Seattle

NOTE: I wrote a Metro column for three years in Seattle. This is a  sampling of that work.
DOWN AND OUT AT WESTERN AND WALL

TERRY MCDERMOTT

It happens this way.Christopher and his father, Kenneth, live in Everett. Kenneth is an aircraft mechanic. He works for a friend restoring a DC-3.

Christopher goes to high school and takes evening classes out at the community college; Running Start classes, they’re called, meaning they give kids a head start on college.

In pretty short order, Kenneth loses his job; Christopher, who has an aptitude for science and math, but not homework, is getting ready to fail freshman English, again. He quits school to find a job, can’t find a job because he quit school. They can’t pay the rent because they can’t find jobs, so they find themselves living in the van.

They drive to Seattle, where they think there are more jobs, but all that happens is the carburetor goes out and they can’t get back to Everett and one day – yesterday to be exact – 18-year-old Christopher ends up standing on the corner of Western and Wall, holding a hand-lettered cardboard sign that reads:

COMPUTER REPAIR

AND PROGRAMMING.

He’d been there, among the diggers and carpenters and the yard men for four hours and except for a friendly Army recruiter, hadn’t had any takers. His father was across the street. He hadn’t any luck either.

“It’s like the `Grapes of Wrath,’ ” Christopher says. “All the people leave their homes and go to California looking for work, only it’s worse in California than it was at home. I’m not much of a John Steinbeck fan, but that’s what it’s like.”

 

Christopher stands out among the day workers. He’s younger, less worn. He wears a patterned sweater vest and tattersall shirt, buttoned right up to the neck. He looks like a schoolboy and thinks like one, too.

When I get out of this rut, he says. When things turn around. When the economy picks up. Sooner or later.

In addition to his Magic Markered sign, Christopher holds a leather valise crammed with computer books. Some years ago, his dad paid $5 for a used computer a bank was throwing out and Christopher used it to teach himself a few basic programming languages. He began buying and repairing and re-selling old computers. He taught himself calculus so he could read quantum physics. Lately, he’s learned HTML so he can set up Web pages for people.

He says no to the recruiter. “I’ve got more ideas than they can handle,” he says.

He’s tried for every kind of job.

“There’s not even any more taco or hamburger jobs,” he says.

He has no formal training so it’s hard to persuade anybody to give him a job. His job search is hindered, too, by his status. “Sometimes,” he says, “we spend the whole day just going around trying to get food.”

Most prospective employers want a phone number where they can contact you. The van doesn’t even have a working carburetor, much less a phone.

 

The economy grows. The Dow soars. There are 169,500 officially unemployed people in Washington state. Christopher has never had a full-time job, so he doesn’t count.

When he and his dad lost their apartment, they put all their things in storage. These consist mainly of his dad’s tools, a couple of hang-gliders, and pieces of seven or eight antiquated computers Christopher intended to repair and sell.

They paid the first month’s storage fee by selling Christopher’s Super VGA monitor, but have since fallen behind. The storage place refuses to let them get other stuff out to sell until they pay up. Not being able to get the stuff they can’t sell it. Not selling it, they can’t get it.

They’re due to lose possession of everything the first of the month, at which point, their last local tie will have disappeared.

They won’t own anything at all. They’re free to go. When this happens – not if, Christopher says – his dad is going to hitch down to California looking for work.  Christopher is going back to Everett,maybe Bellingham.

Everybody I’ve ever met in situations like this has stories just about as convoluted. Ultimately, however, the stories are simple. They come down to this:

There’s a fine line between a decent life and disaster.

 

 

2,4-D SPRAYED ON WRONG MAN, UP WRONG CREEK

TERRY MCDERMOTT

John Hough was hunting a couple weeks ago in the Wahluke Wildlife Area, a 59,000-acre public recreation preserve directly across the Columbia River from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The Wahluke is managed by the state Fish and Wildlife Department. Over the years, the department has spent considerable time and state tax money  trying to improve the area’s wildlife habitat.

The Wahluke’s spectacular high desert country stretches from the high ridge line of the Saddle Mountains down to the Columbia. It has been preserved in near natural state almost by accident. It was purchased by the federal government in the 1940s as a security buffer around Hanford and left alone.

On foot, the sagebrush monopoly you see from the road parts to reveal a rolling shrub steppe terrain of sage, cheat grass, Russian olive, vetch and bitter brush.

A part of the preserve is an intricate riparian habitat that is thick with cattails, onion grass, desert mule deer, ducks, Canada geese, pheasants and quail. With the relentless spread of irrigated orchards, this type of land is in quick decline elsewhere in the Columbia Basin.

It persists in the Wahluke thanks to the existence of a small stream unromantically named Wahluke Branch Ten, Waste Way Number 1; it’s called WB-10 for short.

Such a name could be bestowed only by practical people. Possibly no one in the history of the Earth has been as determinedly practical, not to say single-minded, as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The bureau manages the waterways in the Wahluke through the agency of the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District. The district is described by its manager, Shannon McDaniel, as a service agency. The service it delivers is water. Its sole concerns are water and an ability to move it.

To that end, the district tries to keep waterways clear of anything that might slow down the flow of its product. An effort in that direction was taking place the day Hough was hunting the Wahluke.

As he walked along the shore of WB-10 with his two dogs, a frisky yellow Lab pup named Maggie, and a far wiser and less vain mongrel named Minto, he first heard, then saw a helicopter approach. The helicopter was spraying along the creek. Hough didn’t know what, but knew it couldn’t be anything good for him or his dogs. He waved to get the attention of the pilot, but failed. The helicopter flew nearby and moments later Hough and the dogs were doused with whatever the copter was spraying.

Within an hour, Hough and the dogs began to experience shortness of breath and violent stomach discomfort. (Another hunter, after reading news accounts of the Hough incident, later reported the same thing had happened to him.)

Hough was irate.

He managed to get the tail number of the helicopter and in the days that followed was able to piece together what had happened. The chopper was operated by Precision Helicopter, an Oregon company under contract to the irrigation district.

It was spraying creek banks with the broadleaf herbicide 2,4-D.

 

Precision denies its pilot sprayed anybody. Its attorney has sent Hough a letter telling him to shut up or get sued for saying such nasty things. The letter advises Hough to retain a lawyer to defend himself.

The lunacy of this is that Hough isn’t the one who’s going to need defending.

Whether or not Hough or the other hunter was sprayed is almost beside the point. Irrigation districts such as South Columbia Basin, acting with the approval of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, have routinely been spraying pesticides on or near creeks, streams and canals in what other federal and state officials say is an apparent violation of federal law.

Craig Conley, an agronomist for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the agency had a responsibility to keep the waterways clear of vegetation, like Russian olive trees, that slow stream flows and could potentially choke them off.

They have the legal authority and try to remove such plants, he said.

McDaniel, the manager of the South Columbia Basin district, said the district, using private contractors, tries to spray its 2,000 miles of watercourse at least twice a year.

“You can spray ditch banks with it. You can’t spray the water,” he said.

Even in the unlikely event that a helicopter could be so accurate as to spray a bank and miss the water, the label on the herbicide explicitly forbids spraying on or near moving water, or in situations where drift or run-off to such water may occur.

The label in instances like this “is the law,” said Karl Arne, a pesticide expert for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“To me, that sounds like a label violation,” Arne said. “I don’t know how you can get around that.”

 

Enough of the 2,4-D was dumped that day that the chemical odor of the herbicide was still distinct two weeks later as I walked the area with Hough. From the ground, the idea that anyone could spray anything from a helicopter along this creek and not hit the water seems ludicrous. The creek meanders. Its edges are indistinct. It gathers into small, reedy ponds. In places, it widens into a 100-yard-wide slough.

You often can’t see the edges of the water until you step in it.

Roger Contor, a former national parks wildlife biologist who is now a member of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, hunts the area with Hough. He said the bureau’s efforts to get rid of Russian olive trees is almost comic in its wrong-headedness.

The state planted 800 of those trees to create habitat along another waste way just this month. That is one of what are almost too many ironies to count.

The most obvious is the fact that Hough was one of the men sprayed. Most people who get threatening letters from lawyers quake a bit.

If there is anyone who is not going to be cowed by a lawyer’s threat in an affair of this nature it is Hough. His association with the Wahluke goes back 20 years. He was then regional director for the U.S. Department of Interior. At the time, forces were gathering to build a new dam on the Columbia in the area known as the Hanford Reach. Hough helped stop them.

As a former federal official, former bank vice president and professional publicist, he has more resources to fight a battle like this than the helicopter company could conceivably imagine. Contor is his next-door neighbor. He is chief executive of a public-relations company. His Rolodex contains the private phone numbers of a thousand reporters and politicians.

