On Bestowing the Benefit of the Doubt or, How to Beat the Seattle Freeze

After a magical trip to the Emerald City, I reflect on the lessons learned during my stay in Seattle.

The decision to go to Seattle was based mostly on convenience. My boyfriend Jon and I knew we wanted to take a mini vacation over President’s Day weekend, and Seattle happened to be inexpensive and one place that neither of us had been. It was a risk going in February (and part of the reason why it was so affordable), but we figured that if anything, the rain would be a welcome change from an unusually dry Southern California winter.

We never planned on doing the typical tourist activities. In fact, we didn’t even really start looking into where to go until a week or so before we left. We figured that we would explore the fishing hole come hipster haven neighborhood of Ballard, where we’d chosen to stay, and hopefully meet some locals who could point us in the direction of interesting activities. I’ll admit I was skeptical, but if things didn’t pan out I knew I had the internet to fall back on for help.

The sky was dotted with non-threatening clouds, the temperature hovering at an amicable 60 degrees when our plane descended early Friday afternoon. I wasn’t too fond of the idea of taking public transportation with all of my luggage (of which I’d packed far too much for our four-day jaunt), but after Jon explained to me it was as simple as catching a train directly from the airport and one bus transfer that would drop us off around the corner from our AirBnB, I quickly reconsidered.

We were attempting to shuffle our belongings so that we could both fit onto a narrow train bench when a stranger generously offered us her larger seat so that we could sit together.

“Just promise me you won’t PDA the entire time,” she joked, to which Jon sarcastically retorted, “Oh we’re about to get real gross.” The stranger guffawed, and soon enough we were chatting like old pals as the train sped through the city.

We were blessed with clear skies our entire trip!

We were blessed with clear skies our entire trip!

Jane, as was her name, pointed out various landmarks and hot spots as we jostled along the train tracks. She was originally from New Jersey, but said that she’d been met with the same unassuming kindness when she’d moved to Seattle 20 years ago and felt it only right to continue passing it along. She rattled off a list of restaurants and bars nearby where we were staying, and even offered to make an extra special recently-legal delivery should we be interested. We declined, but exchanged phone numbers nonetheless, planning to meet for a drink or brunch the following day.

I couldn’t stop tittering about Jane the rest of the ride back to our AirBnB. How lucky were we to have immediately met someone so helpful, friendly, and cool? We remarked how unlikely we’d be to find a similar situation back home in Los Angeles. It had to be a good omen for the rest of our trip.

Our luck continued as we met our AirBnB host and got settled into our lodgings, which happened to be the former caretaker unit at Ballard’s Odd Lodge, a neighborhood landmark that had turned into the meeting space for a local fraternal order, similar to the Eagles. Although our apartment was private save for a shared foyer, we were given the grand tour, which included several halls, a basement den, bar, and children’s playroom.

As we ended the tour in the bar, our host, an eccentric middle-aged woman wearing arm warmers, fussed over some kombucha she’d made back in December and couldn’t decide what to do with. She offered us both a glass, and while Jon found it too sour for his liking, I enjoyed the tartness and Nora was quick to pour a hefty portion into a pitcher and send it along with us back to our quarters.

Free home-fermented alcohol? We’d been there less than two hours, but I was already pretty sold on Seattle.

It was late afternoon at that point, and with only an echo of the disgusting $10 kale and egg white Coffee Bean breakfast sandwich we’d purchased at the airport remaining in our bellies, we decided to do a bit of exploring and find an early dinner spot. We quickly discovered that our apartment was stumbling distance from several bars, and recognized a diner called Woody’s that Jane had recommended only a few doors down.

Over juicy burgers and fries, we decided that we’d spend our first evening bar hopping and maybe catch a show, since we’d also learned that we were walking distance from two smaller music venues. But first, a nap.

