Memory

Northgate Mall by Akira Ohiso

Today I work in Northgate across from the mall.  I arrive early so decide to walk around the mall before work.  Most of the businesses are closed before 10am except the Starbucks in the food court.  Seniors walk back and forth along the length of the mall in small groups.  Seattle Parks & Recreation organizes walking program for seniors.

I walk from the food court to California Pizza Kitchen which is at the north end of the mall. Vending machines, massage chairs and kiosks line the middle of the long dimly-lit corridor.  A big white chair with giant eggs around it awaits the arrival of the Easter Bunny.  A flat screen hangs desperately from the ceiling to catch the eyes of passerby with advertisements, but it doesn’t seem to be working as many storefronts are empty and dark.   This could be because big changes are coming to Northgate.  

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On a daily basis, I witness the rapid progress of the light rail project as it snakes up to Everett knocking down houses in its path.  When completed the rail service will connect Seattle-bound commuters to employment while also expanding the dimensions of the metro area.  The I-5 traffic is predicted to decrease, but Americans like the luxury of their cars of convenience and will guzzle gas if the commuter experience is an inconvenience.

Everett, with a local community college, could become a new target of gentrification. 

I walk around the outside of the mall. When you visit the mall in a car you don’t notice sidewalks along the perimeter, the Macy’s drop-off canopy and entrances to department stores that are locked for security purposes.  These spaces are now underused as shoppers are funneled through the electric doors of the mall entrances.

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Around one corner, I notice a burglar alarm cover in an Art Deco style that looks like it is from the original construction of the mall which opened in 1950. It was one of the first malls in the United States and has gone through several renovations and expansions in subsequent decades.  The National Bank of Commerce was at this location.  Today, it’s a Bank of America.

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The vacuous parking lot is empty most of the time except around the holidays or during big sale weekends.  Otherwise, the sprawl is antiquated as traffic is online these days.  On a side note,  the Green River Killer lured Tracy Ann Winston from the Northgate Mall in September of 1983.  In 2017, Anthony Bourdain did a episode of Parts Unknown in Seattle, highlighting the curious number of serial killers hailing from Washington State.  

In addition to Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, other famous Washingtonian killers include Ted Bundy, John Allen Muhammed, the Beltway Killer, and Robert Yates Jr.   On Bourdain’s Seattle episode, he posits that the year-round cover from evergreen trees helps hide bodies for a long time allowing decomposition to occur.  An anecdotal Quora entry titled “Why Are So Many Serial Killers from Washington State,” points out the historical transient and fluctuating population created by economic booms and the states inability to address the demands of increasing social issues.  

As a transplant to Seattle, I do notice that police work is much different than my home state of New York. Whether it’s a Libertarian ethos or the progressive policies of city government, I often see few police cars patrolling or officers on the beat.  

The latest social issues are homelessness and opioid addiction, which are turning Seattle streets into tent cities and encampments.  These two issues are often lumped together, but, in my opinion, mutually exclusive.  While some are experiencing homelessness and addiction, many are not addicted and trying to obtain affordable housing in a city that is still adjusting to the consequences of astronomical economic growth and rising housing prices.  

We often see the human suffering of addiction and homelessness and the desperation that plays out via crime and vagrancy.  It’s hard to bear witness to, but often unseen injustices of power and privilege are ignored, normalized and systemized.

Two weeks ago, a young married white male with a job, a house and no history of criminal activity drank too much, played video games then walked outside and shot and killed a woman in her car.  Next, he shot a bus driver who managed to drive his passengers to safety.  He got in the woman’s car and crashed head-on into a senior citizen killing him as well.  Someone I know was behind the bus when the shooting happened. She witnessed the man acting like he was in a video game.

The public reaction afterwards was minimal in comparison to the outrage of a person sleeping under an awning.  In my opinion, the angry white man is much more dangerous.

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As I walk along the east side of the mall, I notice that some of the outlying lots are fenced off with land use signs and pictures of large apartment complexes.  The mall is again planning for major renovations as the light rail nears completion.  The new Seattle NHL team is planning to build a practice arena and Simon Properties, the owner of the site, envisions more retail, hotels and housing.  

I stop to take pictures of skybridges connecting the mall to a parking garage.  A corpulent man in a security car with a yellow flashing light slowly drives by, eyeing me suspiciously.  I stand my ground and make eye contact.  He drives off.  For most of my life, I have accepted  and internalized these interactions without much thought.   It’s just how things are.  Today, with self-awareness and a better sense of my identity, the experience is painful and infuriating.  Still, if I was brown or black I might be in jail on trumped up charges or dead, my  iphone mistaken for a gun.  Privilege.

