Maya is trying to hold her cigarette casually, as though there is something more important for her to be paying attention to this evening. She's looking down the nearly empty street, telling me why she's going to leave Spokane.
"There's just nothing for me to do here. There's nothing fun. There aren't any jobs that I'm interested in. Unless what I want to do is to grow up just like the people who are already here, Spokane doesn't really want to make room for me."
I mention that it would be tough for a city to know how to accommodate someone who is just discovering who she is for herself. That at least earns a crooked eyebrow. Maya looks at the pavement, takes a drag of her cigarette. A beat, and then a spear of smoke shoots out of the corner of her mouth, dissolving skyward. She glances up at me. "You know, I don't think this city really even thinks that someone like me needs to discover who I am. I should just be like every other young person, right?"
Maya is 19 years old. This is her twelfth year living in Spokane. She wants it to be her last.
A movement of her fingers, and a burning ember careens off the end of her cigarette. It arcs towards the ground, but the spark is extinguished before it has a chance to settle.
Maya voices the concerns of many young people in the Spokane area. The grass, they often come to believe, is greener somewhere else. And with shining cities like Portland and Seattle beckoning, it's easy to see how Spokane can seem a little unfulfilling. But is it the lack of an all-ages music scene, or is dissing your hometown and wanting to strike out for some new place just a normal part of growing up? In asking a variety of people from their mid-teens to twenties about what it means to be young in Spokane, no consensus is apparent -- in fact, some have even come to appreciate Spokane more after having lived in other cities. Still, asking the question is a start at least.
Commutes in the Valley can be rough. It happened to Laurie at a stoplight on Argonne -- BAM! It hit her abruptly, and in an instant she decided that she was a Spokanite.
"I suddenly thought, you know, I'm a single mom. I'm 22. Why would my situation be better someplace else? I have a job here, my friends have lived here with me all our lives, my son can grow up with kids that we know, my parents are around to help out. If I move, I've got to find a new job, a place to live, I've got to be lonely for who knows how long just to even feel like I'm back to where I would have been if I had stayed. So I decided to stay here."
For Laurie, like many young adults, that's not necessarily the easiest decision to make. "My friends in other towns, especially the ones that left Spokane, keep asking me when I'm going to leave. And then I tell them that I grew up here, and I'm happy here. They don't understand. Then they start asking why I like it, like there's something wrong with liking the town you grew up in. And that's kind of hard. But then they tell me all of the problems that they're having, and I'm like -- okay, the worst thing that happened to me today was the weather, you know? And they've just spent 15 minutes talking about how bad the traffic was. And I'm like... I'm home!"
Gonzaga University sophomore Michael grew up in Seattle, a city with enough virtues to keep him talking at length. "It has just a lot to do," he says pointedly. "It has the waterfront, it has clubs, you know it has SAFECO Field. A lot of touristy stuff that, even though I've grown up in Seattle, I still like to do every once in a while. It's got a bunch of malls; it's got Pacific Place; you can get up to Bellevue; it's got Bellevue Square. You can always go down to the beach. I think it's just a nice place to live."
But Spokane takes Michael even longer to summarize. "I guess as far as Spokane goes, everyone says it's a small, quaint city and I can definitely see that. Going to Gonzaga, I'm near Riverfront Park and Centennial Trail, and that's kind of a draw. I know in the spring it's a real nice place to hang out, and I like to jog and keep in shape, so I like Centennial Trail. But other than that there is never really any draw for me to go downtown. I mean there are malls and movie theaters, but I did all that stuff in high school. It just kind of gets old after a while. There needs to be a draw to go off campus. Something that attracts the college-age student to leave campus and kind of just venture out and check out new things, I guess. Maybe even have city-sponsored events that have to do with college kids. It's kind of funny. College kids are a huge part of this town, and it seems like some businesses don't really take advantage of that."
