Sea Race Conference room
Whew, the projector works! (my self-portrait on screen)

I’d dreaded giving this workshop. I literally lost sleep over it, turning over in my head a central question that I’d tried to resolve through innumerable conversations. The problem was built into the title I’d given the workshop, “Here I Am: The Self-Portrait as Act of Cultural Resistance.” And now I had to hash it out at the 2015 Seattle Race Conference.

My workshop was originally intended for people of color (POC)—both visual artists and writers. In a society where racial minorities are still marginalized, creating a self-portrait is an empowering exercise for POC to assert their autonomy and agency. It’s a way of actively resisting racial typecasting while also rooting out implicit racism in themselves. Sometimes self-judgment, like “My eyes are too small” (something I used to think as an Asian American), emerges during the process, and these indictments often carry internalized racism.

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Quarter Life, a self-portrait I did at 25 

Knowing the conference would be well attended by non-POC, I didn’t want to restrict the workshop to minorities and be accused of being, well, racist. So my big dilemma was figuring out how to position this workshop to non-POC. If whiteness is normative in our culture, then for a white person, creating a self-portrait is not necessarily an act of racial-cultural resistance. So the big question was: how can non-POC create a self-portrait and still gain an empathetic understanding of the racial minority’s positionality? It felt like trying to sell a car to someone and have them think of broccoli at the same time. Most of the non-POC I asked usually didn’t think about race at all.

So I asked the question to a diverse assortment of people I knew, from data analysts to artists to academics to executives. Their answers ranged from “Does this workshop have to include white people?” to “Have the white folks draw themselves as racial minorities.” The latter idea made me flinch, since it could easily lapse into stereotyping. I wanted this workshop to be a validating experience for POC, not another opportunity for hurt feelings and rage.

After weighing out the feedback, I finally settled on asking the non-POC to do self-portraits and hoped that the small-group discussion afterward could help them better understand the minority experience.

My next concern was: Is anyone going to be interested in my workshop anyhow? There were so many fascinating-sounding sessions, including ones run by representatives of the ACLU, Washington Bar Association, and Seattle Office for Civil Rights, going on at the same time as mine.

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An excerpt of the 2015 Seattle Race Conference guide (my session bracketed)

To my relief, 16 people showed up. They were visual artists and writers, varying in age and race but skewing POC and female. I shared some of my art and writing, including an excerpt of my piece at the Wing Luke Museum, talked about the politics of self-portraiture and the social/activistic aspects of art making, and described the parameters of the project. I asked the writers to produce a paragraph or several about their physical appearance, which is the manifestation of ethno-racial features and perceived difference. I recommended the artists stick to a realistic style but not worry about using a mirror, to avoid getting hung up on technicalities.

Then I asked the workshop participants how they would address the self-portrait challenge for non-POC. One mixed-race woman raised her hand and suggested that whites can experience oppression, similar to what POC feel, when they feel insecurity at their own features. It was an excellent point: oppression can come from oneself—we do it all the time.

Using the paper, pens and pencils I’d brought, the workshop participants got to work. They approached their self-portraits with courage and honesty; there was often pain and questioning on the page. One white woman drew her body as an outline and her head with only eyes, nose, and hair; in a caption, she berated her blankness and yearned for color. A young black man tried drawing himself several times; each time, a male relative’s face unexpectedly emerged. The mixed-race woman who had responded to my question earlier almost wept while drawing her self-portrait. On the paper, her dark eyes stared piercingly out but inward, as most self-portrait eyes do. She later told me the workshop changed her life.

When I divided the class into small groups afterward to talk about their self-portraits, the discussions were rich and deep, even spilling into the lunch hour. As I visited with the groups, I found it challenging to adroitly respond to some of the issues that came up. What to say to the young white woman who drew herself in long sleeves and wrote that she was seen by her high school as a threat to the community (due to self-harm) but “still doesn’t know oppression”? Or to the half-Hispanic woman who called herself “an invalid” because she doesn’t fit into either culture and it makes her feel sick and useless.

Or to the white senior citizen who had remained resolutely silent until she finally opened up about escaping her bigoted small town when she realized she was gay.

Many writers tried their hand at sketching. A biracial woman who had never drawn before brightly observed that she could pass as either Mexican or white. She drew her eyes looking down in a shocked but amused manner, the whites showing above the dark pupils, and a half-smile on her thin face.

I was inspired and moved by everyone’s braveness at confronting their issues and speaking frankly about them with strangers. A few participants told me afterward that they’d had a profound experience. I ended up making two friends: a talented young poet, who has since expanded her self-portrait into a long-term creative project, and a woman from the social justice organization Coming to the Table. The latter led an afternoon workshop that used art interpretation to reveal implicit bias, which fit the conference theme: Perceptions Kill! The Impacts of Implicit Racial Bias.

