Möbius streets of Tacoma

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

“What’s your ‘beat’?”

I should have expected that question. I was, after all, applying for a job as a writer. But once she asked me that most obvious question, I realized that I didn’t know. But it made me think.

And now I know. I write about the hidden, forgotten and neglected corners –and characters – of Tacoma.

I like the gulches, the seedy neighborhoods, the isolated clusters of homes on dead-end streets, the rocky, sea-weed covered beaches, the few remnants of industrial ruins of warehouses and lumber mills (and the ancient creosoted pilings in the bay) and, of course, the lush green and silent refuge of Pt. Defiance.

I even love the moody, almost haunted, empty streets of downtown Tacoma almost every weekend. (Sometimes an event, a run or volunteer day rushes through downtown like a vagrant rainbow, but it too, leaves without a shadow).

I also love the alleys that always say far more than the intended or accidental ‘curb appeal’ of a large, small and even average home or building.

I particularly like the soggy darkness that hovers like a low, almost personal, cloud on a drizzly mid-morning or late afternoon.
Some cities are at their best in black and white tones – and Tacoma is one of them.

With its tall boxy buildings, and sparse rain-glazed traffic, downtown Tacoma at night is a harshly lit maze of stark shadows and dead-end promises, and lingering, maybe even historic, threats.

I can picture fear and greed, sleaze and desperation, like some ever-shifting, gauzy spirit of a forever haunted unsettled soul in the fluttering shadows of the stark urban alleys.

If I’ve been there too long, it is the soft light of the coffee shop or the welcoming contours of a too comfortable couch that make me nervous. At least at first. But then the cold, wet, dark, and sometimes menacing, streets drift further from my memory and I forget where ‘home’ really is.

And then I remember, this is my ‘beat’ – the unpredictable, uneven, lonely pulse, the awkward eye-contact, the hushed, stilted conversations of strangers.

I understand, at times like this, the cold-eyed angst of the Noir novel, the misty lost-in-thought reach of black and white impressionism of the hungry-eyed artist of the chilled, the seemingly eternal-darker-than-natural night. “There is no tomorrow” the dank and clammy evening seems to say.

It doesn’t take long for the idea of dawn, or any natural light, to feel like an alien presence or a glaring intrusive force from another realm.

Decades of night seem to pass, or even linger to the point of taking permanent root in the streets devoid of human steps.

It’s not a ghost town, but all that seems to move in the drizzle-filled darkness are buses and a few stray cars. Their stark and silent headlights scan across the ancient walls and somehow leave the darkness even darker. The buildings, even with their lights, just add to the gloom.

It is its own ecosystem of harsh lights, deep shadows and hard edges. Perhaps not so different from any other city. But other cities have their charm that tourists seek and photograph. Tacoma’s charms are barely seen, and must be earned, or even worn, like some faded, almost regret-filled tattoo.

I love the derelict buildings, the cluttered alleys, the flickering streetlights that go dark as I approach them, the trains that shake and shriek through the night. I love the echo of my own spooky, clattering footsteps on dark and unforgiving sidewalks.
There is something like a lived prayer in the cold and dark, an odd, unnameable, impossible warmth that defies anything approaching a firm grip.

When I am far away, Tacoma’s cold and rough edges call me home. I rarely feel welcomed or even known here, and almost never belong; but in a way that only Tacoma can be, it’s the only place that is home.

A Möbius strip is a surface with only one side and only one boundary. An example of a Möbius strip can be created by taking a paper strip (or dollar bills!) and giving it a half-twist, and then joining the ends of the strip to form a loop.  Photo by Danielle Nease

A Möbius strip is a surface with only one side and only one boundary. An example of a Möbius strip can be created by taking a paper strip (or dollar bills!) and giving it a half-twist, and then joining the ends of the strip to form a loop.
Photo by Danielle Nease