The Place I Live Now
“Good at-bat? That was a weak fly ball. Why don’t broadcasters ever say ‘good at-bat’ after a three-run homer?” asks Jonah Keri scornfully. “Now that’s a good at-bat.”
Albert Pujols has just lifted a lazy can of corn to right field, allowing the Cardinals to score a run from third base in game five of their soon-to-be-doomed cause. Jonah, Derek Zumsteg, another esteemed colleague and I have gathered at Haus Zumsteg to watch playoff games.
Quickly bored with the St. Louis offense, Jonah seeks out a deck of cards. Soon we’re playing penny poker, low-stakes Texas hold ’em. I can’t stay for the upcoming Angels-Pale Hose game, I inform our throng, since I’ve got a long drive home to Bellingham. This brings an unexpected query.
“Bellingham? Why,” someone asks with furrowed brow, “do you live in Bellingham?”
He doesn’t say it with scorn, just bewilderment, the tone of voice you’d use to ask why a guy collects antique Palauan toothpicks. Something you figure people do, but have never considered doing yourself.
I think for a second. “Because I love it there,” I say. It’s an honest answer, if facile and incomplete, and for a moment it’s all I’ve got.
The flop comes down: a queen, an eight and a two. Rainbow-colored. My hand, queen-jack, is lookin’ good with top pair. I bet, and Derek calls.
When I came to Bellingham, it was because my wife got a job. In journalism, you move roughly every two years until you get where you really want to go. The ‘Ham wasn’t supposed to be home, not really; the lovely and talented Ms. Shaw was always going to get a gig in the greater Seattle area. So it went.
This is the natural order. Waterfalls don’t flow uphill, rivers don’t run backwards to the headwaters. These patterns have all, in my experience, held true to form.
The game’s going slowly, with only Jason Lane’s bomb eliciting volume exceeding library levels. While Tony LaRussa simmers, Jonah lauds Derek’s foresight at picking up Willy Taveras for one of his fantasy leagues. The rest of us debate whether Adam Everett’s playoff beard ranks with the worst of them.
Mark Buehrle’s name is featured prominently in this discussion.
The unruly facial hair wouldn’t be conspicious in my town, with its complement of campsite monks, snowboard priests and kayak devotees whose faith is the mountain or threshing white rapids. The place’s apt nickname is City of Subdued Excitement, and the laconic pace and lack of pretense are appealing. I like pulling out my dress flannel and good ballcap for important meetings.
When you come, you’re issued a Subaru wagon so you can take your dogs (always plural) to Baker or the coast in rain, shine or snow. My basset hounds always roll with me into a friend’s office — the nerve center of a multi-million dollar foundation. Friends came to my scotch-and-cards birthday party with their rambunctious German shepherd and Rhodesian ridgeback in tow.
Neither of us asked first. Because in Bellingham, it’s expected.
But I’ve lived in low-key, outdoorsy places before. So what has me internally quoting poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s simple but elegant lines “I like it here / and I won’t go back / where I came from”? Is it that university towns are great, with their magical blend of intellectual stimulation and affordable beer? Or is it something else entirely?
Gambling proceeds. The turn card is a blank that doesn’t seem to help either of us, so I bet. Surprisingly, Derek raises. Hmm. It’s unlikely he has a set — I figure he would have raised with a pocket pair. Could be a bluff, or he could be making a move with second pair. I call.
Change is constant in all things. Bellingham isn’t exempt. Like I said, rivers never run backwards, and you can’t stop the onrush. You can sell your studio in San Diego, buy a place on Lake Whatcom, and have enough left to buy an entire herd of purebred poodles.
So these days, patches of new buildings that all look the same spring up by the dozens. They stand out next to the funky old Painted Lady Victorians done up in wild pastels, or the Craftsman style homes where hippies let their kids decide the colors, with a flurry of resulting purples and reds. The old places fit in here as pastiche homes for a pastiche town, a city formed by fusing three smaller burgs into a nonsensical conundrum of navigation.
One recently transplanted colleague, a wealthy sort and the proud new owner of a fresh-from-the-oven cookie cutter, drove by our house last year. The reasonably understated place got a telling outburst. “That’s so old Bellingham,” she said.
It was in no way meant as a compliment. Which is precisely why I took it as one.
The baseball game is nearly over. In the eighth inning, Jim Edmonds is ejected for a mild disagreement over the shifting strike zone. You can almost hear the Cardinals’ season retrospectives being typed out in boilerplate, the final chapter of the year for them.
When finishing a book I love, I manifest an odd habit. I tend to place the final section of pages between my thumb and forefinger to gauge how much time this particular story and I have left. As fun as the tale is, there’s always a touch of melancholy when you see it winding down.
This feeling amplifies the more stories you read, or the more places you live. Each is unique. The best, paradoxically, inspire the most regret as they pass. Colors get richer and quirks more endearing while the clock ticks.
The feelings are amplified now that I have substantial experience reading the handwriting on walls in successive temporary homes.
The ‘Ham — either as it is or as it is becoming — is certainly not all sunshine and roses. (As far north as we are, there’s precious little sun, and the soil’s iffy in places for rosebushes.) It seemed that the wife and I spent most of the first year looking for people to hike in the rain with. Tough to meet folks, friendly or no, when they’re always racing up a different hill or paddling to a San Juan island.
But you break in a new town like a fresh item of clothing. Comfort comes in stages. I live in Bellingham because, for now, it’s the shirt from the fondly-remembered concert, that pair of jeans that’s just threadbare enough.
With one down in the ninth — amid murmurs about cooking more chicken wings for the Angels-Sox contest — John Mabry surprises exactly zero Mariner fans by grounding into an inning-ending twin killing. Just then, the last poker card is dealt.
It’s another nothing rag: with top pair and no flushes or straights on the board, I’m golden. So when Derek raises me all-in for the rest of my copper Lincolns, I quickly call. He turns over 2-8 offsuit. Two pair.
I’m as done as the Cardinals. Time to go home. For now.