Friday morning, mid-March, 1990. Most of the West Albany High Whirlwind staff is slumped outside the school at an hour so ungodly even daytime can’t be bothered. The lights along Queen sigh a lonely white as early commuters zip past en route to lives unknown. They are passing shadows. We are the future standing still, waiting on a bus. Soon the squat vessel shudders up the drive and we mutter aboard. Despite our longtime schedules, we are not morning people.
We’re Seattle-bound for a national high-school journalism conference or convention or symposium or summit or whatever the fuck, who cares. We are leaving town. For the bulk of a weekend. Splitting the suburban yawn for the metropolitan scream. The destination’s just an excuse to escape. We don’t plan to stick around our hotel like well-heeled ladies and gents, enduring torturous seminars and painful keynotes. What sadist would travel some 300 miles to sit through the equivalent of school with room service? Besides, we were 16, 17, 18 years old — what could these dusty bozos tell us that we didn’t already know? We wanted the City, the intoxicating Promise of Night. Once we were off this bus and into Seattle’s grip, we were gone as gone could get.
I leaned against a window to feel the hum of travel, Walkman phones pinned in place, mind a-rattle with the new Depeche Mode. Violator. It was brand-new. Still had that smell where you crack the jewel case open and hospital mint back-drafts up your nose.
I’d fallen for DM that spring, though I didn’t dare say. I’d imagined my school-wide reputation was that of a stalwart musicologist, learned in the ways of riffs and solos, a trusted expert in ancient catalogs. (My true reputation, I suspect, was that of an avuncular zilch, slightly askew.) Man, I could gab your sponge dry on the purity of the original Bad Company and foam against the synthesized twaddle that threatened to destroy the holy howl of rock ’n’ roll.
But I’d quietly come around to the “fag shit” when I chanced to hear “A Question of Lust” as performed on Depeche Mode 101. My busboy buddy Tony hipped me one night. “Fuck that ‘People Are People’ shit,” I snorted. “I only hear the REAL.” But Martin Gore’s lament was real enough. “Lust” spoke my language, made me shiver, verbalized my yearnings in a rhythm that longed and soothed. I raced to the record store to pour me some of that goosebump ’til it was part of me forever.
That March morning, though, I was on to a new anthem. “Enjoy the Silence.” Dave Gahan. Yeah. I knew their names now. I watched through the glass as our flat motherland vanished into a mush of eyes and lips and a long-imagined clinch. I was 17 years old, and this was all I aspired to know.
Like any music hound, I packed only the necessary basics for a weekend trip. To my left sat a duffel lump stuffed haphazardly with fistfuls of clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, and shampoo. Clenched in my left fist was the more vital luggage: a Roth’s grocery sack failing under the weight of jagged cassettes. After all, who knew when my mood would suddenly change, and I’d find myself jonesing for Rush? Or Led Zeppelin? Or Slayer? Or Queen? Or David Bowie’s live version of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” off Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture? Or Mott the Hoople’s “Saturday Gigs”? Or Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby”? You just couldn’t tell. So you had to come prepared.
Two decades on, I can still see us all on that bus. Bleary-eyed, expectant. Brian Lindley and Danielle Budlong were tucked in the back, mostly out of sight. Jason Macpherson leaned over Mike Durrant’s seat as they yammered about something, probably Oregon State’s chances that fall. Katina Rothleutner was fast asleep, lost in dreams of kindness. Peggy Shih caught the passing scenery from across the aisle. Dena Minato, our teacher and advisor, rode up front with a student instructor, perhaps bracing herself for impending youthful hellionism. We were kids, y’know, about to be loosed in a city with a transit system that could lug us far out of reach.
The Red Lion Hotel straddled the buzz of Seattle and Tacoma in a compromise called SeaTac. To us it was a paradise of glass and steel, swallowed on all sides by life aimed everywhere. The hotel was a teenage hotbed (or one could hormonally hope), miles of peers from all over the country. They spilled into the streets and surrounding eateries, filled the city buses, and milled about the fringes, looking for action. We joined a swarm into the hotel, then zipped up the glass elevators (exciting!) to our sex-segregated rooms. The fellas scored a double-bed bachelor pad with table, television, plenty of heterosexual sleeping space on the floor, and a balcony. The girls were across the hall, although they ended up hanging with us most of the time. We Bulldogs knew strength in numbers.
