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Five Minutes to Tacoma

Steph looks at me and smiles even though Thomas has said he is taking us to his favorite Sushi restaurant. Steph does not particularly like seafood, let alone raw seafood, but says, “Great.” Or is that me? I love sushi. We walk a couple of blocks from our hotel and into an alley along which small restaurants, shops, and galleries reside.

Steph and I arrived earlier on the train from Portland to Tacoma and nearly didn’t get off in time. The train was delayed getting out of Portland so that when the conductor announced “Five minutes to Tacoma,” we kept visiting, thinking: sure, five minutes or half an hour, time is relative when you’re on the train. We agreed we’d wait for the real “Tacoma” arrival announcement.

When the train stopped we checked outside the windows and saw no station. Our view was tracks, gravel, fences and various metal debris, so we assumed we were waiting for yet another freight train to take priority on the rails. One of the passengers nearby asked if we weren’t getting off in Tacoma. Yes, we were, but we hadn’t heard an announcement. Nobody had. Some fellow passengers offered Puyallup and Reston Way but one insisted the stop was Tacoma. We grabbed our bags, ran down the aisle, and caught the conductor as he was closing the door.

“Tacoma?” we asked. He confirmed it as he reopened the door and gave us a “these-women-are-really-lame” semi-bemused glare.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “we didn’t hear the call for “Tacoma.” At this, we got the put-out teacher-ish reprimand: “We announced five minutes to Tacoma.”

Before either of us could say, “Yes, but,” the conductor was already on board and the train was moving away, presumably rushing to make up that lost time in Portland.

About thirty yards back along the platform, we espied a nondescript one-story brick building that could have been an industrial office or warehouse, but surmised it must be the station.

Thus was our unceremonious arrival to what we were seeking—an arts and culture exploration of Tacoma. Don’t laugh.

Tacoma is an art boomtown, thanks to a boost from native son Dale Chihuly and the Museum of Glass. We will explore museums in the morning but this night we enjoy our dinner.

At Fujiya Japanese restaurant, Steph is happy with the miso soup, the tempura, and a seaweed salad. California rolls, the most benign type of sushi with cucumber, cream cheese and salmon rolled up in rice, are passed around the table. Steph starts to take one, but they are dusted around the rim in whitefish roe, those teensy, orange, delectable fish eggs. She hesitates. I urge her to go ahead and try them—the whitefish roe crunch in your teeth. She’s game. I get distracted visiting with our Tacoma friend Thomas and the next time I look in Steph’s direction I see the California roll splayed out on her plate like a biology lab dissection gone awry. It is a horrible sight. I look at the plate, then at Steph. She smiles sheepishly. I can’t help but grin back.

The next morning we walk downtown past the many cut stone and red brick buildings still intact from the late 1880s when Tacoma’s growth and wealth was spurred by the arrival of the transcontinental railroad. The crown jewel is the Beaux Arts neoclassical Union Station, now a federal courthouse rather than the grand railway station entrance to the city.

After we ogle the gargantuan Dale Chihuly glass sculptures in Union Station, we go next door to the Washington State Historical Museum where I am particularly struck by an exhibit of masks by tribal artists in memory of the smallpox epidemics that devastated the indigenous peoples of the Northwest. It is a wonderful museum full of interactive games and historical exhibits not glossing over the grittier aspects of life on the frontier. For instance, we learn at the shingle mill exhibit that mill workers often lose fingers. This is not news to us, but we agree that history with all its gore is a useful thing, especially for kids who love that sort of thing.

From the Historical Museum to the Glass Museum it is an easy jaunt across the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, which arches over the railroad tracks and isn’t really made of glass, but displays nearly twelve million dollars worth of fantastic vases and sculptures in bulletproof showcases (yep, someone tried).

The funnel shaped Museum of Glass is dedicated to the art of glassmaking, but also houses fine arts traveling exhibits and is surrounded by sculpture terraces. We enter the huge “hot shop” where three artists are blowing and shaping vases in the style of pumpkins. There is a viewing area to sit, but we walk along the catwalk above the furnaces to watch. It is fascinating and hot, colorful and mesmerizing. I am not as mesmerized as Steph who says she could stay all day and gives me a look when I mention to her that the tiny glass pellets that eventually turn into the pumpkin bowls look exactly like whitefish roe.

We move quickly through the stylish Tacoma Art Museum as we must catch the train for Seattle. On board, we settle in and hear a voice ask, “Do you know where you are?” Oh, no, it’s the same conductor who had to open the doors for us to debark. Steph and I are quick to pass the test.

“Tacoma,” we reply. He nods and actually smiles.

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