MADISON PARK BEACH
The first time my future self visited me—flesh, no metaphor—I was close to the part of Lake Washington where the [undisclosed] animal spirit lived in and above the water before colonizers drove it away.I wasn’t seeking anything but a bus ride home. I didn’t trek into the mountains, didn’t wait for the sunrise to address me. I missed it altogether, having been up late with whiskey. I did not burn cedar or call upon the ancestors. I slumped post-drunk in my seat and beseeched my liver to forgive me again while a woman passed in front of me wearing a wool cape, medical mask, and black-framed glasses like mine.
She stepped onto the stairs, looked at me, and froze. I could see my own reflection in the glass between us. I saw her see it, too: ten years separated us, but we were two variations on a single body. She stepped off the bus and onto the grass above the beach.
I think of this when I think of Madison Park, where I lived for four and a half years in my mid-to-late twenties. I first touched its beach on the evening of Seattle’s hottest day in recent memory. At the time, I was living up north in Lake City. My friends swam but I was afraid of something—maybe the display of my body, maybe leaving my keys on the shore—so I sat and looked at the night: the city glitter across the lake, patterns of motorboat disturbance in blue ink, condo boxes, white bodies sailing off the high dive. I knew I could become a wealthy white person by throwing my body into the land the way these white bodies threw themselves into it, certain the land would give and they would not break. A month later, I moved to Madison Park.
The Seattle Fault cuts across Puget Sound, through downtown Seattle, through the city, and across Lake Washington. An [undisclosed] spirit power lived at a few places along the fault, including a spot near Madison Park. I want to share what I know about this power, but as a person who is not Duwamish—I’m from the Cowlitz people nearby—this story is not mine, so I don’t know how to tell it. I will say this: the power tore the earth. Not all monsters are monstrosities; some help hold the world in order. This one did. In every source I have seen, it’s written about in the past tense.
I won’t disclose everything. Most of our seen world has been colonized. While we work to regain it, we protect the unseen from encroachment, from being stolen and mangled.
If I lived by the beach, I would be on vacation all the time, I believed, even though I knew it was wrong to think that. I grew up in Mountain Lake, New Jersey, which had been a resort community before I was born. Life had never been a vacation there; life had been hard, for no reason other than that I found it challenging to do the basic work of being a person interacting with other people.
Like every other place I inhabited, I expected Madison Park to bring me contentment. This is why it was established, and the fact that I failed to find my ease there makes me the worst failure at ease.
baskWéékWee7hL, OR “IT HAS SKATE FISH”
(NOW MADISON PARK)
The City of Seattle is situated in a violent place where land bucks against ocean, tectonic shifting sends chills across the skin of the earth, and volcanoes spill lava onto the glacier-bitten crust. For the past 2.4 million years, tectonics and glaciation shaped the folded, jutting, sloping land known as the Pacific Northwest. Sixteen thousand years ago, the last glacier left what’s now Seattle. Fifteen thousand years ago, people began to live here. Duwamish creation stories tell of a world recovering from an ice age. The Changer arrived, eventually bringing warmth and then the arrival of salmon and cedar.
White people began passing through now-Seattle in the late 1700s, but they didn’t make homes here until the 1850s. In 1864, Judge John J. McGilvra bought 420 acres east of the city center, an area now known as Madison Park and Madison Valley. The judge cut through the wilderness from town to his wooded parcel, creating a straight-shot road that would become Madison Street. He eventually divided up some of his land for cottages and developed the waterfront. His vision: a resort and amusement park on the lake. Vision executed: the Music Palace of Washington with its five turrets and seating for hundreds. Visitors drank beer and listened to John Philip Sousa marches. Opera performers threw villains off barges. An unnamed baseball team with no mascot played afternoon games. If pioneer families brought enough supplies in their wagons, they could stay all summer in the judge’s “Tent City.”
A world’s fair came to Seattle in 1909. Madison Park got a makeover, a turreted pavilion gate, amusement rides, and a new name: White City. The carnival had a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, sideshow oddities, and a miniature train so popular with adults that kids missed out. By 1913, White City was gone, and the long-term buzzkill of Prohibition soon set in.
Though I moved there for permanent vacation, I also moved there for a boy who lived south of Madison Park along the lake. We had dated for a year. I wanted to be close to him. He did terrible things to me. He would probably disagree. Many people don’t want to believe their bodies’ wants are violent. I would not believe that the liquor I loved was scouring my insides and wasting my outsides because it was the only thing that had ever helped me forget that I was not safe.
