The early hour

Those who ride the 6:46 AM number 15 Express each morning are creatures of habit.  I am no different.  The faces of the weekday regulars all come silently aboard and take their more or less usual places.  

This driver is one I recognize.  I say good morning to him as I run my Metro card through the reader for the fare.  He is one of a rotation of drivers which I’ve never figured out, owing to the earliness of the hour and the caffeine not yet having had its full effect.  Seeing this driver this morning, though, I know this will be a fast trip.  This coach is an articulated New Flyer DE60LF, 60 feet long and almost 30,000 pounds, equal to about one and one-half standard buses.  This guy doesn’t so much drive this coach as aim it, moving its bulk through traffic as though it were a sports car. 

I am in my customary fourth row window seat.  The bus makes the three remaining stops in the neighborhood.  The driver makes his familiar announcement; no more stops until First Avenue and Denny Way.  Books come out of bags.  Blackberries come out of pockets.  iPods are on. 

We are now Express to the city.

Outside, the views down 15th Avenue and Elliott Way fly by, looking as they usually do at this hour.  The long months of winter darkness are beginning to give way.  The coming of spring brings a faint light not seen at this time for several months.  Details of the fishing boat fleet under the Ballard Bridge are beginning to appear.  Toward the east, the outline of the Cascade mountain range may be seen in silhouette, on mornings when not obscured by clouds. 

Over time and repetition, the billboards, the street lights, the sequence of the traffic signals have all merged to form a recognizable rhythm to this ride.  Without looking up from my book, I know when the bus makes the right turn onto First Avenue, the first in-city stop.  With each subsequent stop, the coach gives up a few more riders than the one before.  After three stops, I know to put my book into my backpack; stop number four is First and Pine, by the Pike Place Market.  The 15 Express comes to a halt in front of the Inn at the Market hotel, the door opens and I step out into another weekday morning in the city.

As I cross Pine Street, I never fail to look to the right, a postcard view of the covered north stalls of the Market with the vast inland sea beyond.  As the bus arrives at this corner each morning, one of the green and white ferry boats is usually just coming into Coleman Dock, the big downtown ferry terminal.  The ferries are more than mere boats; 440 ft with a capacity of 200 cars, these are rightly ships, filling my view of the bay, from my vantage point between the buildings on Pine Street.  This is their busy time of day, carrying hundreds of drivers and walk-on commuters from the towns and villages six miles across the water. 

As I walk down First, toward the office building where I work, some of the early-opening businesses are already well into their morning routines.  At the Crumpet Shop, the sidewalk tables and chairs are out and the container plants have been watered; the first customers are ordering tea.  A few doors down, the young woman, who looks too small for the work she is doing, is hauling out the galvanized, industrial-looking plant stands of various sizes, some nearly as large as she.  Later, after I’ve passed by, plants and cut flowers will emerge from somewhere within the recesses of this small corner shop, which opens to both the First Avenue and Pike Place sidewalks.  If I come back this way on one of my noontime walks, this stand will have been transformed into a garden.  On the opposite corner, the Read All About It news stand is open, lights and radio on, the rows upon rows of newspapers and magazines from around the world ready for the earliest of patrons.  Overhead, on top of the ancient iron canopy that covers the newsstand and forms the entrance to the Market high stalls, planter boxes filled with daffodils are in bloom, a riot of yellow and green.

Pike Place, the street for which the market is named, is paved in its traditional red brick.   Trucks of various kinds and sizes have been arriving before me.  They are already unloading produce and fish and meat beneath the famous “Public Market Center” neon sign, next to the neon clock and the “Farmers Market” sign to its right.  Ice is being shoveled from carts into the cases where fish will be displayed under bright lights, the better to reveal their freshness.  From inside a van, flowers come to fill one of the stalls with the promise of spring.  If the bricks are wet with rainfall, as they frequently are, the lights and the neon reflect back toward me as I cross the street, a carousel-like vision of color and movement. 

At this hour, the Market belongs to the farmers and the shopkeepers.  For the rest of the day, this place will be crowded with shoppers and tourists.  Fish will fly at the Pike Place Fish Market, buskers will play for pocket change, restaurants will open, take-out windows will come to life, selling everything from crepes to gyros to humbows.  By then, I will be at my desk in the 50-story building in the financial district, once the tallest building in the city.

