duty free seattle

Stories and photographs by Jim Hamerlinck©2009, 2010, 2011

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


East Ballard, 2010

Sharvi Vajpai unfastened the seatbelt and let out a deep breath as she took in her surroundings.

"Oh, dear God."

She had lived in Lynwood all her life but hadn't known this stripmall existed until yesterday, when the man, Nathan, emailed her the address. It was in an expansive concrete and asphalt industrial park on the southern outskirts of the city, just off Highway 99. The place was deserted. Starbucks was open but a mattress outlet, a party supply store, a teriyaki joint and a gun shop were all closed or no longer in business. A pair of half-barrel planters sat forlornly on either end of the sidewalk, the dying petunias and begonias mostly hidden by chickweed and garbage.

The dashboard clock read 3:30. She was half an hour early.

Her mom had been driving her crazy at home, following Sharvi around, telling her what she should wear and how she should act and asking questions about Nathan for which Sharvi had no answers.

"This is not right, Sharvi!" she declared. "You are a beautiful, smart girl. You do not need to go begging for love from a stranger."

"Mom, you don't under--...."

"He's twice your age, Sharvi."

"He's only twenty seven!"

"It is too risky, Sharvi!"

"Jesus!" screamed Sharvi, "I c-c-can't stand this." She picked her keys out of the fruit bowl and headed for the door.

"Sharvi, wait!" her mom cried. "Where are you going?"

But it was too late. Sharvi was through arguing. She slammed the door and ran out to the parking lot.

Her mom stood on the condominium's tiny balcony, one hand on the railing, the other fighting the wind for control of her sari, and watched her only child drive off through the rain.

She shook her head.

"What would your father say?" she whispered, as she slid the glass door shut then returned to the couch and a golf tournament she had been watching on tv.

Sharvi called her mom before she got out of the car to tell her that she had arrived safely.

"Just be yourself, Sharvi," her mom advised. "Any man will adore you."

"Yes, mom," sighed Sharvi, before hanging up, "I know. I know. I know."

She entered the coffee shop--one of Starbucks' spare, no-frills stores--ordered a tea and sat at the small table in the middle of the room. She cupped her cold hands around the drink and thought how conspicuous and foolish she must look, in makeup and pretty clothes and fancy shoes with her hair trained just so, sitting here by herself on a Saturday afternoon, all tense and nervous. But a middle aged man and teenage girl, the only other customers, paid no attention to her and the barista was too busy behind the counter to care. "Just breathe," Sharvi told herself. "Breathe and relax. Be yourself."

Sharvi knew very little about Nathan, of course, but in his correspondences he came across as intelligent and funny, if not slightly insecure. He was 27 and, like her, lived with his mom. He was taking classes at Shoreline Community College and eventually wanted to get a degree in theology. He had posted one picture of himself on his profile, a rather blurry shot of him hugging a dog in the mountains somewhere, though he wrote--as if apologizing-- that it wasn't his dog. He was white, blue eyed, had some acne scars which he made a point of mentioning, was average height and had short brown hair. He professed to enjoy traveling--something he and Sharvi had in common--so she reasoned that, at the very least, they might have a harmless conversation sharing a few travel stories, shake hands, and part ways.

Sharvi was interested in many other things besides traveling, of course. She was an excellent student, taking pre-med courses at the University of Washington. She designed and made her own clothing. She played the guitar. She was researching her family history and, with her mom's encouragement, planned to go to India in the fall to investigate her father's mysterious death. She spoke Hindi and Italian and was learning Spanish. In the three weeks in which she had been active on the dating website, Sharvi had been contacted by several men who were impressed with her talents and interests and, she guessed, the photograph of her sitting with her attractive friends at a restaurant table under dim, flattering lights. However, these contacts had not resulted in one meet up, not one date. Sharvi figured that it was because she had been completely upfront with these men in her correspondences. She had presented herself to these men honestly, and they had chosen to not pursue her further. With Nathan, she decided to be discreet. Nathan would not discover the truth until he walked into the Starbucks and saw her.

