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The Death of Northgate

Bon Marche at Northgate, 1950 (Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)])
Looks like Northgate mall in Seattle is quickly winding down. The JC Penney already closed, and the Macy’s and Nordstrom are in the process of shutting their doors. The plan is to demolish the main stretch of the mall, leave some of the external “village” buildings that were tacked onto the front in the mid-00s, and then build an NHL practice facility and some housing. I hate being nostalgic about this place or any mall in general, and I have mixed feelings for a few reasons.

When I lived in Seattle from 1995 to 1999, Northgate was sort of my default mall. It wasn’t my favorite mall, and it wasn’t the best one in the area, but it was the closest to my house, and I ended up there at least once a week. When I first moved to Seattle, I stayed at my friend Bill’s place in Mountlake Terrace for a month, and took the bus down I-5 every day for work. And every day, we’d pass this sprawling shopping center, just off the highway. One thing I remember clearly is it had a giant two-screen movie theater on the north side, with a changing-letter marquee where the words were taller than me, advertising the movies Clueless and Apollo 13. So when I got a car and had some time on a weekend, it’s the first mall in Seattle I visited.

After I moved to First Hill, this mall was a straight shot up the highway for me. Hop on I-5, drive a hundred blocks, exit, done. Even though I worked next to the much smaller Factoria mall across the lake, I ended up driving to Northgate pretty much constantly. Between the Denny’s and a smaller local pancake place, I always had a default diner there too, so every Saturday was spent at this mall, more or less.

Northgate is arguably the first mall in America. There are like a half-dozen different malls that claim this, and I’m too lazy to research which one is right. But they built two strips of stores in 1950, then covered it with a “sky shield” and eventually sealed off the whole thing in the early 70s, making it an enclosed mall. They later built one of the first Nordstrom stores, the big two-screen theater, and the other anchors. Later additions while I was there in the late Nineties included a Toys R Us, a food court, and a general remodel. In the 00s, Simon did their usual “lifestyle addition” thing with a Potemkin village of outward-facing smaller anchors on the west side of the mall (one of them always being an Ulta Beauty), and removal of the theater (and the giant totem pole that was in front of it.) A Target and Best Buy went in across the street, and the surrounding landscape of the area has completely changed five times since I left. There were also various anchor and store flips in the last twenty years. I wasn’t there, you can look it up.

I honestly found the architecture and layout of Northgate to be a bit boring, and deceiving. It looks small, but it’s gigantic. When I lived there, they had four anchors, all of them softlines, which bored me. (JCP, Nordstrom, Lamonts, Bon Marche.) And the entire mall was a single hallway, a straight 1,500-foot shot with stores on either side. It didn’t have a winding floor plan, so it seemed smaller, but if you walked from anchor to anchor twice, that’s over a mile. It had no vintage charm, just high ceilings and faded white everywhere, like an airport concourse. It also had few stores where I really shopped. But I still ended up there a lot, and spent an insane amount of time walking up and down that long hallway, looking for… I don’t know what. The drab non-decor was replaced during the 97-98 remodel with fake-ass timber accents on the high ceilings that made it look like a ski lodge, which was all the vogue in the time in the PNW.

What attracted me, other than the proximity to my house, was that Simon malls all had this universal emotional antiseptic feeling to me. Wandering that place felt very similar to walking through College Mall in Bloomington, or University Park Mall in South Bend, even if they layout and the stores were different. Especially in my first year there, I was extraordinarily depressed, missed Bloomington a lot, knew almost nobody, didn’t know where anything was, didn’t have a TV, and was always broke. I later found other malls further out, and other stores to buy music and books and food. But it became a default place to mope around, walk a few laps, and then go home and try to write.

I didn’t buy stuff in that mall much. I only went to that movie theater a few times (I remember seeing Event Horizon there) and I used to pop in the B. Dalton every time I visited. Bon Marche had a Vans shoes section, and I’d buy a pair each year like clockwork. A Wizards of the Coast store was always worth a browse, even though I didn’t play D&D or Magic at the time. An office supply/craft store provided me with a lot of fancy pens I’d later lose. The mall had an attached drug store where I’d frequently load up on cold medicine, and a QFC grocery was good for a frozen dinner or two. After Toys R Us arrived, I’d pop in there for Nintendo 64 games. But more of my shopping was around the area, like the Silver Platter records just south of there.

Aside from the strange nostalgia for the place, and the fact that it will all be gone soon, is the fact that the coverage around the remodel sort of pisses me off. People in Seattle have always hated malls, it seems. They’ve always talked about how horrible Northgate was, even when it was a top-grossing mall. Now, the YIMBY crowd is super excited about the death of the mall, mostly because we’re all supposed to ride bicycles and something with a parking lot somehow triggers them. I don’t follow Seattle redevelopment news much, but we have our own vocal YIMBY contingent here, so I imagine the more-housing-at-any-cost crowd is celebrating the mall’s death enthusiastically. Seattle has 100% changed since I left, and I get it — cities change. Since I left, Amazon has hired more people than my home town has, period. So, housing crunch, people hate malls, yada yada, you already know the rest.

It’s been over twenty years since I saw that place, or any of Seattle. I still miss it, because it was such a key time in my life, my first four years out of college, which felt more like a decade. But it’s an extreme case of “you can never go back,” because so much of the city has changed.