In sum, Hough can bring a rain of wrath down on somebody who wrongs him. McDaniel, the irrigation district’s man, is astonished at the hue and cry one guy has been able to raise.

“I am impressed,” he said.

A more important incongruity is the one that has been least remarked on to date: How can the overlapping agencies managing an area like the Wahluke be working at such obvious cross purposes?

The Wahluke is owned by the Department of Energy. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife manages it. The irrigation systems that move through it are run by the Bureau of Reclamation and the local water districts. County weed-control boards dictate noxious-weed policies. The federal EPA licenses the pesticides used on it. The state Department of Agriculture enforces their use on land; the Department of Ecology on water.

You can hardly see the ground for the thicket of agencies growing out of it.

Those most at odds in the Wahluke are Reclamation and state Fish and Wildlife.

The bureau wants to move water as fast as possible through an area like this. Fish and Wildlife wants to slow it down.

The final irony is this: The herbicide 2,4-D can kill fish. That’s why its use in moving waters is prohibited. The faster the water in Wahluke Branch Ten Waste Way 1 moves, the quicker it and the chemicals it carries get into the Columbia River.

You might recall that various federal and state agencies are spending millions of dollars a year to protect and restore salmon runs in that river.

Would somebody please explain this.

 

 

 

 

 

INTO THE NIGHT, MAYOR LISTENS TO CITY’S WANTS

BYLINE  TERRY MCDERMOTT

 

A politician at work:

On the first autumn night that actually feels like autumn, all shiny wet and dead-leaf dark, in an old church gone so bad the government took it over, Norm Rice is coming undone.

His fine wool jacket is off, draped on a church pew. His starched white shirt is wrinkled and trying to escape at the waist. Even his silken red and blue tie is askew. His face is drawn, his eyes permanently narrowed by 20 years of insufficient sleep. His hair is matted on one side. He has enough perpetual youth in his face that you think immediately of a child wakened too soon from a nap.

He has just arrived at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center for the 65th all-comers neighborhood meeting of his six-year mayoral tenure. This is his ninth event of a normal day. He shakes every hand that’s offered, and some that aren’t. He names the names he can recall and won’t quit on those he can’t.

“You were downstairs at the library,” Rice says, fixing a young man in time and place if not in name.

Big issues are boiling somewhere. Back in Washington, D.C., the government is being dismantled one awkward stone at a time. In Olympia, they’re arguing over what to do with three quarters of a billion dollars. Here, the town’s abuzz with baseball talk.

None of this seeps into the old church a half-block off Rainier Avenue South. Rice tries. He cheers the Mariners. He laments the lack of money. He attacks the Congress. To no end. The 50 or so people who turned out tonight have other things on their minds, many other things: Curbs. Gutters. Noise. Rats. Jobs. Parks. Cops. Loans. Peanuts and sweet potatoes. Street lights. Garbage cans. Bad neighbors. Good streets.

Whatever else a city is, it is also a collection of wants, many of them contradictory.

Rice takes it all in.

The 12th floor of the Municipal Building might be just far enough away to allow a mayor to escape the humdrum circumstances of ordinary people’s ordinary lives. Up there, Rice is criticized, justly, for being too low-key, for not sorting the city’s business into a reasonable set of priorities, for being lost in the crowd, not leading it.

Here, he is alone in front of the crowd. He talks without notes, without aides. He answers every question, empathizes with every questioner. He states clear positions. He doesn’t hesitate to disagree. A mayor must lead, he must follow, he must tax and spend, he must fill potholes. Foremost, however, he must say no.

“I would urge you,” one man says, “to fish or cut bait on this issue.”

“We’re gonna cut bait,” Rice says.

At another point he tells a questioner to stop lecturing.

“If we meet, are we going to talk about this or are you going to tell me about it.”

Somebody wants more cops on horses. Rice says no. Somebody wants to stop industrial development. Rice says no. Somebody wants to put a lid on a reservoir. Rice says probably not. “That’s not true,” he tells somebody else. He does this with enough genuine conviction and gentle humor it charms. One woman recites a very long list of neighborhood needs, then sits. Rice answers. She rises to rebut. Rice says, “Oh, oh, she’s coming back.”

Mayor Nice, as Times editorialist Joni Balter has called him, is in full flight. We praise politicians, when we praise them at all, for being smooth and glib and silver-tongued. We praise them, in other words, for almost all the wrong reasons.

We almost never honor most of what they do – sitting for endless hours hearing complaints and problems and staring at things that don’t work – or the hardest thing they do – caring about all the things we ask them to.

Mainly this requires perseverance and stamina and heart. Rice has few of the qualities of great leaders. He’s cautious. He’s uninspiring. But he has some gifts, and this is his largest:

He’s a grinder. He goes to work every day, and he stays until everyone else has gone home.

THE SUMMER I FELL IN LOVE WITH DAVE NIEHAUS

TERRY MCDERMOTT

I first realized I was falling in love with Dave Niehaus sometime in the late summer of 1985. It was at night – these things always happen at night, don’t they? I was running up U.S. 97 out of Wapato. The moon was bright, the August air still as stone. I was alone.

It was my first year with the Mariners, already Niehaus’s ninth as the team’s radio broadcaster. It was late. The Mariners were losing and it suddenly occurred to me I didn’t care. I wasn’t listening to the game. I was listening to Niehaus.

“The right-hander sets, checks the runners,” Niehaus said. “He delivers the 1-2 pitch. Breaking ball.”

Then came the word that did it: “Looooooooowwwwwwwwww.”

That ball-two call stretched out through the Yakima Valley to the Cascades, impossibly deep and long and rich. It soothed. It hurt. It had in it the ache of cattle braying on the plains. It had the idle joy of Niehaus’s southern Indiana youth.

Harry Caray coming in out of St. Louis on KMOX. Watermelon cooling in a No. 10 washtub. Mama’s got the sun tea ready. Fireflies flashing. Run to get a Mason jar and jab holes in the lid with an ice pick. Squash the bugs and pull the lights off just to see how long they glow.

“That’s baseball. And that’s radio. The mud and the bugs and the smell of stale beer,” Niehaus said last night. “The theater of the mind.”

Niehaus has waited ever since for a summer when baseball would come that alive, when he could do what he is doing right now – calling a pennant race. Last night, for the first time in the club’s history, the Mariners moved into first place at a time in the season when it meant something to be there.

It’s never been work; now it’s a joy. He’s a fan and he’s rooting for the Mariners to win their division, the pennant, everything. But even if the team falters, he already has what he came to get. He has spurned jobs in bigger places for more money so that he can be here now.

Fans see in him somebody who likes what they like. They send him homemade pies and asparagus and Walla Walla onions. Jams and jellies. Boxes of them. Crates of them.

“I’m glad I stuck it out. This town has been incredibly patient. To see the fans so happy, to know what a pennant race is really like. Even if we don’t win it, they’ll know what it was like to be here.”

Like all great artists, Niehaus gives the impression he is artless, that you could do what he does. You could not.

He prepares but never practices. He almost never thinks about what he will say or has said. He asks; the words answer. He laughs, parts the air with hands and arms, enjoying the sound of the words as they come sailing out.

Early in a game he pours forth information and anecdotes, decanting the day. Last night’s game was all romp and celebration. Niehaus was effusive.

Okey-dokey, he said, starting the third. That’s a can of corn, he said, ending the fourth.

Later, California’s dauber was said to be completely down and Vince Coleman’s first two hits were “a brace of doubles. . . . The first one was a leg double. This one was just a little parachute job that took a kangaroo hop on the Astro-turf.”

By late night his voice eases. The bits of gravel in it get smaller as the night wears out and he gains some distance on the previous day’s smoke and drink. He is at his best then, when a tight game finds its rhythm. He adjusts to the gait and begins to measure what he says, rubbing words gently onto the action, adjusting pitch and cadence to the story as it builds, then erupting.

“My oh my,” he’ll shout, rearing back from his seat to watch a ball sail into the stands. “That will fly away.”

After a routinely spectacular catch at the left-centerfield wall by Ken Griffey Jr., Niehaus last night whispered, “Junior, you’re amazing.” Yet he is no idolator. It is not the players he praises. It is us.

Bart Giamatti, the late classicist who somehow ended up commissioner of baseball, once wrote that games were ways of remembering “our best hopes.” It’s to this sense of memory and fable that Niehaus genuflects.

Today’s an off day. The team and its fans will have at least another 24 hours to relish first place. For Niehaus, the joy has already been made myth. It will last forever.