Five years ago, Sharvi was diagnosed as having the degenerative muscular disorder known as Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Distrophy, or FSH. She had been experiencing a subtle weakening, a soreness, in the facial muscles around her eyes and mouth for almost a year until she finally mentioned it to her mom, who brought it to the attention of her doctor. Since then, the disorder had progressed to the point where Sharvi's speech had become slurred and her mouth, indeed her smile, was perpetually crooked. Her eyelids drooped, making her appear sleepy or tired. The muscles in her upper arms had weakened and raising them past a certain level was difficult. Her shoulders sloped. Her lower leg muscles had weakened as well, causing her to limp.

But, the good news--as Sharvi had to occasionally remind her friends and her mom--is that the disorder progressed slowly and that it did not affect one's life expectancy or intellect or imagination or sense of humor or the very essence of one's being. "You may have to put up with my neurosis for a hundred more years," she joked.

Nathan entered the Starbucks at precisely 4:00 and walked around the middle aged man and teenage girl, who were leaving. He spotted Sharvi, now the only customer in the shop, and stopped.

Sharvi took a sip of her tea, looked up, and waited for him to approach. But he just stood there, expressionless, his hands buried in the pockets of his long navy peacoat.

"Well, here we go again," thought Sharvi.

Nathan pulled his cell phone out, looked at it, and returned it to his pocket. He glanced out the window. Then, finally, he walked up to Sharvi and extended his hand. "Hi. Sharvi? I'm Nathan."

Sharvi moved her right hand from the tea cup and brought it slowly and deliberately to Nathan's. "Hi, Nathan," she said, "I'm Sharvi. You picked an...." And here Sharvi had difficulty ennuciating the word. "An...un...unu....unu...--"

"Unusual spot?" Nathan interrupted.

"Yes!" laughed Sharvi.

"I know," replied Nathan with a grin, slightly embarrassed. "Can I explain?"

"Of course," said Sharvi. "Take a seat. Make yourself com...com...fort...able."

"Thank you. I will." He took off his coat and as he set it over the chair his cell phone slipped out, dropped to the floor, and fell apart. "Dang it," he muttered. Nathan collected the pieces and stuffed them into the coat pocket. "Sorry. I'm a little nervous."

"That's okay," said Sharvi.

"Do you mind if I get a coffee first?" he asked.

"No, g-go ahead," Sharvi smiled. "I'll be here."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bird Watching

Dove, South Lake Union, 2010

"You need a hobby, Ken."

They sat across the table from one another but may as well have been a hundred miles apart.

This was Gwen's idea, this Saturday morning breakfast at the cute little diner with the '50's decor on Leary Way that young couples swarmed to on weekends to feed hangovers and commiserate about the previous night's debauchery.

They had arrived early and were seated immediately, but the place was filling up fast and getting noisy. "We have no business being here," mumbled Ken between sips of water.

"What did you say?" asked Gwen.

"Nothing," said Ken, gazing at the young people outside in the drizzle waiting for a table, mingling in small groups, drinking coffee, laughing.

Ken had worked as a laborer in the shipbuilding industry for over forty years. Still relatively young at 62, he hadn't really considered retirement until he suffered a debilitating back injury when he was struck by a steel beam as he was welding a sub-assemblage on an oil tanker. He didn't have the skills or desire to move into an office position and so, with little fanfare, he stepped away from his life's work and retired to his modest Ballard home. He figured that he would find plenty of things to do around the house to keep himself occupied, that he wouldn't miss the early mornings and the long hours of dirty, strenuous, demanding work.

But if there was ever a man who was defined by his work, it was Ken. He was not prepared for the idle time retirement granted.

Gwen began rummaging through her purse. "I have something I want to show you," she said, as the waitress set two large plates of pancakes, eggs and sausages in front of them.

"Thank you, Miss" said Ken.

"I'll re-fill your coffee in a minute," the waitress replied pleasantly, but obviously harried.

Gwen slid a pamphlet across the table.

"What's this?" asked Ken.

"Kathy at the salon told me that her brother...Rick?...or Eric?...I can't remember...Anyway, her brother went on this bird watching tour at Discovery Park and--"

Ken slid the pamphlet back to his wife without looking at it. "I don't need or want a hobby, Gwen."