Wish I had some old pictures of the place, but that was in the film era. I do have some pictures of my VW in the parking lot, and you can almost sort of see the east entrance of the mall in the background of one shot. I used one of the pictures for the third edition cover of Summer Rain, but you can’t see anything but the pavement in the zoomed-in shot. (And fun fact: the license plate in the pic is a photoshop job. And Indiana didn’t had front license plates in 1992, so that’s wrong, too.) Anyway…

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WordPerfect for Mac

A stupid memory… I was thinking about how I used to love WordPerfect on the Classic Mac OS. It wasn’t a port of DOS WP 5.1; a different dev team wrote their own program, and the company called it WordPerfect, so it worked much faster. I always found it better than Word on the old Sys6/7 Mac.

Anyway, found this page: http://www.columbia.edu/~em36/wpdos/mac-intel.html – Someone has set up the SheepSaver PowerPC emulator to run MacOS 8.6, along with a few versions of WordPerfect. So you can download one image file, and with almost no fuss (aside from the big download) you can then run WordPerfect on a modern Intel Mac.

I was messing with this and realized I have a Stuffit archive of the Mac machine I had at my first job, 22 years ago. I’ve never been able to un-stuff it, because of the weirdness of Mac resource forks or whatever. I brought it into this emulated machine, and it instantly opened it. So I had the same set of files I had back on my Centris 660 AV in Seattle in 1996.

There wasn’t much there: the 1984 commercial in QuickTime; a bunch of QuickHelp source for the Spry Mosaic browser; some other assorted utilities, like DropPS and GraphicConverter. The fun find was I had a Sounds folder, which had a few hundred short clips of audio from Beavis and Butthead and Pulp Fiction. They were all sampled at like 10kHz; the whole folder is like 38 MB.

It reminds me of a time when Windows audio was almost nonexistent, unless you paid hundreds of bucks for a SoundBlaster, but every Mac had pretty decent audio, standard. There was a big culture of hoarding these little ten-second samples of Star Wars and RoboCop movie quotes. Like I remember hanging out with my Calculus teacher at IUSB – this must have been in late 1990. There were almost no Macs at the South Bend campus, but for some reason, he had a brand new SE/30. I went to check it out one time, and he spent half an hour playing me every sound file he had downloaded from the internet, these little clips from science fiction films, all hooked in so it would play Darth Vader when he started up or shut down his machine.

I don’t even know how to play these audio files outside of the emulator, but it works in the program. I guess now I can just go to YouTube and play the entire TV show if I want, but it’s interesting to see a snapshot of how it used to work back then. Also, the old Mac interface looks so blocky and weird now, which is hilarious.

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Seattle sketches

I always used to explore on Saturday mornings, driving around Seattle to find some new magical diner to eat that would cause my writing output to double or make me run into the perfect woman, except I’d always end up at Denny’s or at the movie theater at Mountlake Terrace, because I didn’t own a TV and would just go there and watch three movies back-to-back. But I was somewhere in the middle of the peninsula, not sure where, and I went to this weird little used bookstore/antique shop/cafe, in this creaky white victorian house. There are essentially three kinds of antique stores: one is where the owner is a hoarder, with fifty years of inventory and has totally maximized their space so there’s junk on top of junk on top of junk. The newest thing in the store is older than you, and it might be interesting to look in there, if the dust mite infestation wouldn’t kill you. Then there’s the Pawn Star type of places, where they know the value of everything and only have the most profit-margin-friendly stuff out there. They know exactly how much everything costs, so there’s never a surprise and almost never a bargain. And then there’s these ones by sort of far-left revisionists, the etsy arts and craft sorts, who label everything in that weird sorority font and it’s all fun and neato. And this place was definitely in the latter category.

The place smelled like my grandmother’s place, sort of equal parts of flea market, rosewater, and old people farts. I was starving, probably from driving for hours trying to make up my mind, and I ordered the only real thing on the menu, a panini sandwich. The only cooking apparatus in the place, other than a coffee machine, was the panini iron, a glorified Foreman grill. The thing I remember most is that the girl working was an absolutely beautiful redhead, pale skin, wearing a tight but proper dress. I couldn’t tell if she was a teenager or not, if she was a freshman in college or a junior in high school. This was about the time in my life when I could no longer tell the difference. Now, it’s completely splayed, and I can’t tell if someone is in college or 30 of 15. Last night at the movies, I saw a girl and could not tell if she was 22 or 15. She was with a friend who looked 15, but I just couldn’t tell.

I was so desperate at the time, the thought of dating a teenager wasn’t far-fetched. I had a hard line at 18 of course, but I was 25 and going on three years of absolute celibacy, nothing past a failed first date, and every woman I met was in her thirties with chronic complications and high expectations.  The idea of finding some girl who was 18 and would be impressed with a college degree and my own place and a new car had some merit. But it made me think of when I knew girls in high school that dated “older guys.” I did not get that at the time, because I could see the upside to the girl, in a Fast Times sort of way, but I didn’t know why the guy would date a 14-year-old. And then later, I realized it was a combination of statuatory rape and the pure townieism of Indiana.  And none of this mattered, because I’m sure that I was giving off the serial killer vibe and she probably dialed 91 and was waiting to dial 1 while she nervously made my shitty panini sandwich and I looked at all of the garage sale pieces of junk on shelves.

