Just after graduating from college, I embarked on a career as a radio talk-show producer that lasted three years, which was followed by an even shorter stint as the head writer for a rock-and-roll radio station, the end of which propelled me into self-employment in a shared office in Pioneer Square where I took up journalism and free-lance ad writing, two disciplines that were supposed to teach me to write short, succinct sentences. Well, that didn’t work.
But as everyone who has ever been underemployed—from Dosteyevsky to Mike Pence—knows, when you find yourself with a lot of time on your hands and no useful way to get rid of it, you will need a congenial place to hang out while you fritter your life away. My place in those days was Café Society, Raymond Cox’s cool little café on Washington between 1st and 2nd Avenue, where I could get great food, good coffee, and out of the office for as long as I needed to recover a sense of myself as a productive member of society.
I was saved from becoming a full-time flâneur when I landed one of the best jobs in Seattle, writing and producing ads for Rainier Beer, Ivar’s, K2, JanSport, Redhook and New Balance—to name a few—at Heckler Associates. Judging by the reactions of the several big ad-agency creative directors I had alreadyinterviewed with, my getting hired at Heckler was a complete fluke. One of those guys—they were always guys—tossed my portfolio back down on his desk and snarked with thinly disguised disgust “You put journalism samples in here and you expect me to take you seriously!”
“I’m a utility player,” I said. He was not amused.
Terry Heckler, on the other hand, has always an instinct for zigging when everyone else, especially other ad guys, was zagging. During my interview with him, he paged through my portfolio silently for what seemed like forever, then looked up and said, “Your portfolio isn’t all ads. That’s good.”
“I’m a utility player,” I said. He hired me.
Heckler Associates was the anti-advertising agency, located in a seedy but spacious loft just north of the Pike Place Market with gigantic windows opening on spectacular views across Elliott Bay. As the new employee, I was the lowest life form on a totem pole full of brilliant and creative icons that included designers Terry Heckler and Doug Fast, and writers Gordon Bowker and Ed Leimbacher.
The first few years were intimidating. I didn’t want to ask too many questions because I was afraid that would tip them off to how clueless I was.
Instead, I set out to learn by osmosis, by watching, listening to and trying to emulate these gonzo geniuses who seemed genuinely unimpressed with themselves while the rest of the ad world wondered what the hell they were drinking that made them so good at what they did. After about ten years, I had figured out their secret formula: Keep your overhead low so you can keep your standards high, only work for clients who aren’t afraid to stand back and let you do the work they hired you to do, and get over yourself.
My place during that phase of my life was the Pike Place Market, a honeycomb of small places where I could drink coffee, buy a tin of herbal tea that smelled like a horse pasture at high noon, eat lunch, and pick up some fresh vegetables and a salmon steak for dinner. That was pretty sweet.
I loved almost every moment of my time at Heckler Associates, but after another ten years, it was time to do something different. I turned off my desktop computer, took out a business loan, packed up my notebooks, and headed back to Pioneer Square where I moved into an office above Magic Mouse Toys, just a couple of blocks from where I had started my writing career. That done, I immediately looked around for a place to have lunch, the most important part of every writer’s working day. My beloved Café Society had closed a couple of years earlier so I wandered across the street and into Café Paloma.
At that point it was even smaller than it is now. I sat down at the counter, ordered a bowl of soup and a borek, and I was hooked. I joined the expanding and contracting collective of artists, ferry commuters, lost tourists and genial riff-raff that drifted in and out on a regular basis, from mid-morning until late night.
Paloma became my new refuge from work and sometimes from the lack of it. Café Paloma is owned by Sedat Uysal, a man so intelligent, engaging, well-read, talented (he’s a naturally gifted musician) and charming that he should come with a warning label. He moved to Seattle in 1985 from Turkey, where had worked as a journalist. Since he spoke no English when he arrived, he held several odd jobs and owned a small coffee stand and a delicatessen before opening Café Paloma on Yesler Street in 1998, a few months before I walked in the door.
