Whirlwind staff box, 1989-90.
I’ve told this story before: It takes place in a metropolitan neutrality called SeaTac, shortly before spring break 1990. I was a high school senior with a quietly mischievous keystroke and a travel bag plump with cassettes and clothes.
We’d left Friday morning by activity bus from the West Albany High School parking lot. Street lamps yielded to daylight as we crossed from Queen to Pacific, slashed by waves of telephone lines. Depeche Mode had released “Violator” that week, and I cracked open the case, absorbed that minty new-album bouquet, and packed the tape into my Walkman, watching the town shrink beneath Dave Gahan’s lugubrious nocturne: Let me take you on a trip / around the world and back / and you won’t have to move / you just sit still …
If you knew me then, music and writing were my raison d’etre. I was the dude that found your tastes pedestrian and actively sought to refine them, stopping by your locker with unsolicited mixtapes, you’re welcome. You could also read me in the school paper, The Whirlwind, where I served that year as self-appointed critic, waxing preciously on everything from Bonham’s “The Disregard of Timekeeping” and the “Born on the Fourth of July” soundtrack to “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” and the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Groovies’ Greatest Grooves,” the latter of which I highly recommend even today (the others, not so much).
What I couldn’t have known then was how this role would define me for the next quarter-century, damn near trap and choke me. This was still the beginning. I was 17 years old, with a security one only knows in youth. I’d already plotted my course: After graduation, I’d move on, forgoing college for Rolling Stone, then a flurry of bestselling books, perhaps write for “Saturday Night Live” or work in radio. Nail a primo beachhouse in Southern California and hang with my buds on the lanai, drinks in hand, toasting the fortune that had blessed our lives. Journalism and Albany were never part of the equation; both were larks, stepping stones, necessary springboards into the prolific adventure of Me.
And here I was, on a pill-colored bus, headed with the Whirlwind staff to our Waterloo: a two-day national journalism conference at the Red Lion Inn between Seattle and Tacoma. It was an honor to be invited. Apparently. We arrived to swarms of school colors and clashing conversations, marveling at the scope of the event. The organizers booked some marquee talent, too: According to the program, CBS’ Harry Smith was the keynote speaker; we helpfully scribbled some hair onto his bald pate and skimmed a list of seminars none of us planned to attend. Then Harry himself, sans Bic-wig, commandeered a podium, lavished us with hosannas, yammered a spell, and became as one with the cream-colored walls. I don’t think we ever saw him again, and we didn’t care. We were THIS CLOSE to SEATTLE!
But before our carousals, we checked into our rooms: boys on one side, girls on the other, though we never stayed put for long. The Whirlwind’s editor and I introduced ourselves to the girl upstairs by grabbing the tanned legs she’d dangled over the balcony and yanking them until she began screaming. The stems then disappeared and a blonde head peeked over. “Who are YOU?” it asked with a smile. Although she didn’t join our tour of the city, she’d call our room to say hello and, later, goodbye. (Only in high school is such behavior endearing.)
Now, Seattle 1990 is a far cry from Seattle ’15. At some point during that stretch, God took a hose to the place, gutted whole blocks and swapped its more colorful denizens for guerrilla theater troupes. That night, for the very first time, I watched steam seep from sewer lids (a phenomenon I didn’t know existed beyond the “Night Court” opening credits) and saw two tall cops with batons, walking, and tapping the occasional foot: “Hey. Wake up.” We devoured these experiences, hopping over bodies onto buses and connecting with sad-eyed commuters, some of whom lit up quite expectantly at the sight of teenage girls. Seats were jammed with them, fresh, young faces from all over the country. I happened to sit behind two who were subsequently joined by a pair of curious older men. “Where’re YOU from? Wyoming? Hell, me and my buddy here were just thinking about going to Wyoming this summer. What are your names? How old are you?” Others were just pleased to have a captive audience: “You’re too young to know this, see, but it’s all politics, and the game is rigged.”
Our journey ended at the Seattle Fun Center, then a Jurassic shadow of an amusement park whose showcase was “Flight to Mars,” a combination horror/space-themed ride that was the thrill o’ ’62 but an ancient-if-popular curio by 1990. We tooled around that a bit, yelping at the rusted freaks, but my favorite remains the roller coaster.