But I remember that book store, because it was the type of “book store with no books.” Like the used books were just the dregs of what wouldn’t be bought at any other store. There were some good used book stores — some great ones in the U district — but this place either had an owner out of touch with reality, or didn’t get in the good stuff, or couldn’t afford it. And I think maybe it was the former, like a person who only stocked poetry books by DH Lawrence rip-offs, and dust mite-infested penguin classics that were probably bought at estate sales by the pound.

I can’t remember the neighborhood, which bugs me.  I know if I visited Seattle again, I’d start driving instinctively, and go from my old apartment to some random Vietnamese restaurant without thinking.  But where was that book store?  What happened to it?  Is the redheaded teenager-or-not still in Seattle, or did she have ten kids and move to Kelso and become a professional hoarder?  Is the old victorian house now a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop, or the parking lot for a Qdoba?  I can drive myself crazy thinking about stuff like this.

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The Retail Race to the Bottom

The Borders by my house looks like a food warehouse two years after the apocalypse started.  I went a few weeks ago, when the sign dudes stood on the corner with the “ALL TITLES 40-60% OFF”, hoping to snag an armful of good science fiction, because I’m going through this phase where I’m trying to read everything I “should have” read when I was a kid and too busy poring over Car Craft and trying to figure out if I had to replace the front springs in a ’76 Camaro if I wanted to swap out the 305 for a 454 that I couldn’t afford in the first place.  I found maybe two or three books I wanted, but everything else was already picked clean.  They still had stacks of “destined to be remaindered” books, but I didn’t need to Teach Myself HTML 4 in 30 days, so I ignored all of that shit.

The whole store was so depressing, for some unexplainable reason.  Store designers spend untold sums doing subtle things to layout and placement to hypnotize consumers in optimal ways to buy more stuff or feel more comfortable or set the mood.  You don’t notice it, but if you’ve ever worked in a department store and you’ve spent time after hours during a massive store reset, when pieces are scattered everywhere and the kayfabe has been dropped, you know the deal.  Something didn’t look right, and it wasn’t just the hoarders digging through the out-of-date celebrity cookbooks, looking for a deal.  Half of the entrances were boarded up already, covered with giant vinyl banners advertising the fact that everything but the fillings in the cashier’s teeth had to go.  And something about the lighting, the vacancies in shelves, the massive numbers of books in the wrong place, faces out – it made me feel overwhelmingly depressed that this place would soon be yet another vacant storefront.

I don’t even shop at that Borders; I think I’ve bought a grand total of three books there since I moved to the East Bay in 2009.  I’ve eaten at the neighboring food court quite a bit, so I guess it’s become part of the routine to go there after a falafel or some Afghani food and shuffle through the magazine racks.  But I somehow feel both strange remorse and responsibility for the sinking of this ship.  And it’s not that I miss this Borders as much as it sets off a chain reaction of emotions and memories about all of the other stores that have turned to vapor and vanished in the last decade or two.

I used to love malls.  Ask my pal Larry about the overwhelming obsession I had with wandering million-square-foot indoor shopping empires, and he’ll tell you stories of being dragged to College Mall for no reason other than to run the circuit, walking up and down the hallways  and then ending up at Morgenstern’s Books for two hours to ogle over every single World War II book in stock.  (And Morgenstern’s wasn’t even technically in the mall – it was in a strip of stores across the street.)  I found some strange peace in going to any Simon-operated property and wandering past every storefront, from Ayres to Zale’s, looking at mannequins donning bad early 90s attire.  It wasn’t even that I bought anything; I wasn’t like one of these housewife machines that walked out of the clothes stores with a maxed out piece of plastic and two armfuls of boxes.  I’d just get some osmosis-hypnosis effect, listening to the muzak and peoplewatching.

But those bank-issued sixteen-digit hologrammed devils did get shelled when I went to record and book stores.  All through college and my time in Seattle and New York, it was a weekly ritual to take every ounce of disposable income to the media gods, the places that stocked my fix for reading and listening.  In Seattle, I had a two-night-a-week habit locked in at Silver Platters, this CD palace up by Northgate mall.  They had this certificate plan where you got a paper dollar for every title you bought, but if you went in on Tuesday or if you bought certain sale items, they’d give you extra points.  And if you came in on Wednesday, you could turn in your dollars for extra value.  So I’d go both nights, buying armfuls of every Gary Moore or Peter Gabriel import single I could find on Tuesday, and then redeeming these paper coupons for more stuff on Wednesday.  And I’d end up there on weekends anyway, spending my Saturday afternoons cruising all of the other retail outlets nearby.

And I had this routine with the book stores, too.  Every Friday night, I’d end up at the Barnes and Noble in Bellevue, after gorging at the Denny’s there and scribbling in my notebooks for hours.  I’d wander the stacks, pulling books that looked interesting, things I could consume, inhale through the late nights.  I’d end up reading some obscure title in bed late into Friday, knowing I’d been hypnotized too long when I’d hear the sound of the landscaping sprinklers seven stories below my open bay windows going off at 5 AM in the Jet City darkness.

