I grew up along Puget Sound, and part of me, the part that keeps track of where “home” is, clings to a memory of the smell of salt air, the sound of a ferry departing the terminal, and the shifting feel of a rocky beach underfoot. And of course, the sight and sound of seagulls.
Seagulls were a constant presence in my home town, so much so that you rarely even thought about them. They perched on pilings, and raucously called back and forth to one another, giving the impression that most of what they said was obscene. They left deposits of gull crap on top of every playground play structure. And they flew about effortlessly, dancing like ballerinas on the wind.
They could keep pace with a ferry crossing from Seattle to Bremerton without even flapping a wing. You could stand at the railing and be quite literally eye-to-eye with a gull as it cruised alongside the ship, barely moving a feather. On the other hand, if you were foolish enough to be gesturing with a french fry, they could be quick enough to snatch it right out of your hand. If they weren’t getting enough french fries, they picked up clams and carried them high over parking lots, where the long drop to hard pavement provided access to the goodies within the hard shell. The effectiveness of this strategy was evidenced by the fine powder of crushed shells in every bayside parking lot.
As children, we told each other that seagulls were protected species, so if you killed one you would be fined $500. Per bird. Even though there were like, millions of them. We also repeatedly retold the story that if you fed a seagull an alka-seltzer tablet, its stomach would explode. No one I knew ever tested this hypothesis. I suspect that threat of a $500 fine saved many a gull from an agonizing end.
Seagulls were just always there.
Portland is a rivertown, a town full of bridges. Even though the ocean is just over the coast range, you would not mistake Portland for a seaport. But, every winter the seagulls come back to town. I suspect they come inland to avoid the winter storms. When I was attending college in southeast Portland, some chilly morning I would wake up to find the lawn in front of the dorm covered with gulls. They would be spread out evenly across the grass, all perfectly still, like the world’s largest set of gull decoys. Just the sight of them provided a bit of familiarity for a homesick student.
This morning as I walked down the sidewalk, I was surprised by a gull nimbly darting in and out of traffic. It moved with all the grace I so fondly remember, nipping around a city bus, between two lanes of cars, and up and over a bobtail truck. The gulls have come back to town. When I look out my office window, I can see them flying between the tall buildings, pirouetting and gliding. In the morning fog, their streamlined silhouettes pass overhead, silent except for the piercing cry that sounds so lonely by itself, and so gossipy in a flock. The gulls are back, and even though the city of Portland has not moved one centimeter closer to the ocean, I could swear I smell a hint of salt in the air.