Deep Time Eyes

By K.K. Beck

I am sitting in the train ready to leave King Street Station in Seattle, heading south on the Coast Starlight to visit my grandchildren in Klamath Falls, Oregon. While I was waiting in the station, I spent a lot of time looking up at the white plaster ceiling with its jubilant Beaux Arts embellishments—big rosettes with a vaguely Renaissance feel. There is a sort of balcony running around the waiting area like box seats in an opera house, and large gilt letters read “Tickets” and “Baggage.” There are Grecian columns and soft grey marble walls with a horizontal green stripe in twinkly jade and gold, and lots more of that optimistic, joyful architectural detail from the turn of the last century, ransacked from lots of previous centuries.

For a long time, the station had been allowed to go to rack and ruin. A creepy smoke-stained suspended ceiling of Styrofoam hid the amazing ceiling, and various cheap plywood add-ons gave it the look of a bad DIY basement rumpus room, but now it’s all been restored. This all makes me very happy, because I am kind of a geeky time traveler and get a huge thrill imagining how something looked back in its heyday.

King Street Station is a good place to do this, and because my family has lived in Seattle since the 1890s or so, and because I am one of those local history bores, I can never go to this station without imagining a murder that took place here in 1906. It was the second of two killings that were called the Oregon Love Cult murders. Hans Edmund Creffield—an unprepossessing but apparently charismatic cult leader from Corvallis, Oregon, who was, like most cult leaders, having his way with the women and girls in the cult, who called themselves the Brides of Christ—had been shot dead on a Seattle street by George Mitchell, the outraged brother of one of Creffield’s devotees.

Mitchell had followed his little sister Esther’s defiler up from Oregon, done the deed and turned himself in. A sympathetic Seattle jury let him off on the grounds that he was understandably crazy when he pulled the trigger, but he was sane enough right after the trial to take the train back home to Oregon. The victim, characterized in the local press as “a human monster” and “a reptile,” and by a witness for George Mitchell as “a human vampire,” hadn’t been too popular. But the sister whose honor had been avenged remained loyal to Creffield and gunned down her brother as he was about to board the train home. (You can read the whole story in an article I wrote about his case here.)

Time travel can be very disconcerting when you are old enough to remember your home town as it was many decades ago. I see a condominium complex in my neighborhood and remember the McDonald’s that used to be there when my children were little, and the old neighborhood bar called The Bounty (it was shaped like a boat with portholes for windows) that was on the site when I was a child. I tend to give people directions like “Turn left where the old video store used to be. Now, my grown children—in their thirties—get cranky when things from their childhood get torn down and replaced. Abby Adams, the charming wife of the late, great crime writer Donald E. Westlake, grew up in Greenwich Village and was still living there many years later. She told me she had the same unsettling double vision—seeing what’s there now and what was there them at the same time.

I found myself doing this in a book I wrote called Tipping the Valet—which will be published by Perseverance Press this September. Some of it is set in a Seattle neighborhood called Ballard that used to be a small town of its own with a shingle mill and a working waterfront. Now, condominiums are replacing the old maritime businesses, and young kids who write code for Amazon have replaced the Norwegian fishermen who lived there. I cherish the remaining corners here and there that provide time travel opportunities, such as the fishing trawlers that loom up from the water next to a supermarket parking lot where I sometimes park. As I wrote the scenes set in Ballard, my own crotchety voice kept bursting into the narrative, waxing sentimental about the old days—some of which I don’t even remember personally.

I mostly reined myself in. I am trying not to let this time travel habit and related desire to blather on to young newcomers how it used to be around here infect my work – or my life. I remind myself that things get better as well as worse. Back in the day, I wouldn’t have been able to get the New York Times delivered to my doorstep every Sunday morning. There was no Trader Joe’s. And people didn’t care enough to restore the old King Street station. What is now the local PBS station had nothing but University of Washington professors writing on a blackboard while teaching math or Spanish in front of a stationary camera, and we called it “educational TV.”

As I write this in the observation car on the train, a volunteer from the National Park Service is giving a tour and informs the passengers that Mount Rainier, a local now-dormant volcanic landmark, used to be 2,000 feet taller than it is now until 6,000 years ago when it blew its top, setting off a 450-feet-high wave of mud that traveled fifty miles an hour and filled up a huge part of Puget Sound, transforming it into a flat valley. Of course, that valley used to have charming little farms and now there are strip malls and Outback restaurants, but I’m trying not to think about that.

Things change all the time, and I’m working on developing what environmental biologists call “deep time eyes.” It’s hard to believe, for example, that humans were already living in the San Francisco Bay area before there was a bay. All they saw where the bay is now was a river. If they were around now, they’d probably be complaining about how different everything is.

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6 Responses

  1. I know what you mean about changes in the neighborhood! I’ve lived in Alameda for most of the past 35 years and have seen a few. And what a fascinating story about those murders.

    • Hey, my grandfather was born in Alameda back in the 1890s. We have a picture my great grandfather painted in Fruitvale back around then — and it’s all actual fruit trees!

  2. An excellent blog, KK, and so relevant for me. I’m always seeing a sort of palimpsest in which the old veneer is just barely visible beneath the new. Then it gets me grumbling, for instance, about five traffic lights in small Middlebury, Vt, where when I was an adolescent, there were none. Where are the cows of yesteryear?

  3. Ou sont les vaches d’antan, indeed! 😉 I agree with you all.

    But occasionally when something is torn down and a new building replaces it, I can’t remember what used to be there first if it didn’t have any special significance to me, even though I’ve seen it for years. Infuriating.

    • That doesn’t sound completely infuriating to me, Meredith,because it would mean I’m not living in the past and getting nostalgic. I sometimes have to make an effort to not feel a stab of sadness about the vanished past triggered by a memory.

      I read a terrific book a while back, a British novel called “No, I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club,” where the narrator has flashes of memory about some mundane action of many years before, and feels a sense of poignancy and loss, even though the original event was of no significance. Ingmar Bergman used the same idea in his film Wild Strawberries, where the protagonist played by Viktor Sjostrom has flashes of long ago summer afternoons. The look in the actor’s eyes indicates his emotional response beautifully.

      I find these memory events, fleeting as they are, quite irritating. One
      theory I have is that the stab of melancholy that accompanies a quick memory flash is connected not to the event or scene that has arrived un-summoned, but to the nature of time and change in one’s own life. I have no problem getting nostalgic about stuff I never experienced. I was just up at Crater Lake Lodge in southern Oregon for lunch
      and thoroughly enjoyed the 1920s look and feel.

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