 

PLAY IS BROUGHT TO LIFE JUST LIKE FRANKENSTEIN

TERRY MCDERMOTT

Here is how plays are written:

The director Daniel Sullivan walks into the darkened main stage

of the Seattle Repertory Theatre for rehearsal.

“New words,” the stage manager tells him. “Shanley has new

words.”

It’s the day before last night’s world premiere of the new

play, “Psychopathia Sexualis,” and the writer, John Patrick Shanley,

has rewritten – is, in fact, in the midst of re-writing – the

opening scene.

He never liked the old opening, Shanley says. Too mushy.

He has decided the play, about a man who has a sexual fetish

that involves a pair of argyle socks, will open with that man

talking about how much he misses Boris Karloff’s portrayal of

Frankenstein’s monster.

Sullivan, who is directing and acting in the play, has reason

for concern. He doesn’t say so, directly. He listens, because that’s

what he does and also because, as he had said a littler earlier,

“Shanley’s an ex-Marine. You can’t be too direct in your criticism.

You have to kind of tip-toe around it.”

 

Sullivan is renowned in the American theater as an

exceptionally skilled collaborator on new plays. He loves writing,

writers and words. The theater, he says, “is all about the words.”

Writers, even those like Shanley who have achieved success and

wealth in the movie business, return to theater because here the

writer has control, he says.

So Sullivan is careful. He tip-toes.

Pretty soon, he’s dancing. So is Shanley. Together, they decide

how to rewrite the rewrite. The play, they decide, will open with

Sullivan’s character conducting a Bartok piece on his living room

stereo. Then will come Boris Karloff.

Shanley sits down with the script supervisor to write in the

newest changes. Remember, Shanley has been working on this play for

a year. It’s been in rehearsal for a month and it opens the next day.

Sullivan confers with the lighting director, with the lead

actor, Matt Servitto. There are worries.

Sullivan, from the stage, says to Shanley, “Don’t put that

Bartok in yet.”

Shanley replies: “It’s in. I’ve written it in. It’s in stone. I

can’t do the play without it.”

Trying to figure out how to get the music in and when to raise

the curtain, Shanley says: “Maybe we could do it like radio. We

could open the play in the dark.”

Servitto, the one who has to memorize most of the new words,

says: “We already are.”

Shanley: “OK, if you want to fritter away this precious

rehearsal with cheap humor, go ahead.”

Servitto: “Isn’t that what this is all about?”

Sullivan, a dark-haired, dark-bearded, thin, hawk-nosed man who

is almost always described as intense and dour, is cracking up. He’s

doing Frankenstein impersonations, then waving his arms in

hyperbolic imitation of a conductor, a long-stemmed rose as his

baton.

“Is it OK if I get blood on the stage?” he says.

“That would be perfect,” Shanley answers.

At one point, in mock despair, Sullivan says he needs a new job.

“Maybe I’ll quit the Rep,” he says.

Everybody laughs because that is exactly what Sullivan has

announced he will do when his current contract as the Rep’s artistic

director expires next year: He’s quitting so he can take a break

from administrative tasks and move on to new, unspecified pursuits,

including more movie work.

 

Sullivan looks nothing at all like a guy in charge of a world

premiere being rewritten on the run, a guy who is simultaneously

trying to figure out how to get this play on the stage, what he will

do for next year’s Rep season and the rest of his life. He looks

like a guy who loves words.

When Sullivan arrived in Seattle in 1977, the city had a

thriving theater scene, one based largely on performance of standard

classic and contemporary plays.

“It wasn’t a generative theater scene,” he says. In the 20

years since, he has done more than anyone to make it one, bringing

new plays and new playwrights to the Rep and the American stage.

He has changed the city.

Who could have guessed he’d have this much fun doing it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

MOUNT ZION IS WHAT’S MEANT BY COMMUNITY

TERRY MCDERMOTT

 

 

In the pulpit of Mount Zion Baptist Church, Samuel Berry McKinney is a calming figure. He’s a trim, handsome man, the silvering of his hair and beard doing Hollywood work on the image of a wise elder.

He’s 69 now, and you get the impression he has earned his knowledge. He has fought the fight and has come home to tell the tale.

“It takes some evil to shatter our sleep,” McKinney said Sunday, preaching on the twin subjects of hoping and coping, neither of which, he said, works very well without the other.

No one has ever accused McKinney of sleeping when there was work to be done. He has been as eager to address the mysteries of the streets as the mysteries of the soul.

Last week, he received an award from the YMCA for four decades of good works in causes as diverse as civil rights and cancer research. This work has made him as much a political as a religious figure in the city.

Given this history, and the fires he has occasionally lit during it, he has seemed unusually quiet this political season as a debate built on the intertwining of the sacred and civil.

Election Sunday has traditionally been a time to bring together these concerns and see where they fit. Far be it from him, McKinney said, to tell anybody how to vote. Far be it from him, he might also have said, to stay quiet on the subject.

He published in the church bulletin a list of who he was voting for and gently admonished his political opposites.

“The Christian Coalition, telling us how Christians should vote,” he said. “The Ku Klux Klan were Christians. Amen.”

“You can’t have a referendum on Jesus,” he said, and then harrumphed: “Everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there.”

Mount Zion is the kind of place people get dressed up to go to. It’s the kind of place to which a certain sort of lady might wear a hat, a substantial hat. Maybe one week a pink cloche with, oh, tiny leaves cascading down the left side. Or a big red picture hat with a brim as crazy as an Alice-in-Wonderland teacup.

One woman this Sunday wore a purple fedora with a brim so wide she could have saved her whole family from the rain.

Mount Zion is the kind of place well-suited young men come to with a 3-year-old in one hand, a Bible and a Filofax in the other. It is a house of worship, but also a house of comfort and social commerce.

It is, in other words, the kind of place to which much of America might have come at some distant point in the past. The fact that part of the country is still doing so is a tribute to the historic role the church has played in black America and to the extraordinary role McKinney has played in Seattle.

Mount Zion is, foremost, his house and has been now for 38 years, long enough to transform what had been a small church in the heart of the city’s tiny, concentrated black community into the center of a larger, more dispersed, more varied and less cohesive population.

The notion that there is a “black community” today is overreaching, at least in a geographical sense. Communities of any kind are hard to come by and the notion that one could be based solely on race while ignoring location, class, ideology, age and belief is hard to swallow.

But Mount Zion is the center of something. That can’t be denied. Somehow, the church has gained, not lost stature as its population base has moved out from underneath it, leaving for the suburbs and beyond.

The church is still anchored on East Madison in the Central Area. Its membership is not.

The Mount Zion congregation now stretches into five counties. Members regularly come to Sunday services from as far away as Olympia and Everett. Whatever spell McKinney has cast, it’s been hard to break.

Much that is written and said about black America focuses on what is wrong. This is neither surprising nor necessarily a mistake. Problems are plenty; they must be admitted, studied and addressed. You hope over time to maybe even fix some of them.

In the interim, though, it is worth pointing out how astonishingly right some things are.

Mount Zion is Exhibit A.

 

 

9/05/96

JOHN STANFORD, YEAR 2: HYPE, BUT ALSO HOPE

TERRY MCDERMOTT

John Stanford is probably the only school administrator in the country who makes entrances.

He doesn’t come into a place. He inhabits it.

Yesterday, he arrived at his second annual back-to-school pep rally for Seattle Public Schools amid a platoon of bobbing blue and white balloons tethered to two dozen 10-year-olds.

Introduced as a caped crusader, he looked like a fullback plowing into the line behind a flying wedge.

Seattle School Board President Linda Harris, with apology to Dr. Seuss, described in Cat-in-the-Hat rhyme the broader effects of Stanford’s tenure on the school board: “And then something went bump and how that bump made them jump.”

The something, of course, is Stanford, and the joint has been jumping almost continuously since he was hired last year.

Yesterday’s pep rally was part recap of that year, part celebration and reaffirmation. The only thing missing was another new Stanford proposal. Those  have hardly been in short supply.

The superintendent has put down a steady beat of ideas, some scripted, most complete improvisations.

How about, oh, exit exams? School uniforms? Mentors, tutors, mandatory homework?

How about reassigning a third of the district’s principals in a single year? How about closing a quarter of the schools altogether?

He has given all of the dueling constituencies that make up the district something to like – and something to hate. Predictably, everybody likes his ideas to reform everybody else. Nobody likes his ideas to reform them.

 

This year’s rally showed Stanford’s effects. It was better organized. The speakers actually faced the audience and could do so without being bonked on the head by balloons, as happened last year. The sun, no doubt following orders, broke through just as the rally began.