While standing in line, I confided to my colleague and dear friend Katina Rothleutner that I hated roller coasters. I’d hated them since the betrayal of ’77, when my parents conned me onto Disneyland’s Space Mountain by connecting it to “Star Wars.” “You’ll see Darth Vader at the end,” my evil mother promised. Of course, I saw nothing but the end of days while physics throttled my guts. All that dipping, twisting and spinning made me sick. I didn’t throw up, but I wanted nothing more than to spackle my makers in buckets of evacuation. Katina — sainted Katina — listened sympathetically, then beamed under sparkling eyes and said, “I’m riding with YOU!” She grabbed my arm and maneuvered us to a car, and I’ll take the malevolence on her face to my grave. “Throw up that way,” she advised, pointing to my left.
So there we were, guy and girl, one working overtime to keep his cool as the beast moaned to life and our car began to stir. I could feel Katina watching me, but I couldn’t turn to look; instead I studied the protective bar that would surely impale us later. Then we lurched forward. “Uhhh,” I implored. Silence from my right as we began climbing, to “touch the face of God,” as former president Ronald Reagan said of the Challenger crew. At the top I felt a hand clutch my arm and my eyes instantly fused shut as the track ceased clicking beneath us, holding us momentarily, curiously, as if contemplating our fate. My knuckles flashed white and threatened to explode. I sucked all the air in Seattle past my gritted teeth. The grip on arm pressed tighter at the last possible second when we were pushed, shoved, kicked, coaxed, propelled into oblivion, no longer in control, at the hellish mercy of masochists long dead, banged, punched, thrashed at corners then pulled free, whipped toward impossible turns, yanked into pits then booted to the stars, Katina still hanging on and screaming with delight as the rest of me burned like a thousand needles exploding in my bones, and oh, my God, did I feel ALIVE.
Twenty-five years later, it’s my favorite memory of journalism. I have favorite STORIES, absolutely. But it’s the people around me who’ve mattered. The stolen moments beyond the office that made me feel less alone.
I ain’t a smart dude. You wouldn’t ask me to plan a party or fix your sink. I became a writer because I had no choice. The desire, then as now, was too overwhelming, too vital to my existence. Without writing, I’d have no voice whatsoever. And that’s the thing: For many of us, this was never a career. I wouldn’t even be so pretentious as to call it a “calling.” It was just nature. If you’re a writer, you go where the writers are.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with journalism. As a practice, I didn’t like it much. I never understood the point of churning guff for immediate publication, pile after pile in manic rolls, feeding something insatiable and hateful, though I always admired it as a talent. Three stories a week were enough for me. Since I became an editor, that output’s dropped to an even more insignificant number. Cutlines, headlines and dropheads are my primary currency, a miserable fate for a word guy. I’ve produced a single story over the last year, and after emerging from under an avalanche of research, it took me about that long to write.
It can be a thankless job. We strive for audience connection, yet it’s hard to imagine a relationship more adversarial. You think we’re arrogant, with our audacity to determine what constitutes “news” and our delusions of self-importance. We think you’re stuck-up, too, with your revenge-porn theories regarding our struggles and your unflagging belief in your own perfection, or, at the very least, your linguistic, intellectual and cultural superiority to anyone with a byline. Dig the futility: You’re trying to please people who will always hate you.
One of the first cruel lessons you learn in this biz is the Inconsistency of Humankind. An audience will tell us what it wants, but its actual reading habits, which we can measure, tell us it’s LYING. An audience will accuse you of sensationalism, yet never acknowledge its own complicity and appetite for same. It’ll demand compassion for acquaintances, yet deny it of strangers in similar straits. The general public, of which we’re all a part, can be nakedly duplicitous, and we all have to pretend it isn’t.
So as journalists, we develop both a thick skin — gallows humor — and an equally dense layer of bitterness. Socially, I dance past questions about my job, because when people find out, they tend to get hostile. At last they can tell off a much-loathed institution by berating a stranger. It’s about as civil as dragging the Domino’s guy out of his car, kicking him to the ground and shouting, “Your pizzas are shit, and fuck you for contributing to obesity and heart disease.”
But sometimes even I need a break from this highly narcotic anger. So I return to that weekend, when youth ran wild in brief resistance to adulthood, when two kids shared a thrill on the exhilarating ride of a lifetime. It’s a reminder that things were good. Pure and new. Before passion became an albatross. Before aspiration became a career. Before a career became a sentence with an execution date, all but assuring that your life’s work becomes yellowed newsprint growing cold from neglect. And everyone will say you deserved it, by succeeding at something you loved until it stopped loving you back.
I was a writer then. By the graces of whatever, I’m a writer now. That kid is still here, hungry and hopeful. Maybe it’s time we met again.
See? It really happened!