In January, I lined up 24 dimes on my bookshelf at work – one dime for every month until I turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare. They were the timeline to my retirement target date. Monday, I had 17 dimes, in two lines.
Today, I have a nickel.
Monday, I realized I have the means to retire.
Today, I have about two weeks left at the window seat I finally got after 28 years at the paper. I’ll leave 29 years, to the week, after my first day at The Tacoma News Tribune. In newsroom tradition, I’ll have earned a Hershey Giant Bar for making it to that anniversary date.
Make it milk chocolate, not dark, please.
Tacoma has taught me to prefer the sweet to the bitter.
Packing for the move to Tacoma all those years ago, a friend in Spokane asked why I would move to the worst place in Washington. Having visited once for a funeral and once for my job interview, all I had then was, “A job?”
The answer, it turned out, was an education in the power of ordinary people to fight corruption and crime for the soul of their spot on this earth, and then to deck that spot with beauty and fill it with joy.
In the early 1980s, much of Tacoma looked like Bedford Falls without George Bailey, not so wonderful. Pacific Avenue was a bad walk of strip joints, boarded buildings and eateries with a patina of health code violations. On the East Side, on the Hilltop and in South Tacoma and the South End, gangs took whatever they wanted.
A few people with money and influence geared up the long renaissance downtown. They made it safe, literally, for smaller investors. The aroma of Tacoma comes from swell little restaurants now. It’s a great business story, but what happened all around it won my doubting heart.
In the working-class neighborhoods, middle-aged women got fed up waiting for rescue.
They built block watches, took license plate numbers and photos and demanded that the cops accept them as partners in crime-fighting. It worked, and it spread to every sector.
They went after street drunks by demanding the state ban cheap, high-octane booze in alcohol-impact areas.
They built gardens and put in picnic tables to force the dazed and abusing out of scrub lots in their neighborhoods.
They showed everyone what a few stubborn people could start, and how they could attract allies from the city, schools and health department.
At first, all their projects were worth columns. They were that innovative, that instructive, that brave. They were what big national ideas such as asset mapping and the broken-window theory looked like on home turf.
Organizers invited everyone to play, and their success was contagious.
Now, when volunteers haul 10 tons of blight out of a neighborhood, it isn’t a story anymore. It’s just the way we do things here. It’s The Tacoma Way, and, more and more, the Pierce County Way.
In Pierce County, when our neighbors need help, we paint and repair their houses, and give them food from our gardens.
We force cities and park districts to let us take care of property there’s no money to manage. We fight gang-tagging with murals, and mischief with our presence.
When events break our hearts, we turn to service to fill them again. We send shoes to Haiti for Molly, grow flowers in Stewart Park for Lisa, share peanut butter for fallen police officers.
That is what I tell my friends, now, when they ask what’s to love in Tacoma. In nearly three decades, the extraordinary ordinary people here have made a wasteland green and pleasant.
I have six columns left to write here, and they will be about your triumphs. In them, you and your friends will show and tell how you took the lost places, the worst times, and made them valuable and beautiful with your work, pressure and, of course, grit.