The best thing about Paloma is the great number of ordinary but remarkable people from all over the world who have made it their drop-in center and second home. One evening, I counted eleven different nationalities among the diners and drinkers who were hanging out in that little café on a random weeknight evening.
Thanks to Rick Simonsen, who brought visiting authors to Paloma after their readings back in the day when Elliott Bay Books was just around the corner and down the block, Sedat hosted late-night dinner parties there for Orhan Pamuk, Arundhati Roy and a coterie of assorted poets. Several members of the Buena Vista Social Club are enthusiastic members of the Sedat fan club and they like to drop by for coffee whenever they are in town.
Before pianist and composer Wayne Horvitz became a partner in The Royal Room in Columbia City, he used to stop in once a month and play at Paloma for a couple of hours on his grandfather’s piano that took up full-time residence for a few years on the small stage in the back. When the French gypsy-manouche band Samarabalouf was stranded by the eruption of an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano on the day of their sold-out Meany Hall appearance, the musicians stopped by the next evening and played an impromptu concert late into the night on that same tiny stage. Unlike many evenings that have been described as epic but were
probably not, this one was epic.
I’ve been to weddings and wakes, birthday celebrations and baby showers, poetry readings and photography exhibitions and flamenco fandangos at Café Paloma. Without a doubt, the place is unique and special. It’s like no other place in the city. But now the pandemic has come to town and closed it down.
As tragedies go, that’s pretty banal. Everyone’s favorite place is closed. And some of them may not open again. I know that because one of the things I used to enjoy doing was sitting at the window counter in Café Paloma with my glass of wine or a cup of coffee, watching the weary boat commuters and Seattle Underground tourists parade by in opposite directions. I also watched several delightful cafes and restaurants go in and out of business. Some were casualties of the optimism that blinds rookie owners to the pitfalls and perils of the restaurant business.
Others were operated by seasoned and talented professionals who were gradually ground down by unsustainably high rents, slim margins, rising costs, a streetscape neglected by apparently indifferent building owners, armies of homeless souls abandoned by an apparently indifferent society, and suburban sports fans who would no more entertain the idea of taking a meal in Pioneer Square after a game than they would consider taking a dip in Elliott Bay. Except for the Sounders fans, god bless them. For some reason they seem to like hanging out in Pioneer Square.
For the first month after the coronavirus shutdown, Sedat thought about walking away from the Café Paloma after just over 22 years of operation. Happily, he’s changed his mind and is making plans to begin take-out service and food deliveries as he waits for the time when things return to normal. But I’m kind of hoping they won’t. The old normal was far from ideal. Yes, I want everyone’s favorite hangout to survive but I’m also hoping that we will all see this accidental punch to the re-set button as an opportunity to revamp the normal and to start over
in a number of ways.
After struggling and failing to educate our children at home, maybe we will finally begin paying teachers a salary that reflects the difficulty and the value of the job they do. While we’re on that subject, we could all start trying to figure out the difference between how much money we want and how much we actually need. And perhaps we could begin extending our generosity and empathy to circles that exist outside our own families and taking more responsibility for what each of us has failed to do instead of carping about what other people have failed to do.
Then we should stand up and demand that the government starts taking seriously its responsibility to protect and defend all of us from the ravages of poverty and racism and sexism and injustice and hunger and floods and tornadoes and environmental degradation and the possibility of dying in a pandemic because our current health care system is not merely unfair and underfunded but also an expensive, bottom-line-driven disaster that dedicates more energy to increasing profits than it does to paying frontline healthcare workers a living wage.
Next time, god forbid, an EMT shows up at your home to save the life of someone you love, ask her, after she’s accomplished that daunting and demanding task, how much she makes or how satisfied she is with her own healthcare coverage. I’ve done it and I’m pretty sure you will be shocked by what you hear.
For the moment, that list seems like a good place to start. Once we have completed those tasks, but before we move on to phase two, I think we should all go out to our favorite hangouts, raise a glass of something sparkling and delicious, and toast each other for getting it right this time.