Northside Blues

EVERYONE IS REDISCOVERING their roots these days. Some have to reach back pretty far, it's true, as in "my great-grandmother was half Finnish!" But there are those of us who, no matter how deeply we scrape the bottom of the heritage barrel, come up only with the same old Anglo-Saxon Protestant forebears. In an era of rampant multi-culturalism, when we are exhorted to celebrate the differences, we can't find any that one would care to celebrate.

Raised in accordance with the blah-est of WASP cultural parameters (half-hearted Sunday school attendance until puberty, the lime-jello-salad-with-miniature-marshmallows culinary tradition, ethnic costume provided by the Sears catalog), we seek identity from our surroundings, a kind of skin graft of the spirit.

Sadly, this point escaped my husband and me when we decided to buy a home and raise a family in North City.

Where's North City? Even Northwest natives are known to query.

Well, let's see. It's north. Sandwiched between the Seattle city limits and the Snohomish County line, North City is, of course, unincorporated. Anywheresville, U.S.A., that's us - a set from a 1950s sitcom, an unremitting dose of white-bread vanilla, vanilla, vanilla.

Try to think of something North City is known for - just try. OK, let's be fair here. There's the Singapore Restaurant, a kind of Chandleresque film-noir bistro conveniently situated next to the windowless adult bookstore. One of our local landmarks, Kira's, known as Thunder Burger in a former incarnation, is now the area's only drive-in borscht joint. And, well, call us the gateway to Lake Forest Park.

Living in characterless burbs has been a lifelong pattern of mine. I grew up in West Seattle in the 1950s. Now known for its meth labs and pit bulls, West Seattle in those days was the town that time (and everyone else) forgot. California Avenue was flanked by dime stores, insurance offices and tiny dress shops, the kind that line their display windows with orange cellophane to keep the merchandise from fading in the sun.

West Seattle might have been any town 10 years after being bypassed by the freeway. But no one could say it lacked identity altogether. With Alki Beach, Lincoln Park and the Vashon Island ferry, even high-school students could find it on a map. But try to describe North City and you find yourself naming intersections and streetlights.

It's hard to be a yuppie in North City. Our Safeway has neither health food nor a gourmet section. Although you can now buy fresh pasta in North City, you have to trek across the line into Seattle to find Starbuck's. "Seattle's Child" doesn't publish a Northside Parent, and don't look for "Northside Week" to start appearing on your newsstand anytime soon.

Geographically, we suffer from split personality - lumped with Snohomish County in real-estate ads and neither east nor west of Lake Washington. To get to Bellevue I don't cross a bridge, I merely drive through Bothell, heralded by its chilling sign, "Welcome to Bothell, for a day or a lifetime." (Please, not a lifetime.)

Living in a neighborhood without character eventually rubs off on one's persona, eating away at the edges like acid rain on the Parthenon. Perhaps that's why when an earnest Scientologist recently invited me to take a free personality test, I found myself answering, "I'm sorry, but I have no personality."

Without the aid of cultural stereotypes to place you in the eaves of others, you start to fade. Granted, you don't have to fight the negatives inherent in partaking of the wrong ethnicity or class. But neither do you benefit from the instant substance that residing on Mercer Island or being Albanian or Irish Catholic can give you. I can't change my non-culture of origin, but sometimes I fantasize about living in a neighborhood with soul: frontierland Fall City, inaccessible Magnolia, singles paradise Kirkland, instead of a place with less cachet than Juanita, less name recognition than White Center.

I see myself living in a neighborhood where the mere fact of my ZIP code will give marketing analysts enough information to sell me to 60 mailing lists instead of to the same three 60 times; where my junk mail will advertise Club Med or scuba diving classes instead of steam carpet cleaning and storm windows; where my supermarket will offer shoppers free samples of smoked trout and salmon pate instead of Tuna Helper and diet lime-jello cubes.

A woman can dream, can't she?

Nancy Thalia Reynolds lives in North City.