New York helped break me of the mall habit.  There aren’t really malls in Manhattan; the square footage of a single food court could be broken up into a thousand studio apartments renting for two grand a month, so you’re not going to see that shit unless you take a train to Jersey City.  And I did, for a while.  I’d take the N to the Path, and emerge in this bizarro world where people drove cars and parked in outdoor parking lots and shopped at huge Simon-owned palaces of consumerism.  But these trips became less frequent.  Any time I found myself in a strange new (or old) land like St. Petersburg or Pittsburg with keys to a car in hand, I’d visit the old haunts and take a lap or two, get a corn dog on a stick and think about the days when I wore the name tag and listened to the muzak professionally for hours on end, asking people if they needed help with anything.

But then Amazon happened.  I started buying books from them way back; I remember in I think 1996, buying an old book I could not find anywhere else on the history of Indiana University, and it slowly became my go-to place for the things I could not dig up at Elliott Bay Books.  CD Universe entered my ecosystem around then too, and I’d hunt down the rare finds I couldn’t get at Silver Platters.  Amazon went from supplementary purchases to my main outlet for everything, as my go-to media places in New York began the long slide into nothingness.  I dumped serious cash at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, which used to be on the first floor of where I worked (very dangerous), but is now a Forever 21 clothing store.  I also made the Best Buy pilgrimage every Saturday, when they still sold CDs.  Now, unless it’s Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga, good luck finding anything there.

So yeah, my purchases, or the trends behind how people like me make purchases, may have killed off the retail stores.  I don’t know; I know I don’t even buy CDs or DVDs anymore, and either get stuff through iTunes or stream it from NetFlix.  I still buy paper books, but I also buy stuff for the Kindle.  So I’m sure the anti-digital luddites can scold me about how it’s my own damn fault that Borders filed Chapter 11.  Except for the part where Borders has lost money every year since 2006, or how they thought back in 2001 it would be genius to hand over their online retail operations to Amazon.com, or how in early 2008 (when about 7 people owned a Kindle) they announced they were so in debt, they were going to sell out to Barnes and Noble, a misstep that plummeted their stock price through the floor.

You can armchair quarterback this one in a million different ways, and the same holds true for any big retail collapse.  Blame it on Wal-Mart, or online sales, or poor holiday seasons, or the cost of gas, but it’s really this perfect storm of different things that makes it too complicated to predict or correct.  I mean, I always bemoan the shuttering of Montgomery Ward, where I did my time as a teenager and did a couple of summer moonlighting stints in college.  Most blame a bad 2000 Christmas season as the reason for their bankruptcy, but there were so many other factors: the debt from their leveraged buyout; the two-front war against discounters and other department stores; the failed attempts at re-marketing themselves; the expense of facelifting a bunch of their stores; the hundred million dollars they threw at IBM to overhaul their computer back-end.  Some even say the problems go back to just after the end of World War II, when the company focused all of its energy into building stores in the heart of metropolis areas and resisted expanding into the suburbs.  But it’s one of those things where you can’t just say “the internet killed it” and leave it at that.  And I think Borders is the same way; I think their mistakes at running a business go back much further than the advent of an e-ink screen or even the HTML shopping cart era.

And there’s all of these other things that have changed since I was in high school that alter the game.  People used to buy stuff from mail-order houses, or from catalogs; then they switched to malls; then big-box stores; then discount stores. Indoor malls have been “de-malled”; outdoor malls have shifted from low-end to boutique and probably back again.  People “don’t read anymore”.  The middle class is gone.  Gas costs as much as uranium did when I was in high school.  Book stores only sell clip-on lights and picture books of cats dressed as movie stars.  Everyone is an obese hoarder that never leaves the house.  Kids keep playing these god damned video games and Angry Pac Bird Mans.  Focus groups and religious nitwits and crowds of “what about the children” whiners have killed off anything more controversial than a loaf of Wonder bread.  All of this is true.  None of this is true.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Things never change.  Things work in cycles.  People never forget failures.  People don’t remember what happened five minutes ago.  I don’t even remember what I was talking about.

I was trying to remember the last time I’ve been to a mall, and I can’t.  We have a “mall” just up the road from us, one of those new urban bullshit outdoor mall things that has apartments in the top tier of it, and an Apple Store and some movie theaters, and a bunch of stores I’d never shop at, and a parking garage that is always a total clusterfuck.  But I can’t think of when I was last in an indoor mall.  I think I went to the Concord Mall during a visit to Indiana in like 2007, and was amazed at how totaled it was, how the old Wards store got cut into three or four pieces and turned into a discount car stereo place and some kind of hillbilly craft store where post-menopausal women buy glitter to paste on their angel centerpieces.  No wait – we had an indoor mall, Tanforan, by our old place in South San Francisco.  It was more or less the no-man’s-land between a Target, Penny’s, and Sears, with a big movie theater, and two floors of places selling clothing I’d never, ever wear.  It’s the kind of mall that made Pierre Moran mall in Elkhart (aka the “other mall”, where “other” means “not white”) look big, and they de-malled Pierre Moran about five years ago.