The conference itself was sold out, and the majority of the attendees were non-POC, which shows that Seattle is progressing, even if it has a long way to go. I met likeminded folks who offered me opportunities to lead workshops at University of Washington, North Seattle College, and Western Washington University. I was also invited to show my art at a gallery in Kingston, WA.

Sea Race Conference friends
New friends at 2015 Seattle Race Conference (me in center)

Talking about race in America is arduous, but it’s amazing how engaged people can become once they get started. I was struck by how coworkers at my office, even between meetings, spoke about it with earnestness and alacrity. Race is an issue that is alive and vital, percolating below the surface, and when siphoned out carefully—in moderated small-group discussions, even in large-scale events like this conference—it can become a potent and transformative force. So let’s keep talking. Let’s keep meeting. Let’s keep looking into ourselves, for our faults, our beauty, our future potential. Because that is where social change begins.

This post is dedicated to freedom fighter Grace Lee Boggs.

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My tribute to Grace Lee Boggs on the chalkboard at my workplace

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Mode Irrealis
Irrealis Mode, acrylic on 30″ x 40″ canvas, 2006

The Strata series consists of horizontal layers and pentimenti (visible traces of the earlier stages of the painting), which are used to represent a priori truths, or what lies beneath experiential knowledge. This series explores consciousness, memory, and the overlapping texts of fear and desire.

With the Strata paintings, I departed from my previous monochrome work, avoiding dominant forms and using color to elicit emotion. Although color field painting is nothing new, it was certainly an unfamiliar practice for me, though a liberating one.

Irrealis Mode (above) was the first in the series. I had just come back from spending time in the Bay Area, and the clarion California light profoundly influenced me. The painting has an oneiric, or dream-like, quality like something yearned for or remembered. The ineffable seems to lurk between the layers, so the title refers to a grammatical mode used to describe the unreal.

Laguna
Laguna, acrylic on 30″ x 48″ canvas, 2007

The painting above took almost three years to finish. I wanted to create a piece that had both fearsome and beguiling elements. The latter appear as fields of aqua (an unusually complex color in this case, carrying a blush of pink) and sea green. By contrast, electric patches of cadmium orange and ultramarine vibrate and shimmer as you get close. An underlying dark structure emerges–part of the earlier painting–representing the limits of mortality, an underworld, or an unresolved trauma.

Sea Change
Sea Change, acrylic on 30″ x 48″ canvas, 2006

Unlike Laguna, this piece took less than an hour to complete and is very minimal. It uses only three colors, and nearly a third of the painting is raw canvas. By sheer luck, a few dribbles of paint appeared in just the right places, so I let them travel down. When creating Sea Change, I was thinking of the color of the sky before a storm–that ominous but captivating shade of yellowish gray–and the uncertain psychological climate around major changes.

Here are a few smaller pieces in the series.

lost_Strata_SM
Untitled, acrylic on 8″ x 12″ canvas, 2010

Small strata
Untitled, acrylic on 5″ x 7″ canvas, 2006

I find that abstraction enables a more mutable vocabulary than figurative art, and is more apt to reveal subconscious processes. Although modern art is often all about the surface, there is a lot more beneath, through more readings than one.

These days I’ve been developing a new body of work around race, but I plan to return to the Strata series. In the meantime, it waits for me like an alluring memory or an unfinished dream.

You can see more of my paintings at: http://rhymeswithrace.com/paintings.html

Tattoo 3
None of these tattoos are real

When I was 16, I cut class and went to meet a local tattoo artist at a nearby McDonald’s. My plan was to drop out of high school and get apprenticed under him, so I took along some of my best pen-and-ink drawings. The guy turned out to be this sunburnt dude with a bleached-yellow mullet in a teeshirt that promoted drunk surfing in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. He spoke with a hillbilly accent and was the color of ham and eggs. I noticed a pastiche of bad tattoos on his left arm: wizards, skulls vomiting out other skulls, and the occasional lopsided guitar. He proudly pointed at them and told me he’d had lots of practice tattooing.

When I asked the guy what he was working on these days, he described an elaborate bower of roses winding up from his right knee and arching over his groin. Then he stood up, unzipped his pants, and said, “Here, you wanna see it?” I got the hell out of that McDonald’s, but not before shelving my tattooing dreams right then and there.

It was a pity because I’d already had lots of practice drawing badass shit on people. As a high school freshman, I brought a steel-gray magic marker to school every day and inscribed king cobras and cracked skulls on the punks and heavy metal kids. I hit the big time a year later, when I was asked to give someone a tattoo using a homemade gun made out of a spoon, a guitar string, and a needle, powered by an electric train track. (I ducked out because the gun was rickety and had a reputation of getting “a little too close” to the bloodstream.) In the meantime, I always gave myself Sharpie tattoos as preparation for the real thing.