The first thing we noticed about Seattle bars, even in a trendy neighborhood that could be compared to Los Angeles’ Echo Park, was that drinks were cheap. That first night I doubt either of us spent more than $20 on drinks and yet we both lost count of how many we had. We jumped from bar to bar, chatting up strangers and getting tips on places to go and things to do, but it wasn’t until we landed at fisherman hangout Lock & Keel, that I met my Seattle soulmate, Victoria.

Except, err, I don’t exactly remember how we met. I’d gone to the bathroom, and when I came back, Jon was talking to a bubbly blonde and the next thing I knew she was telling me about her recent job as an au pair in Spain and her plan to take over her family’s party store. We also met her boyfriend Mickey, and a few more of their friends. They were all born and raised in Seattle and were glad to regale us with the city’s quirks and eccentricities.

After tossing back a couple more cocktails, we all went outside to escape the increasingly claustrophobic bar. It began to drizzle and Vicky was explaining to me how true Seattlites never use an umbrella when my knees buckled fawnlike beneath me and dizzily, I toppled into a damp brick wall. I’ve never been much of a hard drinker, and it seemed the alcohol had given me an unexpected head rush. I came to a moment later to find myself sitting on the asphalt with Vicky kneeling beside me in solidarity, easing my embarrassment with tales of her own drunken escapades. It was then that I knew our friendship was true.

I recovered quickly and suggested that we head back inside. Perhaps my memory has been discolored by whiskey, but I seem to remember Vicky and all of her friends hovering forward ominously as they explained the phenomenon of the “Seattle Freeze.” They all admitted to committing the offense, whether intentionally or without thought: chatting up some recent newcomer or tourist, offering to take them out and show them around town, only to never speak with them again. They explained that Seattle residents were known for their chilly temperament and that it could be hard to make friends in the city.

At the end of the night, after we’d all exchanged numbers and made vague plans to meet up again (I even offered Vicky and Mickey my couch should they ever make their way down the coast), I hugged my new friend tight and jokingly made her promise, “Don’t you freeze me out, Vicky!”

Photobooth at Sunset Tavern

Photobooth at Sunset Tavern

When we didn’t hear from Jane the next day, we assumed we’d been victims of the Seattle Freeze. No matter, it was Valentine’s Day, and after nursing debilitating hangovers all day, we finally managed to get our act together and had a very tasty dinner at an Oaxacan restaurant that Jane and our friends from the previous night had recommended. From there we went to check out concert venues on the same block, but unfortunately, both shows we were interested in seeing were sold out. We ordered a drink and mingled in the front bar area while we plotted our next move. Jon struck up a conversation with some people who were sitting nearby and began asking about live music in the area.

At first they invited us to share a car and go to another part of town where we might have a better chance at seeing some live music. A petite blonde in their group protested in a trilling foreign accent that they’d just left that area and she had no intentions of going back unless they were going home. Jon and I ordered another round of drinks while the group hashed out their plans, which we were now apparently a part of. We took a couple sets of pictures in the photobooth and around midnight it was finally decided that we would all go back to their house and play German drinking games.

I know the standard rule is to never get in a car with strangers, but to be fair, we took a separate cab. We pulled up to a quaint house on a quiet, tree-lined street, and were greeted with a blast of punk music when Matt, the impressive young homeowner, opened the door. He gave us a brief tour of his Fremont pad, which boasted four rooms and an expansive deck overlooking the city. Anya, his German wife, and Tom and Erin, his visiting college friends, were already sitting at the table in front of a Hasbro tabletop game while Anya poured everyone a full glass of absinthe.

The four-person game was called Looping Louie and the objective was simple enough: once Looping Louie was set free from his post, he bounced to each player’s corner of the game, attempting to dislodge each of their three balls. The players kept their hands hovered over a button that launched Louie back in the air should he threaten their bounty. Whoever lost all three of their balls first had to drink.

Several rounds later a sleepy-eyed Jon kept insisting, “This absinthe is getting on top of me. Like, on top of me, ya know? Like it’s on me.”

