Fairhaven Farewell

Fairhaven Farewell

Worried about missing my bus, I scuttled down 12th Street toward the waterfront in Fairhaven, Washington, wearing my fully loaded backpack and clutching the black shoulder bag to my chest. It was stuffed like a Butterball Turkey and weighed about as much.

A passing police car did a quick about-face and then drove slowly past me. It scooted ahead a few blocks, then turned again and pulled over to watch me parade past. I slowed my pace to a touristy stroll and focused on the Canadian Geese resting on the beach and floating among the reeds.

This was an industrial wasteland when I arrived for my first year of college in 1970. Boarded-up brick buildings predominated and the coolest place to hang out was Toad Hall, where you could get a cup of coffee, a bowl of homemade soup, and a slab of whole wheat bread covered in melted cheddar cheese for $5–including a tip. Part of the curriculum for one of my Fairhaven College classes was a tour of the Bellingham pulp mill. Then our teacher, Dr. Robert Keller, lead a class-action suit against the pulp mill, demanding restitution of environmental damage. Now this waterfront is a nature preserve and Fairhaven has become a tourist destination.

Whoever was watching me from behind the anonymity of tinted glass started his cruiser again, flipping a U-turn to slowly drive past…all the way to the combination Amtrack & Greyhound station. There the cop turned and parked: making sure I was safely escorted to the quickest way OUT OF TOWN. That’s the kind of extra attention and concern for your welfare you can expect if you don’t own a car and insist on walking everywhere.

Paranoia strikes deep

Into your heart it will creep

Starts when you’re always afraid

The Man come and take you away…

For What It’s Worth, 1967

Our Greyhound Bus driver for this leg of the journey, Captain Morgan, was a tall, thin, middle-aged fellow with the harassed look of a rabbit diving through thickets. Fuzzy lock of grey hair disheveled over one eye, he was shepherding a Special Needs Lady into a Special Needs Van–enormously pleased at her Special Treatment, shouting her gratitude, ensuring everyone waiting to board could see she was SPECIAL.

“No problem,” Capt. Morgan lied, then darted through the crowd to attend to a bald old man in a wheelchair, waiting at the head of the line.

Pulling himself erect, the old guy falls forward, grabs onto the handrails of the bus steps, then pulls himself upward, one step at a time, dragging his legs behind him. Captain Morgan dashes back into the station to deal with another issue. The wheelchair remains, blocking access to the bus. I grab it by the middle of the seat, collapse the frame, and hand it over to the baggage-smasher, who stows it away in the baggage compartment.

An hour and a half later, when we arrive in Tacoma, Captain Morgan announces a ten-minute pit stop, and the usual warning about PLEASE DO NOT GET OFF THE BUS UNLESS THIS IS YOUR FINAL DESTINATION. Then he steps down to greet new passengers and supervise loading and unloading of baggage.

“Hey, Morgan!” says the old bald guy sitting up front, leaning over the safety barrier and shouting out the door of the bus.

“Hey, Morgan! Can you get the baggage guy to get my wheelchair out so I can take a whiz? Man, it’s a hassle using the can in the back of the bus.”

Apparently, the fellow has been riding this bus for days, being handed-off, driver-to-driver, on a cross-country trek. Whether or not it’s because of his disability, front-row riders generally like to talk and share their stories. I’m usually in the fourth or fifth row. We’re the kind of people who don’t mind talking if it’s necessary, but we like our own space.

The back of the bus is not for me. It came as a surprise because that’s what I used to prefer, long ago, when I was young and had nothing to lose. Back-of-the-bus-people were always the most interesting–and maybe they still are. But these days my shoulder bag contains a MacBook Pro, my daughter’s FlipCam, a Canon PowerShot A720, the info about the AirBnB’s where I’m staying, and most important of all: my spiral-bound notebook. I have too much to lose.

Nowadays what I notice in the back of the bus is the increased noise from the ventilation system and the engine. That and the alarmed red-eyed glares I get from back-of-the-bus-denizens as I pass through on my way to the toilet. This is no place for an affluent old man on an excursion.

Raining off and on all day and running an hour behind schedule because of holiday traffic grid-lock, Capt. Morgan dumps half a dozen of us passengers out in Olympia. The station is closed and it’s dark, damp, and getting cold. I don’t have a map, but I vaguely remember the layout of town so I follow other transients, down, down to the main drag of town: 4th Street. Homeless Central, and a carnival every night.