"Some of it has to do with what students are looking for. For example, I know we have a lot of students who love the outdoors. So if it's anything outdoors, then I think Spokane students don't have any problem finding fun things to do in this vicinity because it's got so much natural beauty and so much to offer. If students are thinking, 'We don't have as many museums,' or 'We don't have as many coffee houses' or 'We don't have as many places to hang out like that,' then that's a little bit different."
Fred's job is to understand how young people think about Spokane. As the dean of enrollment services and financial aid at Whitworth College, he needs to know what he can tell prospective students about the area that might appeal to them, but at the same time have a clear perspective on how their relationship to the community might actually work, as opposed to its imagined ideal.
"Sometimes the students think about this romantic notion of being in a large city," he explained last spring in an interview for Spokane Public Radio, "when in fact, even if they are in a large city, the facts are that most college students' lives revolve around the campus and revolve around the students that they meet. And their lives don't necessarily revolve around what's happening in their surrounding community to a great extent.
"There certainly is a difference between what is available in Spokane and what is available in Chicago, just because of sheer size. We don't have as many museums. We don't have as many places to experience cultural events. We don't have as many concerts. We don't have as many... I mean... On the other hand, it's not as if the students have a lot of extra money just to throw around at all these things."
I forgot to ask Brad how much the paint job on his truck cost him. He's 19 years old and drives a smooth white truck with silver-flame detailing along the front and hood. He's parked it next to an entire row of trucks -- shiny and attractive to be sure, but with nothing like the silver flames -- that other young men like Brad move around the Aspen Sound parking lot like a game of dominoes. All of the people here are shiny clean, well-belted, with neatly gelled hair and -- usually -- a companion or two. They seem to prefer talking with each other while sitting in the parked vehicles, listening to music.
While I could suggest several reasons for Brad's devotion to his truck, and his friends' devotion to their own vehicles, it doesn't take him long to tell me about one of the thrills it offers him.
"I race my truck every Friday at a racetrack, but not on Division."
I ask him if people really race along Division. For the first time in our conversation, Brad begins to sound excited. "It's fun. I've done it before. It's a rush, because people think they have fast cars -- little Hondas that aren't fast. And I beat them all the time. You just pull up to a light, and if there's a car next to you that they think is fast, you beat them. I lost my license for racing, and I got it back. Now I drive like a grandmother."
I ask him why he doesn't hang out downtown, since he doesn't race any more. He looks around and shrugs. "Because everybody's up here. So far I've picked up my friend, came here, went to another friend's house, and came back here. There's nothing to do but hang out and meet people and let the cops hassle us for what other people do."
Twenty-four-year-old Kearsten wants to connect with people, and so she's leaving Spokane. "I have a degree in communication," she explains, sipping coffee at The Mercury, "and from what I understand, there isn't a big demand for that here."
I ask her how life has been for her here in Spokane. She laughs. "I'm unemployed," she beams. "Life is never happy when you're unemployed!"
Jessica, an EWU student sitting with Kearsten, plans to transfer to another school in Seattle next year. She grew up in Spokane and describes it as "fine, because it's home." She was offered a scholarship at Eastern and says that's the only reason she's in Spokane now. "I'm not saying I won't ever come back here, but I think it's important to get out there and see the world."
At the next table, Sara -- who is 18 years old, has lived near Spokane her whole life, and wants to be a tattoo artist -- explains how she has managed to connect with other people. "Meeting new people is kind of easy if you go to the right places. Here it's great, and at the Big Dipper when they have all-ages shows, you can meet a lot of new people. I guess if I got a job I really enjoyed, I'd stay here. I like the smaller community better. You get along with people better, and you know most people."
Her friend Emily, who "will be 18 in a month and three days," explains how she meets interesting people in Spokane. "There's not much to do in Spokane, so I walk around downtown a lot, and you meet a lot of interesting people." At the same time, she explains that finding something to do with friends is different. "It kind of sucks because there's not a lot to do when you're under 21. It's difficult to find stuff to do on a Friday night. You end up just having coffee all night."
