Every Saturday I drive to work and park in a lot behind an abandoned grocery store. Due to construction on the freeway this morning, I was late. Not terribly late, but late enough that I assumed I would miss seeing a gentleman who has become part of my Saturday morning routine. Every Saturday an elderly fellow, in a greasy windbreaker of indeterminate color and a safari hat of similar long usage, stands in the parking lot I use and feeds the birds. I have come to count on seeing him there, fair weather or foul, most Saturdays, surrounded by pigeons and crows and seagulls and starlings. There's nothing remarkable in someone tossing breadcrumbs to the urban avian population. There is, however, something notable in the method employed by this particular old fellow, and watching him has become a reliable pleasure to me. From a full loaf of the kind of bagged white bread we are no longer encouraged to eat, he extracts as many as three slices in a dip and then tosses these slices whole over his head. His pitching style is a jerky underhanded softball throw that bespeaks age and weariness more than aggression, but it looks angry even if it isn't. Each fist-full of white bread flies up but so far before at least a few birds are airborne. Only the crows ever seem to catch anything. The rest wait to fight it out on the ground. Only the starlings seem willing to work in any kind of concert; darting in waves to gather crumbs tossed off in battles among the larger birds, otherwise the scene is a loud, flapping, wheeling kind of chaos. The bird feeder seems to take little pleasure in his labors. Having methodically worked his way through a loaf, he does not stay to watch the birds. Instead, he carefully folds the plastic bread-bag before shoving it into the pocket of his jacket, and then, without a glance at the birds, he simply stomps off, having, presumably, done his duty.
Even though I was nearly thirty minutes late this morning, I managed to catch a glimpse of the last pitch as I pulled into the lot. I parked and watched the old man walk away. Am I wrong in supposing that his distinctive, stiff-legged march has slowed? Is that why he was still about his business even as I came late on the scene? Or am I sentimentalizing? As with so many characters encountered in the U District, my curiosity actually extends no further than my glance.
There are dozens of such eccentrics in the neighborhood: buskers and beggars, full-throated gospel singers and self-appointed city-sweepers, the little man in the summer suit who plants religious tracts in the men's room at the bookstore, whistlers and dog-walkers and the grown man who dresses daily like an elf, though I haven't seen him for some time.
Lifelong Seattlites, while traditionally tolerant of the strangers among them, seem to despair of the growing urbanization of the University neighborhood, invariably waxing nostalgic about the University Bookstore of their childhood, where Grandpa rented skis from the Sporting Goods Department the streets were -- at least in memory -- clean, and where the ladies wore gloves in the summertime.
But as a more recent arrival from another city I won't trouble the locals by naming, I am comforted by the mix of humanity that only a big city provides. People make a landscape more interesting. And the mix of people in and about the bookstore is extraordinary. So much so that on the same recent afternoon I watched three boys from three races performing capoeira just outside the front door of the store and then, later, listened to a couple sing a Johnny and June Carter Cash duet in the doorway of an untenanted building across the street. And this morning, in just the first hour of business, I've admired a parade past the Used Books Desk of beautiful babies of every description, all out in their strollers for a summer airing, and ladies wearing broad-brimmed summer hats, and couples with baskets of fresh greens and fruit from The University District Farmers' Market, and families -- "traditional" and otherwise -- hunting out bargains together from the Summer Book Sale tables in the lobby.
I would suggest, should the reader of this be unfamiliar with either the bookstore or the U, or skeptical of coming back this way after many years elsewhere, it is well worth coming to the best bookstore in Seattle, not simply for the bookstore itself, but also for the varied pleasures of the people to be seen hereabouts. And if the place is not as you remember, or if it is unlike the suburban mall located, weirdly, just over the hill, you must trust me when I tell you that that is not necessarily such a very bad thing.