Must stop writing about this, because every paragraph I write involves about 200 web pages of nostalgic searches for old department store catalogs, and I’ve got other crap to do.

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Not engine oil solidifying cold

It’s getting cold here, which is not cold in the sense of North Dakota cold where if you don’t plug in your car, the engine oil will turn solid until April, or New York cold where the wind whips through every seam and zipper of your clothes and freezes every hair in your nose on that short sprint to the subway station that seems to take forever. Here, a winter cold means the low 50 or maybe the high 40s, but when your entire wardrobe is summer clothes and your apartment doesn’t have a huge winter furnace designed to run like a kiln in December, this seems colder than freezing.

It means winter coat season, the time when I finally get out my time machine of a leather jacket and teleport back to 1993 when I got my first “real” leather jacket at the Wilson’s Leather in the Bloomington Mall. I know I write about this every year, but every fall when the time comes to slip on that heavy biker jacket and zip up its thick zipper and smell the smell of leather and feel the almost bulletproof heft, it always makes me feel good. Does it outweigh the feeling of a cold house, especially now that I have to pay for my own heat during the work day? Well, at least I feel good that I won’t be stuck in a broken building whose HVAC system insists on running the air conditioner full blast in December, or even worse, that superheats the offices to a hundred degrees and no humidity during the cold and flu season.  And I don’t spend two hours a day in a tiny coffin of a car with a heater that only works at full blast or off, requiring me to constantly jockey the little knobs between the various settings to approximate the control of a climate.

Oh, here’s a weird journey back: yesterday, Attachmate bought Novell.  First, Attachmate.  I used to work for a company in Seattle called WRQ, and Attachmate was their biggest rival.  I remember Attachmate most not because of the Pepsi versus Coke culture between the two (like various vague “beat Attachmate” propaganda at product kickoff meetings) but because they had this huge Star Wars-looking building on the horizon of Factoria. When I worked for Spry, I had this view of a blighty little strip-mall suburb, a Safeway and a QFC and a Keg restaurant and an Allstate agent and a muffler shop with a too-big sign, but it was all contrasted by a giant office building hanging off the top of this hill that looked like the background scenery in a Quake game.

About five years ago, a VC firm (or group, I don’t know the details) bought both Attachmate and WRQ and fused them into one company with a stupid joint name that was eventually just changed to Attachmate.  It’s the perfect example of how things in my past change and make it impossible to go back, like imploding the Kingdome, or replacing the coolest videogame arcade of my college years with an Urban Outfitters.  Many of my memories from 1996 to 1999 involve my time at WRQ, from the times I’d stay late and work on AITPL’s first issues, to when I’d come in blindingly early after a night of insomnia, so I could leave early on a Friday.  I’d mope through Seattle’s winters and hide in my office, when the sun would be down when I left in the morning and down when I drove home, and the entire day would be the 50 degree, dark grey, misting cold rain weather that made you want to hang yourself.  I spent the bulk of my time in an office that overlooked Dexter Ave, in this huge terraced building sitting in the hill that wrapped around the west bank of Lake Union.  I’d walk to Dexter Deli almost every day and get a BLT, then go back to my desk, put on a CD, close the door, and hack away at this very journal.  This was long before the days of the iPod, and I used to drag in this rectangular nylon case that held a dozen CDs in their jewel cases.  Later, I’d graduate to the MiniDisc player, and haul a much smaller case that held 20% more music, but still required me to spend twenty minutes a morning pondering what I wanted to listen to that day.

I remember my job there, but the job had so little to do with any of it.  I mean, I worked on Java stuff, and we were in the middle of this giant war where Microsoft wanted the world to keep on plunking away at Win32 apps, while a smaller group wanted everything to be delivered on the web through applets.  Our company had a lot of Windows-centric people, those that believed the shrink-wrapped, channel-sold application with a high profit margin reigned supreme, and that any CPU cycle wasted on a VM or a windowing system was pure bunk.  These were the people who worked on writing terminal emulation software for DOS boxes, so they could talk across twisted-pair networks to big iron mainframes.  Things like DLL loading conflicts and command-line switches made their blood pump.  The terms “master” and “slave” applied themselves in many forms to their control flow paradigms.  They all carried leatherman multi-tools just in case they were out on the town and there was an emergency that required the stripping of insulation from some wires.  To them, online help was for pussies, and real products shipped with a thousand page printed manual.  I worked on online help for a Java product and used a Mac, so there were three strikes against me.

But I spent those years trying to define myself as a writer, trying to write these two books that hung around my neck like albatrosses.  I hacked at short stories and tried to run the zine and tried to find other writers to talk to.  I spent every penny I made on used books or CDs that I would play obsessively in my little studio apartment while I wrote.  I took High Fidelity too seriously and assumed I could define myself by owning every Miles Davis album Columbia ever released.  Thinking about the late 90s always brings back all of this, but it also brings back practically living in that weird office in the side of a hill on Dexter Avenue.  And Attachmate is still there, and there’s still a part of me that wonders what it would be like to go there and walk through the giant lobby and up to the 10th floor and see if it still felt like 1997 to me.