Gwen took a bite of her sausage. "Ken," she chewed, "they meet once or twice a month on Saturday morning. There's all kinds of people there. Students. Seniors. Beginners. Kathy said that--"

"Pass me the salt," snapped Ken. "Gwen. I don't like birds. I don't care about birds. What makes you think I would be interested in that?"

Gwen set down her fork and wiped her lips, then picked up the pamphlet and read out loud from it:

With five expert birdwatchers from Seattle Audubon, participants will split up into small groups of varying ability. Three educational outreach specialists will be on-hand to guide families through a children’s scavenger hunt--

The waitress returned with a fresh pot of coffee and re-filled their cups. "How is everything?" she asked.

Ken looked at Gwen who was intently studying the pamphlet. "Fine," he replied. "Thank you."

"I think you should at least consider it, Ken. If nothing else it would be good exercise, get you out of the house" said Gwen, as she resumed eating her sausage, now cold.

Ken said very little throughout the rest of the meal. He could tell Gwen was upset with him. As the commotion and volume rose around them, he fought off the desire to finish quickly and go home. He tried concentrating on the flavor and texture of his pancakes ("Slow down, Ken... taste your food," Gwen constantly reminded him) but it was no use. He set his knife and fork to the side. Then he said, to no one in particular, "Well, that was good."

He twisted the cap tight on the ketchup bottle, then picked up the empty white syrup cups scattered on the table and carefully set them along the edge of his plate. He watched Gwen, who was lost in thought, finish her poached eggs.

"Are you ready, Honey?" Ken asked his wife. She took a last sip of coffee and nodded yes, before tucking the pamphlet back into her purse.

He left a twenty on the table, then helped Gwen with her coat. He took her hand and they made their way through the clatter of happy diners and out onto Leary Way. The sun had come out and was reflecting sharply off the wet asphalt. The cars racing by sounded especially loud.

As the couple walked home in silence, a flock of chickadees flew overhead and disappeared into a Japanese Thundercloud Plumb tree, aglow in its early March splendor, the pinkish-white blossoms dewey and glistening. In an instant another larger group of birds, house finches and sparrows, perhaps, joined the chickadees and now the tree was bursting with color and cacophony. Gwen stopped to take in the spectacle as Ken, head down, trudged on, oblivious.

When he finally became aware of his wife's absence, Ken turned and saw Gwen, half a block behind him, staring up at the tree.

"What's wrong?!" he yelled.

Starlings, Greenwood, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

How To Choose A Mattress

University District, 2010

Roosevelt, 2010

Georgetown, 2010

East Ballard, 2010

Fremont, 2010

Mount Baker, 2010

Ballard Industrial Area, 2010

International District, 2010

University District, 2010

Wallingford, 2010

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Stray

Outdoor Seating, Former Doughnut Shop, Wallingford, 2009

Dutch shook out his umbrella, stomped his feet a few times, then stepped out of the rain and into Winchell’s. He waved at Steve as the Assistant Manager-Trainee took a customer’s order. Steve winked in return.

The doughnut shop's aging linoleum floor was muddy wet. Bare florescent bulbs cast a blinding reflection off the glass display case. The radio played something closer to static than Soft Hits. The windows were covered in condensation. Dutch traced a smiley face above a Puffies poster that clung by a single piece of tape, then slid into his usual seat at his usual table, removed his parka, and waited for Tina to bring him his coffee and lemon jelly doughnut.

It was a just another dreary Tuesday morning in the Wallingford Winchell's Donut House and Dutch couldn’t have been happier.

Dutch Kerrigan would turn sixty-eight next week. He would mark the occasion in the same manner as he had for the last ten years, the length of his sobriety. He would pull the thick wallet out of his coat pocket and show the kid behind the counter--probably Steve this year--his driver’s license. “See? It's my birthday today. I'm still here,” Dutch would grin. “Where's my free doughnut?”And the kid would find a candle, stick it in the doughnut or apple fritter or maple bar, light it, and make Dutch’s day.