Although the seat across Michael's table is empty, a curvaceous young woman is emerging in front of him, drawn confidently on a sketchpad. Michael is in his late twenties and enjoys coming to coffee shops, like tonight's choice, The Mercury, just to draw and read. He feels no financial pressure in the pursuit of his personal artistic work -- his job as a computer graphics artist at Cyan in Spokane supports him. But when he moved here two years ago from Chapel Hill, N.C., the first thing he looked for was a visible local music scene.
"The first thing I did was drive in from the airport and drive up Division, and that's not the best intro to anything. It was definitely a shock. Chapel Hill is a cultural scene -- lots of bands, lots of music going on. And I'm a musician and play in bands. So that was a big change for me.
"Now I have found some people. I've done a lot of the open-mike nights and been involved with several bands here. So I've managed to find a lot of the same things here, but they're just harder to find. It took more time; it took months and months of going out constantly to finally meet people with the same cultural interests and things. It's a challenge, but it's there. It's just a lot more hidden."
Kevin meets me at my gate at the airport in Seattle, wearing a variation on the same outfit I've always seen him in -- jeans, a sweatshirt and a baseball cap. We find a bar, where I buy him a drink that he will neither finish nor particularly enjoy, and we talk before my connecting flight leaves. He grew up in Seattle, and graduated from Whitworth College last year, then returned home to coach tennis. Now that the tennis gig is over, he works for a construction company, remaining in Seattle.
Whitworth's music department was what swayed Kevin's ultimate decision, but it was the change of scene that Spokane offered him that caught his attention first. "I saw Western Washington University and the University of Washington, and it was like 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th grade. It was the same people and the same dynamic. It was like Saved by the Bell: The College Years.
"But I had some concerns going to Spokane as well. It was, 'This city [has a] smaller, farm-town, nothing-going-on feel.' And I knew that I would miss doing a variety of things. My idea of a satisfying weekend wasn't going to the mall and a movie. And that's the idea that everyone -- ignorant -- on the West Side has.
"Now I know I just became frustrated with what people were satisfied with. I couldn't imagine people being satisfied doing such repetitive things. And I don't mean the things that they were doing, but that they were finding satisfaction doing the same things over and over."
My flight's departure time is close, so we leave the bar. Kevin waits with me near the gate. "What changed from my initial perceptions to my final perception was that it wasn't the city that bothered me, but the conformity of the people who live there. The city government. My peers. Everyone."
SIRENS ON THE ROCKS
If you should feel the need to linger in a parking lot outside of a closed bank on North Division some weekend night, make sure that you look beautiful. Mya, Chrystal and Yasmina all do. The girls, who are 20, 16 and 14 years old respectively, devoted the early part of this evening to their hair, faces, clothes and perfumes. Now, at 11 o'clock, a group of boys and other girls hover around them.
"We like to dress up," laughs Mya. "We like to look fine. But still we don't have anywhere to go."
Mya and Yasmina moved to Spokane two years ago from Bosnia. Chrystal, an American, has lived in Spokane for five years. "It's very boring here," she continues for Mya. "There's not much to do for people our age. Go to movies, hang out with friends, go out to eat. We need a place that's fun for us, like to go out and dance or something. There's a dance club in the Valley, but not many people go there because it's 18 and up."
A wolfishly handsome face emerges from the eddy of young people churning on the trio's periphery. Edin is 19 and has lived in Spokane for a year. "We came from Europe. And when you go out there, you have, like, 20 clubs to choose where to go. And here, you have only the parking lot. And even from the parking lot, you get chased away by the cops."
I ask them why they don't hang out downtown. "Too many junkies," replies Edin.
"And not a lot of stuff to do downtown," adds Mya.
Edin is frustrated. "And they have a couple of caf & eacute;s, but you have to be 21 to go in. So I can stand in front of there and see people drinking in them."
"And if people really want to drink," Mya smiles knowingly, "they can find somebody to buy them alcohol. So they don't have to pretend that they're 21. We're not drinking tonight, but if we want to, we can. We can go right now."
Instead, she brushes her hair away from her eyes and turns laughing to her friends.