Thursday, October 25, 2007

Innocence and a Box of Crayola Crayons

As the swift snap of fall shakes us from our swimsuits into our sweaters and long pants in what seems like a matter of just a few days, I get that old familiar back-to-school feeling—a remnant of a tradition most of us have come to take for granted until we reach our early twenties and realize certain things do not, in fact, remain. Still, even after four fall seasons out of academia, I still can’t escape that sense of anticipation and anxiety that always preceded the looming first day of the new school year. Fall still holds for me an expectation of new beginnings—a chance to reinvent my life from this day forward. I’ve had a whole summer to grow up, and now the air is electrified with the possibilities and promise of the next twelve months.

From the day we begin kindergarten, we are conditioned for the next seventeen years of our lives to expect this do-over type of opportunity with the onset of fall… until that cruel day disguised as college graduation when we’re flung into the real world to fend for ourselves. Of course, at that time summer is just starting to peek around the clouds, and we’re so excited to break out of the gloom of the spring that we don’t realize our impending doom. We were all so optimistic in the haze of that first summer out of college, but once fall approaches and the academic nag starts, we realize the old routine that comes with the turning of the leaves has suddenly been disrupted. It’s freeing and jarring to not have to make the annual pilgrimage from the cabana back to the classroom, as is the loss of June as a milestone marker of our yearly accomplishments. Gone are the days where summer was just a filler time before fall brings us back to the grind. Our hearts still sink as we say goodbye to lazy days and balmy nights, but there is so much beauty in the approach of the fall season.

Fall, for me, starts as a color; it’s that green-to-orange you see on the trees, even before the temperature drops below 68. Not long after the trees make their quiet announcement, fall continues as a temperature: sudden and brisk, but subtle enough that first day to let you forget your coat. I know when fall has fully arrived by the smell: the faint hint in the breeze of a fire in someone’s fireplace, the fresh scent of cool moisture hanging in the air, and the earthy perfume of decaying leaves. Fall tastes like nutmeg and maple and apple cider; it’s the sound of rain on the roof; it’s that comfort of huddling over a steaming cup on a gray day.

This year, when the nag began, I did something I hadn’t done in three years; I went to school. I bought a long wool jacket, a portfolio case and drawing materials, and paid my tuition. Every Monday and Wednesday night I stand among other intent students, learning the right way to put marks on paper. It may not be the same level of academic rigor as my very prestigious yet seemingly impractical art history degree, but this small toe-dip back into the waters of academia has somehow managed to center me in a way hadn’t realized I needed.

So in this cycle of seasons, I have also come back to the beginning; I have begun charging forth, fresh and enthusiastic with the vigor of a new student, on an academic path; it has all the trimmings of what I already know and love about school, but a different set of terms: practical and personal enrichment. With this new direction, I have stumbled upon a striking combination: a feeling of comfort in an old routine, and a sense of deep satisfaction in the small things I had almost come to take for granted. Perhaps I’ll never truly escape the hold that academia seems to have on me; I’m beginning to think that’s a good thing.

I have come a long way in the last twenty years, though there is one piece of nostalgia I can’t let go of: the waxy, papery smell of the inside of a box of Crayola crayons; it is the age-old symbol of innocence, creativity, and tradition… and two out of three I’ve been able to maintain in some way or another. I think I’ll go out this evening and buy myself a box of crayons and perhaps, if I look deep enough into the box, I’ll find where I left my innocence. In the meantime, pass me a mug of something sweet and delicious.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ode to the Early 80s: Wallingford's Tweedy & Pop

I was born here in Seattle and grew up in a little two-story craftsman in Wallingford, before it was a desirable area of the city to live. My earliest memories of the neighborhood were the mom-n-pop stores on our main street: the cobbler, the bike repair shop, Fuji’s Five & Dime, and the health food store that reeked of so many exotic dry herbs and potions that my younger brother and I held our noses every time we were forced to go in there with our mother. A shabby Radio Shack anchored one of the few intersections marked by a traffic light, and just a little further down the street sat a drugstore that no matter how many times it was repainted still looked dingy and tired.

Over the years, the run down drugstore became condos, the Radio Shack became an Irish pub, and the various other shops became restaurants, bars, high end dress shops, and chain coffee joints. The one relic that remains today is Tweedy & Pop’s Hardware Store. In the early 80s they had shiny red Radio Flyer wagons in the window, which in the wintertime would temporarily be replaced with wooden sleds for sale… not that Seattle got snow often enough to warrant the purchase of a sled. Most of the winter those sleds would hang there collecting dust, but on those rare occasions it would snow enough in Seattle to cover the ground with a healthy layer, the entire city would come to a halt and those sleds disappeared from the window of Tweedy & Pop’s before noon.

Without fail you’d see the lucky kids, whose parents had also understood how important it was to trudge to the store at first light for a sled, racing down the side of Kite Hill at Gasworks Park. The less fortunate kids, no less determined to capitalize on a snow day, improvised with garbage can lids, cardboard boxes, or whatever they could find. Some kids had old sleds from the last time it snowed three years before. My brother and I had an old wood sled with metal runners we’d drag down to the park; it wasn’t as shiny as the new Tweedy & Pop models, but it had a simple steering device and fit both of us kids (and sometimes a mom or dad) and we used it with pride, gloating in our seasoned preparedness for snow.

Today, Tweedy & Pop’s Hardware features plastic pink flamingos in the front window year round, struggling to stand among precariously balanced lawn mowers, long-handled shovels, and metal wire garden edging scattered on the floor of the display. It’s an explosion of hodge-podge items jumbled together, cluttered enough to make even a frat boy cringe, but I like it; whether it’s my tendency to root for the underdog or nostalgia for the good old days taking its hold on me once again, I look at this trainwreck of a window display with a certain affection and wonderment once reserved only for the windows at FAO Schwartz downtown.

Most of my childhood is preserved now only in grainy photos or has been reduced to items that can fit in the box in the back of my closet, but there’s something wistfully comforting to know this old hardware store, a link back to my days as a loudmouthed barefoot hellion, is still plugging along, providing its customers with odds and ends the way it has for years. I know that in my lifetime this shop will close, but until that day, I’ll keep rooting for it to hold out as long as it can.