Sunday, July 16, 2006

Flashback: Port Townsend, Washington

I was eight the first time I saw Port Townsend, Washington. My Dad had an old Dodge van that could sit all four of us in the front. It wasn't a looker, and took some McGyvering to get to run. Its demise, little did we know, was shocking and ironic. It started fire while we were visiting a family grave. That's right-she died in a cemetery.

One of the first places we went in that baby blue eyesore was the Ferry to Port Townsend, Washington. It was a tiny town, with weird little shops that sold dusty things and postcards. A few years later, our middle school band showed up for a parade. I was dressed in blue and white, marching like I was practicing for a career and wailing out sour notes from my clarinet with a broken reed. I have pictures from the ferry with Michelle, Jolyne, and my hairsprayed bangs. There was barely enough room in the picture for my bangs and anyone else.

When I was sixteen, I had a Ford Escort that I named Gutless Wonder. I was a dishwasher at a Chinese Restaurant for $3.65 an hour. I was doing poorly (okay, flunking) algebra, geometry, Spanish...and was put in classes with stoners and other delinquents. These classes had names like "Plants and People." We hung out in a greenhouse and grew...plants. The stoners seemed to have a green thumb.

I had one Creative Writing class, and I wrote poetry and short stories. One day the principal came looking for me. I avoided him for days. When he finally tracked me down, he said I won first place in state for poetry-a poem I turned in last minute, untyped, on a crumbled up piece of notebook paper. I didn't sign it, but he recognized my handwriting. He asked if I would read it in two assemblies. I said I would think about it. He said if I read it I would get the prize money. Considering the prize money was a weeks worth of scraping Chow Mein off family style dishes, I asked him which day. I didn't want to skip.

That gig led to graduation, homecoming, and prom poems and became the school poet. I cringe to think what these poems said, but they all seemed very important at the time. My creative writing teacher (Carl Steiner) told me I was chosen to attend Centrum's Creativity Camp in Port Townsend for high school students. It was official. I was green-lighted to skip an entire week of real school to hang out with real poets on the beach.

I drove my Gutless Wonder to Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend. My car was choking a bit and drooling oil all over the road, but running, and it made it to the massive, woodsy, white-housed park. I was mentored by some great writers and met other creative weirdos like myself. That was a turning point. That's when I decided to give up horticulture and dishwashing and go to college.

So here I am, in Port Townsend again. Sixteen years later in the same place I was when I was sixteen. I rolled up in my newish convertible that purred with my cowboy hat and Chanels. "You look like a romance writer!" an overly-enthusiastic man with an Oregon baseball cap said.

"Thank you, I think," I said. He backpedalled a bit, but I wasn't really paying attention. It was too surreal being there, at my old camp on the beach. Where I discovered Throwing Muses (favorite song, "Not Too Soon"), didn't inhale, had minor crushes on boys and major wardrobe issues involving stonewash. It's where I lost my reputation and found my voice.

It's changed. Classical music plays in the bathrooms, they have a fancy cafe in a renovated Commons area. Even though they have a School of Rock here, I have yet to see a minor smoking out a room window, or pierced-up kids wearing all black getting all their hate out their scribbled up journals. I found my old cabin and am going to see if our graffiti is still there, and the poems we tucked in the walls, above my bunk bed.

I did see a girl that looked familiar to me, and I to her. She came here when she was 16, too. Her time here also encouraged her to go into a writing career and pursue creative writing.

"I'm sure we knew each other, I just don't recognize you," I told her. I clutched my handbag and I squinted through my Chanels.

She stood, shirt tucked in with hair that looked expensive. "I looked like a different person then," she said.

Maybe, I thought, this woman and I were unrecognizable because we looked different. But mostly, I realized, we were unrecognizable because, we were the lucky ones who were shown a different path and now, gratefully, we were.

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