I Welcome the World Here
There was a beat on the street, and the shoppers and sightseers who stepped off Salt Lake's new rapid transit electric train seemed in sync with it as they trooped into garland decked Crossroads Mall or the light-festooned Temple Square, their noses red with winter and their breath floating away into the cloudless winter sky. Rebecca and I passed them and went into the mall past the world music store, past kiosks selling Mormon scripture on compact disc, past shops that oozed the scent of leather, spice, soap and scented candles, Indian furniture and gold watches and out onto the other side of the mall, along Main Street, where hundreds, if not 1,000, were crowding the shadowed downtown street and waiting for the next train to arrive and take them back to the suburbs.
The beat was coming from a four-piece disco band who was playing just down the street a bit. Behind them were street vendors - someone was weaving wool and a man from Peru named Jeronimo Lozano was selling hand-painted retablos squeezed into matchbooks - and back in the Gallivan Center another band was warming up on the outdoor stage and a few dozen ice skated on the small oval there along 200 South Street. It was about 25 degrees, there was snow on the ground and the sharp blue sky outlined the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains. The streets to the east opened to the snowy mountains; to the west they opened to the desert. The wind came from the canyons. It was a fantastic day.
Rebecca and I were on a walking tour of downtown Salt Lake City on a day flush both with shoppers and festivities marking the opening of the light rail system. Detractors cried and cried when the state went ahead with construction of the electric rail line, which runs 15 miles from Sandy to downtown Salt Lake City; they said no one would ever ride it. Today, at least, they were wrong: the cars were full to overflowing with Salt Lakers out for a free ride.
I probably do not need to tell you about the 1848 settling of Great Salt Lake City by Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers; I probably do not need to tell you that Salt Lake City is the capitol of Utah, the largest city in the Intermountain West, and a center for arts, industry and commerce; I probably do not need to tell you about the snow-filled mountains that ring the city; and I probably do not need to tell you about the Winter Olympics, scheduled to start here the second week of February, 2002. So I won't; I'll tell you instead about the wonderful day Rebecca and I had wandering the city.
We parked on the wide-open west side, a neighborhood of old warehouses quickly being restored. Amid the warehouses are a sprinkling of nightclubs, galleries, second-hand clothing and furniture stores, two train depots and services for the homeless or poverty-stricken. The west side has always been one of my favorite areas of Salt Lake. There are mysteries in its buildings, glass-strewn lots, revamped warehouses and smattering of Victorian homes. Traditionally it has been home to the homeless, the gangsters and the drug dealers but they are slowly being driven west as another group elbows its way in: the developers. A developer called Boyer has targeted a multi-block area called the Gateway for mixed use redevelopment that has lots of people excited, mostly for the life it will bring to the area, but also for an experimentation in urban planning that puts the pedestrian above the car.
Pedestrians ourselves, Rebecca and I were taking pictures of perhaps the grandest building in the Gateway, the Rio Grande train depot when a guy named Steve started talking to us about the two-story building we were standing in front of, the Rio Grande Hotel. Steve used to work at the hotel for the Traveler's Aid Society, but now is just staying here. He took us inside the locked door and showed us around. The Rio Grande is more of a subsidized apartment than a hotel. Subsidies can bring the cost down to $70 a month, he said, not a bad price for downtown living.
'That's what I wanna be,' said Rebecca when we left the hotel. 'I wanna be a roamer, and just move around. The possibilities are endless. But if I could live in downtown Salt Lake I would. If I could I would.'
We walked east past Caputo's, a hip cafe, and past Vosen's, an old-time German bakery, and into Seigfried's Delicatessen, a German import market full of chocolate and the smells of ham and sauerkraut. Rebecca lived in Germany for a while and sort of went ape at all the chocolate in there. At one point she was having an animated discussion in German with a woman who worked there about some sort of chocolate that had dolls inside. I let it pass. Later, still inside, she held up a chocolate bar by the name of Saftigue Dominosteine Doppelt Gefkulkt. 'I'm in heaven,' she says, grinning widely. 'I'm going to get two of these, one for me and one for you.' I try to pronounce the name. 'I'm not hungry any more after saying it,' I tell her. 'Couldn't you get something with a better name?' She buys two any way. I ate half of mine and gave her the rest.