Dutch was everyone's favorite regular--gregarious, sweet and unassuming. He regaled the staff and fellow customers with stories about the Wallingford of his youth. He told corny jokes. He handed out trinkets to little kids. He greeted everyone who walked in the shop like a long, lost friend.

Steve walked over with the coffee and lemon jelly. “Morning, Dutch. Here you go.”

“Thanks, kid. Where’s Tina?”

Dutch had a special fondness for Tina, a tough, ornery street kid, a runaway from Wisconsin who escaped an abusive boyfriend by hitchhiking across the western states with nothing but the clothes on her back and plenty of guile and perseverance. When she started working at Winchell’s last summer, Tina treated Dutch with the same poorly disguised contempt as everyone else she encountered. But Dutch saw through her tough façade. He recognized the disillusionment and hurt beneath the scowls and attitude. She reminded Dutch of his oldest daughter, Kimmie-- the one who got away.

In spite of her resistance, Tina evenutually warmed to the doughnut shop's beloved fixture. With a few words exchanged each morning across a grimy, laminated table in a poorly lit, nearly empty doughnut shop within earshot of the Interstate's drone, a friendship was forged.

Entrance, Former Doughnut Shop, Wallingford, 2009

Steve looked solemnly at Dutch's jelly doughnut, then took a seat across from the old man. “Tina’s probably not coming in today, Dutch.”

“Oh. Why’s that?” asked Dutch.

Steve explained that the Winchell’s corporation was losing money and closing unprofitable franchises. He told Dutch that all of the employees at the Wallingford location were being laid off or offered part-time positions at a shop in Kent, some twenty miles away.

Dutch took a sip from his cup and considered this news. He scanned the empty room and noticed that his smiley face had disintegrated into something abstract and lifeless. “Are you going to Kent, Steve?”

“No, Dutch,” replied Steve, “I’m done with doughnuts. I’m thinking of going back to school.”

“Oh, that’s good. What about Tina?”

“I don’t know, Dutch.” Steve heard the chime indicating the door had opened and turned to see a couple of teenage boys enter the shop. He got up from the table. “When I told her about the lay-offs yesterday she was pretty mad. She stormed outta here without saying much. I don’t know where she is, Dutch.”

Dutch couldn’t finish his doughnut. His felt anxious.

Tina was strong, a survivor. She had been through far worse than this, but still Dutch worried for her. He couldn’t help it. He envisioned her somewhere out on the streets frantic, beside herself, with no one to turn to. He left the shop without saying goodbye to Steve.

Dutch waited in the rain for the number 44 to take him into the U-District, to the dilapidated house on 7th that Tina shared with a bunch of other kids. He would find her and offer her whatever comfort and support he could. She might refuse him, he knew this--fall back on her street instincts to protect herself--but he would be there for her. He would not lose this one.

Service Entry, Former Doughnut Shop, Wallingford, 2009

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Wrong, All Wrong

Blue Beam, Fremont, 2009

The memo informed John that the promotion would go to Davis, not him.

This news surprised John. He was certain that he would get it. He had been given every indication by his boss that the promotion was his to lose. The interview had gone very well. Everyone liked him. Everyone. His production was up. He hadn’t missed a day of work all year. Not one day.

But it was Davis, not him, who was named the new assistant.


“How can this be?” he wondered. “I’ve done every thing they’ve asked. Everything. What has Davis done?”

That evening after work, Davis approached John in the parking lot as he was getting into his car. John decided that he would avoid Davis. “Just look straight ahead,” he told himself.

Before he could escape, though, Davis stepped in front of the car and tapped on its hood. John could not ignore him. He took a deep breath and rolled down the window. “Davis,” he said.

“John,” smiled Davis. “I’m glad I caught you before you left.”

“What is it, Davis?”

“I just wanted to say…well…I just, ah….”

“Congratulations on the promotion, Davis,” John said.

“Thanks, John. I know it must be hard--”

“Tell me, Davis,” interrupted John, “what have you done?”


“What have you done in the time you’ve been here?” asked John.

“I’ve done everything they’ve asked,” replied Davis.

“Have you?” said John.

“Yes,” confirmed Davis. “Everything.”