Tattoo 2
Me at 16 with my homemade tiger tattoo

So you would expect me at this point, decades later, to be covered head to toe with tattoos, right? Well, I’m one of the few people walking around without a single one. When asked why, I’ve always said there was nothing—no image or text—I could commit to wearing full time on my body. But the other day, I was surprised to find out the real reason why.

It all started when a coworker wanted to throw a punk-themed party at my workplace. I was brought in as a “consultant,” or a punk SME (subject matter expert), having spent 25 years in the scene. A few weeks later, the office’s main conference room was transformed into the grungy cavern of the now-defunct NYC nightclub CBGB. With trash on the floor and loud ’70s punk rock on the sound system, it looked and felt surprisingly authentic, not like a lame mockery of the counterculture.

For the party, I donned a tank top constructed out of two Plasmatics backpieces strung together with safety pins, along with an old Crass patch and the DIY jewelry I’d worn as a punk in high school. Of course, I had to add some tattoos in permanent marker. Here’s what it looked like.

Tat sdetail 1
On my right arm, tattoos done by me: the international squatters symbol; skull with spiderweb, rope, booze bottle, and nails; a bloody razor blade with “City Baby” (GBH reference) on it; a kitchen knife with “Punks Not Dead” (Exploited reference); two snakes (one not pictured); and a sprig of dying roses

Tats detail 2 

On my left arm, tattoos done by friends: a psycho skull, lightning bolts, a snake, and a “DC Hardcore” symbol (not pictured)

I drew some spider webs, skulls, dangerous weapons, and the international squatters symbol, which resonated with my anarchist beliefs. I included references to some of my favorite punk bands and added “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards) on the knuckles on my right hand. A friend later wrote “BIAS” on my left knuckles as a joke.

The fake tats didn’t make me feel like a poser, but they did make me unrecognizable to myself, like “Whoa, whose arm is that, and why are they cutting my tomato?” As I got used to having them, I began to feel confined, as if the tattoos defined me a little too much. They seemed to set people’s expectations and subconsciously set mine too. I understood why people get tattooed, because these permanent emblems can reinforce one’s identity. But in my case, they were restrictive, as if I could be nobody else except what these tattoos required me to be. I felt self-contradictory listening to anything but punk rock and surprisingly out of place when I went to see my friend’s ’60s mod band play that night.

I also noticed my behavior becoming more jaded, cynical, and a little more regressive (yes, even more than it already is!). It was hard to stay professional at work when my tats reminded me that what I really wanted to do was down PBRs and listen to seven-inches all day. Plus, no matter what I wore, my arms and knuckles gave the outfit a certain slant, which wasn’t always what I wanted.

The Sharpie tats lasted a few days, and they made me realize how much I need to be free and unfettered. Markings that defined me also constricted me; without them, I could continue to be mercurial, endlessly transforming myself, even while staying true to who I am. Ultimately, the whole experience made me realize that I don’t need to wear tangible reminders of my past or interests on myself. They are all in me, behind my eyes, under my skin, and in the bloodstream that continuously leads to my heart.

Dionne_me_punk

The final result, pictured with my buddy Dionne, the other punk SME and artist of the psycho skull above

The best art doesn’t ask permission–it just grabs you by the eyeballs and won’t let go. Even though the Seattle Art Fair happened almost a month ago now (ancient history in the fast-paced world of social media), these three pieces have clung to me ever since I encountered them there. Though not “easy” pieces per se, they are extremely easy to rave about, in my opinion.

The painting that stopped me in my tracks was this one by Michael Reafsnyder. Good god. (Moment of silence.)

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Michael Reafsnyder
Glacial Spring, 2015
Acrylic on canvas
60×50

The artist slathered on what looked like entire bathtubs of acrylic paint in a decadent, almost wanton, way. The kaleidoscope of tones that emerged was both sumptuous and disorienting; it was the most sublime kind of confusion. I wanted to lose myself in this painting, to swim in it and unashamedly glut myself with it. Even if I did, I could never be satiated, because that’s what good art does; it leaves a little something that keeps you coming back for more … and more.

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Color? Who needs color? Detail of Glacial Spring

I was equally enamoured with the satisfyingly chunky work of Cordy Ryman. His pieces are constructed out of lucite and wood and bathed in enamel and acrylic. Like Reafsnyder’s paintings, they almost have a mouth-feel. My eyes wanted to break off pieces and devour them like thick slabs of marzipan.

(Which gave me the idea of creating an avant-garde bakery that produces abstract paintings, all made with cake and custard, that you can ogle and then consume. Who’s with me on this?)