Colonization is not a metaphor for my body and I do not present what has happened to my body as a metaphor for colonization. But the violence done to my body was made permissible by colonization: dominance is central to the American creation story. White men’s violent rule over brown bodies built this young nation. By telling stories over and over, we give them life. By enacting narratives over and over, we give them limbs. A white man dominates a Native woman and keeps his world in order.
Six months after I moved to Madison Park, two months after his hand closed my nose and mouth as I slept, he broke up with me. I cried, not because I loved him, but because he lived in my skin and I was afraid that it would become too porous without him filling it.
WATERFRONT, DOWNTOWN SEATTLE
In 1854, Duwamish/Suquamish Chief Seattle gave a speech shortly before white people took his people’s lands. Knowledge of his speech has been maintained through Indigenous oral traditions, but his words didn’t enter the non-Native record until more than thirty years later when Henry A. Smith printed his version of the speech in the Seattle Sunday Star, conjured up from records and memory.
Smith said Seattle said, “The great, and I presume also good, white chief sends us word that he wants to buy our lands but is willing to allow us to reserve enough to live on comfortably. This indeed appears generous, for the red man no longer has rights that he need respect, and the offer may be wise, also, for we are no longer in need of a great country.”
Smith said Seattle said, “It matters but little where we pass the remainder of our days.”
Smith said Seattle said—most quotably—“And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among white men shall have become a myth, these shores shall swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children shall think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway or in the silence of the woods they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night, when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent, and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone.”
There exists no record of Smith’s notes or his presence. Seattle’s words were translated from Lushootseed, eroded and warped by the passage of time, and flattened onto the page to build an imaginary world in which the last living Indian gave white men permission to keep cutting into the world.
RED ONION TAVERN
Every day for years, I sat at that dark bar, drinking pints and hoping for conversation. I wasted coins on pinball and pull tabs. Outside, I flicked one spent cigarette after another into coffee cans.
Yelp review: “It’s the type of bar that lowers the property value of the neighborhood in a much needed kind of way.”
Yelp review: “If you’re a loner, go somewhere else. I have never eaten here so I can’t comment on that.”
Yelp review: “When we first walked in we were a little disappointed with there being almost no one in the bar and the decor clearly has not been updated for at least 20 years.”
Before it housed a tavern, the space was home to a drugstore with a soda fountain, which is basically what the Red Onion was for me once they could serve the whiskey I took with ginger ale. I lost hours, dollars, layers of lung, and neighborhoods of brain. Some nights, I closed the place down and brought my then-boyfriend—the successor of the one mentioned above—back to my place so we could, all night, work at collapsing the blood bag inside the wine box. Some nights, we’d leave the tavern and go across the street to the playground. Sturdy swings, slides, and a zip line live where Madison Street Park Pavilion once stood. As the White City’s entertainment hub, it could seat five hundred. Before that, the land was covered in virgin timber. Before that, the forest wasn’t made of timber—it was full of trees.
In the middle of the night, we swung so high I thought I’d launch into flight over the neighborhood. Now I don’t drink and never see the sun come up.
I’ve asked people about the [undisclosed] power. A few people have said, “Oh, it’s still around. It did get driven away but it’s still around.”
I’m not from here, and even in my own tribe, I’m a young person learning how to live, so I make space for the silence. Since I am not from here and have no authority in telling the story of this place, I don’t write this to inform. I write because I have failed to make sense of the unseen world through rumination. I do this work for myself so that I might live here, so that I might be good here.
WATERFRONT, DOWNTOWN SEATTLE
A rewrite of Chief Seattle’s speech was published by poet William Arrowsmith in 1969. Arrowsmith said Seattle said, “When the last red man has vanished from this earth, and his memory is only a story among the whites, these shores will still swarm with the invisible dead of my people.”
Arrowsmith republished his version in the American Poetry Review. In the preface, he writes, “Beneath the dense patina of white literary rhetoric there lies a text which, in my judgment, no white man of the period could conceivably have written.”
And then this white man does what he said was impossible: he writes the text. He shapes what’s before him into a figurine made of words.
MADISON PARK BEACH / BAILEY-BOUSHAY HOUSE /
It was a series of visits, not visions. I thought the sighting of my future self would be a one-time thing, but she returned, on the 11 again, at a stop in front of Bailey-Boushay. Still on Madison, but toward downtown, in Madison Valley. This woman—by the way, I’m in the same seat as the other time—stops at the top of the stairs and waves her hands at me and says, “Hiiiii! Hiiiiiiiiii!” And I notice that she’s me. Except maybe fifteen years in the future. And I don’t really look that great. I look aged, beyond what time does on its own.
