Beneath the swirling currents of the Tacoma Narrows rests Galloping Gertie, whose grainy death throes are recognized anywhere high school physics is taught. Her twisted girders now house the world’s largest octopi.
When my husband and I moved to Tacoma–only for graduate school–lawn security signs outnumbered rhododendrons; homeless shambled through Wright Park’s elegant hills. But Tacoma insinuates itself with tentacles of unexpected beauty: artists transforming grit into irreverent fun, citizens fighting for bike lanes or filling students’ backpacks with weekend meals.
A steep-sided gorge that drops from bungalows to the bay, Puget Park encapsulates all I love and hate about this odd small town-city. In the nineties, thick whorls of Himalayan blackberry choked the path; stories circulated of bodies from murder, suicide. But a shaggy, limping idealist has rallied thousands of volunteers to create a mile-long curve of peaceful forest below the streets. Once in late February as I pulled trash and ivy from a muddy hillside, I found a child’s perfect hideout–a packed-dirt hollow veiled by sword fern beneath a massive fir. Along the knobby roots, a neat line of plastic-topped needles had been pressed into the ground. The air seemed rank as each one clunked into the medi-can, but around me spring unfurled: whorls of ferns, white Indian plum blossoms, the first pink of salmonberry and currant. In a stream once denuded by prospectors and loggers, salmon now return to spawn.
On last year’s coldest night, my family ventured to once-dangerous downtown streets to celebrate Tacoma’s First Night. Heat blazed from the Glass Museum’s mobile hot shop, from fiery blue sand drawings, from a steampunk band’s flaming trombones. As a crowd unspooled into the darkness still singing the closing nah nah’s of “Hey Jude,” family-friendly burlesque dancers gyrated beneath the municipal Christmas tree. Near midnight, the crowd bunny-hopped a Year of the Rabbit farewell while a shining paper tiger undulated above us. At countdown, my sons’ faces glowed with heat, horns, confetti. Pressed by crowds, in blazing light amidst darkness, surrounded by who-gives-a-damn exuberance, I’d never felt so happy to be a Tacoman.