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Cordy Ryman
Bittar Plan 1, 2014
Lucite, enamel, acrylic, epoxy on repurposed wood
12 x 12 x 1 in

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Just for the hell of it, a detail of Cordy Ryman’s Nine, 2014  

And finally, here is a mesmerizing video by Char Wei Tsai that I must have watched at least ten times in a row. Using heavy ink, the artist paints the word “Ah” in water. The word erodes over time while different voices intone the syllable in the background. As infatuated as I was with it, I misinterpreted this piece … big time.

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Still from Charwei Tsai’s Ah, 2011

Created for a public space in Singapore, Ah was intended to celebrate religious diversity and elicit an “inner piece” in the viewer. I found the voices disconcerting in their dissonance as the word “Ah” became more ragged and pitiful over time. As the water moves to and fro, the shreds of ink take on humanoid shapes and seem to cling to each other. They reminded me, horrifyingly enough, of the victims of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

In spite of my misunderstanding, I watched the video in rapt contemplation and was surprised at the indelible sense of pity and alarm it left me with. The experience made me realize how much of my sensibility is rooted in the Western paradigm. Funny how universality sometimes has to carry a passport. And how you still love a piece even though you’ve profoundly misread it. But even after I researched and found what this video signified, it didn’t lose its luster; instead it just became more rich and enigmatic.

All in all, I hadn’t expected to enjoy the Seattle Art Fair as much as I had, having some pretty strong feelings about the current art market. However, these pieces and a few others outshone everything negative, and I was positively starstruck. That is the undeniable power of art: to transform even a jaded cynic into someone who can see the world anew with fresh, hopeful eyes.

My heart’s been hanging at my knees, with the one-year anniversary of Ferguson and the controversy around the BLM disruption of Bernie Sanders’ visit to Seattle. There are feelings I’m finding hard to articulate right now—they exist only as a molten mass in my head—but I did convey some of them as abstract drawings on paper, using permanent marker and a very blunt pencil.

Divided ever
Divided Ever
Sharpie and blunt pencil

The past few days have reminded me that as whites and people of color, we live in radically different worlds. The ferment around Ferguson and the Sanders disruption has shown, with very few exceptions, the grievous lack of understanding we have toward each other. Our comprehension and empathy still hinge on social constructs, and this often creates an impasse, and enmity, between groups.

It pains me to see this kind of fracture happen, and I don’t know how else to talk about it beyond carving marks into paper with a blunt pencil (as in 90% wood, 10% graphite)—a study in impotence and a physical reminder of the emotional limits to our subjectivity. We say we support a movement outside of our experience but still remain ensconced in our respective paradigms.

There is a movement to emphasize that black lives matter. And there are many non-black allies, but how much do we really understand about being a racial minority without wearing it on our skin and seeing how it feels?

We cannot understand
How We Cannot Understand/Stand
Sharpie and blunt pencil

The drawing above came out of the hostile response to the disruption of Bernie Sanders’ talk in Seattle. Some of the most mean-spirited comments came from those who should be the best allies to the BLM movement, white progressives. It occurred to me that as different races with differing agendas in that moment, we could not understand, or even stand, each other. We simply cannot stand if we continue operating this way.

I’m frustrated by the impotence in racial discussions. We are bound by our limitations, so how can we unite and fight?

Scan 1
We Hate You/They Hate Us
Sharpie and pencil

There are allies out there with deep hearts and broad imaginations. These are the people who can help, and yet today I’m feeling discouraged, haplessly bound by my own skin and embroiled in conflicting, mutually uncomprehending discourse. I’m especially tired of hearing stubborn but futile attempts to analyze the Sanders situation. These are as effectual as a blunted pencil, whose insignificant marks cannot rival the deep, plush darkness of a brand-new Sharpie, a symbol of the stark and unyielding truth of racial inequality.

I recently found a sketchbook I kept in sixth grade and instantly got depressed. It occurred to me that the greatest height of my artistic practice happened when I was eleven years old. I drew all the time, was respected by my peers and family for my work (even though I was relentlessly bullied in school), and was constantly pushing myself in new directions and new mediums.

At the time I was obsessed with horses. I drew entire herds of horses in pencil, pen, magic marker (pictured below), and any other art material I could find.

kid_horses

Nowadays I’ve moved on to other subject matter, but have found some surprising similarities between my art as a sixth grader and my work now.

For example, I had a penchant, even back then, for black and white—and drama. Maybe I was subjected to too many murder-mystery TV programs, thanks to my mom and two older sisters. Here’s a drawing of a “whodunit,” with a corpse splayed out, grim bystanders, and a grieving widow. (I was a macabre child.)

kid_whodunit

But compare the drawing to one that I did a decade and a half later, as a response to the War on Terror.

