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Give me a decaf mocha frappuccino — and hold the fish

Table service at Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in Seattle.

ALAN BEHR/TNS

A convention in Seattle proves to be predictably unconventional

By ALAN BEHR | Tribune News Service | Published: June 26, 2018

A prudent first consideration when trying to understand Seattle is that it is not Athens, Rome or, for that matter, Stratford-upon-Avon. The seed of Western Civilization was planted in classical Athens, blew westward on a storm toward ancient Rome, was miraculously grafted onto stronger roots during the Renaissance in Florence and Siena and, one thing following another, kept going until it hit Seattle, where it stopped, the broad Pacific being too great a barrier for its further transit. Instead, Asian culture came east, and although Seattle remains heavily European in population and influence, it doesn't completely fit a classical definition of what is Western; in fact, it doesn't quite fit any classical definition. It is, in a word, "whatever," in the very contemporary use of that word to mean, "If that works for you, I'm OK with it."

The result is something as unique in the United States as a gourmet hamburger in Verona. Center City looks respectably North American, save for an overall cleanliness that is maintained despite the conspicuous population of the homeless and other members of the USA's down-and-out street subculture. They are familiar to the point that, over a few days, they came to appear as integral to the sidewalks as fire hydrants. Exiting the Convention Center one morning, I approached a man seated on his rolled sleeping bag. He had a gentle face under wavy hair that disappeared behind his back. He wore pinstriped suit pants and old running shoes and held out a baseball cap with a floridly embroidered rim. His nearly empty Starbucks vente cooled on the ground next to him. I gave him money -- not to be beneficent or to make a political statement; I just thought he could use a refill.

As hosts to a transient population of sailors, port cities trade commercially in goods but socially in many shades of tolerance. In Seattle, that shows best (and for tourists, most harmlessly) at Pike Place Market, the home of Seattle's renowned flying fish. Many edible species of marine life go airborne here, all of them quite dead when they do. You can catch sight of them by ordering something from the fishmonger who stands on the opposite side of a sales island at the large seafood booth. Observe as a colleague behind the main counter gives a shout and, on hearing a boisterous reply, hurls your carefully wrapped dinner over 20 feet, into the hands of your salesman, who proves as skilled as a wide receiver in the NFL.

That has been going on at the market a very long time, as has the sport of positioning on the crushed ice a nasty-looking brute in the shape of an open-mouthed monkfish. As a credulous visitor draws close, it lunges forward and lets out a fiendish growl (the handiwork of the nearest salesman, turned puppeteer), as if to take revenge for the imminent consumption of its neighbors.

The rest of the market is the usual mix of flower vendors, crafts people and memorabilia sellers, but there is a refreshing absence of chainstore predictability. I bought my 9-year-old son a brace of diecast toy airplanes at a compact specialty store. Nearby, a Chinese restaurant as long and narrow as a railroad car (but with a permanent waterfront view) served me an agreeable impromptu lunch of steamed chicken and vegetables.

I have a debt of a kind to Seattle: I never drank coffee until before Starbucks opened its first store in my adopted hometown of New York City -- and I haven't stopped since. The first Starbucks in the entire chain is still on Pike Place, across the street from the fish sellers. It is about the size of a comfortable Manhattan living room and still looks more like a place to warehouse coffee than a place to drink it. You have to wait to get inside, as is appropriate for any shrine, whether in service to God, art ("The Last Supper"), an ideal (the Liberty Bell) or caffeine. Entering with Asian tourists, I did as they did and entered just to say I did so, then popped out. Then I was straight off to another Starbucks. Talk about a shrine, though; if there had been a box for offerings, before exiting, I would have dropped some change into a metal box and lit a votive candle.

I was in town this time for a legal conference. By a long tradition of a quirkiness that Seattle would appreciate, my friend and fellow attendee Axel, an internationally recognized authority on intellectual-property law who works in Berlin, meets me wherever the conference may be held annually throughout the world -- always at a Starbucks. That was why I hurried from the first of its kind to the newest of its kind: a prototype Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room. Large, double-storied and comfortable, it includes its own-coffee brewing machines, table service at the downstairs level on Japanese-style wooden trays, and it has enough coffee paraphernalia on sale to outfit a couple of rival artisanal coffee shops, competition from which has spurred this agreeable refinement to the standard Starbucks model.