We pressed on towards the heart of downtown along icy and snow covered sidewalks. We waited for the train to pass and crossed Main Street and wound our way around the American Stores Tower, the tallest building in town and one which has this really cool little canyon walkway around the back of it. The walkway mimics a southern Utah canyon, and in warmer weather there is water running down a small ravine and above, etched in stone, is a running poem. We walked past a huge sculpture of a family playing on a spring day and into European Connection, a small restaurant where they have made crepes into wraps, if you can picture that. It's damn good. I got a latte to go and we walked back out and up into the Gallivan Center, which can be thought of as a sort of urban concrete park. This is where they hold really cool concerts in the summer on Thursday evenings, as well as on a lot of weekends. Most of the concerts are free, and accompanying them are the standard crafts booths and $1-a-minute massage tables. Summer's reflecting pool is now an ice skating rink and kids are drinking hot chocolate and watching their friends go round. Unfortunately, the park is being cut into so someone can build a narrow high-rise hotel on the corner. The Gallivan Center, great as it is, won't be the same.
Bracing against the cold, we headed north towards the malls, where all the action was, and passed the huge waiting lines to get on the train. City kids in leather and denim shuffle by on the sidewalks covered with fluffy snow. If you come from some place like Philadelphia or New York or San Francisco it may seem laughable to imagine that Salt Lake City has a throbbing pulse. And OK, maybe throbbing is a bit of an exaggeration, but I have always thought that Salt Lake was so much bigger and more vibrant than it at first seems because of how much of an urban oasis the city really is. Until you get out and drive across the West, and I mean drive, you don't begin to appreciate what it takes to be a city that lives and breathes. Consider this: heading east you would have to drive six hours across Wyoming to get to a town big enough to have a network television station. Going west? Not until you get to Reno would you run into a similarly sized city - and Reno is 10 hours away. South? Try Phoenix, a 650-mile flight. The Intermountain West is the wildest, most sparsely settled region in the continental United States, and to have a real city in the midst of it is something perhaps you can't realize until you have been without one for a while.
We had been looking at them all day, the white, red and blue cars of TRAX, the new electric transit train. The train winds through downtown Salt Lake then makes a beeline for the southern end of the valley. Today was the first day of operation, and the transit authority had made quite a spectacle out of its debut - free rides and the disco band. I loved the way the train curved into town, down Main, and the overhead power lines and all the new arty stations and streetscapes that have been redone for both the train and the Olympics. So we decided to ride the thing. Mistake.
The swarm of visitors had overloaded the train system. Crowds on the south end waited hours to get back to their cars downtown, one train broke down, and people got fed up and began to complain. We stood on our train - it was standing room only - for 15 minutes before it even moved, and when it did it crept through downtown little faster than the car traffic. But from inside the cars, my familiar city seemed new again. We went past the Greyhound bus station, where I was stranded one summer night back in 1990, past Abravanel Hall, where I went to see the symphony a few times, past the Wyndham Hotel, which was beaten up by the oddball tornado which tore through downtown Salt Lake this August, past the mall and Temple Square and round the corner down Main to the federal courthouse, where we got off and trooped back.
It was getting dark, and I was hungry again. I think Rebecca was hungry too, but she wouldn't own up to it. A city bus passed us. 'I went to Berlin once and took two whole rolls of film,' Rebecca said as we walked. 'And none of the pictures came out, not one of them except for one of a bus.' We walked down 300 South past Squatter's, the first micro-brew pub to really take off in Utah (it was already a hit, I think, when I moved here in 1989); though they make their own beer, it's more a restaurant than a bar. My favorite part is that from the inside it looks like a ski lodge. From outside, we could smell rosemary and olive oil. Down the street from there is the Metropolitan, a swanky concrete and glass affair where entrees hover in the $25 to $30 range.
Continuing down 300 South we passed Yabuts, which used to be called Spanky's, which used to be called Pete's, which was back when I really liked it. They serve Wasatch Slickrock on tap there and when the beer is fresh it tastes ever so slightly of buttered popcorn. In an alley we met a drunk 50-year old Italian named Despediche, it sounded like, who said he was both a lawyer and a Marine back in Italy; in Salt Lake, though, he is staying in one of the hotels where you pay by the week and the hand-written sign on the door tells interested parties in no uncertain terms that drug dealers, drug users or anyone even remotely associated with illegal narcotics are not allowed on the premises.