Atrocities V

Atrocities V, charcoal, 2001

Then there was my weird infatuation with fruit punch. There’s something about the color and flavor that I find so enticing—especially in its most synthetic forms. Here’s my version, using Pentel markers, at age 11.

kid_punch

And below is an allegorical still life I did about 27 years later, called Transelementation. This piece explored the uneasy dynamic between fine art and advertising and features a bottle of Hawaiian Punch. Disquietingly enough, the punch was the exact same color as the ultra-poisonous acrylic paint I was using (quinacridone red, for you paint geeks out there).

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I tend toward abstraction as an artist, but will draw a still life just to maintain my rendering skills. Below, as a sixth grader, I was exploring how realistic I could make a crayon drawing look.

kid_canteloupe

And below I’m doing the same thing, with colored pencil—and with alcohol (which enhances everything)! This is part of a love note to Seattle that I made for the Sketchbook Project in 2010.

wine and drawing

The drawing tool I’ve used most often, simply because it’s easy to transport, is a pen. Below are yet more horses I drew at 11, this time using a pen and ancient bottle of ink I’d found rolling around in a drawer at home.

kid_ink horses

And here is a drawing I did nearly 30 years later, protesting the gentrification that is destroying my beloved neighborhood of Capitol Hill, Seattle.

Love letter to E Olive Way

And here I am as a 13-year-old, at my first “group show,” after a summer art class. I have seven pieces behind me, including a few figure drawings, two horses to my lower left, and a black-and-white drawing to the left of my head that resembles my work now.

kid_Corcoran show

And here’s my current work (with me in front of it), photo courtesy of Jeffrey Hirsch. This is from my show at Zeitgeist in downtown Seattle a few months ago.

JH pic of me

As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even after almost three decades (ack)!

You can see more recent artwork of mine at: http://rhymeswithrace.com/

I know you’re tired of it. Race. Race in America. It’s a topic ripe enough to burst, and it dominates the headlines: racial terrorism, police brutality, Obama using the “N” word. I’m sick of it too, but it’s what people of color, like me, live and breathe every day. We talk, cry, and yell it; it’s the key in which we sing.

Lately, I have been developing a body of work that deals with the fraught and beleaguered issue of race in America. These paintings are a continuation of my recent show at Seattle’s Zeitgeist Coffee, Disconnects: The Linguistics of Race. After Ferguson, I began this series as a way of processing the rage and grief that I felt.

Using a large housepaint brush, I flung acrylic paint on more than 30 feet of raw canvas. Working in such a visceral, often violent way–and on such a large scale–was cathartic for me. Although the Action Painters of the ’50s used the same methods, they produced work that was largely apolitical (and most were Caucasian men). My work is firmly rooted in the discourse of racial disparity.

The first piece in the series is Denatured, a tribute to Michael Brown.

Denatured
Denatured, nailed to the wall at Zeitgeist Coffee, March 2015

Most of the other pieces use the same splatter method to represent the squandered lives that racism takes by force. The random patterns of the paint form tumultuous narratives of struggle, evoking bodies rent apart through physical or psychological violence, the disemboweling of entire communities, and the quest for liberation.

Race 2_FergusonRace 1

Race 3

The following pieces talk about structural racism, the bias written into institutions and systems in America. From the Confederate flag flown over Southern government buildings to racial stratification in housing, vestiges of white supremacist ideology are still present in our culture.

Race 5
If this reminds you of a penitentiary, then you’re on the right track.

Race 4

What does experiencing racism feel like? I can say from firsthand experience that you feel eviscerated, stripped of agency, and blinded to everything except the incident itself. Your perspective distorted and self-worth negated, you feel like sawdust or, worse yet, nothing at all.

But as an Asian-American, I have it easy compared to the struggles of the black community. According to writer Julia Craven, “To be black, specifically in America, is to be in a constant state of fear. There is no refuge. There is no escape. There is no sanctuary.”

Even so, you still get some wildly posturing, colonialist asshat like Rachel Dolezal, who commodifies Otherness (in the words of bell hooks) in the ultimate appropriative act of white privilege. As if race can be simply performed and adopted. As if we all had the luxury of that choice.

That’s why we have to frankly and openly address race in America–and run it ragged: understand its ins and outs, all its vagaries and gray areas. And then do something about it. From rewriting the policies and laws to subverting the dominant media narrative and its outdated tropes (see the Wall Street Journal coverage of Charleston for an example) to supporting communities of color.

This all takes thinking critically, listening carefully, and acting compassionately. Not turning the other way or pretending it’s someone else’s job. It’s our job because, goddamn it, it’s our world.

Cacus story 1

I just can’t bring myself to own this dog. Or this cat. Or even this hamster.

I already had my heart broken once—and it wasn’t even an animal. It was a cactus.

The cactus popped into my life as an unlikely birthday gift many years ago. It was about six inches high, thick as a soda can, and surprisingly hairy, with a corona of white hair—which is why this species is often called an old man cactus.