John fiddled with the zipper of his jacket. A squirrel scampered across the parking lot with what looked to be a piece of pumpkin pie in its mouth.

“Did you see that, Davis?”

“See what?” asked Davis.

“Never mind,” said John.


“I have to go, Davis. Things to do, you know.”

“Sure, John” said Davis. “I understand.”

John rolled up the window and drove off, ignoring Davis' wave.

On the way home, as snowflakes began to fall, John decided that his car needed washing. He pulled into a stall at the deserted Fremont Brown Bear and spent the next three hours there, under the harsh florescent lights, washing and rinsing his Prius and wondering what more he could have done.

Foam, Leary Way Northwest, 2009

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Aerialist

Blue Tarp 1, 2009

When are you going to fix the roof?

When the rain lets up a bit.

It’s not raining now.

It's not?


I need to get a few more materials. The right tools. I need to do some research. On the internet.

What were you just doing on the internet?

Looking at…pictures of…endangered wildlife.

There’s a leak in the bedroom now.

Yeah, I know.

And the bathroom.

Yes. I know.

You said you would fix it this weekend.

I'm organizing my thoughts.

Blue Tarp 2, 2009

Why don’t you just hire a contractor?

I told you I don’t trust contractors. They’ll just charge us for repairs we don’t really need. And they’ll take forever. I’ll do this myself and save us thousands of dollars.

Alright. When?

It's stopped raining?

Yes. The kitchen has a leak, too.

It does?



Should I call my brother?


Why not? He’ll help. He’s good. He wants to help.

I don’t need help. It’s a one man job.

You sure?

I’ll fix the roof.

You know what you’re doing?


You know what you're doing?

I might have to improvise.


Blue Tarp 3, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Mule And The Salt Lick

Doors, Mottman Building, Pioneer Square, 2009

He ran his fingers carefully through the bowl one more time, convinced that there were some uneaten pistachios hiding among the spent shells. He would find the elusive last few and finish the whole snack. Nice and tidy. Nothing wasted.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Digging and stirring. Whisking. He kept at it, but found nothing but hollow, dusty half shells.

He stopped fishing for nuts and licked the salt from his fingers. "What am I doing?" he wondered.

He craved one more unopened treasure, one more shell to break apart (the satisfying snap!), one more kernel to suck up like a vacuum cleaner. One more savory nugget to chew.

"Stop this!" he told himself, then resumed mining the bowl.

Just as he was about to give up and get on with his evening, he found one.

It was a pistachio he recalled tossing back because it was sealed shut. It had been quickly dismissed and discarded. Useless. But that was when the bowl was chock full of ripe candidates, easy openers. Then, it was simply interference, an obstacle, a tease. Now, it was his last hope.

He held it pinched between his thumb and forefinger and re-examined its potential. Perhaps he had been a bit hasty. There was some space there, not much, but something to work with, at least. He placed the pistachio between his clenched teeth--like a vise--and bit down in an effort to pry the seam apart, but the nut did not cooperate and flew from his mouth onto the table top, then down to the carpeted floor, where it lay harmlessly at his feet.

He picked up the pistachio and cleaned it with his shirt. “We've made some headway,” he supposed, optimistically. “The door is ajar, I think.”

He inserted his sharpest nail, his right thumbnail, into the suggestion of a crack and began to pry. He wedged his left thumbnail in. He pulled and pried and twisted. He persisted, but it was no use. The shell halves would not budge. The kernel remained safely ensconced in its casing.

For his futile efforts, he sustained a small but painful cut beneath his right thumbnail--no man's land. It was sore, throbbing, and the salt found its way into the wound and made the sting worse. He instinctively put his thumb into his mouth to suck the pain away. It was the last salt he would taste that night.

He dropped the pistachio into the bowl then buried it. He had laundry that needed folding.

Shell, 2009

© Jim Hamerlinck.All Rights Reserved.

  • “There's nothing to be gained from passive observance, the simple documenting of conditions, because, at its core, it sets a bad example. Every time something is observed and not fixed, or when one has a chance to give in some way and does not, there is a lie being told, the same lie we all know by heart but which needn't be reiterated.” Dave Eggers