Our Man In Tacoma



Seeking Art in Tacoma

by Chance Stevens


In the Northwest there was much discussion last year as to Toyota's decision to name their latest truck "The Tacoma." Many people familiar with the city, and especially those neighbors to the north, in style- conscious Seattle, wondered if the folks at Toyota had really done their homework. Hadn't they heard about "The Aroma of Tacoma" (frequent foul smell which permeates the air due to pulp mills and other heavy industry) or any of the city's other numerous liabilities? Wouldn't this have some effect on the sales of this new model, with truck buyers preferring to drive around in a more masculine sounding "Sierra", "Ram", or "Tahoe"? Or sticking with the more neutral letter and numbers combinations of the "F-series" or the "S-series"? "No," Toyota announced to the region. "We've done extensive research, and the end result was that the country, in fact the world, thinks of Tacoma as "rugged". And "rugged" sells trucks. Never mind the reality.

Okay, that was something the area could appreciate. After all, the Great Northwest, and especially Seattle, has flirted with the nation aggressively for the past decade. Image rules. Indeed, two-thirds of the way through the decade, it appears the 90's will be permanently etched in the nation's consciousness as "The Decade of Grunge". Which is really to say, "The Seattle Decade." For this all goes well beyond coffee, Microsoft, and, of course, the music scene. For grunge has come to mean everything from fashion to a labeling of an entire generation. A label I will avoid even using here. You know what it is. See what I mean?

But, outside of a small core area of midtown Seattle (okay, I'll give you some of the "cute little neighborhoods"), Washington State really isn't what the nation fantasizes it is. There is even some argument to be made for it being a suburb of California (see Bellevue, Federal Way, Redmond, Silverdale, Auburn, Kent, etc.) Much of it resembles middle America (All of Eastern Washington). Parts of it feel like Canada (the islands, much of the coast). Then there is Tacoma, the rustbelt.

As a photographer I am accustomed to letting my photos speak for themselves but some help will have to be given here.

Once a week, in a major Seattle newspaper, the most popular 25 songs of the previous week, in the metro area, are listed. For the past several years that list has been almost 75% country. Surprising isn't it? In the land of Pearl Jam and The Presidents of The United States of America, Shania Twain is more popular. This is due to the musical tastes of Pierce county, 30 miles to the south, and it's largest city, Tacoma. Also part of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, Pierce County has 600,000 people. Some say this is the real heart and soul of Washington. The effete city to the north is for snobs, flaming liberals, gays, hackers, hipsters drawn to a myth of a city. The 90's answer to San Francisco in the 60's. There could be some validity to this theory. But what would that make Tacoma?

Tacoma is military. McChord air force base and Ft. Lewis (army) are located here. And Tacoma is mostly blue-collar industrial. It is not a high-tech town. Its downtown area isn't just dying, it's dead. A small group of die-hards are attempting to create a trendy antiques and art-theater district from the rubble. From one site of this noble venture I begin my assignment for "Babel". I call it:


The Author Seeks Art in Tacoma

It's raining. I'll begin there. That's okay, I thought. It'll give me the true feel of the region. I'd read in the local newspaper about a man who'd spent $250,000 renovating an old building downtown. He created three theaters out of the space and was showing art and foreign films. It was a bust, there was no market for that in Tacoma, and the owner was publicly pleading for support. Or he'd go under. So I decided I'd drive on down and check out "Il Postino".

The theater was on the street level of an old brick building sitting precariously on top of a hill overlooking the endless mudflats of the city's industrial area. There was no sign, which presented a problem (I'm accustomed to that in a theater). But there were posters taped to the glass. If you know the address, well, you'll just park and search for these sort of things in Tacoma. I learned that quickly.

There was no ticket office. I walked inside accosted by a mysterious musty smell, which after assuming was the old carpet or just the structure in general, allowed for another possibility after encountering the employees.

A very greasy looking androgynous type leaned over an equally greasy candy counter. He/she whispered into the phone "I know this is an odd request, but is there anyway you could call the driver and tell him to hold that scarf! It's very important to me...it was given to me by somebody special." He/she glanced up at me. I held four dollars for admission in my hand. There were colorful rolls of tickets, the kind you got as a kid when you entered drawings of some kind, right next to him/her. He/she didn't make the connection and spoke back into the phone.

"No, really, I can leave work and come down to the station. That scarf is very important to me." His/her ears sparkled with five studs apiece.

From somewhere a person more easily identifiable as a female approached. The mystery person still stuck to the receiver. "What movie"? the visibly female person said.

"The Postman," I said.

"Il Postino"? she asked, puzzled.

"Uh, yeah...okay," I said.

She grimaced as she tore off a lime green ticket. The androgynous one absent-mindedly scooted over. He/she cupped his hand over his/her free ear. "It's black satin, with frilly things," he/she said into the phone.

"Four dollars please," the female said.

I handed her the money and cautiously eyed the concession stand. Then I took another good look at the greasy one and the female one. Both had sores of questionable sources on their faces, and stringy black straw hair. I chose to go directly into the theater.

Actual red velvet curtains separated the theaters from the lobby. I thought that was great. Very authentic. Old wooden theater seats, probably purchased from the ruins of another downtown theater. Curtains all around. Two other people in back. I sat right up front. The screen was very small.

Here's the thing. I was happy. One of my favorite films ever was "Cinema Paradiso", a film about seeing films in a strange little theatre in a town one leaves to get a real life. So here I was, preparing for a beautiful film to take me to Italy for two hours. Mediterranean sunsets and sensual Italians and romance and color just minutes away. Blues and greens and oranges and reds. Far away from the greys and browns of Tacoma. Sort of Cinema Paradiso in reverse.

Then the lights went off and the speakers came on with very loud static, like an old record being put on at top volume. The first sound of the film caused the speakers to explode with a loud pop! Then, the room went silent, except for the couple munching their popcorn. I could hear running and yelling upstairs, then a dull whirrrrr....as the projector broke down.

I still felt content. It was part of the experience, I thought. It was supposed to be like this, dreaming of exotic places in a dying town. I'd remember this someday laying on the sand at Amalfi, sipping grappa and nibbling olives. I'd smile, feel pleased with myself for enduring the misery, and congratulate myself for having the balls to get out and do something with my life.

Trouble was, the film never came back on. Eventually, after fifteen minutes or so, long after the other couple gave up, I meandered back out to the lobby. The androgynous one was sitting on the greasy counter now, brushing his/her hair.

"What happened to the film?" I asked, slightly perturbed.

"Oh...," he/she said, looking up at me. "The bulb burned out. We have someone on their way over."

"How long will it be"?

"Oh...at least an hour."

"So...the show's cancelled then?"

"Uh huh," he/she said, returning the brush to his/her straw and battling an especially grueling tangle.

"Why didn't you make an announcement?" I asked.

"I didn't think anyone was here".

"I bought a ticket," I said.

"I must've been in the bathroom then, I didn't see you. You can have a refund if you like, or a free pass.

I asked for my refund, went to the video store, and rented "Mediterraneo." It's an Italian film about soldiers who discover the true pleasures of life. It takes place in a small village...