Don’t Miss What’s Right in Front of You

Yesterday Marilynn and I went down to King County Public Health to get some shots for Vietnam. Do we need shots? I don’t really know, but exotic places have exotic bugs so we got shot up – Hepatitis A and B, Thyphoid boosters, and Japanese Encephalitis – as recommended by the public health folks. $800+ when it was all done. You could go broke and drive yourself crazy trying to stay safe.

I’ve always liked to live close the ground when I travel – on foot or bike, eating street food or in small local places, and asking locals for recommendations. Still, I don’t want to be crazy or do something stupid. You don’t eat salad or unpeeled fruit and vegetables in Mexico, and the same holds true for the more exotic places. Sanitation in the Third World is never what it is at home, and your stomach probably isn’t going to adapt on a vacation. It makes sense to control what you can control, but some things like mosquito and insect bites are more difficult to control. Just be sensible – lots of bug juice and mosquito netting when you’re in the zone.

But we’re not in the zone now, so after visiting King County Public Health we walked over to Monorail Espresso for a hit of caffeine. Monorail is the quintissential espresso stop in Seattle. It’s a street side window in the architecturally unique Coliseum Theater building (now Banana Republic) on Pike Street. The neon sign above the window simply says “Caffeine,” and you’d guess from the scene in front that the entire clientele was made up of tattoo covered bike messengers. But, it’s not. Monorail’s owner, Chuck Beek, knows almost everyone who stops by and “almost everyone” does stop by – at least the cognescenti. The Monorail space is tiny, just room for the friendly and attractive barista (sometimes two), the macchina, and a sink in back. Except for the open window, the rest of the window area is covered with pictures of customers, pictures of Chuck with custormers, Obama posters, and last year’s countdown calendar to the end of W’s term in the White House. Chuck gave up regular work after a brief stint as a flight attendant for Continental. So did his wife Susie, and in 1988 he opened one of Seattle’s first espresso carts under the monorail built for the 1962 World’s Fair. It prospered, and today it’s still thriving in the permanent space on Pike.

I got to know Chuck like most people do – at the window. We struck up a conversation when I discovered that he rides his bike to work every day from his home on Bainbridge Island. Then I discovered that he and Susie like to vacation in Europe on their bikes and that sealed the deal. We started comparing European bike routes and best places to tour. Then in 2005 we ran into Chuck and Susie in the Amsterdam airport. They were on their way home from a tour of Switzerland and we were coming back from two weeks in Provence. Small world.

Yesterday, Laura the barista drew us a couple of ristretto shots, steamed some milk, and executed a perfect onion-like drawing with exquisite foam at the top of our lattes. Then we joined the bike messengers at one of the small sidewalk tables and watched the parade. It wasn’t long until Buddy Foley, the Ladybug Man, came along to join us. Buddy is a legend in Seattle. He’s an artist, a musician, a collector, a street person, and a walking history of the offbeat downtown scene. He sells ladybugs (100 for $5), plays keyboards, makes art, talks compulsively, and knows everyone. Yesterday he was sporting a Christine Gregoire Staff badge and lanyard. Christine is Governor of the State of Washington. Was Buddy really serving at a Gregoire event? Don’t doubt it. Sometimes he seems like an escapee from the state hospital, and then you learn that whatever he said that seemed outrageous is true.

Marilynn had never met Buddy and it was fun to introduce her to some of the characters that were part of my downtown life for the last 10 years. I’ll miss downtown Seattle, but downtown Saigon will be crazy interesting I’m sure. And, it’s not as if we’re leaving forever. We’ll be back and I’m sure we’ll see Chuck and Buddy and the two homeless guys that panhandle on the two sides of the Eileen Fisher store across from Nordstrom. That’s been an interesting part of the downtown experience for me too. All over the core area homeless people have staked their claim to a corner or a place near some building, and every day they man the space and hold their paper cup or a box cover out to panhandle for spare change. The two guys at the Eileen Fisher store have become friends of sorts. I passed them every day. We always greeted each other and every once in awhile I put a buck or five in their cups. They’re both very friendly and often they’re too busy talking to someone to say hello or hold the cup out. I’d like to know their stories. Why are they there? They are actually more reliable and predictable than some employees. And when they aren’t at their spots I wonder if something has happened to them. But, sure as anything, they’re back in place the next day. I used to feel sorry for them, but now I see them differently. They may not have had a lot of choices in life, but I think these are choices they’ve made for themselves and they seem to be making it just fine. Not my style but just fine.

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