In some schools, just getting people to their assigned seats can be the day’s biggest achievement, so it is not inconsiderable that Stanford was able to get dueling gubernatorial candidates Norm Rice and Gary Locke to share the stage and talk about something other than themselves. (OK, so Locke slipped a bit; it’s a hard habit to break.)

Imagine for a moment what might have happened four years ago if the school superintendent tried to recruit candidates for governor to appear together to promote the schools. They would have run as fast as possible in the opposite direction, for fear that the sinking ship might take them down with it.

The politicians are not the only ones Stanford has hauled on board. The business community is more prominently involved in the schools than it has been for a decade. A Boeing executive spoke. McDonald’s handed out free coupons. The US West logo was prominently displayed on a banner on the dais. People only put their names on things they want to be associated with.

 

In Seuss’ story, a cat in a hat shows up at a house occupied by two kids. The parents are gone. The cat has a big bag full of tricks. He turns the place into a madhouse. It’s exhilarating, but nerve-racking. What will happen when the adults return?

In Stanford’s world, they never come back.

He is the adult, the authority. If he said, “OK, two miles, full packs, right now,” the whole place would double-time it onto the track.

The unanswered question is whether Stanford is only a bag of tricks. Is he a cheerleader or a leader? He acknowledges he hasn’t won anything yet. “Victory is in the classroom,” he says.

But he has given the schools a chance to win for the first time in decades.

Stanford’s military training was in logistics, the science of delivering goods to those who need them when they need them, making sure your army has the tools to win.

As year two of the Stanford reign begins, it is way too soon to declare his troops victorious. But their packs are bulging with supplies they haven’t had for years. Stanford’s particular brand of hype has accomplished the improbable. He has given them hope.

Now he faces the mere impossible – fulfilling it.

 

 

 

07/11/96

WHO BUILT THE `RUGGED’ WEST? UNCLE SAM

BYLINE

 

TERRY MCDERMOTT

 

WENATCHEE – Chelan County’s a good-sized piece of ground. At 2,900 square miles, it’s about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. There are only five towns and 60,000 people in the whole place.

You’d think with so much space and so few people – about 20 of them for every square mile – there’d be room enough to handle almost any disagreement that comes along, but the place is smaller than it seems, and in many ways shrinking all the time.

Coming in from the west on a long cool roll down the east slope of the Cascades, with the Wenatchee River spilling down alongside and the sun beaming up above, you can drive for 40 miles without ever leaving government land.

In the county as a whole, almost nine out of every 10 acres is government – mainly national forest, with some Bureau of Land Management grazing land thrown in.

Much of what is left over is unusable for human benefit, consisting mainly of high, very dry, blank desert ridge land that nobody in their right mind would want.

That leaves a tiny amount of arable and inhabitable land squeezed into narrow canyons and river valleys. It is here that almost everything of economic consequence that happens in the county happens. It’s not much room, not enough, in any event, to contain the dispute between the Chelan County Commission and the state of Washington.

The state this month has begun levying economic sanctions against the county for what the state says is the county’s failure to comply with the state Growth Management Act.

Specifically, the county has not  ensured that agricultural lands will remain agricultural for the indefinite future. The county does not dispute this. A majority of the county commission does dispute the state’s right to require compliance.

The county has not backed down in the face of what amounts to a $1.8 million fine. So far, the state has frustrated the county’s attempts to get an answer in court. The commissioners are planning to meet again tomorrow to finalize plans to sue again.

Let them. This issue has long since been decided in other courts.

It is not particularly complicated. It is, however, rich in meaning and deep in emotion. Land is a powerful force. Wars are fought over who owns and controls what piece of it.

 

Land rights are an offshoot of one of the central debates in American public life: Where do my rights stop and those of the community begin?

The tensions between individual liberties and the common good are in constant friction. Sometimes they send off sparks. Those sparks are most apt to catch fire these days out West where a war is being fought by would-be rugged individualists of many stripes – gun nuts, freemen, secessionists, and sagebrush revolutionaries.

What these people have in common is a feeling of being hemmed in. Not so much by neighbors as by regulation and time, which seem to them to accumulate at a quickening pace.

They often forget the West would not be an inhabited place in any way whatsoever like it is were it not for government interference, which when you agree with it is generally called assistance.

The Wenatchee River Valley itself wouldn’t have grown much beyond a missionary outpost had it not been for massive government action. The first three great boom periods here were directly attributable to government.

First came the railroads, which rolled at least as much on federal subsidy as on steel wheels. Second came irrigation, which is the prototypical government presence in the West. Without the federal dams, there’d be no modern West. Period.

That water has made possible the blooming of the apple, cherry and pear orchards that have defined and enriched the valley and many of its residents in its third period of growth. Fruit doesn’t get grown in this country that doesn’t bear the stamp of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And fruit doesn’t get sold abroad without the active assistance – financial and otherwise – of government.

The fact is the rugged West wouldn’t exist without government.

It would be too rugged.

 

 

 

 

BLACKWELL’S SILENCE SPEAKS TO EACH OF USE
TERRY MCDERMOTT

Timothy Craig Blackwell sits these days in Snohomish County Superior Court Department No. 10 and listens while strangers – policemen, lawyers, his dead wife’s lover – describe in damning detail what he did a year ago this spring.

That day, March 2, a Thursday, he pulled his car into the garage at the Seafirst Fifth Avenue Plaza, parked it, locked it and walked four blocks down the hill to the King County Courthouse.

He wore his good dark suit, a light blue shirt and dark tie. He carried a briefcase.

When he got to the courthouse, he went to the second floor, where he took a seat on a bench in the hall. He got up once and walked to a glass doorway and looked out for a minute. When he returned to the bench, he opened his briefcase and removed a towel he had wrapped around a recently purchased 9-mm pistol. He took the pistol out of the briefcase.

He then walked 30 feet down the hall, pointed the pistol at a middle-aged woman he did not know well and began firing. By the time he stopped, his 25-year-old estranged wife, Susana, her unborn baby and her two best friends, Phoebe Dizon and Veronica Laureta Johnson, were dead or dying.

The hallway was littered with shell casings. The bodies of the three women lay in an arc on the bench and floor, which was wet with blood.

The whole thing – from the time he parked his car to the time he was wrestled to the cold stone floor of the courthouse – took less than 15 minutes.

Four lives had ended. Five, if you count his.

 

Blackwell sits impassively between his two defense attorneys, staring straight ahead. He looks much smaller in person than he did in news photos, in part, you realize, because his size was always relative to hers. Susana was tiny. He seemed huge. He has shrunken now.

He is 48 years old and could pass for 60. He has lost weight. His pants sag; his jacket droops. What hair he has left is gray.

His attorneys, when they need to speak to one another, lean around behind him and whisper. The conversations occur without him.

He has pleaded not guilty, although no one contests what happened. The lawyers’ main job isn’t defense, but saving Blackwell from execution.

Blackwell must wonder sometimes how he got here.

Most of his life passed unremarkably. A quiet, lonely man of limited means, he lived in small one-bedroom apartments and worked first as a television repairman, then a computer lab technician.

Four years ago, he met through correspondence a vivacious young woman from an obscure village on a small island in the Philippines. She had if anything even fewer means and possibilities than Blackwell. They courted through the mails and married. He eventually brought her back to Kirkland.

Less than two weeks after she arrived, the marriage – what little there had been of it – was over. She moved out. Within two months, she was living with another man.

We often say of men in Blackwell’s current circumstances – criminal defendants accused of heinous crimes – that they sit through trial without emotion.  We know, of course, this is untrue. Blackwell might be unmoving. He is surely not unmoved.

The geography of desire has no boundaries. It doesn’t stop at some point on a map or some place in time. It often doesn’t stop because one person wants it to.

We know that behind Blackwell’s silver steel spectacles, a dam guards a lake of anger and jealousy and need. We know what happens when the dam breaks. We know what he did.

 

A year has passed since the murders; two since Susana came to Kirkland. This would have been her third spring here. It’s been especially wet. The rain comes. It doesn’t stop. Neither does it wash away any of the pain Blackwell caused.

At times like these, when the weather doesn’t cooperate, we like to refer to the clouds and winds and water as the elements, suggesting something deep, original and unstoppable.

There are elementary forces within, too, and fortunately few of us ever find out how deep or shallow they reside.

 

 

IN THE VALLEY OF THE SPEARS, UGLINESS, BEAUTY

TERRY MCDERMOTT

OUTLOOK, Yakima County – At first light, it’s still just 27 degrees, which buys an extra hour of sleep for Elda Avalos, her brother, Gabriel, their folks and two older sisters.