Upon entering our borrowed hole, Lindley and I espied a pair of bronzed twigs dangling over our balcony from the room upstairs. He looked at me. I looked at him. We smiled in malicious synchronicity. Teenage Icebreaker! As one, we barreled across the room, each seized a limb, and began pulling them slowly toward Earth (a three-story drop, if I recall) until a surprised voice yelped from above. “Heyyyy!” it screamed. Introductions made, we released and looked up. A bleached-blonde head peered over. “Who are you guys?” it asked through a smile. “The greatest damn high-school newspaper in the Pacific Northwest,” Lindley replied through six layers of professional charm. The head smirked and vanished. Seconds later, the room phone rang. “Yeah,” Brian cooed into the receiver. “We should totally hang out.”
I recall very little about the conference itself, but that’s because we avoided it as much as possible. It was bad enough we had to abandon our Lothario to experience true agony in the form of a Harry Smith keynote. He welcomed us to an informative weekend of learning, and weren’t we lucky to be young at such an amazing time, and yank, yank, crank ’n’ spank. At one point he even hailed us as the future newsroom. While his lips flapped like the great wings of an ugly bird, I sat in an uncomfortable metal folding chair, thinking, When will this old, bald motherfucker shut up so we can get the hell out of here? Somewhere beyond this Aqua Net holding pen was my beloved, and she wouldn’t wait forever. Danielle was slumped beside me, her program open to a Klan-white sheet of paper. She wasn’t even motivated enough to fake note-taking. Our eyes met and she scrawled in large, insistent ballpoint: “YAWN.”Meanwhile, Harry spewed blithely, obliviously, prolonging our torment and ruining our lives. Speeches, programs, schedules — what kind of sick journalism conference was this?
After Harry exhausted his gasbag, the Whirlwind staff, along with half the hotel, exploded toward the doors. We must have all had the same thought, because when we reached the Pizza Hut across the street, every table was taken and the wait was a half-hour, minimum. So we ordered a couple of pies to go, kicked back in the prom-tight lobby with the other Johnny Come Latelys, and when our boxes finally arrived, we split to a nearby convenience store that carried a zillion varieties of soda and an equally impressive selection of trucker porn. Right out in the brazen open, too. Back to our rooms, foolish me stupidly carrying a hot pepperoni like an Algebra book. During transportation, all the cheese and toppings had sighed south. Our weekend was sure to follow.
Friday turned out to be our only night of freedom. Most of us slipped out following dinner to board a cramped bus into Seattle, barely believing our luck. Back home our poor friends were pulling pud and driving nowhere. We, on the other hand, were in the heart of a major city, temporary urbanites with sophistication on loan. Katina and I sat behind some girl from some high school somewhere, observing as she deflected a pair of locals’ fumbling sugar-talk. Where you from? Wyoming? Shit, me and Harman were just talking about Wyoming. How old are you?
Elsewhere a man laid out the modern world’s ills. It’s all politics, see. Everything comes down from the top, right. Don’t let anybody tell you the President don’t know what’s up. He throws a switch, we’re all slaves. Never forget that.
Well, lemme just say Wyoming must be a damn fine state, I ain’t bullshittin’.
Man, even your Congressman knows it’s happening, but as long as he gets his, he don’t care.
What kinda stuff you got in Wyoming that’s fun? Can we look you up? How old are you?
Post-dinner snack at a Popeyes in some dingy-ass mall. Danielle had gone to a record store and picked up the new Digital Underground on a teenage whim. Me being the staff music critic and all, she asked my opinion, waving Sex Packets in my face. All I knew then was “The Humpty Dance,” so I couldn’t speak for the album as a whole, though I will now: Classic. Enduring. Doowutchyulike.
I hauled my cargo of pizza and processed chicken parts to Seattle Fun Center, where I hadn’t been since the summer of ’83. Still looked exactly the same. Same paint, same layout, same dirt, same grit, same squeals and peals of metal and lungs. Flight to Mars squatted at the far end, loaded with the kind of sci-fi hoodoo that gripped America in the days before space exploration. Aliens lurched on tired springs. Doors creaked like cranky bubbes. It was a hoot.
When we came to the roller coaster, my stomach seized in fright. I fuckin’ hate roller coasters, man. Hate the speed, loathe the dips, despise the falls. I’ve only ridden three in my entire life, and although they’ve never followed through with their threats of nausea, they’ve teased me to the brink. I regard them with a fear-baked contempt. I tried explaining this to Katina with the kind eyes and gentle disposition. She had hair like Judy Collins, for Christ’s sake: she radiated benevolence. Naturally, she’d sympathize and lend a brother an out, maybe even join me for ice cream with the others bellered their guts loose. “Roller coasters and I don’t mix,” I quietly confided. Her eyes lit up. “Oh!” she said. “Then I’m sitting next to you!”
