The aroma of Tacoma

  • The sugar beet factory in not-so-glamorous Billings


My husband grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Whenever we’d go back to visit the cloudy skies of Seattle or Portland, he’d ask, “Can you picture us living here?” and I would try. But I always felt anxious.

He seemed so happy, just posing the question, that I put my trepidation down to that arthritis — latent now — in my left thumb.

Then one day, the question changed. “What about Tacoma?” he asked.

I felt instant comfort, as if I were sinking into warm vanilla bubbles. Turns out, it wasn’t the arthritis that worried me. It was the prospect of living life in a hip, happening, Seattle-or-Portland kind of city, a lucky-you, can-I-come-too kind of place.

I prefer a town whose freshness date has expired, one with a slight funk, a little grit, a mysterious stench wafting on the breeze. Such towns dot our great country, and I’ve lived in a few.

My all-time favorite is Astoria, Ore., on the mouth of the Columbia River. When I pulled into town, it was just getting dark. People peered at me from behind soggy curtains. It felt shifty, mysterious, like I’d stepped into a Twin Peaks episode, and during my time there, that feeling never entirely evaporated. How could it, when it rained so much?

Long ago, Astoria dreamed of becoming the salmon capital of the world. But at some point, the dreamers abandoned her, and let her go feral. When I was there, much of downtown stood empty, its mossy inhabitants whispering that Astoria would come back some day.

Turns out they were right. I got out in 2001, just in time, as that remote outpost of Lewis and Clark let its revitalization take hold. Now, under the big bridge where the hobos used to relax, there’s a deluxe hotel with an on-site spa, its rooms replete with fireplaces and claw-foot bathtubs. Astoria may still be eccentric. But those seedy, decrepit days are gone. Its promoters have probably found a way to suck the fish smell from the air and silence those seals that used to bark me to sleep at night.

These days, I sleep in Billings, Mont.

Billings isn’t quite the sort of town I embrace — Butte is probably more my style — but at least Billings possesses some humility. Although it’s the biggest city in Montana, it knows darn well nobody chooses to live there. People move to Billings for business, or stay because their family wound up there three generations before and never scraped up the smarts to skedaddle. In November, when the sugar beets burn on the edge of town, there’s a singular stink to the air that almost smells like home.

The apple of Montana’s eye is Missoula. Everybody and her Labrador loves that town. I don’t blame people, but frankly, this Missoula worship is tiresome. More tiresome still is Boulder, Colo., where I lived for a stretch. With Boulder’s perfect array of ethnic restaurants, endless bike trails, sunny open space, enlightened public transportation, eclectic cultural offerings and those drop-dead-gorgeous Flatirons, I should have been in heaven.

Correction: I was in heaven. Boulder is heaven on earth.

Trouble is, some people don’t belong in heaven. Some of us just don’t fit in. How weary I grew of Boulder’s relentless enlightenment, its herds of hippies nibbling their sacrosanct vegan concoctions, its fitness freaks with their far-too-healthy habits.

You cannot argue with heaven, but like Lucifer, you can leave.

I’m better off earthbound. After all, I was born and raised in Omaha, one of those towns like Billings or Tacoma that people — most of whom have never been there — crack jokes about. The jokes make them feel better about where they live, but all their negative energy just makes me stronger. I hardly know Tacoma, but the idea of it sits well with me; it’s the kid sister to glamorous Seattle, passing a little gas at Easter dinner. Having spent my entire life as a kid sister, I know what that’s like.

Like certain towns, I’m perverse, determined not to do what’s desired. Obstinate, we turn away from what is right, good or proper. We persist in what’s wrong.

Perhaps this attitude is necessary to my economic survival. I’ve never been loaded, and I probably never will be, and my kind of towns are almost always marked down for quick sale. Maybe if I had more money, I would embrace nirvana, but I doubt it. Money can mask your smell, but it can’t change it. Underneath, it’s always the same stink coming from your pores.

So, Tacoma has its aroma, and I have mine. I believe it might welcome me with moldy, open arms. I know my arms, perspiration stains and all, will be raised in return.

Karen Mockler is a writer, teacher and former HCN intern. She currently breathes the air of Billings, along with her husband and 3-year-old daughter.

