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Search for the Soul of Seattle: Staring at the Space Needle

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Photo by AV Eichenbaum
Photo by AV Eichenbaum

It's humid. The sky overhead looms like the cement ceiling in a cheap apodment. The smell of damp roses and human waste hangs heavy in the air, and the sound of traffic is so jarring that my chest tightens. This is my walk down Mercer Street in late spring.

A block from the Seattle Opera, there's a small tent city. No one ever talks about the tent cities.

I almost get hit by a car crossing the street. The driver hadn't noticed the red light.

While I'm sitting in front of the Seattle Opera, a middle-aged man in a turtleneck gives me an unwelcome look. He stands there awkwardly until I leave, taking my notebook with me.

As I reach Seattle Center, I have an anxiety attack.

An anxiety attack, unlike in the movies, doesn't always involve hyperventilating or wild gesticulation. For me, it's usually very quiet. Everything gets very focused — tunnel vision — and it feels like someone is trying to press through my sternum with their fingers. My only goal becomes finding a place in the nearly empty park to sit.

Generally, I've got ways to prevent this in public, such as objects in my pockets, like a coin or worry stone, to keep me anchored. In lieu of that, I can usually find some fountain or water feature to sit by until the feeling subsides and I feel the strength to walk home.

The water is shut off at the Seattle Center, though, and my pockets are empty, save for a pen and a gum wrapper. The heavy clouds above make the scene feel even more claustrophobic. I start to sweat. I find a quiet bench somewhere and sit, staring at the Space Needle, eternally grateful there are no crowds.

Does the constant din of the city affect your sleep? The building next to mine has an industrial floodlight — motion activated — and despite my best efforts, I can't seem to block out the bright white flashes that surprise me and whatever guest I have at 2 a.m.

I've never slept well, anyway, but it seems to be getting worse. Strange dreams of an endless, changing labyrinth with the sound of forklifts and cranes distant in the background. In the middle of this maze is an obelisk.

Hence the state of my anxiety, sitting there, looking at Seattle's most recognizable attraction. My mother, a tourist and traveler, was disappointed to learn that the Space Needle's main purpose was not, in fact, astronomical exploration.

"What do you mean they don't do science there!?" were her exact words.

"No," explained my aunt, "they just have a restaurant and an observation deck at the top."

"You'd expect some sort of lab or something," she grumbled on her way to "the original Starbucks."

This happened years ago, but I can't help but think of it every time I see that weird white spire. These are the things a mind does when trying to ground itself. Aside from general exhaustion, I'm not even sure what set me off. Traffic? That seems ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as the Space Needle not doing science. Maybe it's just readjusting to being out and about more post-quarantine.

Seattle Center is quiet enough that you can hear birdsong clearly. Everything slows down. A quick look around finds only one or two people sitting there, exactly like me, breathing deeply and watching the elevators on the Needle go up and down, over and over again.

The man to my left adjusts his tie and blots some sweat from his forehead, clearly undergoing his own stress. He sees me, with my pale face and the dark circles under my eyes, and he smiles. A real, genuine smile of recognition. I smile back uncertainly and we return to staring at the Space Needle for a while.

Unclenching my jaw, I finally find the wherewithal to call an old friend to join me, maybe drive me home. They offer to come get me, which is really beyond kind.

In their car, I wonder aloud if the entirety of Seattle is in a constant state of low-level anxiety. It would explain why everyone around here is always in a rush, lips pursed, eyes locked on their goal. How many people around me are having their own quiet, largely unnoticed panic attacks before moving on with their day?

My day doesn't end there, certainly. I have a late lunch and work at my desk to get back to once I'm home. While it takes me a few hours to shake off that gray-sky feeling, eventually it lifts.

The next day, like any self-respecting member of the Queer community, I buy a plant to make myself feel better. Creeping rosemary. It works.

And the world keeps spinning.

And the elevators on the Space Needle keep going up and down.