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The first time I stepped inside King Street Station was in the 1980s. My family had moved from Southern California to Bellingham, and my mom and I decided to ride the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles, as an adventure.
The inside of the station was depressing, in a way that's hard to describe if you hadn't been there before the twenty-first century restoration. Remodeled, in the worst sense of the word, in 1965, there was a drop acoustic tile ceiling some ten feet below the molded plaster above, probably made of asbestos. Heat was provided by open electric coils, hung like fluorescent lamps in aluminum half-round fixtures, as if travelers were chickens to be broiled. They removed marble tile from columns (I mean, who wants nice materials?), and it was an environment made inexpensive and functional over beautiful. Or even slightly pleasant.
To add insult to injury, the architects of the station, Charles A. Reed and Allen H. Stern, were designers who worked on Grand Central Terminal in New York City. They knew a thing or two about making a train station a nice place to be. But after years of disrepair, it was easier to hide than fix, I suppose.
But in November 2006, then-mayor Greg Nickels announced that the city would buy the station from the BNSF Railway for $1. It turned out that the price rose, steeply, to $10 before the city council signed off on it. But doing so managed to gain $19 million from the state and federal governments to restore the station.
They started with the clock tower, and worked through the building, uncovering and fixing the ornate plaster tiling, and making the station a place somebody might enjoy sitting while waiting for a train.
It's a busy station, with twenty-three daily departures, counting the Sounder commuter rails, and three Amtrak lines: the newer Cascades run, the Empire Builder to Chicago, and the Coast Starlight to LA.
With all of those departures and arrivals, you might not be surprised that almost 650,000 passed through the station in 2016. That's like nearly the entire population of Seattle taking at least one train ride last year. Surely, with that, we can find something interesting to write about:
The first worker to look above the acoustic tiling in forty years nearly fell off his ladder. "I'm okay!" he shouted, some twenty feet above the terrazzo floors. He secured his footing on the aluminum stair, and took another look around. His flashlight beam was highlighted in the dusty air like a movie projector in a smoky theater. In the corner, in the dark, a shadow sat waiting. It'd been trapped there nearly a half-century, but as soon as the grid containing it — a grid put in place by the most powerful necromancer of the modern era — was removed, once again it could wreak havoc on the world.
Two years before they actually met — two years before this love at first sight thing, two years before both of them independently called their best friends (who, ironically, were second cousins once removed) to talk about the moment they just had, two years before all of this, each of them sat back-to-back on the wooden bench in King Street Station, inches away from each other, perfectly aligned, both drinking the same flavor kombucha. If they had only just ran into each other that day, things would have been very different for them.
The Great Northern Tunnel's south terminus opens, like a mouth, just to the north of King Street Station. A commuter, hopping off the Sounder from Tacoma, was the first to see the man stumbling our from the darkness. "Hey! Get off the tracks!" someone shouted. The man didn't stop. "It's coming," he cried. "It's right behind me," and then he collapsed, one leg splayed over the rail.
Nobody knew why the boxcar train stopped under the eaves of Safeco field. A sunny day, the roof was open, and the Mariners were six innings into rousting the Dodgers. Humiliating them, even, invigorating the packed stadium. So when his contact at the BNSF finally called back, Mariners' security chief Dan Charles was shocked to hear "we have no idea where those cars came from. We have a serious situation going on here. You need to evacuate the stadium right now."
It's a very particular feeling to board a train with a one-way ticket. It's another to board knowing that you'd never ride a train again. So when Juan caught the Coast Starlight south from Seattle, he knew his final ride, to San Luis Obisbo, would be his last. He sprang for the large cabin. When you're about to die, saving your money seems downright foolish.