Fuckin’ marvy. I implored my insides to hold fast. Katina sensed my trepidation as we climbed into our death car. “Throw up that way,” she advised, pointing helpfully toward the ground.
The shaky mother clattered to life, as it had every shift since its installation in 1603. The tracks pulled us nearer to God, slurping us up an incline at a reasonable speed we would not know again. I couldn’t bear to look at Katina. I couldn’t look, period. My eyes were rattling somewhere in my shoes. But I knew she was watching me. I wore her amusement like a lovingly knit shawl. My teeth were clenched behind lips too tight to move. Every muscle in my being clung to gravity. My knuckles lay opaque over the protective bar. This was the slowest doomed ascent of all time. Tomorrow the papers would announce: SHIT-KNICKERED GIMP MEETS MAKER LIKE A PUSSY. Subhead: Victim known to like Depeche Mode. Pull quote: That’s the key to understanding why this avuncular zilch died.
Suddenly we were suspended, teetering at the peak, allowed a moment to admire the shrouded cityscape and contemplate the moon and WHOOSH a rush seized us by the eyeteeth and yanked us to terra firma, only to smack us sideways, then kick us back to the stars. By then I existed on a plane between consciousness and a fluttery fuck-this. Where was that goddamn zen I’d read so much about? But there was no zen. Instead, I was prodded, shaken, thrust, parried, knocked, slammed, and twirled dizzy by the cruel hiss of whiplash, accompanied by an ear-piercing delight emanating from my left. Katina was having the time of her life, practically swallowing my head with her gaping, shrieking maw. “Woo!” she whooped as we hit another coldcock and hurtled toward oblivion. Oh, to know that wild, breathless, exuberant youth again. The heart-in-throat twists. The excitement of life unchained.
Twenty years later, it’s my fondest memory of journalism.
It was also the pinnacle of our weekend. On Saturday we woke up prepared for another date with freedom, but it was not meant to be. That morning Lindley and the others were collared coming out of the elevator on the first floor. I stayed behind, hoping to catch up with them later. With the room to myself, I kicked back, turned on the television, and called down for some breakfast. This was how the other half lived: stylin’. I was feeling so damn good and relaxed that when my omelet arrived, I slipped the dude a fiver. Shortly after he left, there was another knock, this one too insistent to be mistaken for the maid. I froze mid-bite, disheveled my hair as best as I could, creased my eyes to slits, and summoned a sleepy mumble.
“Mrmpgh?” I hummed through the door.
“Hullo!” I replied all surprised and friendly-like. “I wuzjist — hoof! What time is it?”
“WHERE ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO BE RIGHT NOW.” (Usually, that’s a question.)
“Oh! Heh-heh, wowgeez, uh,” I gasped, “whoa, I must have overslept.”
The door froze under weight of silence.
“I SUGGEST YOU GET DOWNSTAIRS IMMEDIATELY.”
“Well, I gotta shower, see, I just woke up, and my hair — ”
Four hours later we were all in Minato’s room, lining her bed like delinquent children as she lit into us. This was how we represented our town, our school? She thought we could act like responsible professionals, but she was wrong. Therefore, there would be no excursions into the city that night, but a lockdown and curfew, and if she had to come after us, there would be hell to pay. We were not to leave the hotel; we were lucky we could leave our rooms. “I brought you all here to learn something as well as have fun,” she finished. “This was an opportunity — a gift, almost. Someday you’ll realize how rare such opportunities are, and all they require in return is a few hours of your time.”
There’s not much to say about Saturday night. To stave cabin fever, Macpherson and I took to the elevators and toured every floor up to the penthouse level, hooting down its zebra-striped hall. Later I wandered into the journalism conference dance (ha ha) and quaffed a Dr Pepper while observing the gitdown. Warren Miller ski footage flickered silently under an endless soundtrack. As M.C. Hammer implored the assembled to “Turn This Mutha Out,” four dudes unveiled their Running Man moves — to each other, oblivious to the fairer sex. There was no trace of my beloved, or of any beloved, and it turned out Bronze Twigs had a thing for Mike Durrant, even though it wasn’t Mike who tugged her leg like a dark and dangerous would-be lover. All Mike did was walk and talk under a ballcap. Sadly, I retreated upstairs, where Lindley had broken out his poker sock and emptied a deck of cards onto the room table. We all sat around, spat bullshit, and tried to con the girls into strip poker (they didn’t bite). “This game could really use some beer,” Brian sighed. “Yeah,” we agreed. Teenage lockdown was a serious bitch. Dave Gahan and Martin Gore would understand.