Scan

At first I gave it the side-eye, but decided to accept it into my life as a friend. I put the cactus on a table in the sunniest spot in the living room. Before I knew it, we were sitting together for contemplative stretches of time, and I’d occasionally stroke its surprisingly soft white hair. I named the cactus “Pom”—short for pom-pom. It was a he (I mean, look at him).

When I was a kid, the only pet I was allowed were some measly goldfish. I nicknamed them after my older sister’s boyfriends and soon grew tired of watching them. All they did was stare idiotically at me and move their mouths. I yearned for a dog or cat, but never got either, even after I’d moved out of my parents’ house. Because by then, I realized that I was someone who could get emotionally attached to a box of paperclips, therefore it probably wasn’t the best idea.

So Pom was the perfect companion for me. He wasn’t much of a communicator, and he didn’t do anything exciting like grow flowers, but he was a great and steadfast friend. I made sure he got lots of sun and was careful not to overwater him. After only a few months together, I couldn’t imagine life without my old man cactus.

Then Pom developed a scary-looking brownish-white patch on his side. Within a few days it grew larger, and I feared the worst. When I told a botanist friend about it, she nodded sagely and told me, “Yep, bacteria—it’s the oldest life form.” The way she said it made me realize Pom’s days were numbered. Eventually he began to lean a bit and look even more like an old man.

At my wit’s end, I rushed him to the florist where my friend had purchased him. In a choked-up voice, I explained Pom’s dire situation to the kind man behind the counter, and said I’d do anything if he could save the life of my dear cactus. I even threw a crumpled $20 bill on the counter. He gingerly shoved the money back toward me and assured me that he could “do a little surgery that might—might—do the job.”

Scan 1

A few days later, I picked Pom up and was shocked at the stark, C-shaped gouge in his side. Not only was the infected portion gone, but so was a good part of the surrounding area. The plant doctor had done a very thorough job.

I placed Pom in a beam of sunlight and silently vowed to boil less pasta and take shorter hot showers—anything to lessen the amount of moisture in the apartment. But alas, rainy Seattle is not a kind place for a cactus. Eventually Pom lost his battle with fungus.

Since I didn’t have a yard to bury him in, I did the next best thing and put him in a plastic bag that had contained some Thai takeout. On the side that didn’t have a bunch of red THANK YOU’s printed on it, I wrote in marker, “Pom, you were a beloved friend ’til the end,” and added the date. Then I dropped the bag down the garbage chute of my apartment building and sobbed as it bounced along the sides on its way down to its final resting place, the dumpster.

It took me years to get over my old man cactus, and I swore I would never get another one. And there was absolutely no way I could ever get a furry, bright-eyed animal that would—god forbid—reciprocate the love I lavished on it. I may, however, get an oregano plant someday.

But in the meantime, I do have something cute (and mute) that greets me in the mornings. It’s a wool tomato my husband gave me after I lost Pom. The tomato’s name? Pom. But this one’s short for “pomodoro” (the Italian word for tomato). And yes, I’m quite attached to it.

Pom

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Ghosts in the basement: closeup of The Morris

After the three clocks in my apartment provided a horrifying insight, the ghost hunter I met sold me a sage stick. I had no idea what to do with it—or really, what exactly was in my apartment. So I invited Annette, a close friend who was sensitive to the paranormal, to come and assess the situation. She meditatively walked around the rooms and eventually concluded, “There are a lot of shadows in here.” Not quite getting her point, I explained that the east-facing living room was usually dim, receiving only a stingy triangle of light during the day. Annette shook her head and said, “No, by ‘shadows’ I mean … human remains.”

Then she pointed to a corner of the kitchen ceiling and said, “That’s your problem right there.” I noticed that area was where my boyfriend’s eyes had taken on a sinister cast in a photo and where my new desktop computer kept freezing up. Annette told me she saw an emaciated, very angry young man hanging there. He might have been a former leukemia patient from the turn of the century, when my building had been a hospital for the then-incurable disease.

Annette continued exploring the apartment and observed, “There’s anger in the main room and anguish in the bedroom.” I joked that those are the two emotions I do best at, but she turned and looked at me, her eyes speaking worlds I didn’t understand. Chastened, I realized that what she found could never be translated into human terms. A panic reared up in me. How could I spend another night in this apartment, knowing it was crowded with tormented, undead spirits? Dave, the on-site manager, had warned me about this, but he’d quit and moved out, claiming the building was killing him.

Taking the sage stick from me, Annette volunteered to rid my apartment of its bad energy. She opened all the windows, cabinets, and drawers, and told me to wait outside the building. I huddled on the sidewalk curb, wondering how effective the smudging process would be.

401 Meth Ave
View from my apartment (halfway house across the street and meth labs in brick building next to it, among other neighborhood attractions)

About 15 minutes later, Annette came and told me it was safe to go inside. Walking into the apartment, I didn’t feel much difference in the space. Annette left, and I laid out small bowls of salt (another gesture in this new superstitious vocabulary I was acquiring), hoping for the best.