But by 6:30, they’ve piled in and out of the Econoline, bundled in layers of fleece and flannel against the unexpected chill, sharpened knives, stretched bones, adjusted Walkmans and the six of them are in the field, bent to the tasks of one of the hardest jobs ever invented.

The Avalos family has cut asparagus since arriving in the Yakima Valley from Mexico 16 years ago. Elda, at 16 the youngest, first came to the fields as a 5-year-old, and not to watch, either.

An asparagus field is an ugly thing, really. From a distance, all you see is the gray earth. The plants grow randomly within their two-foot-wide rows. One stalk here, another an inch away, then nothing for four feet.

There’s no rhyme or reason to it. If it were a man’s head, he wouldn’t have enough crop to cover all the bald spots.

The work is ugly, too.

One of the great pleasures of a Pacific Northwest spring – the best vegetable known to man, abundant and, in season, absurdly cheap – is made possible by the kind of back-breaking labor we city folk like to imagine the species has outgrown. We have not.

The asparagus harvest has defeated every attempt to mechanize it. Cutters must know what they are doing.

You move down the middle of two rows. The rows are raised a foot above the V-shaped intervals between them, which means you are constantly standing on uneven ground. You walk, bent at about the angle of a dying line drive. You sway back and forth like a divining rod, splitting your attention between the two rows. You look for a stalk at least five inches above the ground, inspect to ensure it has escaped the worst that too much heat or too little can inflict. You thrust your knife, a long-handled, razor-blade-thick, serrated-steel blade, into the soft earth beneath the stalk, grasping the plant with the other hand, push with the knife, and pull away a perfect 9-inch spear.

You do this in five seconds and keep doing it for four hours, stopping only to empty the plastic box strapped to your waist into a larger plastic box stacked on the ground. In good years, you make $200 a week.

Elda listens to oldies, ’50s rock and roll. Gabriel does some of that and maybe some Norteno. This is music they wouldn’t be caught dead dancing to at the Tropicana in Sunnyside, or cruising to in a white Thunderbird on Sunday afternoon. Dr. Dre rules the street, but the rhythms and dreams of the Five Satins and the Moonglows soothe the pain and the monotony of the morning.

If you stand above the Yakima Valley, looking down from the southern slopes of Rattlesnake Ridge, you see a rich profusion of things being brought to life.

It’s a busy place, full of rich dirt and hard lives. This is industrial-strength farming. Bulldozers move mud around cattle feed lots. Shipping containers and crates are stacked everywhere.

The land is cross-hatched. Every conceivably sized patch is plowed or planted. In Sunnyside, the land behind the high school, where a football stadium or fast-food joint might otherwise stand, sits an asparagus field.

The desert is planted right up the sides of the hills, orchards in the draws, grape vines replacing sage brush on the exposed slopes.

The bottom land is given mainly to vegetables, of which asparagus is the king.

The land has been there forever. The ability to grow food on it has not. The valley and the adjacent Columbia Basin have been made into one of the nation’s premier agricultural areas through the application of two significant forces – government money and human hands.

The money, most of it, came from the federal government. The hands, most of them, came from Mexico.

These are two of the great pillars of the American idea – an ability to direct national resources to local needs and a willingness, even desire, to encourage others to join in the effort.

When we talk about limiting immigration, maybe we should ask ourselves: Who is taking advantage of whom?

 

 

MYSTERIOUS COMPANY THAT GOD MOVES IN

TERRY MCDERMOTT

 

SULTAN – It was one of those fickle spring evenings, half boy and half wolf, stretches of sunny calm suddenly rent with short angry squalls that would outrun your eye.

It was the kind of night when you might normally ask yourself if this was winter ending, in which case you should just settle in for the rest of it; or summer coming, in which case you might decide to take a stroll out in the dying light.

What you wouldn’t usually do on a night like this is turn to your spouse and say, `C’mon, Pa, let’s get up to the high school and talk about God and science.’

Fully 10 percent of the citizens of Sultan, a tiny town tucked in the crook of the Skykomish and Sultan rivers of Snohomish County, did just that last night.

The Sultan School Board held a public hearing devoted to a single subject: Should district schools incorporate creationism into their science teaching?

The district’s curriculum committee has just proposed a new science program that whispers not a word about God creating man. This has some people upset.

Now Sultan doesn’t lack for entertainment. Tomorrow, for example, there’ll be the school year’s last dance, which has been designated Hackey Sack Night (First Prize: three hackey sacks, two hemp and one crochet). Later in the month comes the Eighth Annual Lip Synch Contest.

Even given this social calendar, more than 200 people showed up for the curriculum debate; 140 of them signed up to talk. And they did.

 

The debate was remarkable for its range, its civil conduct, and for some of the truly frightening things that were said.

If God doesn’t move in mysterious ways, we can at least be sure that He moves in mysterious company. How else to explain that so many of His fervent followers say such patently absurd things when promoting His interests.

The evening began with an irony apparently lost on everyone present – the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Chanting “one nation, under God” seems a strange way indeed to open a debate on the rightful place of supreme beings in a school district’s curriculum.

This is pure poppycock. There is no such confusion. There are, to be sure, discussions about the mechanisms of evolution, but scientists are more certain of its fundamental truth than they have ever been.

If you look through library shelves in the science sections, you will find dozens of books of theory. In physics alone, the theories run wildly from madcap notions about dozens of dimensions and superstrings to hyperinflation and time running backward.

A while ago, I went looking for books on theories of biology. There were none. I later asked Lee Hartwell, a stunningly brilliant and thoughtful UW biologist, about this. He said it was simple. There is only one theory of biology. That’s Darwin.

There are no competitors.

“You could argue that biology is the most sophisticated of the sciences because it alone has one unified theory,” Hartwell said.

Far from being undecided, the basic fact of evolution is as certain and powerful an idea as exists on Earth. That it is “just a theory” is a meaningless phrase.

General relativity is just a theory, too. So far as I know, that hasn’t led anybody to deny what it seeks to explain: gravity.

Maybe there are those who don’t believe in gravity. Fortunately, we don’t have to listen to them because they’ve already floated away.

 

 

A COLLISION OF SEXUAL ERAS AT BLUE MOON

TERRY MCDERMOTT

 

The subject at the Blue Moon Tavern last night was sex, 30 years after it was let loose, and the headliners were Dan Savage, the sex-advice columnist, and Tom Robbins, the novelist.

The Barnumesque pairing of the man who made “Hey Faggot” a term of endearment and the man who brought Jesus back from the dead only to lose the body in the catacombs was guaranteed to bleed the Blue Moon keg pumps dry.

In any given week, maybe 100 poetry and book readings are scattered around town in cafes, book shops and bars. Most are more apt to draw blank stares than a crowd. Last night the overflow squiggled down 45th in the U District, and not everybody who wanted to got into the tavern for the April edition of its regular First Wednesday reading series.

“We do this every month,” it was announced from the stage. “Not like this,” came a cry from behind the bar, where the sagging crew must have wished for a return to the quiet nights of the unknown readers. An old-fashioned, dank, beery indoorness prevailed. The Red Hook was poured thick as smoke. One woman, having been poured too much of it, put out her cigarette on the low ceiling, setting hair if not hearts afire.

The Blue Moon has always been a good venue for sexual freedom.The beats were in here demanding it in the ’50s. The hippies came here to plot it in the ’60s. And now undergrads come in every day regretting it.

The old Moon has in its day seen lots of strange stuff – some of it planned. But this crowd was a weirder mix than the Moon usually gets. The sexual revolution was present in full circle, from practitioners to products: Aging hipsters weighed down with heavy gray beards; graduate students toting backpacks stuffed with Derrida ideas (“It’s all hermeneutics, man,” one guy kept saying. He was probably right, but, well, who wants to hear this in a bar); and uncloseted gays laughing knowing laughs at secret desires made public, and cool.

Neither Robbins nor Savage writes poetry, so that portion of the bill was filled – some, not all of it, well – by local little knowns. Advertised as a discussion of the sexual revolution at 30, all of the poetry dealt with desire. Too much for some tastes. The hermeneutics guy said: “If I hear the word throbbing once more, I’m going home.”

Robbins and Savage are an inspired pairing not just because they filled the till. They are bookends of an era of sexual celebration. Robbins’ whimsy, with its gentle misty reign of psychotropic mushrooms and fancifully endowed heroines, has given way to the hard pragmatics of high-school kids being taught by Savage to respect the secondary uses of dental dams. A dawn of wonder has been met by the harsh light of noon. The present, all and all, makes the past seem a fond place to have been. But, as Robbins reminded, this happens all the time; beginnings are almost always happier than endings. One of his characters wonders: What fetus, knowing its future as a proctology patient, would wish to be born?