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Studio Without Walls by Akira Ohiso

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I’ve been wanting to get back to a regular writing routine for some time now, but, my excuse is that life got in the way.  My discipline as a writer is not up to par with my art.  I work on art everyday mostly sitting on the couch with my iPad.  It’s not very romantic, but I think of Hemingway standing at a chest-high typewriter propped on a bookshelf in his room. Whatever works to facilitate the work. 

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At this point in my career, I don’t have the finances or space for a studio, but, because I work digitally, space is not required. 

I have been moving away from my representational drawings of Seattle and towards a collage and mixed-media vocabulary.  When I had a studio space in the Catskills, I was using this vocabulary on canvas and wood panels. 

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Lately, I have been returning to exploring these styles using digital art applications.  Because I work at a rapid pace and often in a stream-of-consciousness style, the ability to find visual media and get results quickly supports my process.  The internet is an effective tool in this regard.  It’s quicksilver, a digitized me thumbing through printed matter with no discretion.  Anything and everything can be cut and pasted into a new context. 

My work is prolific so I often don’t think about what I create until I stop for the day.  When I think about my work beforehand or have a pre-conceived plan, the work often is for commercial purposes.  Commercial often means constraints about messaging.  The most honest work comes through an unplanned exploratory process where accidents and serendipity play a role.

Perhaps it’s related to my social work background where talk therapy is about open-ended questions and the space to allow exploration and new insights to develop about self.

I remember lonely nights in my late teens and early twenties writing perplexed Bic-Pen entries in my black and white mottled composition book.  I had stacks of journals in my attic bedroom that were tossed when my parents sold the house a few years ago. 

I will never know everything that was expressed in those journals, but I do remember the identity-confused timber.  It’s hard for me to know the person I was back then because I had no identity.  Without the tools and knowledge to understand my biracial existence, I simply reacted in a white world.  I assimilated and denied any identity I was aware of.  I was a cipher, a void, an Akira-shaped hole.

Glacier by Akira Ohiso

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Mom died last November.  I think about her often.  The initial loss gives way to glacial loss. Time creates daily moments of remembrances; sometimes hunks of memory fall off into the oceanic abyss never to be conjured again. The mass moves, deep architecture like ballast...

Today, the snow triggers ancient memories; plastic bags over socks to keep moisture out, the Long Island Blizzard of 1978 and frostbite on the sledding hill behind the Port Washington Post Office.  The radiator in my kitchen was where boots, wool gloves, hats, scarves, snow pants and jackets thawed and dried.  I distinctly remember picking the pilly snow out of my wool gloves.  Mom would be cooking something warm and bubbly on the stove.

I walk with Ellie on 14th Ave NW.  A worker shovels snow off the roof of Ballard Market. Couples venture out to experience the rare event of snow in Seattle.  Dogs jump euphorically through powdery drifts in Gemenskap Park.

Six inches of snow in Seattle is a big deal; supermarket shelves empty out as if a Zombie Apocalypse is imminent.  The city does not budget a lot for snow management because it rarely snows on a scale that requires management.  When Seattle gets a snowstorm the city shuts down.  Bars stay opened.

The death of a parent sometimes marks a new chapter in one’s life.  For me, it has been a chance to reflect.  I am not depressed, but compressed, caring for an aging parent and three children.  My eldest is a hormonal tween on the cusp of finding friends more important than parents.  He is beginning to explore his identity, while I begin to avoid Ericksonian stagnation.  I know he wants me to be a supportive father, but it has to be different than just a year ago.   I have been resistant to adjust.  I’ve been resistant to many things lately. 

In Shadowboxes and the Round by Akira Ohiso

I walk across Market Street on 14th Ave NW.   Ellie and I are walking to Ballard Reuse, a store that resells used home furnishings.   It’s a creative exercise to browse in the jettisoned commerce of others; tubs, doors, street signs, school lockers, lights, cabinet handles, picture frames, radios, hardware, school desks, mirrors, chairs, nautical detritus, clocks, furniture with upcycle potential.  Hipster decor, cheap purchase or creative reuse for an upscale Craftsman.