So this lady gets off the bus waving, and I don’t speak. I’m looking through the window at her as she’s standing on the curb, waving and waving and still waving when the bus pulls away.
It was a while before I saw her again.
I saw her in the Safeway on Madison, further toward downtown. I was in the longest ATM line of my life, looking around, the way I do, staring at people. I know it’s inappropriate, but I just like to look at people’s faces and try to listen to what they’re thinking, or maybe it’s that I’m looking out for all the men who have done unspeakable things to me, but anyway, then I see her: this woman, who is me from let’s say twenty years in the future, standing at the customer service desk and waiting for someone to help her. And no one does. She’s me. She doesn’t look bad, but she looks lost. She doesn’t look like the woman I want to grow up to be. She’s uncomfortable in her body. I stand in that line forever, and when I start to use the machine, she walks away.
So I wondered, what does it mean, you know? I was thinking these were warnings—that if I keep going, this is how I’ll end up. Ragged. Or unsure. Or wearing some medical mask.
A friend said, “What if you met this woman at turning points—points at which you sloughed off a version of yourself? And she came to show you what you departed from.”
Cable cars ran up and down Madison Street before the 11 did. In 1927, after the land had been logged, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote, “In the early dates East Madison was just a little moist, woodsy road through miles of forest to the lake. And now broad boulevards lead to stately homes.”
A street like a knife, a crease, a rip in space and time through which my future selves step into view.
MADISON PARK BAKERY
The baker works at night. He dips a metal basket full of dough into a hot oil vat. If I have one more beer, I might trip and fall in. It’s 2 a.m., the bars are closed, and I have nowhere to go but home, which is a dangerous place because that’s where I think. The baker gives me my first taste of marzipan. In exchange—there’s always an exchange—he wants a cigarette. “Are you a virgin?” he asks. “No man will marry a girl unless she is a virgin.” The marzipan doesn’t taste like I thought it would. I wish I’d never eaten it. If I hadn’t, right now, I’d still believe magic existed. In three hours, I’ll throw it back up.
WATERFRONT, DOWNTOWN SEATTLE
Home, a 1972 made-for-TV movie written by Ted Perry, features another version of Chief Seattle’s speech.
Perry said Seattle said, “I am a savage and I do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffalos on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and I do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.”
Perry said Seattle said, “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit.”
Chief Seattle may have killed a buffalo (because lives are filled with things that people wouldn’t expect we’d do), but he didn’t do it here.
LAKE WASHINGTON SHIP CANAL
A canal would join the lakes. No longer would logs, lumber, and coal have to be portaged; ships could pass through the wound gouged into the isthmus. The white men wanted a useful channel, not an unsightly, crooked waterway like the Duwamish River.
The Duwamish people had been carrying boats between the lakes forever, or shoving them down a creek that appeared when Lake Washington was high.
The Lake Washington Ship Canal was built to connect Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Puget Sound. When it opened in 1916, Lake Washington’s water level dropped 8.8 feet. The Black River, a Duwamish River tributary into which Lake Washington emptied, disappeared. Joseph Moses (Duwamish) said of the opening, “That was quite a day for the white people at least. The waters just went down, down, until our landing and canoes stood dry and there was no Black River at all. There were pools, of course, and the struggling fish trapped in them. People came from miles around, laughing and hollering and stuffing fish into gunny sacks.”
Some bar friends took me to The Spot, a secluded public waterfront park separated from the Broadmoor Golf Club by a chain-link fence. It was a secret, mostly; occasionally, some online publication would include it in a list of Seattle’s best secret waterfront access points, and teenagers knew that it was the place to smoke a joint. It’s at a road end, and the entrance looks like a private driveway. Beyond that lies a path, and down the path lies murky water. I liked to stand alone on the dock, watching cars race across the bridge that floats upon the lake, listening to invisible beavers drop into the water.
In 2010, the golf club dredged the lake near The Spot to improve water flow for the watering of their greens. The beavers departed during the dredging but returned to find their lodge intact. Quoted in the Madison Park Blog, a neighborhood resident said, “Some of the beavers slapped their tails right next to the dredge to say goodbye. It was quite touching.”
A commenter to the post said, “My son and I went out on the lake today May 31 2011 and saw several dead Beavers near the Broadmoor golf ranges in take pipe. Also some dead fish and a bad smell around the Lodge. We took photos of the Beavers.”
In 1909, a circus elephant named Queenie wreaked havoc in the amusement park. Two little white dogs approached while she was being moved. Chasing them, Queenie crashed into the carousel, breaking wooden horses. She stuffed her mouth with apples and oranges from the fruit stand. Then she allowed herself to be chained again.
Two ladies fainted.