On the other hand, somebody like Dan Savage could not, as he acknowledged, have existed 30 years ago. Legally, anyhow. He might have been jailed or, as he put it: “How did this come to pass, that I can stand up here and harass a straight man and not die?”

He then thanked those who fought in the sexual revolution, “my breeder brothers and sisters,” and read a chapter of bad 1961 gay pornography. Robbins, upon taking the stage, apologetically said: “This that I have to read is going to sound like the Reader’s Digest. Pretty main stream.” He then proceeded to have a 12-year-old character ask her father if brothels gave doggy bags, to relate a scene in which a stockbroker treats rectal cancer with skunk cabbage leaves prescribed by a man called Wide Spot in the Road, and to describe sexuality as the pothole upon which all empires break their axles. Just another Wednesday night at the Blue Moon. Somewhere the ghosts of Roethke and Hugo shivered in their beers, and maybe smiled.

 

CHANGING WEATHER TO EASE FLOODING — WHEN SNOW MELTS,   SAUK RIVER CUTS THROUGH LAND, LIVES

TERRY MCDERMOTT

SAUK RIVER, Skagit County – The cold spell wasn’t so bad.Considering the alternative, in fact, the freeze was pretty good.It’s days like this you learn to fear, days when the wind turns warm and the air wet, days when the snow melts so fast steam rises from it. On days like this, the river moves.

The river in question is the Sauk, a steelhead stream that at certain times of certain years takes full advantage of its steep drop out of the mountains to misbehave in a way that could be described as playful, if it didn’t end up being malicious to anything that happens to share its mile-wide basin.

Kathy Gatherer and Richard Schend used to live on 55 acres of lovely upcountry meadow in a house a quarter mile from the Sauk.

They now live on 10 acres. The rest is either in the river, under it, or on the unreachable other side of it. The house is almost on the river’s bank.

The Sauk has changed course sharply twice in six years, jumping channel a quarter mile to the east once, then jumping a half-mile back to the west a second time. When it came west, it took that 45 acres of meadow with it.

Gatherer and Schend and their neighbors now sit and watch as the river takes a little more every day. Yesterday they stood on the west bank pointing at a tree line on the far side of the channel.

The trees used to be the west bank of the river. Now they’re the east.

The big channel jumps have been caused by log jams upstream, jams that eventually bulked up on sediment to become dams forcing the river to jump just to get around them.

The jams were allowed to build undisturbed because the Sauk is federally protected as a wild and scenic river. The implications of this are many, but the main result is the river gets to do what it wants. Some fish like this. Some people don’t.

The Sauk isn’t flooding this week, nor is it expected to, yet every day another chunk of dirt falls in and runs away. It’s gotten to the point where a flood isn’t necessary.

Once the Sauk started moving, cutting like a rough-cut saw through the sandy loam soil here, it hasn’t stopped, and won’t until it gets where it wants to go. Most rivers have narrower valleys to roam in, or fall from the mountains less steeply and with less force.

The Sauk has too much room to play and too much energy to play with. Rivers are tough, and this one is particularly well-armed by both nature and the government.

It would require, by one count, at least five permits from five government agencies to work on the river. If they all agreed to act, they would still face two tough questions: What would they do and who would pay for it?

There is no obvious source of money and it is not clear the river could be stopped if everybody agreed that’s what should be done. Government engineers want to act, but don’t they always. The Forest Service isn’t so sure, and neither are the state Fish and Wildlife people, who are after all supposed to protect fish and wildlife, not people.

Living in a flood plain is not always the smartest thing to do, said Kurt Buchanan, a state fisheries expert whose territory includes the Sauk River.

“People like to live near water, build near it. Sometimes that’s a safe activity. Sometimes it isn’t.”

There’s plenty of irony in all this. Jim Schend, Richard’s father and the owner of the property, received his tax bill from the county this week. The county is taxing him for land that’s been in the river for a year.

Even Schend smiles at this.

Then there’s the septic tank, the second of two that have ended up mid-channel. There is something about a full septic tank sitting in a river that mocks the description of that river as scenic.

Finally, there’s an equally large tank, this one filled with money administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The money is available for flood relief. But when Gatherer asked FEMA about it, they said they couldn’t help her save her house, they could only help after she lost it.

Has the house gone in the river yet?

Not yet, Gatherer said. Ask me tomorrow.

 

IN A WORLD DARK AND DANK, THERE GROWS A TREASURE

TERRY MCDERMOTT

IN KITSAP COUNTY  – It’s morning. We’re in the woods. It’s not a place I’d normally be, or recommend, what with the gray autumn chill and the usual assortment of lions and tigers and bears.

This time of the year, the dampness never completely disappears, making it a bad place to drag city bones. We’re in luck, though. The rain has held off and the forest floor is firm. It’s striped with thin ribbons of sunlight that manage somehow to flit through the fir and hemlock canopy.

Stephen Czarnecki, a stout man in thick bi-focals, a navy-and-teal Tacoma Rainier cap and green Sonic T-shirt, walks with surprising speed through the underbrush. It’s a quick, stiff-kneed, top-heavy toddler’s gait. Especially when he gathers speed going downhill, he seems on the edge of losing control of the whole affair.

Every now and again he stops, gaze fixed on the ground. He bends for a quick inspection, slices and pockets into a blue mesh bag odd-shaped, fist-sized protuberances, explaining as he goes.

Beefsteak, he’ll say, past its prime.

“Nondescript, nothing exciting about that. It’s edible, but when I can get chanterelles, why bother?”

Or: “Russula, of insufficient culinary merit.”

He chuckles. “That means it’s mediocre.”

“You can always tell a russula. Throw it up against a tree.”

He does exactly that. Splat! The mushroom bursts.

“If it falls apart into a hundred pieces, it’s a russula,” he says.

He veers left. I look ahead, trying to see what he sees. I see nothing. He stoops and plucks a pair of perfect golden chanterelles, which go for up to $20 a pound in Seattle markets.

“That’s probably 10 bucks right there,” he says.

 

There are 5,000 species of mushrooms. Competition for a few of them makes the woods a potentially profitable – and sometimes dangerous – place to be for a few fall months. There are quiet little wars fought over some prized mushroom turfs. Many years, a death or two is blamed on the competition among professional foragers.

Mushrooms grow everywhere from the ground at your feet to the tops of trees. The variety is astonishing. They range in color from violet to green to the more normal Earth-toned browns.

In addition to the everyday oysters and shiitakes, there’s a chicken of the woods mushroom, which shouldn’t be confused with the hen of the woods. There’s a lion’s mane, pig’s ear, angel’s wing, and witches’ butter. There’s cauliflower, coral, ball bat, brain and porcupine.

Many have flowing, watery shapes, scattered like little Chihulys across a sea bottom. Glass never tasted this good.

Czarnecki has been foraging for mushrooms for 20 years. He’s come to look a little like a mushroom himself, a morel, say, a very large morel, maybe left on the stem too long, dimpled and creased around the edges. You wouldn’t be surprised to find him curled up inside a log.

If it wasn’t for his buckets and bags, much of the time it isn’t evident he’s doing anything but walking. It’s second nature. He’ll be riding down some country road, daydreaming at 40 miles an hour, when he’ll pick out a white chanterelle across a ditch, over a fence and half-way up a hillside 30 yards away.

Several times a week in the spring morel bonanza and again in the fall season, which is just now drowning to a close, he’s out in the woods, which woods it would not be fair to say.There’s a myth about pickers, though, that their favorite foraging spots are hidden deep in the darkest wet woods, inaccessible to all but the wiliest.

Early this month, Czarnecki found a prized prince mushroom in the parking lot of a Port Orchard strip mall. Last week, he got a prime two-pound porcini not far from one of the busiest golf courses in the state. He discloses all this happily. So much for inaccessibility.

Do you have an area you won’t tell people about? I asked Czarnecki.

Yes, he says.

Where is it?

Up in Whatcom County.

That’s a big county, I say.

Yes, he says, it is.

 

 

 

PUBLICATION DATE     10/17/96

IN ILL REPUTE? THEN REFUTE  AND TRANSMUTE

TERRY MCDERMOTT

 

 

God’s confused.

God had a plan; it’s been misplaced.

Two decades into a political career and two years into a campaign for governor, Ellen Craswell still professes not to have identified specific areas out of which she will cut 30 percent of state government.

Or is it 15 percent? Or zero percent?

For 22 months, Craswell has traveled the state talking about three things – cutting taxes, cutting state government and putting moral fiber back into what’s left. Suddenly, confronted with the possibility – otherwise known as the general election – that some people might actually like some of the things government does and some others might not exactly cotton to her idea of what’s moral or not – she denies ever proposing to do anything but cut taxes.