And they bought Novell, which is another throwback, to those days of Bloomington when networking was taking over the campus, and the dummy islands of uncommunicative PCs were all wired together with coax cable and things started talking to each other.  I did not fully understand Netware, and I still don’t; but I remember the hardcore DOS gearheads talking about it all the time, discussions of TSRs and NETBEUI and mapping X drives to shares.  I was more of a Mac person, and preferred to just telnet in to some unix machine and have everything located there.  But there definitely was this subculture that was all high on Novell stuff back then, especially with the hardcore business users who religiously used WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 for everything.  Later, Novell bought WordPerfect from Borland, probably right around the time I was using the Mac version of WordPerfect for everything.  Then, I switched to using Word and a PC, and I think Windows NT made all of the Netware stuff obsolete, and Novell just became an annoying little company that insisted that everyone spell unix in all caps.

So you’ve got the leather jacket and the old WordPerfect pulling me back to Bloomington.  And you’ve got the struggles as a writer and the current San Francisco weather (53, raining, dark) pulling me back to Seattle.  And I’ve been hacking at a short story that takes place in Florida in 2001, so there’s a lot going on right now.

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Jet City

I keep – or try to keep – a daily journal of automatic writing.  I sit down at 6AM and try to write whatever is in my head for a thousand words or an hour, whichever comes first.  I never publish this stuff, because most of it is random, a lot of it is personal, and most of it is junk.  But for whatever reason, I’m mining through some of it now and thought I’d share a bit of it.  So here goes.

From 9/24/09:

It’s easy for me to romanticize Seattle, especially the beginning of Seattle, because it was that magic period after college, the time where you’re cashing in on those years of alleged hard work, and instead of paying out money to bursars and book stores and dormitories, you’re finally pulling in money.  You’re in the black, at least in a theoretical sense; you’re still selling CDs you got from a splurge period through the Columbia House mail-order club to keep the occasional groceries in the cabinets.  But in theory, you’ve got money coming in, instead of working on the economy that you need to borrow and budget and save to keep yourself in the game.

Part of that era, the early era, back in 95 and early 96 reminded me of the Korean War.  Korea was a completely new animal, this UN-sanctioned police action and not a true dynasty grab of a war, an empire-building thing.  But so much of Korea was defined by the leftovers of World War II.  All of the hardware was stuff pulled out of mothballs, all the old surplus planes and jeeps and other throwbacks to the earlier conflict.  Even the food used in Korea was shit on a shingle canned back in the early forties, a direct tie back to the previous dynasty.

And Seattle felt like that to me.  A new city surrounded me, an Emerald City, the Jet City.  But I hacked away every night on the 486 computer I built back in my Mitchell Street roominghouse, staring at a greyscale paperwhite VGA monitor I got on my birthday, on the day I met RMS in Bloomington.  My writing table was the kitchen table I got for my Colonial Crest townhouse back in 93.  I loaded up my Kenwood CD changer every night, the same 6+1 CD machine I bought from an HH Gregg back in Indiana with a tax refund check that was burning a hole in my pocket, the same one that clunked from Nine Inch Nails to Chick Corea to Tori Amos, the same 6+1 CDs I had in constant rotation during the start of my writing days.  Everything in the apartment was surplus; the bed from my bedroom as a kid; the coffeetable from my parents’ old house, now functioning as a stereo stand; even the spices and mismatched pots and pans that were a grab from my mom’s destined-for-garage-sale extras.

I guess I was depressed back then.  I was single, alone, with no game and no hopes to proceed anywhere romantically.  Ever since high school I nursed this dream of meeting the Right Woman, of falling in love with her in college, of sharing the experience with her, of finding my soulmate, graduating, getting a job, and living the Happily Ever After.  This probably burned me, in a period when I should have approached dating like a starved man approached an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Instead, I approached every possible dating situation with the attitude that this could be The One, which ultimately made me a marked man and doomed everything.  I thought meeting women was hard back in college, and that once I got a real job, an apartment, a car, and a life, it would all lock in, and I’d be rolling in women.  I wasn’t, of course.  I spent my nights alone, wandering from Denny’s to bookstore to mall, doing anything but talking to women.

I was a writer.  That was my dream to work on, when I had no money to do anything else.  Becoming a writer was something born out of a shattered romantic relationship.  When Tanya left in 1993, I was reborn a writer.  I don’t know how that switch got flipped in my head, but I filled the desperation and emptiness left by her absence with the scribbling in notebooks, the consumption and analysis of Henry Miller, the dream of cobbling together books like Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski, of wandering life, being outside looking in, having these keen observations of the obvious, the things I could dissect and recapitulate in an artistic form, the analysis of the things we all saw and ignored every day.

Writing has always tickled this one loose nerve in my head that ties together so many things in my life: being alone, being brought up to think you were special and had some great destiny larger than just loading up boxes on an assembly line.  I needed to create, and I needed to make something that was larger than one of the senses. You can paint or draw what you see, or play what you hear, but you can write what you feel, observe, live, think, dream.  You construct an entire world from your words, a world greater than the one you experience, because you can turn it inside-out, you can over-analyze it and slow it down and break it apart and re-form it in new ways that do more than just rehash the facts that happened.