Jul 26, 2007 12:34 PM

Living outside of Portland, OR and originally from a small unpretentious town, I think you addressed my unease.  I would add that a lot of the hype about Portland is also a myth, it is also a place with much poverty, drug use and other social problems.  Despite it's healthy image, the obesity rates in Portland are no different from the rest of the country.

Thanks for the great article.

Jul 30, 2007 11:58 AM

I grew up in Tacoma's aroma. Scratch that. I never really grew up. I moved to Arizona's sunshine after high school. What Tacoma didn't offer me as a kid, Arizona did. The small towns and little cities of AZ provided me with a much needed environmental morale boost and a sense of identity that the gray canopy of Puget Sound's 120 days per year of drizzle could not.I'm not suggesting that Tacoma's all bleak. Pt. Defiance is enchanting. I worked my first job there. I met my lifelong love of baseball at Cheney Stadium. A sunny day at Spanaway Park still brings to me the most earnest smile I've ever felt. Still, I believe that Tacoma's efforts at revitalization as an urban community have always been an attempt at stoking dying embers. Tacoma is the ugly duckling little sister to Seattle's supermodel status. The restaurant boom on Ruston Way during the 80's was exciting at the time. The Tacoma Dome was a big hit. Hydroplane races on Commencement Bay? I remember that day. Why is Seattle so glam, anyway? Well, it's not. That big town way up north has the same climate, the same coastline, the same anything you want, except for community spirit. It has one. Have you experienced Pike Place Market? There are guys busking for tips on the painted red quarter notes around the market. There are friendly people, speaking (way) foreign dialects. The place smells like wet fish (how's that for aroma? Tacoma's old smelter couldn't hold a candle to that beautiful stank!) The smell of wet fish is inherently northwestern. People travel from all over the world to feel a part of what goes on between the artists, vendors, musicians and random residents who inhabit that small piece of downtown Seattle. Tacoma does not have a community center like that. A contraexample of Tacoma is Tucson, Arizona. It's a little sister town to Phoenix. University of Arizona is smaller than Phoenix/Tempe based Arizona State UniversityTucson's biggest sport is the U of A men's basketball team. The A circle music events bypass Tucson in favor of Phoenix' bigger market. Tucson's Sidewinders baseball team is the farm club for Phoenix' MLB franchise and former World Series champion Diamondbacks. Yet, the Old Pueblo has a vivid identity all its own. Maybe, that's it. Tucson has a great, historic nickname and Tacoma's coined moniker cants of stink!Undoubtedly, Tacoma lacks the vitality that bigger cities generate. However, even a little sister city like Tucson generates a cultural/ethnic urban pulse despite itself. Tacoma lacks community cohesion. Tacoma’s residents hail from more diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds than do the folks from Tucson, but you have to go to Seattle to sense that strength. Tacoma has everything Seattle has. Why doesn't it have everything Tucson has? 

Aug 01, 2007 11:35 AM

I too breathe the air of Billings, Montana, and am also weary of all this Missoula worship (although it is increasingly becoming Helena and Bozeman worship too).

One can only stand so many wine bars where recently relocated latte soccer moms come to park their Audi sportwagons, tie up the black lab puppy at the nearest decorative street lamp, and giggle over their latest run in with Bill and Melinda at a private ski party up at the Yellowstone Club.

I'm just fine with everyone else thinking Billings is the red-headed stepchild of snooty western Montana towns. The more Beartooths, Pryors and longest undamned river in the lower 48 for the rest of us.  

Sep 17, 2007 12:37 PM

The writer needs to see Tacoma.  She's absolutely right that it isn't Seattle or Portland, but increasingly it's a fabulous, gritty-hip place to be.  I've lived here since the late 1980s, moved from the Twin Cities and for a time thought this was a boring and dangerous backwater.  But things change, often faster than perceptions.  The "aroma" is not a factor in the part of the city where I live anymore, with changes in technology and processes at the paper mill.  It's better everywhere.  Downtown has seen amazing development, and there's now a vibrant restaurant-pub-coffeehouse scene that I think is more interesting and way cooler than those I knew in my Seattle neighborhoods.  The Grand Cinema is a gem.  6th Avenue is filthy and spotty and it absolutely rocks.  The aggravations of life in Seattle--stuck in traffic everywhere, trying to get home to your 900K two bedroom fixer--haven't come here, at least yet.  I'm not young enough anymore to really appreciate some of the good things that are happening in T-town, but if you haven't been here for awhile or ever it really is a place worth visiting and watching.