She did it again yesterday at the Seattle Downtown Rotary. In a televised debate with her opponent, Gary Locke, she put herself forward as a born-again supply-side economics theorist who has no plans whatsoever to reduce government and wouldn’t specify them if she did.

People are confused, she said. She wants to cut taxes, spur the economy and wait for a special task force to recommend what, if anything, should be cut. Although, she adds helpfully, “anybody who knows anything about budgets” knows you can cut 10 to 15 percent out of them without even trying.

“Spinning” in the contemporary political vocabulary is defined as putting the best possible interpretation, or spin, on an event from the point of view of a particular candidate. Craswell is spinning in the old-fashioned sense, changing what she says to suit the audience to whom she is saying it. She could play the lead in “Beetlejuice.”

At various times she has said she’d like to privatize everything from universities to road repairs. Cut government 30 percent? Not me, she says.

Ellen, it’s on tape. You said it.

We’re not confused. You are.

Actually, confusion is a generous interpretation. The other is you’re lying.

One of the most heartening aspects of Craswell’s candidacy, and one of the chief reasons she won the Republican primary, was her unashamed public embrace of her religious beliefs. She talked about God’s plan and God’s people, about the decline of moral society. Even if you disagreed with her, it was refreshing to hear someone speak so candidly. Take me or leave me. This is who I am.

Now, she says if God has a plan for government, it’s a mystery to her. She says she never meant to imply she would legislate her personal morality.

Oh, really? And if not, why not?

Most of the laws we have reflect somebody’s morality. I thought that’s why you ran for office – to put your beliefs into practice.

I’m not saying people should or shouldn’t vote for Craswell because of what she believes, but at one point anyhow there was little dispute over what that was.

Locke hasn’t been much better. He’s been all over the place on the business and occupation tax. He acts like he never heard of the income tax he once supported. He says religion is a big part of his life but can’t remember the name of the church he goes to.

To hear him tell it now, he rarely agreed with Mike Lowry on anything when there’s not a nickel’s difference between them on most policy questions. In fact, leave a nickel sitting around and they’d find something to spend it on.

It’s gotten so bad, candidates won’t admit believing anything, even things that are popular.

At yesterday’s debate, Locke couldn’t answer a simple question about why, when surveys showed concern over crime to be declining, he puts so much emphasis on fighting crime.

What he should have said was, “I refuse to apologize for being tough on crime.” Instead, he spewed such an endless supply of confusing data that the answer was lost within it.

Why is it people spend a career building histories, then in the most important campaigns of their lives, they try to deny it? There’s not a rooster in the state going to get a good night’s sleep between now and November.

Voters don’t demand 100 percent agreement with candidates. They ought to demand candidates tell the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10/08/96

HIDING FROM HUCK IS NO PROTECTION

TERRY MCDERMOTT

 

 

FEDERAL WAY – The future of America is sometimes decided in performance halls where presidential candidates exchange polite volleys of political aphorisms; or in marble capitol corridors, where deals are cut and laws made.

It’s decided sometimes, too, above traffic snarls in corner-office, high-rise suites of great cities, and on Formica countertops in no-name cafes in small towns sprinkled across the country.

But more than anywhere, the future is made day by day in places like Federal Way – leafy middle-class suburbs filled with people of edgy, uncertain mood, people trying to rescue for themselves an island of sanity in an unruly world.

This is Spielberg country – where people of hesitant belief nestle in builder box houses beyond broad avenues and edged lawns. This is where lots of the bits and pieces fell when the nuclear family exploded. It isn’t a place people start out. It’s where they end up, unmoored – one-parent families, two-earner couples, three-paycheck households, four-car garages.

They live in neighborhoods with definite articles placed in front of their names – The Cove, The Campus, The Cedars – as if that would root them in the otherwise disorienting sameness of their landscapes.

There are no landmarks. Directions are given with reference to the big new Burger King and the drive-through bank whose name no one remembers.

This isn’t a city where the mall came and destroyed the old downtown; here the mall is downtown. The city grew around it. It’s uncentered. Office parks collide with professional centers which bleed into strip malls. Federal Way City Hall itself shares an office park with a CPA firm.

Cities like this are as unfixed in politics as they are on the land. Campaign strategists have understood for two decades that this is where elections are decided. These are the places that are up for grabs.

 

Citizens make decisions in everyday life that dwarf electoral outcomes.

The suburbs are now the places that define the collective us. They fight out this definition at the ballot box, but also in the malls, on the streets, and more and more often on bookshelves.

Seeking to ban books has become a growth industry nationally. In the last year, people have sought to ban books as benign as “James and the Giant Peach” and as powerful as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Federal Way is a national leader. Ten times in the last six years parents have objected to books used in the Federal Way School District.

These people were scared of many things. Scared, for one thing, of being scared. Three of their objections were to Halloween books – too spooky. Other objectionable works have been too sexy, or too violent.

Lately, some Federal Way parents have objected to teaching “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The objection is based on Twain’s frequent use of a racial epithet to describe Huck’s river raft companion, a runaway slave named Jim. The school superintendent is to make a decision on the book this week.

It doesn’t matter if Twain was a racist, which he was not.  It matters  that he produced a work of the imagination that soars, that is at once a work of great seriousness and high humor and thunderous moral power. We should use it to shake the foundations of fear, not reinforce them.

Words are powerful things. That’s a compelling reason to teach them, not avoid them. Every school child in America should be required to read Huck Finn.

Ernest Hemingway famously said that all American literature comes from Huck Finn. T.S. Eliot argued that, with Huck, Twain had “purified the dialect of the tribe.” He could hardly have achieved this by cleansing the vernacular.

Modern American literature was born on that raft. A large part of it would die if we outlaw everything objectionable.

I understand to the extent I’m able the heartache racial epithets cause.

I understand, too, the desires of parents to protect their children from awful events lurking outside their doors. I share them. The world, as ever, can be a chamber of horrors.

We’re afraid of what’s out there.

But hiding won’t make it go away.

 

 

 

12/07/95

FOR US AND OUR JOBS, NO EASY ROAD AHEAD

BYLINE  TERRY MCDERMOTT

 

EVERETT – In the pre-dawn dark on the coldest night of the year, two guys stand in a lonesome pool of street-corner light. If two guys can be said to form a picket line, they’re it. For the moment at least, they’re slightly outnumbered by the three cops parked in the dark down the street, and they don’t have a prayer against the company occupying the world’s largest building across the way.

 

They feed a trash-barrel fire with donated wood, drinking donated coffee and stamping their feet. They lean into the fire, poke it, and figure inside their heads exactly how many days they have left to donate before the money runs out.

 

At one level, this is what the strike comes to: The closer that number gets to zero, the better the chances of the strike ending. Sixty-three days in, it’s getting there quick.

 

Boeing and the machinists are talking again and making noises that sound an awful lot like a settlement train approaching.

 

Everybody who has thought about it for more than a couple of minutes can guess what direction that train is headed. Boeing will restore much, if not all, the cut it proposed in medical benefits and balance what cut is left with a boost in the one-time lump-sum payment. That’s easy. It would be good if belated news. It could end the strike tomorrow. But other than the strike, what will have been settled? Almost nothing.

 

There has been about this whole affair an air of resignation. It has sometimes been resignation imitating rage, but resignation nonetheless. The last strike, says Bruce McFarland, a flight-test mechanic, was more raucous. On the picket lines at times, a kind of mean festival atmosphere prevailed. The younger guys, especially, used the strike as an opportunity to party.

 

That’s what young guys do. The partying has been eliminated along with a good many of the young guys who did it. McFarland is 32. Almost all the people he hired in with eight years ago are gone. One went to a family business in Michigan, one to Ohio, to Portland, to who knows where.

 

The average seniority of striking machinists today is 12 1/2 years. The average seniority at the time of the 1989 strike was less than three years. Boeing has shrunk by nearly a third since then. That’s what the resignation is about.

 

As Springsteen says: “Them jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” There’s no easy answer to this. I’m not even sure there’s a hard answer.

 

The Northwest for most of the two decades it’s been going on has been largely immune to de-industrialization and we’ve often sympathetically clucked our tongues at rust-belt decline.

 

There’s no escaping it now. Jobs are going to cheaper labor markets and more efficient machines. Bill Gates tells us in his book the future gets still smaller as technology wipes up the mess world trade couldn’t get to.

 

I’ve thought about work and its many meanings perhaps more than I ought to. It’s almost unavoidable if you’ve spent a good part of your life asking people  – as reporters do – to explain their jobs.