Axel had the honor and burden of being in charge of our meeting this year -- which compresses more than 10,000 intellectual-property lawyers from around the world into a single, utterly overrun place. You could measure Axel's importance to us by the ribbons hanging from his name badge, each representing a distinguished but distinct role -- like the battle ribbons on a field marshal's dress uniform. Over our fragrant and complex brews, I asked him his thoughts on Seattle. "I love the city," he said, soon adding, "The homeless problem is a bit disturbing, quite different from where I am in Europe." Then he smiled. "I find it, as a tourist, disappointing that you cannot buy a big fish, take it back to your hotel and cook it."

Anyone old enough to remember World's Fairs will probably remember the sensation first caused by the Space Needle in Seattle. It is a 605-foot tripod with a disc and spire on top and was built as the centerpiece of the World's Fair of 1962. It is now the anchor attraction of an arts and cultural zone, Seattle Center. When Western Civilization moved in the direction of the sun, it had, roughly speaking, started with Praxiteles, added Virgil and then Shakespeare until, on reaching Seattle, it reached full bloom with "Star Trek." I caught that by inference as I walked through the spacious galleries of the Museum of Pop Culture, another monument to our civilization that traces back, like Windows and Excel, to the labors of Paul Allen (who founded the museum in 2000 as the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame).

As you take in this finely curated and displayed collection of, to use a needed oxymoron, iconic ephemera, you can come to feel that science fiction and horror films, comic books, and the rest are indeed consequential to the contemporary human experience. If you do not believe that, please share with me where on this side of the globe I might find a similarly sized and funded museum of opera, ballet or blank verse. Although, true to its mandate, pop culture will hold your attention only as long as you experience it -- so that by the time you were once again outdoors, you are possibly ready for the more resonant experiences of Wagner and Monet -- while you are inside, the museum is quite delicious fun. For catharsis, I recommend the almost soundproof booth in the horror galleries, where you get to scream as loudly as you can -- either in rage or terror -- and be graded for effort and authenticity.

New to the Seattle Center since 2012 is an indoor and outdoor exhibition place known as Chihuly Garden and Glass, which is devoted to the glassworks of the Tacoma, Wash.-born master Dale Chihuly. Trained in the Italian glassmaking center of Murano, Chihuly perfected a style that favors large pieces formed of richly colored tubes, many of which look like the stamens of man-eating flora. I particularly liked, however, the rather eccentric room devoted to what appeared to be two wooden boats, each piled over the gunwales with plant life and oversized beach balls, all in glass, of course.

A good measure of a city is how well it tends to its remaining pastoral spaces. You can learn more about New York City by visiting Central Park and Jones Beach than you can find in a view from atop of the Empire State Building or an evening with the Rockettes. Discovery Park, which rises over Puget Sound, is the largest open space within Seattle. My old friend Rochelle, an exile from Manhattan, where we had first met, now lives within walking distance from the park, and she took me there for a Sunday-afternoon stroll.

We walked the narrow earthen pathways that form the park's Loop Trail, which takes you to a park highlight, the West Point Light, a lighthouse that guided mariners by kerosene lamp for long after it opened in 1881. On a clear day, unaided by a beacon, you can see Mount Rainier, far to the southeast.

Although it was Sunday, a day when, in weather as pleasant as we were having, Central Park can feel nearly as crowded as Grand Central Station, our end of Discovery Park was almost depopulated, until two young men appeared. One climbed into a tree while the other, who wore a Nirvana T-shirt, dangled at his ankles a large four-pronged grappling hook. I was learning: in Seattle, you do not question the inexplicable; you just move on.

An unusual formula for a must-visit restaurant: become the first African-American to win the James Beard Foundation's award for Best New Restaurant of the year, charge unassuming prices for gourmet Southern food but accept no reservations for parties up to seven. When you open at 5 p.m., count on a full house just minutes thereafter. All good things come to those who stand outside yellow walls at JuneBaby and wait, and wait, and wait for the chance to enjoy Chef Edouardo Jordan's novel reworking of dishes I remember from my boyhood in New Orleans, from the cast-iron flint cornbread with sorghum molasses to the black-eyed peas with Louisiana sausage. For a clever surprise, however, our waitress was from Britain, reminding us, in the manner of the late and much-missed Anthony Bourdain, that, regardless of origin, all great food, like all great music, is, in the end, international.

And so ended another convention -- in an agreeably unconventional way.

A boat sculpture in glass at the Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle.
ALAN BEHR/TNS

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