Fear and Loathing in Seattle

Originally published in Cambridge Book Review (Issue #5, Winter 2000-2001)

For most of its history Seattle sat unnoticed in the shit-gray wilderness called the Pacific Northwest. It was too close to Canada to be really American, and rumor had it that people up there drank fancy coffee and waited for the WALK sign. It had to be a place full of morons, or even worse: insane idiot savants who had an unruly knack for programming.

Centuries of rain had softened the brains of most Seattle natives until they were nothing more than slightly undulating blobs of gray jelly. Cut open the head of the average Seattleite (as they ridiculously called themselves in those days) and you’d find the brain of a circus geek, a 40-year-old sterno drunk who’s plunged so low in life that he bites the heads off live chickens for the money to buy his booze.

But it was the rain that gave them this software knack, this drooling obsession with computers and things that go beep in the night. It was a city full of geeks, with designer pocket protectors and a lingering aroma of body odor. On a warm summer day the oddly non-air conditioned stores of the city smelled like a dank bazaar as hundreds of unwashed geeks stormed the bookstores and coffee shops in a vain attempt to stave off the mind-choking depression that so much rain can bring.

One of their ways of fighting that madness, which creeps in on the mind the way a humid winter night in that city would soak into your bones, was to hover over the altars of their computer temples and code, code, code. They invented chat rooms so they could meet without leaving their homes. Pioneered the greatest home delivery services in the world. And of course made coffee that would take the hair off the chest of an ancient bedouin.

What we’re living through right now, this vortex eon in history where the geeks are becoming a sort of ruling class, is the product of all this rain, coffee and coding. The massive labyrinthine halls of Microsoft’s main campus, as well as the numerous buildings in nearby areas, are reminiscent of an elaborate Dungeons and Dragons map. Walking those halls is not too much different from being in one of those games.

Unfortunately, giving a geek this much money and power has proved to be similar to when Peter Parker first discovers the radioactive spider bite has imbued him with spider-like powers and abilities. Instead of rushing out to save the world, Peter decides to cash in on his newfound skills by engaging in Stan Lee’s version of the WWF. The Gates mansion erected on Lake Washington is a perfect wizard’s castle, a place where a level 21 illusionist might retire after years of adventuring.

Worse than Bill’s excess are the numerous cel phone carrying neo-yuppie scum that scurry about the city in their SUVs like roaches in the remains of a family reunion. They rush about consuming vast quantities of fancy sandwiches, microbrewed beer, and elaborate coffee drinks, all the time leaving their droppings behind as a sign of their insipid passing. Downtown is like a zoo of suits and dresses that cost more than it would take to feed that homeless man on the corner for the next 10 years.

This is a town that used to pride itself on being renowned for a casual manner of dress, expressed at one end of the spectrum by the torn jeans, black t-shirt and flannel shirt of grunge fashion, to the expensive REI hiking boots, J. Peterman chinos, and North Face jackets of the ski and latte set. Now it has been overrun by people who shop at stores that specialize in golf clothing, where the most ridiculous getups in the world are purchased by men who are reliving their second childhood as if they had supped with the Kennedy family at Hyannis.

Earlier this month I encountered one of their ilk downtown. It was a gorgeously sunny day and I had decided to wander about seeing if the city had managed to wash all the WTO blood off its hands. The streets are clean of guilt now, the general consensus being that the police showed “restraint” — by not gunning down all the protestors as if they were filthy wogs in the way of the British Army, one supposes. In the wake of all this public sentiment, the police have tactfully chosen to strip away a few more of the citizens’ civil liberties, most notably the one that says the police won’t spy on us. (Well, you knew that was coming. After all, how else can they justify all the cameras they installed before the WTO protest?)

As I stood at the corner of Fourth and Pike, reveling in the excess that adorned the store windows, a man driving one of those Eddie Bauer Ford Explorers began to take a left turn at the light. I noticed that he was jabbering away into a cel phone, and that he did not notice the WALK sign was in favor of the pedestrians. He was angling his car into the sea of people that moved through the crosswalk. People were eyeing him with anger, but this is a nice city and if you run over a pedestrian they respond with “Beg your pardon” and have their lawyer invite you over for dinner.

It was time for me to take action. I walked swiftly up to the open window of the SUV and shouted, “Hey, buddy!”

He stared at me with alarm, stuttered “Uh… hang on…” into the phone and looked anxiously around for the cops. (You’re not rich enough for them to guard you, pal.)

“Either stop your car or get off the goddam phone,” I told him angrily. I stepped forward a little closer to the vehicle.

He panicked and began stopping the truck. “Uh, uh,” he blathered again. He looked around nervously. A woman’s voice shouted from the phone, “Who is that yelling?”

I reached through the window and grabbed the phone. The word “felony” raced through my mind. I suddenly imagined myself going all the way with this, somehow managing to actually kill the guy with his cel phone. Then I could escape through the crowd, harbored perhaps by some sympathetic souls. I could even make a career of it: Seattle is after all the serial killer capitol of the world. What a headline that would make! THE CEL PHONE KILLER. Ignoring the warnings of ***BRAIN TUMOR*** that flashed in my head, I placed the cel phone to my ear and said loudly: “Who is this? Are you his wife?”

“Yes. Who is this?” Her voice trembled with fear.

“Call an ambulance,” I told her. I hit the SEND button to kill the phone and tossed it back at the guy in the truck.

“Drive safely,” I said.

He sped through an opening in the now stationary crowd of people and seemed to be reaching for his phone as he drove away. I saw him glance furtively in the rearview mirror. I checked the vicinity for any Blue Meanies coming my way and then headed for Westlake Center to hide amongst the truant teenagers. Then I realized that perhaps twenty people were staring at me, all of them witnesses to my tantrum.

I smiled sheepishly. One woman hooked her shopping bag on her forearm and began clapping her hands together. Right away the crowd joined in. I bowed my head, mumbled “Thank you,” and went on my way.

You gotta love people.