'Look at this shit,' says Despediche, holding a cigarette with an enormous ash on the end. 'They treat me like I don' belong here. This damn city is 200 years behind the rest of the world. Everyone here is stupid. I'm so disgusted with this place, I jus' got to drink to forget it. Hey, where are you going?' he asks as we walk off. 'To go get smart,' Rebecca calls to him.
Past the restaurants and headed back to the truck, now in full darkness, things got a little spooky. The streets aren't lit as well and there are some odd fellows hanging out over at Pioneer Park, which is where you used to go if you wanted to buy some heavy drugs, and for a brief moment Rebecca and I were gripped by an odd fear and we skipped over the railroad tracks and down the center of 500 West back to the truck.
Hungry, we left downtown and got onto Salt Lake's under construction and annoying Interstate 15 for three miles until I found the exit for 2100 South. There we went into probably the best pizzeria in town, the Roasted Sun. Our pizza had roasted garlic, artichoke hearts and pine nuts on an olive oil crust. While in there, we read the personals in the City Weekly:
Under 'Men Seeking Women': MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM : No prospects, no future. Beautiful loser in search of desperately gorgeous destitute suicide love goddess for existential errands and search for the numinous.
Under 'Women Seeking Men': GREEN-EYED VEGETARIAN: Independent, slightly rebellious, conservative SWF, 44, 5', 115lbs, Scorpio, childless, gardener, into skiing, meditation, mysticism, horse, flying. Seeking reverent, trustworthy doer with outer toughness, inner gentleness. Comfortable alone, cherish togetherness.
Under 'I Saw You': ZOE!!: We met at a Halloween party on Friday, 29th. My name is Dallin. I was too intoxicated to ask for your phone number. You kept telling me you did not have a boyfriend. Call me.
Downtown is packed tonight, and there's a ton going on. Rebecca continues in the City Weekly. To wit: Poe 2000 is playing at the Plan B Theatre Company over in Marmalade; the Salt Lake Art Center on West Temple has two very cool shows, Big Drawings, an exhibition of large scale drawings, and Out of the Closet, an exhibit of clothing as imagery in contemporary art; at the main library is Streaked With Light and Shadow, documentary portraits of former Soviet Jews in Utah; and Steve Trimble's Sagebrush Ocean exhibit is on display over at the Utah Museum of Natural History.
Sunset hardly masked the cold, and winter clear night's infinite depths made the night colder. Rebecca and I wove into the Avenues, a neighborhood of Victorian homes on a steep hill, and descended long steps into Memory Grove, an urban wilderness park with steep canyon walls, a stream and pond, plaques and memorials, and long trails. Beyond, the canyon pierces the Wasatch Mountains and ends up on Grandview Peak, well over 9,000 feet high. The lower end of the Memory Grove is braided with paved trails and walking bridges and old-style street lamps and below, in the concrete, the tracks of local fauna set in the concrete with these names: Chukar, Mountain chickadee, Townsend's solitaire, Western meadowlark, starling. Further into the canyon, past the offices of the Utah Heritage Foundation and a beautiful reception hall, the street lights and paved trails succumb to night and forest and the city needs no lights after snowfall. We cross and recross the stream and double back when the snow gets too deep.
'I think my nose is frozen,' said Rebecca, breaking the silence, 'and everything else in there.'
Downtown is brimming, maybe more so now at 9:30 as the stores close and everyone crowds into Temple Square where the grounds and historic buildings are covered in Christmas lights, some on the ground glowing under the snow. Crowds cross North Temple wearing suits, leather, wool sweaters or ski jackets. West of downtown, in the old warehouse district, clubs like Area 51 and Axis are opening. Over at Cup of Joe, the poetry slam is just getting underway. The Jordan River is steaming, iced at the edges, and out on the interstate Rebecca falls asleep, jets follow the freeway, and the moon illuminates miles of snow-covered mountains and lakeshore.
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