The shadows had not left. Things only got worse in the apartment and more bizarre.

September 11 had occurred a month before, and the world seemed upended. One evening I had watched a TV program on biochemical weapons—including anthrax—and was reading a magazine, when I turned the page and stuck my thumb in some white powder. Freaked out, I called the non-emergency police line and sheepishly mumbled, “I’m sure it’s nothing, but …” I’d barely finished my sentence when police sirens came wailing up to my building. The Hazmat guys came to my door in their space suits and confiscated the magazine. A few tense days passed, and I eventually found out that it had been only talcum powder, used to keep the pages of glossy publications from sticking. (I did get my letter recounting the incident published in Paper, the magazine I’d been reading, and they courteously sent me a replacement issue–talcum free.)

As if that weren’t enough, a few weeks later, I returned home to find that my apartment had been broken into. Ironically, I lived in the most inconvenient unit to rob: on the top floor, nowhere near the ramp or emergency stairs, and directly across the hall from the manager. The break-in happened while I had stepped out for a slim length of time in the afternoon. The burglars had taped a small circle of white plastic bag over the manager’s peephole and then chiseled a rectangular hole into my door with a sharp blade. They pushed aside the deadbolt and made off with all the CDs I’d lovingly collected while living in Seattle, Philadelphia, DC, London, and Seoul. To add insult to injury, they also grabbed my stash of laundry quarters. The police officers shook their heads and said they’d never seen an apartment entered this way. They never found out who did it.

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The strangest break-in, according to police officers

Afterward, I kept my blinds shut and hung a piece of white gauze in front of the bay window, blocking out the surrounding apartments. The burglars could have lived in any of them, watching me leave my building. I felt violated and under surveillance, both from those outside and from whatever was continuing to monitor me inside my own home.

After less than five months of living in the cursed apartment, I was done. The angry guy in the kitchen, the anthrax scare, the break-in … it was time for me to leave. I broke my lease and was not surprised to hear that the tenant before me had too.

I found a small studio apartment in an entirely new neighborhood, Belltown. My new apartment manager told me that the building, the Stratford on 4th, was constructed in 1916 as an army flophouse. According to a retired fire marshal, it “used to burn down weekly.” But unlike the apartment I’d fled, this place had a neutral, even cozy, feeling to it. Plus it had an elevator–and no ramps in sight.

After moving the bulk of my belongings into my new studio apartment, I went back to The Morris to pick up the last few items and return the keys. Then I called a cab and waited in the empty, preternaturally silent apartment. The air was thick. I was still there and so were they. Sitting uneasily by the door, I felt a tension mounting in my chest and my throat starting to constrict. My fingers tightened around my backpack. They wanted me out. Now.

Fine, I thought. I gingerly picked up my bag, using all the self-restraint I had, and managed to exit the unit without breaking into a sprint. People say that energy travels up and outwards in a building, so naturally my corner top-floor unit was ground zero for paranormal activity. I left the apartment to its occupants. They had resided there for decades, beginning in the dim hours of the early twentieth century. They are probably there now.

On the street I waited for the cab as a disoriented, shirtless man in pyjama bottoms wandered around the block, mournfully repeating, “Danny … Danny … Danny …”

A few minutes later, the cab pulled up, I turned my back on the apartment forever, and we drove down to my new life in Belltown.

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Interior of my haunted apartment

The ramps should have been a warning. The apartment otherwise looked normal—just old. But where the stairs or elevator should have been were long, carpeted ramps, zig-zagging their way up the four-story building. As someone new to Seattle, I marveled at how the city seemed so politically correct; even the apartments appeared to be wheelchair accessible. I didn’t realize that my new apartment building had been a leukemia hospital at the turn of the century—back when the illness was a death sentence—and subsequently a hospital for wounded soldiers. The ramps were necessary for wheeling an endless succession of bodies out of the building.

Last week a robbery and a shooting took place on the corner where the apartment building, The Morris, still sits in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. That area has always been down and out; in fact, that part of Summit Avenue was once christened “Meth Avenue” because of all the homemade labs lining the block. People may think it’s scary to have a shooting—and there had been other gunshots while I lived at The Morris—but the thing that frightened me most was what lived inside the building: animated, unseen, and always there.

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The foreboding facade of The Morris, May 2015

After I moved in, the on-site manager, Dave, told me about the history of the building and the ghostly activity inside it. I was skeptical, but could feel there was something unsettling about the interior, particularly its basement. One time Dave had seen a panel of glass, which was propped up against a wall, silently shatter on its own and slowly slide down until it folded into a sitting position. He and his live-in boyfriend also heard voices, but struck a cavalier attitude. Dave told me he was part Chippewa, so he had psychic abilities and had seen scarier things. As a child, he had run inside an old frontier hotel in Oregon and immediately seen a cowboy’s lifeless body hanging from the tall, rickety staircase. His family looked but didn’t see a thing.