I wasn’t doing that though, at least not yet.  I was chipping away at Summer Rain, a thinly veneered autobiography of a summer in Bloomington, a glorified three months that I spent wallowing in depression, trying to find my place in life, and attempting to screw every piece of trim that crossed my path.  I succeeded on the wallowing/depression part; the other two escaped me.  At that point, SR wasn’t much more than a chronological retell of the summer, with names changed to protect the innocent.  I finished my first draft that Semtember: 80,000-odd words.  No humor, no shaping, no plot, no surprises – my only goal was to get words on a page until I had something that almost resembled a book.  It’s a pretty cringe-worthy bit of work.

The writing wasn’t as important as the act of writing, though.  I needed to be a writer.  I needed to be alone on a late Friday night, hacking away in an emacs buffer while the Chick Corea spun in the player, the black sky out my huge windows facing the south side of jet city, the kingdome in the distance, the cars humming past on the I-5 expresway.  I needed to write every Friday night, well past midnight, chipping at the book, taking breaks to read everything I could find, then going back to the buffers, back to the book, until 4 AM, when the automatic sprinklers on the landscaping five floors below would switch on, bathing the air with a white noise bath of artificial rain on the narrow strips of grass below.

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general

jkonrath@indiana.edu

I spent all of my school years with the same email address – jkonrath@indiana.edu. I didn’t always get my mail on the same machine, and I had this complex shell game of trying to get accounts on as many machines as possible so I could have all of the quota to store my email and other junk. But I had that general philosophy of having all of my files in a central place. My computer at home was always a piece of garbage, and I was too nomadic to pop all of my mail to one place. So it all lived on various ultrix machines named after metals. When I left, those accounts got tarred and zipped and came with me to Seattle.

When I got to my first job, I hoped to get the address jkonrath@shitburger.com (replace shitburger with the actual company name), but they assigned accounts by first name. In my case, it ended up being jonathan@shitburger.com. This caused great confusion on many fronts. First, everyone wanted to email me at jkonrath@shitburger.com. A lot of people still emailed me at jkonrath@indiana.edu, thinking it would still somehow magically work. I found (well, I already knew) that absolutely nobody can spell the name Jonathan. (Johnathan, Jonathon, Jkofuiw849fthan, whatever.) Also, this caused a lot of people at the new job to think I preferred the long form of my surname, when in fact I hate it. Since only my mom and law enforcement officials actually call me Jonathan, being in an office where every marketing droid called me that made me think I was ten minutes from an FBI bust or something.

I also quickly got sick of my personal and work email coming to the same mailbox. This was long before workplaces got really shitty about how proprietary email was, but it became increasingly difficult to get at my mail from home or away. And it sucked when someone was hovering over my desk and someone non-work-related sent me an email about dressing up a sorority chick in clown makeup and banging her on a pooltable. (I have weird friends.)

After about six months in Seattle, I decided to buck up and pay for a real ISP. At that time, the only place in town that offered a shell account was the Speakeasy Cafe. I think it was like ten bucks a month. Most people would go in there and sit at a computer, sipping their tea and sending emails, but I just wanted a unix machine, centrally located, a place to keep my junk, and run emacs.

Back before Speakeasy became a huge ISP, they were just a cafe. They had a big Solaris box, a bunch of terminals, and an espresso machine. The place was in Belltown, a part of Seattle filled with trendy art galleries, the kind where the walls are covered in dayglo tempra paintings of native american wolves fucking, the kind of stuff you don’t want to look at when you’re on acid. The cafe was all wood and black-spraypainted terminals, like something out of Singles, but with computers. I don’t drink coffee; they didn’t serve Pepsi or Coke, only Afri-Cola, a weird little import in a strange-shaped bottle that tastes like RC Cola at twice the price, but a penny of the cost went to the rainforests or something. They sometimes had food specials, scrawled on a chalkboard menu, free-range wok-seared something-or-other. No burgers. No BLT.

But I got that account, untarred my old bronze archive, changed three or four things, and it was running like I never left. All of my old mail was there. Emacs still ran, with the VM mail program and the BBDB address book. My web page came back to life. There were text files with lists of things I was selling six months ago, right before I left town. It was like taking everything in your house, shrinkwrapping it, and transporting it across the country into another house, so when you woke up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, you’d still find the glass on the counter.

I came to Belltown every month, to pay my tab. This was before the days of Visa-enabled online invoices; you showed up and put your cash on the counter. I think you could prepay a year in advance, but at this point, I was so tapped that all of my grocery shopping consisted of only buying the stuff in the Safeway coupon book. (And those are gone now too, thanks to those stupid cards.) But Belltown was an engram burned into my mind. Every time I came down there, I’d stop at a store filled with antique junk that was pried from houses that were gutted. Clawfoot tubs, ornate molding, wood bannisters sat on the floor, all of the pieces of last century that were yanked when some Microshit Millionaire wanted to redo their colonial house to look “zen.” I dreamed of somehow buying some land in Montana or Idaho or Wyoming or whatever and buying all of this shit and building a haunted mansion.

