that I didn’t know.
But it made me think.
And now I know.
I write about the hidden, forgotten and neglected corners –and characters – of Tacoma.
I like the gulches, the seedy neighborhoods, the isolated clusters of homes on dead-end streets, the rocky, sea-weed covered beaches, the few remnants of industrial ruins of warehouses and lumber mills (and the ancient creosoted pilings in the bay) and, of course, the lush green and silent refuge of Pt. Defiance.
I even love the moody, almost haunted, empty streets of downtown Tacoma almost every weekend. (Sometimes an event, a run or volunteer day rushes through downtown like a vagrant rainbow, but it too, leaves without a shadow).
I particularly like the soggy darkness that hovers like a low, almost personal, cloud on a drizzly mid-morning or late afternoon.
Some cities are at their best in black and white tones – and Tacoma is one of them.
With its tall boxy buildings, and sparse rain-glazed traffic, downtown Tacoma is a harshly lit maze of stark shadows and dead-end promises.
I can picture fear and greed, sleaze and desperation, like some ever-shifting, gauzy spirit of a forever haunted unsettled soul.
If I’ve been there too long, it is the soft light of the coffee shop or the welcoming contours of a too comfortable couch that make me nervous.
At least at first.
But then the cold, wet, dark, and sometimes menacing, streets drift further from my memory and I forget where ‘home’ really is.
And then I remember, this is my ‘beat’ – the unpredictable, uneven, lonely pulse, the awkward eye-contact, the hushed, stilted conversations of strangers.
I understand, at times like this, the cold-eyed angst of the Noir novel, the misty lost-in-thought reach of black and white impressionism of the hungry-eyed artist of the chilled, ever-darker-than-natural night .
“There is no tomorrow” the dank and clammy evening seems to say.
It doesn’t take long for the idea of dawn, or any natural light, to feel like an alien presence or a glaring intrusive force from another realm.
Decades of night seem to pass, or even take permanent root in the streets devoid of human steps.
It’s not a ghost town, but all that seems to move are buses and a few stray cars.
The buildings, even with their lights, just add to the gloom.
It is its own ecosystem of harsh lights, deep shadows and hard edges. Perhaps not so different from any other city.
But other cities have their charm that tourists seek and photograph.
Tacoma’s charms are barely seen, and must be earned, or even worn, like some faded, almost regret-filled tattoo.
I love the derelict buildings, the cluttered alleys, the flickering streetlights that go dark as I approach them, the trains that shake and shriek through the night.
I love the echo of my own spooky, clattering footsteps on dark and unforgiving sidewalks.
There is something like a lived prayer in the cold and dark, an odd, unnameable, impossible warmth that defies anything like a firm grip.
When I am far away, Tacoma’s cold and rough edges call me home.
I rarely feel welcomed here, and almost never belong; but in a way that only Tacoma can be, it’s the only place that is home.