My own apartment unit seemed normal, but strange things began to happen around me at The Morris. I wasn’t sure how much was a result of the paranormal, but the building definitely seemed to contain some perverse, dark energy. I discovered that Dave, who was a burly guy in his mid-thirties, was regularly beaten up by his delicate-framed boyfriend, Shea. Shea had a wandering eye and apparently slept with a knife under his pillow. A few months later, Dave had a heart attack after biting down too hard on a Dorito and cutting his gum deeply enough to drench the entire bed mattress with blood. “This building is killing me,” he confided to me afterward.

Dave managed to convalesce and kick Shea out, and then one day he informed me that a corner unit on the top floor opened up. Since I hadn’t encountered any ghosts in my unit—and I wasn’t even sure I believed in them anyway—I decided to take a chance and move in. And that’s when the trouble began.

At first glance, the apartment was a charming one-bedroom with a bay window and a beautiful wall of exposed brick. Sure, it looked out onto a couple of seedy halfway houses and an all-night drug drive-thru window, where a morbidly obese man sat at a first-floor window and dispensed small white packets day and night. That didn’t faze me, but my first night in the unit, I felt something was wrong. As a single female, I felt vulnerable and was afraid to even leave the bedroom to get a drink of water out in the kitchen. It had nothing to do with crime; it was something inexplicable.

401_brick wall
The beautiful exposed brick wall in my living room

The next day I instinctively set out the little ornaments and drawings that friends had given me, almost as protective talismen. I hung my photographs and artwork in an effort to make the place more familiar and comfortable. But the apartment never felt like home because, as I later found out, it was already inhabited by something else.

Soon I began to pull long, blond—almost white—human hairs out of the carpet. They didn’t belong to anyone I’d invited over. They were unrealistically long, as if they had grown for decades. Dave told me the former tenant had short, brown hair and the carpets had been cleaned after she moved out.

Weeks went by, and I constantly felt like I was being watched. One particular corner of the kitchen seemed thick with a heavy, unwelcoming atmosphere, so I hung my favorite photos there. One day my glance fell upon a picture of my boyfriend and me laughing at the camera. I was shocked to see something unexpected staring out at me through his eyes. There was an arresting, and unmistakably evil, glint in them that made me instantly take down the photo and shove it in a drawer.

401 wall
The photo mentioned above is the horizontal one right next to the postcard hanging by itself

The same thing happened again, this time with a self-portrait I’d made in the living room. Using a mirror and charcoal on paper, I’d drawn myself peering at the viewer over one shoulder. Creating a self-portrait—or any piece of art—is the ultimate act of ownership. However, this drawing didn’t belong to me. One day I looked at it and realized the eyes were someone else’s, staring unerringly at me. A chill immediately entered my heart. The drawing went straight into the trash.

The bedroom was not a safe sanctuary, either. A family of rodents skittered across the ceiling all night. In the daytime, pigeons would alight on the roof, their calls amplified into loud, unearthly moans. “Nngrhh nngrrrhhhh nngrrrhhhh”—it sounded eerie and inhuman, like a raunchy sex session between lost souls. The animals created so much dander that my boyfriend could not breathe in the room and would wake up gasping for air.

The most unnerving thing about the apartment was how it made the most familiar objects and people unrecognizable to me. I once woke up in the middle of the night and thought my boyfriend’s thumb was an enormous insect that had strayed onto the sheets. Another day I was applying my makeup in a mirror when I spotted a long, gray snake hanging from the exposed pipe along the wall. A terrifying second passed before I saw that it was one of my favorite scarves that I’d hung as decoration.

It was becoming apparent to me that my apartment, formerly the nurses’ station in the hospital, was haunted. I casually mentioned this on a phone call with my mother, who didn’t believe in the paranormal, and tried to act unconcerned about it. Gazing idly at the exposed brick wall, my eyes locked onto one of its many deep cavities. From the pitch-black hole emanated an intense and forbidding coldness that halted the laughter in my throat. I heeded it as a warning to never make light of the spiritual world.

Then three of my clocks stopped at the same time. They all had differing power sources: electric, battery powered, and manual wind-up. My favorite clock, which had a brand-new battery, would break in that position and never move again. I seeked counsel at Travellers, a nearby shop that sold all kinds of esoterica. The soft-spoken man behind the counter was an official ghost catcher. He told me, “The time your clocks stopped was probably significant to whoever is still in your apartment. It was probably when the person died.” Then he sold me a sage stick to “smudge” the apartment and wished me luck. I looked at the fat bundle of dried leaves in my hand and desperately hoped it would work.

To be continued.