We paused the game to go outside, take in the view, and drunkenly discuss politics and climate change. I kid you not, we had a conversation that both of my parents would have been proud to overhear. We debated our nation’s police state, waste management, sustainable energy, and regaled our college years. Matt explained that he traded stocks for a living and Jon attempted to pick his brain. Our conversations carried on for hours and eventually we all ordered a vegetarian pizza and mozzarella sticks to share and help soak up some of the imported European booze. Finally, around 4am, Jon and I ordered a car home, but not before trading information with everyone and promising to meet up during Matt and Anya’s trip to Los Angeles in March.

Tried to play a prank a mom, but as she said, "I know you're not crazy."

After the tour, we tried to play a prank on my mom with this suggestive picture, but as she said, “I know you’re not crazy.”

On Sunday we took an underwhelming tour of Seattle’s underground streets, which only reinforced our decision not to partake in tourist activities. Afterwards, Jon got a text from Jane. She hadn’t freezed us out after all, and was happy to meet us downtown for drinks. We ended up heading to Cha Cha Lounge, which is apparently the original and sister bar to the Los Angeles bar with the same name. As we continued to hit it off, Jane told us how we’d reinforced her recent decision to put herself out there more after ending a long-term relationship.

The rest of our Seattle trip was equally memorable, and for the next two days Jon and I spent more lowkey, quality time together, checking out Seattle’s famous Pike Market, hiking in the gorgeous Discovery Park, and trying out new Filipino and Bolivian restaurants. Ultimately though, it was the welcoming attitudes we encountered, despite rumors of the Seattle Freeze, that really defined our time in the Emerald City.

For the record, it wasn’t just Vicky and her friends who told us about the Seattle Freeze. Jane admitted to falling victim to it as well, and one of our Lyft drivers bemoaned how, after two years in the city, he’d still yet to make any true friends. “The Seattle Freeze is real,” they’d all insisted, contrary to our own experience.

So what made us the exception? On our flight back, Jon suggested that we try the same tactics at home, chatting up strangers just because, and expecting cordiality instead of a cold shoulder. It made me wonder, have Angelenos earned a reputation of self-obsessed media whores simply because they’ve never been challenged to be anything else? I love this city and I’ve met some incredibly genuine, loyal people in my eight years here. I refuse to believe that those friendships are a fluke, that depth doesn’t exist in the second most populous city in the nation.

I’ve thought about it a lot since our trip, and I’ve decided that what it boils down to is giving people the benefit of the doubt. I’m not denying that there are more than a few assholes out there, but ever since I’ve been back from Seattle I’ve made more of an effort to approach people and assume that they’ll be friendly instead of standoffish, and in more cases than not they’ve risen to the occasion. The realization struck me that perhaps we’re all just waiting for people to hold us to a higher standard.

During this experiment I’ve learned that it’s not just strangers we should give the benefit of the doubt to – we should extend this grace to ourselves as well. For example, although I was fairly sociable and made friends easily growing up, I’ve become more withdrawn and solitary as I’ve gotten older. Shortly after I moved out on my own, I began to categorize myself as an introvert – someone who prefers more intimate gatherings to large, anonymous parties, who needs time to recuperate after long intervals of being social. I’m not saying I miscategorized myself, but perhaps I began to coddle this nature, instead of attempting to challenge it.

Lately, I’ve been making more of an effort to push the boundaries of my introversion, and I’ve found that I can handle a lot more than I previously gave myself credit for. Evenings that used to be reserved for unwinding after a long day at work are now filled with high-intensity cardio workouts or dinner dates with friends. Sometimes I won’t spend more than one or two evenings to myself a week, and you know what? I’m doing just fine! In fact, I’m doing better than fine, I’m thriving.

Though I can’t guarantee that the friendships I forged in the Emerald City will continue to blossom, or that every self-experiment will prove this much of a success, I think the most important takeaway from our trip is that our potential, and the potential of those around us, has no bounds, and that we owe it to ourselves to explore it, to give people the opportunity to surprise, disappoint, or inspire us, and to remove the doubt that so often holds us back.

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