Crossing the red-brick street, I leave behind the life of the market and enter the business district.  Buses come from every direction, down the five main avenues, discharging office workers on their way to the downtown buildings.  The retail shopping district sleeps, save for the trucks unloading in the alleys.  Coffee shops, already open, are vying for the early morning trade.  This became a coffee city thirty years ago.  The iconic green and white paper cups came from a single shop in the Pike Place Market.  Now an international empire, the stores dot every block in the downtown grid.  I pass one… then another… and another.  The lines are short at this hour, the baristas revving up the espresso machines. Their pace quickens for the scores of customers that will follow at all hours for the rest of the day and evening.  In department stores, office buildings, on the sidewalks, the coffee cups are carried by seemingly everyone, like a couture accessory.

This is the latest series of morning trips to a city office, for the purpose of making a living, but it’s not the first.  There was another, very similar, series of weekday trips, aboard another Express, to another office, more than twenty years ago.  The starting point on those mornings was in a different neighborhood, but the destination, near the Market, was identical. 

From one of those long-ago spring mornings:

“Sometimes the walk thru town from the bus to work in the morning is the best of pleasures.  The city is a little cleaner and a little less weird in the morning.  The air is cool and light has not yet made its way fully into the canyons created by the buildings.  I linger at store windows or critique a piece of architecture or engage in people watching; the locals (bums), students passing thru town on the way to school, construction workers with hard hats and thermos bottles going to the job site alongside three-piece suits types, service people, the beautiful, beautiful secretaries, the old retired folks who are out at that time of day out of habit… many, many more.  The exquisite luxury of stopping at the sidewalk espresso stand for a straight shot of that marvelous, rich, life-giving elixir and dawdling along my way, contentedly sipping and munching a cinnamon roll until, regretfully, I arrive at work… and the spell is broken.”

This morning, as I walk the remaining half-dozen blocks to the building, I see many of the same faces as then.   Most mornings, my fellow office workers proceed, wordless and withdrawn in the early morning haze of broken sleep. 

The last few streets are the province of the hotels, some grand and stately, some chic and trendy, others in assorted boutique styles.  Cabs and town cars are already there, awaiting departing guests.  Doormen and drivers use this time under the street lights and electric signs to visit, kibitz, smoke, get coffee.  The hotel staff are changing shifts.  Like the rest of us, those coming on duty are using this moment to stir to the life of a new day, before the elevators arrive at ground floor with their cargo of people and luggage, bound for the airport, their rendezvous with departing flights.  Throughout the day, this too will be a changed place, a locus of activity.  Cabs will scurry for prime positions on the curbs, drivers who know where to be, and when, to capture the best fares.  Waves of arrivals will follow the wave of the outbound; tourists who look at everything, business travelers with tunnel vision, who see only rooms, lobbies, the offices of customers, and air terminals through which they pass, on their way to the next city, which, to them, look the same. 

I climb the steep hill from First to Fourth Avenue, arriving at the broad plaza that marks the main entrance to this landmark Seattle office building.  Before I enter the revolving doors, I pause between the sidewalk and the door and turn toward the street, a street which is felt as much as seen.  In the relatively short walk between the Market and the financial district, the pulse of the city has quickened, the traffic mirroring the gathering light in the east, the light which is now only just beginning to penetrate the gaps between the buildings for the first time.  In another hour, the darkness will be erased, the pre-dawn hours of the delivery drivers and fish and flower sellers and the coffee shops and the cab drivers and doormen will fade, recede, making way for another version of the city.  It will be the same city, but its character will be utterly changed.  The city of the early hour will vanish, with its muted colors, its subdued movements, its unique denizens. 

Finally, I look to the sky, the brightest spot so far in the gradual unfolding of this day.  The topmost floors of the surrounding buildings that form the canyons of relative darkness are illuminated now, windows glowing with silver of steel and gold of the rising sun, reflecting from window to window, across the canyons.  Above, at the top of one of the tallest, an enormous United States flag hangs languidly on its equally enormous pole, itself several stories tall; it is also still asleep.  Later, as the sun warms the air, it will stir the sleeping flag to life and it too will join the day.  

I have delayed my entry as long as I can.  I take in one more moment of the morning, as the city again prepares to meet the day.  But I can delay no longer.  I need to be at my desk.  I turn away from this scene, repeated each day, the same and yet, infinitely different.  I push my way through the revolving door.  The life outside the building is suddenly shut out.

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