Orca Books

Orca Books,  ___ 4th Street, Olympia, Washington

I passed by Orca Books without pausing, not wanting to lose momentum, heading northwest, uphill, then stopped at a corner market to ask if I could buy a city map.

“I have reservations for a room at an AirBnB,” I said. “But I’m not sure where they live.”

The young guy at the counter was clean-cut, bright-eyed, no tattoos or body piercings, and surprised to discover that his store had maps of local cities and towns, but not Bellingham.

“What’s the address?” he said. “I’ll just Google-map it on my cellphone.”

It took only a minute. There was a glowing green line on the map on his phone’s screen showing the most direct route: two more blocks up 4th Street, turn left on Puget and straight-on till San Francisco Street.

“If you see the grade school there, you’ll know you’re close,” said the convenience store guy.

In a celebratory, home-coming mood, I bought a 16 oz. PBR, a single-serving plastic bottle of Merlot, and a quart of milk for breakfast. Planning ahead is vital to enjoying the AirBnB experience. That and sheer, dumb, blind luck.

It was lucky I arrived so late because the host, Lynn, was also running late, having just returned from dropping her daughter off at Sea-Tac. She had been caught in the same holiday shopping season traffic congestion that was making the buses run late.

Lynn is a designer, working from home. She supplements her work with extra income from friends and strangers passing through. Each AirBnB is different in its own way, and this one seemed most like the commune-style living that I remembered from the old days in O-Town. Share what you have, respect each others’ space, and take out the compost regularly. Lynn is a graduate of The Evergreen State University–and so is her daughter.

“It was the fifth college I tried,” said Lynn. “When I moved here in 1984 it all finally came together for me.”

Just as Mingo had done when I arrived at her Seattle U-District AirBnB, Lynn immediately reeled off the names of three independent bookstores I should visit: Orca Books, Last Word Books, and maybe Browsers, if there was time. She also recommended that I get in touch with an old friend of hers working at the school library.

Lynn went straight to bed. I went straight to hot bath, then crashed on the bed in the room, updated my blog, and gazed with glazed eyes at the 3-day old New York Times I had been carrying since I picked it up at Fairhaven College. It was hard to stop vibrating after the 5-hour ride.

“I consider myself a citizen of the world,” says Pavel Durov

How Not to Build a $4 Billion Dollar Train Station

There was a pot of French Press coffee on the counter when I woke the next morning. Lynn was scrolling through morning news stories on her cellphone. Oatmeal, raisins, and milk for breakfast, while I scotch-taped pages together–working on a trestle table at the side of the room–making 4-page dummy copies of Return to Circa ’96’s front & back cover and Table of Contents.

Spread out over most of the surface of the table were poster-size prints of photographs made by Lynn’s daughter for a class; a series of character studies. An older, gray-haired woman looking out at me with soul-full eyes, simple dress. Splayed-out sideways on top of the woman was a picture of a school girl in her school uniform giving the camera a look of suspicion: Who you lookin’ at?

Out on the patio in the early morning mist, a pair of free-range chickens huddled together  They were leaning against the glass lights of the door, each of them watching us with one beady eye.

Walking Down Lummi Way

Walking Down Lummi Way

Olympia Harbor

Olympia Harbor

Northwest Olympia Neigbors

Morning in Olympia

The Filling Station

The Filling Station

Stopped at The San Francisco Street Bakery for a second cup of coffee and marched downtown. Half an hour later, as I stood outside Orca Books, shoulder bag full of samples of my work, practicing my sales spiel and talking points, it suddenly occurred to me that I had become my father.

Out of 10 sons and three daughters born to John and Rosemary Sawatzki, how is it that I am the only Traveling Salesman? Just like Dad, except instead of selling Mutual of Omaha Insurance, what I’m selling is a product of my imagination. Nothing of any value to sell except stories. No reason to be doing this except that if I don’t do it for myself, nobody else will.

Walla Walla Insurance Executive


Recognized for Outstanding Service

to Policy Holders

Tri-City Herad full page ad, March 23, 1969.

The year after this advertisement appeared, I graduated from DeSales High School in Walla Walla, enrolled at Fairhaven College, determined not to return to my home town until I could return with a published novel.