 

When you see a steelworker’s face come alive as he explains the joining capacities of different kinds of iron, or a biologist’s joy at the simple miracles that unfold every day on her lab bench, even the most dim-witted of us eventually come to realize that, for many people, jobs at some point cease being what we do and become a substantial part of what we are.

 

So when the job disappears, more than a paycheck goes with it.

 

Bonds are being severed that took this country a couple of hundred years to forge. The fiction that we’re all in this together falls apart. This sucks. It isn’t right. Everybody knows it and nobody knows what to do about it.

 

The 63rd day is the same as the first. Only worse.

 

What we know most about the road ahead is it looks a lot different than the road behind. On the coldest night of the year, in a lonesome pool of light toward the end of the strike, you’re left thinking: There’s lots more bad weather where this came from.

 

 

A boy is dead, and few care – or even notice

TERRY MCDERMOTT

I don’t read a lot of crime news.There’s not much to learn from it. I know the human race is capable of horrible deeds. I don’t need to have the knowledge reaffirmed in detail every day.

But there is something to be learned by studying which crimes become news. Seattle has long since passed the point where every murder matters enough to merit much attention.

Crimes involving prominent people or interesting places go on the front page. Other murders – cabdrivers, gang members, spouses of drunks – barely make the paper.

We had one of those this week. A 15-year-old boy was stabbed to death Sunday night in a restaurant in the International District.

Sometimes being 15 is enough to promote a murder to page one. This time, though, the boy hadn’t much to recommend him as a news story. He died at an inconvenient time – at night in the middle of a holiday weekend. His death, although violent, was unspectacular. He himself was nondescript. He wasn’t a great athlete or an Eagle Scout or a member of a prominent family.

Most of all, though, he was the wrong person dying in the wrong place. If, instead of lying on the cheap tile floor of a Vietnamese cafe, he had died at noon on marble parquet in a fancy uptown restaurant, you would know more about him by now than he knew about himself.

If lives mean little, who cares about a death? This was brown kids killing brown kids. Who cares? One news report didn’t even get his ethnicity right. Who cares? Another misspelled his name. Who cares?

Kevin Jun Lee’s mother, Mai, stood alone at his casket last night. Her small body quaked as she bent over the stilled body of her only son. Her sobs filled the lonely chapel.

Kevin looked impossibly young. His face, even with the beginning wisps of goatee, was round and smooth as a baby’s.

In the sitting area behind the chapel, Kevin’s father, Jong, tried to talk. His voice broke. Mai came to help. He put out a hand to stop her intercession. He began again.

His parents moved here from South Korea in the early 1980s to be near their daughter, who had married an American. Jong did not want to come. He was a mechanical engineer at Hyundai Heavy Industry in Ulsan.

“I have a good job,” he said. “Everything OK.”

But as the eldest son, Jong felt responsible for his aging parents. Unable to persuade them to return, eventually he packed up Mai, Kevin and his daughter, Jennifer, and moved here.

“The first year was very hard for me. Fortunately, I got a job at the post office. Maybe if I keep that job I do not have this kind of tragedy.”

Jong took additional training, eventually got a job as a large diesel engineer. The job was similar to the one he held in Korea, but required him to travel for long stretches at a time.

“That’s my big mistake,” he said. “If I stay with my Kevin . . . I kept going. I killed my son.”

Jong Han Lee did not kill his son.

Kevin Lee died because something has slipped, gone terribly astray. Jong fought to keep his family together, moving to a strange country that wanted no part of him, forcing himself to do work beneath his education, to re-educate himself for a new job, to be sent away from home as the new job required.

Sunday, Kevin went to a movie with friends. Afterward, they went to a storefront restaurant on King Street. It’s a small place; black, red and off-white walls; two clocks, three calendars, a dozen tables, a 25-inch Sony; noodle soups and flan cakes on the menu.

Sunday night was crowded with a couple different groups of boys and young men, each carrying its own pack of adolescent angers and frustrations.

Tempers flare. Who knows why? It’s what young men’s tempers do. Knives come out. One ends up in Kevin Lee. Christmas lights twinkle on the ceiling and his blood drains onto the cold floor. He’s gone.

His family is left behind, scared, bewildered, soaked in sadness and blaming themselves. We don’t even notice.

We don’t even care.

 

 

 

 

 

11/07/95

SELIG STILL HAS REASONS TO SMILE

BYLINE   TERRY MCDERMOTT

 

“The trick to painting,” says Martin Selig, the amateur painter, “is you gotta know when to stop.”

It is a trick that Martin Selig, the professional real-estate developer, was slow to learn. Selig, in a white-hot rush in the 1980s, virtually re-created downtown Seattle, building as much office space by himself as had been built in the city’s history before his cigar-chomping arrival.

He not only didn’t know when to stop, he insisted on running faster and faster all the time. For most of a decade, he doubled the amount of office space he built each year, culminating in such grand explosions as Columbia Center and Metropolitan Park.

The sound you hear in the development community these days is hardly explosive. It is the clatter of decks being cleared – and no one had more stuff to clear up, put away or get rid of than Selig.

In the past month, Selig has sold two buildings, tying up the very loose ends of a bankruptcy proceeding.

He has farmed out the management of the 20 buildings he still owns to Martin Smith Real Estate, a former competitor. A three-year divorce proceeding is winding down, held up in large part by – what else? – disagreement over the property settlement.

Selig sits now a tenant in his own building at 1000 Second Ave. He spends almost all of his time trying to fend off old creditors and entice new ones.

The message board in his building’s elevator offers an unsettling “Welcome to Martin Smith Real Estate,” followed by Selig’s old telephone number. (That number is almost a hieroglyphic in the levels of meaning it contains; the last four digits being 7600, a reference to the 76 floors of the Columbia Center, which Selig no longer owns, and with which Smith has no connection.)

Selig’s offices remain crammed with the paintings – Callahans and Tobeys and Horiuchis – and sculptures and pieces of found art acquired in the  heydays. The fact that he has managed to keep them all attests to the escape-artist skills he has used to remain solvent.

What his offices are not full of are deals.

His staff has been reduced to nearly nothing – himself and a couple of assistants. He once bragged that “deals walk in here every day. In the business I’m in, your money will always run out before your deals do.”

These days he can’t find money or deals. He’s not alone.

“No one’s had fun in the real-estate business the last five years,” he says. “I mean the guys who are no longer in business can’t say it was fun.”

There was so much money being thrown at so many projects in the 1980s – a kind of blizzard, a whiteout of hundred thousand dollar bills – everybody lost sight of where they were going. Even some developers themselves questioned the sanity of the lenders giving them the money.

Rarely has there been a case where the conventional wisdom was so right. Everybody said there were too many buildings being built for too few tenants. Everybody was right.

The great whiteout of the Eighties was followed by the desert of the Nineties. The development boys and their toys have mainly disappeared, marching in ones and twos into the distance of bankruptcies, foreclosures and all sorts of legal mumble-jumble that did nothing to disguise the central fact: They were going broke.

The great noise of jackhammers has been followed by a great pall of lawyers, muffling everything that won’t move under mountains of lawsuits.

Builders of the wave of 1980s high rises projected rents as high as $35 a square foot. Average rents downtown today are $19.

The gulf between those numbers became the abyss that swallowed up most of these projects, almost all of which have been sold or foreclosed upon. The buildings are still there. Most of the owners are not.

Consider: Columbia Center and Two Union Square were sold to their lenders. Gateway AT&T is in default and about to be sold at a bargain-basement price to the city of Seattle. Pacific First Center was lost in foreclosure.

Waterfront houses and fast cars were repossessed or sold. Seats on civic boards were abandoned. Those who didn’t lose their buildings outright sold off much of their ownership stakes in them, reducing them to managers more than owners.

And here sits Selig.

The purpose of his house cleaning, he says, is preparation to begin building again. As incredible as this seems, it could be true.

Among the big-time Seattle developers, Selig alone has managed to retain control of his own destiny. Selig owned – or at least held title to, there being something of a distinction here – all of his properties without partners.

He still does. Much of it was cross-collateralized in such a way that tugging at the tangle of finances of one building might cause another to unravel.

The sheer complications of dealing with it have enabled Selig to keep hold of most of it.

He is not exactly standing triumphantly astride the city. He’s barely standing, in fact. But he’s still here and at 58 young enough to be scouting for deals.

Among the pieces of art in Selig’s offices is a carved wooden clown that once stood outside a cigar store. The clown is squat and sturdy, with large features and an eerie grin.

It is impossible to ignore that the clown looks much like its owner, right down to the grin.

 

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