I find alternative frame solutions for my work; a plastic streetlight, a drawer on its side, a wall piece with shelf and oval frame, gaudy picture frame.   I think about Michaelangelo’s Doni Tondo, a work that depicts a Madonna in the “tondi” or “round.”   

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I also think about Joseph Cornell, an artist who created found-object assemblages in shadow boxes.  He was a self-taught artist and was influenced by the surrealist movement.  Seemingly random juxtapositions, sculptural collages and poetic play were integral to his work.  He once said “collage = reality.”  He lived much of his adult life in a house on Utopia Boulevard in Flushing, Queens.  I was born in Flushing and lived the first three years of my life in an apartment on Bowne Street.  I remember mostly through family photo albums and stories.  My father photographed prolifically during my childhood.  I swear I have a memory of walking in the building laundry room with red slippers adorned with anchors.  My parents vouch for the red anchor slippers, but don’t think I could have remembered such a memory -a gossamer instance like a fragment of a collage. 

“Cornell in Window” 1972 by Harry Roseman  

“Cornell in Window” 1972 by Harry Roseman  

Years later, I would return to Flushing to finish school at Queens College where I received a BA in Studio Art.  I lived with an ex-girlfriend in an apartment building next to the Whitestone Expressway and Whitestone Lanes. The New York Times distribution center was across the expressway. She was a tough Queens girl with a thick New Yawk accent.  She lost both hippy parents at an early age and was raised by her maternal Jewish grandmother.  Her grandmother had died and she lived in the apartment by herself.  There was unresolved trauma around the loss of her parents.  She found her mother dead from a drug overdose.  She was raped at age 13 by an older kid in the neighborhood.  Neither of us had the emotional self-awareness to maintain the relationship.

These were issues I was not exposed to in a north shore Long Island suburb.  I grew up in Port Washington, NY, a cow-neck shaped peninsula facing the Long Island Sound.  In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,  Port Washington was East Egg, the “old money” enclave of Gilded Age estates.  West Egg or Great Neck was for the “nouveau riche.”  Not that drugs and rape weren’t happening, but wealth can make those things go away very easily. 

I grew up middle-class.  We were better off than some, but I acutely felt the haves and have-nots in Port Washington.  The growing “Spanish” community lived in apartments on Main Street or in multi-unit houses near the industrial areas of town.  I remember the local police moving Latino men along who were “loitering” on fences around the train station.  Most of the young men lived together and simply sat outside their apartment buildings on warm nights.  Many worked in restaurant kitchen and landscaping companies. 

My neighborhood was middle-class, but has gentrified with yuppies since.  Smaller pre-war homes with wood floors and original molding appeal to a new generation of yuppies looking for authenticity and integrity in their down-low consumption. 

The Park section is a grid of four streets: Bar Beach Road, Park Avenue, Highland Avenue and Fairview Avenue.  The grid starts at Port Washington Boulevard and climbs up a slope to Woodlawn Avenue, a street that overlooks the Sandpits.  During the summers in the seventies, hang gliders would set off from the cliff and float over the Sandpits until you saw the soft silent landing in the sibilant spray of sand.  Someone would pick them up in “the pits” and drive them back up to Woodlawn Avenue for another run.

Sand was a booming industry at the turn of the 20th century and the sand pits provided raw material for many of the buildings in New York City including the Empire State Building, the Chrystler Building, the Queensborough , the former Twin Towers and Rockefeller Center.  Immigrants from Europe worked the mines and many single men lived in barracks.  Families lived in homes with stilts.  A school was established for children.  I remember seeing rusty cars and motorcycles embedded in the sides of cliffs.  People played “chicken” and it was rumored that the mob disposed of enemies in the pits.

A large green building with conveyer belts would transport sand to barges in Hempstead Harbor.  It was a dilapidated green relic that anyone who grew up in Port Washington at the time would remember driving along West Shore Road to Bar Beach or Hempstead Harbor Beach. The rotting barges remained on the liminal unused banks of the harbor until the nineties.

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As the sand mining industry dwindled, the pits eventually were used as a landfill.  The last sandmining company closed in 1989.  In the early eighties, I attended Salem Elementary School.  The school and surrounding neighborhood was ground zero for aquifer contamination. Residents were getting sick from drinking water and one local teacher died of cancer.  Salem school and the landfill were eventually closed.  Today, it is a golf course and corporate real estate for companies.  The Sandminers Monument was erected in 2011 as weekend golfers perfect their putt.