Later that day, a tiger reached through the bars of its cage, grabbed a fox terrier, and tore its body to pieces.
[UNDISCLOSED] APARTMENTS / [UNDISCLOSED LOCATION]
When I escaped (from whatever) to the suburbs, I didn’t clean the fireplace. I failed to repair the cabinet door that had been half-ripped off when someone (not me) collapsed drunk. I ruined that home. Not the walls or the countertops—I broke its energy. My sadness will haunt that place like a restless spirit.
Before I left, I had to complete an [undisclosed] ceremony that required me to be in a set-away place. In my waterproof boots, I went to The Spot and veered off the path into the swamp. I toe-tested stones in the bog, stepped on those that didn’t sink, jumped over muck, and grasped tree trunks. On solid land, I completed my ceremony. When I retraced my steps, I thought I remembered every stone I’d tested, but I knew I was wrong when I trusted one with the weight of my body and sank.
I smelled rot—dead things turned living. I felt my body sinking without resistance and without hitting bottom. I would die drowning in decomposition, my lungs filling with swamp muck.
Of course, I lived. I grabbed a sapling and muscled my way out of the swamp, clawed the solid earth I realized I was desperate to stand solidly upon again. The sludge coated me to my waist and filled my boots.
If I had sunk, if I had found the animal spirit deep in the muck, it might not have recognized a living thing inside me.
Or maybe the animal recognized me and rejected me because it wasn’t my time to leave.
Three months later, I quit killing myself with whiskey. My great-great-aunt Virginia spoke with the photographer Edward Curtis in 1910, and from their conversation, he wrote, “The Indians, after the disturbance of 1855-56, were dying off in great numbers through the use of whiskey—so called—whole canoe-loads drowning.”
In the year after I quit killing myself, I stripped off the coats of paste spackled over my heart. Removed from the city, I slept in silence and began to hear my instructions for living. I’d never thought I would find them on those nights I stumbled from bar backdoors, smoked in alleyways at dawn, and slept with a swamp mouth dirty with traces of my insides.
I stopped seeing Future Elissa, but other people tell me, “I saw your doppelganger!” One friend kept seeing her along Madison. “Was that you?” people ask, and I never say the truth, which is maybe.
MADISON PARK BEACH
I went back the other day. Everything looked like it had been painted over with fresh, bright coats. I did not go to The Spot or have a beer at the tavern. Nothing had changed significantly. Nobody was going to make the neighborhood change, and so it would not.
I did not see the woman.
I will tell this story because it comes from my community. This Cowlitz story was told to ethnographer Thelma Adamson by James Cheholts in 1927:
God sent xwἁni the chief, here to teach people how to live. He was to teach them how to work stone and to do all the necessary work. But xwἁni did not do as he was told; he just fooled around with the girls and never showed the people the right things to do. God once came to him and discovered him neglecting his work. God looked around and saw that the new people had trains, steamboats, steam-donkies, –all of which xwἁni was supposed to have shown the people how to make. Then he threw xwἁni on an island where he turned into a rock. In the next world, — when the world turns over, xwἁni will be a [real] man. I guess he is still there on the island. I hear people say that he looks like a rock in the shape of a person. He gets up at night and walks when everyone is asleep. A man once caught him in the act: xwἁni was walking around all over the house and seemed to be half-asleep.
I emerged from the swamp with a body covered in death. The power told me that I had work to do and that I was meant to be porous because my instructions will come in through the microscopic holes I can’t open or close or even see. I threw out my boots and washed my skin until I gleamed all over.
This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming anthology Ghosts of Seattle Past (Chin Music Press, ed. Jaimee Garbacik) and was created as part of the Fremont Bridge residency project funded by Seattle’s Department of Transportation’s 1% for Art Funds and administered by the Office of Arts & Culture.
Adamson, Thelma, ed. Folk-tales of the Coast Salish. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
Arrowsmith, William. “Speech of Chief Seattle.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 8, no. 4 (Winter 1969): 461-64. Accessed July 6, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20163221
Curtis, Edward S. Wishham. MS GC 1143 Box B #B115, Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. 113-120.
Furtwangler, Albert. Answering Chief Seattle. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
Madison Park Blogger. Accessed June 15, 2016. http://madisonparkblogger.blogspot.com.
Miller, Jay and Astrida R. Blukis Onat. “Winds, Waterways, and Weirs: Ethnographic Study of the Central Link Light Rail Corridor.” BOAS Project No. 20005.D. BOAS, Inc. Seattle: 2004.
Powell, Jane. Madison Park Remembered. Seattle: J.P. Thomas, 2004.
Thrush, Coll. Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.