Letter from Seattle — From the November 2012 issue

In the Writers’ Room

Spiraling downward at the Central Library

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I was, technically, homeless when I arrived at the library. I’d drifted to Washington State after a year in Mexico, where I’d been reporting a story I’d hoped to turn into a book. Renters were scheduled to occupy my Miami apartment for the next four months, leaving me a geographic free agent. All I wanted to do was write. I considered squatting at a friend’s farmhouse, where I’ve written before. Another friend offered up her vacant summer home in Michigan.

As I was weighing my options, I came across an article about the Scandiuzzi Writers’ Room at Seattle’s Central Library, a dedicated workspace within Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’s light-filled masterpiece. Writers with a book contract or those who could “demonstrate a serious commitment” to tapping the library’s resources in their work could have a cubicle, a locker, and free Wi-Fi. I emailed the program administrator, and within a couple of weeks I was crashing in the Magnolia neighborhood in a cheap duplex, a group house in which I had a mattress, a desk, and two transient roommates sharing the refrigerator.

I started catching the 33 bus to the library, usually making it there a few minutes before the doors opened. There were often at least fifty of us waiting outside. We’d huddle in a portico with our backpacks and knit caps and jackets worn over hoodies to stave off the autumn chill. One side of the portico is covered with blue steel latticework that reminded me of different things on different days. Some mornings I felt like we were standing next to the blade of a hockey skate. Other days I saw a giant sewer grate or a waffle cone. The portico is a good spot to smoke a cigarette. It is an ideal place for a rock band’s photo shoot. Once, while we waited, a very tall woman removed her shirt and posed for her boyfriend’s camera; she had covered her nipples with Xs of black electrical tape. Another day, a man in a leather Lakers jacket rolled up with a big black suitcase, windmilling his arms violently. “The machine was not working!” he kept shouting. Everyone gave him a little extra space.

At exactly 10:00 a.m., a security guard would unlock a revolving door and we’d stampede into the Living Room—“one of the most exhilarating public rooms in the nation,” according to the Library Journal. The Living Room is a gigantic glass atrium rising up eight stories. On the main floor, which is actually the third floor, long metal racks hold magazines and newspapers. There is a gift shop, and there are Italian sodas for sale at Chocolati Café. We’d ignore the stacks of librarian-recommended books as we made our way to the yellow escalator that leads to the fifth-floor Mixing Chamber.

In the Mixing Chamber, more than a hundred keyboards and monitors are lined up on long black tables. The Mayor would get off the escalator here, taking half our pack with him. The Mayor was gregarious, with a long blond goatee, a huge rucksack, and an indentation on the crown of his head the size and shape of an iPhone. He unofficially presided over the rows of PCs. Most regulars prefer to sit in orange plastic chairs at the ends of each table: more room to park a bedroll, and also an easier exit should the FBI show up to arrest a patron, as has happened.

I would walk on, to a second, taller escalator that ascends through the Books Spiral, one of Koolhaas’s most acclaimed innovations, a continuous ribbon of non-fiction media winding from floors six to nine. As I rose through the Western canon, I could watch the cargo ships anchored in Elliott Bay through a wall of diamond-shaped panes of glass. On seven, I’d board another escalator, up to the ninth floor, where both the Writers’ Room and the Reading Room are located, as well as the rarely used Map Room. The Writers’ Room sits in a corner framed by steel beams painted U.N. baby blue. The tenth-floor Observation Deck hovers overhead, and above that hidden administrative offices buffered by soft white pillows designed to muffle the sound waves that bounce around the atrium. The entire ninth floor is flooded with soft light from the three stories of windows that rise upward, angling into the lopsided pyramid that gives the building its recognizable shape.

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is a freelance writer and the author, most recently, of This Love Is Not for Cowards.

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October 2019


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