I never hung out at Speakeasy much, although it was the place to hang out for the hipster set. I tried to go in there once and kill a few hours on a Friday night, to see if anyone cool would be wandering around, but it was either people who already knew each other, or strangers who wanted to tunnel into their account and read the web with the lynx web browser. It wasn’t a swinging scene by any means. Later they started showing movies, having bands, but really eclectic stuff. I met Trent Harris there, when he was screening The Orkly Kid movie. And for a while, I was trying to do some kind of collaboration with a cartoonist named Daniel, and we’d meet there and then go elsewhere, where they had greasy food or cheaper drinks. (I was trying to get him onboard about filming a movie that parodied Apocalypse Now but was about trying to find a parking spot in Seattle, called A Parking Spot Now. Never happened, of course. I still have notes somewhere, though.)

Speakeasy became big and somewhat dumb, nationwide, and with DSL and wireless and whatever else. It was nice when I moved to New York, and I could keep the same service. But eventually, things got stupid, and they kept fucking up their shell accounts. Finally, I gave up, pointed my mail to my home machine, and turned on ssh so I could get to it anywhere. And the cafe, sadly, burned down. I think it’s condos now. They never reopened, and maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t think people can really wrap their heads around the idea of going somewhere to use the internet, unless they’re using their laptop and stealing someone else’s WiFi. Even the idea of a shell account is alien to pretty much anyone.

Bleah. Time to go read.

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general

From Sutafed to Seattle

I got an email the other day from someone in Australia, who was looking for an old Sutafed commercial and happened upon my Trip East travelogue. It’s a strange coincidence, because I’ve been thinking of Seattle lately, for a lot of different reasons. Part of it is that tomorrow will be the 7th anniversary of when I left Jet City and headed out here to New York, and nice round numbers make me think back. And I think part of it is also the weather here, how it’s jumped from a steady 30 to some days when it’s actually light jacket 50s. Hell, I just looked down at my weather widget, and it’s saying 62. That’s almost a solid spring day.

Something about spring always pulls my brain back to Seattle. A lot of natives tell you the winters are mild, but they’re only half right. You won’t see feet of snow, but that persistent darkness and muggy gloom really sits on you after a while. After about 100 days of 40 degrees, rain, and dark, you really start thinking Kurt Cobain had the right idea. I guess when I lived there, I didn’t really have the means to fly down to Vegas for the weekend or otherwise escape the grasp of the PNW. Maybe it would be different with my current worldview. I don’t know. But I do know that once the sun crawled back out and spring hit, I really LOVED Seattle. I loved driving around in my car, going everywhere and nowhere, when the sun was out and it was a crisp fifty degrees, and the air had that fresh smell that everything had been showered down for six months, and in a couple more, it would be summer. Spring anywhere makes me think of Seattle.

Every once in a while, someone will ask me if I miss Seattle, or what I thought about it, or why I left. It’s a hard question to answer. I do miss it a lot sometimes. There are certain albums that instantaneously transfer me back there faster than a Star Trek transporter could. One of them is Queensryche’s 1997 album Hear in the Now Frontier. I listened to these fourteen tracks so many times while driving around the city, they’re inseparable from that year of my life. I first heard the title cut when I was stuck in Longview, Washington on a Monday. This was when I dated Karena and before she moved north, and we used to trade off weekends for who had the 100-mile commute. I was heading back late Sunday night, and got a blowout in my Escort. I only had the baby spare, not rated for 100 miles of highway driving in the rain, so I called off work, borrowed her Saturn, and spent the next day getting a new tire fitted. When I was driving around this tiny town hidden in the evergreens of southwest Washington, the new Queensryche song came on the radio, and I made a mental note: “go buy that album.” A couple days later, I went to Silver Platters, my old CD hangout, and picked up a copy. I made a dup on tape for the car, and played it 200 million times.

When I think of that whole story, there are so many great nostalgic things to pick up on. First, there’s all of these trips to Longview. Now, things with Karena didn’t end on the greatest of terms, and I’m not longing for her or anything. But there was a certain charm to when I went down there. The place was about as big as Goshen, Indiana, for those who know my hometown, and it’s the kind of place where we ended up going to the Red Lobster that shared a parking lot with the Target a lot. The biggest shopping experience in Longview was driving a half hour to go to the mall in Portland. Otherwise, we rented a lot of videos, bought a lot of Papa Murphy’s premade but not baked pizzas, and just hung out. It was nice. And the story makes me think about my old Escort, which I hated so much when I got it, but now I’d pay cash on the barrelhead for a car just like it now. And man I miss going to Silver Platters, going from A to Z through the racks, and dumping a c-note on double coupon Tuesday, because I was totally locked into their little coupon scheme to get free discs, even if it meant I bought way too many CDs I didn’t need.

That kind of nostalgia kills me. And it makes it hard to answer the simple question: would I go back? I haven’t even visited Seattle since I left in 1999. And I don’t know that I would move back. I mean, I think about when I went back to Bloomington last for more than like a lunch or an evening, which was probably back on that 1999 trip east. I was writing Summer Rain hardcore when I left Seattle. I spent three or four months basically poring into the draft full-time, doing nothing but thinking about Bloomington. Then I drove halfway across the country, opened the car door, and basically stepped into my own book. Yeah, a lot of things changed in the seven years since the book took place. But I remember walking from the Union to my old apartment on Mitchell Street, and probably 95% of everything I saw in the spring air around me was identical to what I saw in 1992. It really freaked me out. But then I got hit with this really heavy “you can’t go back” vibe, when I realized that I didn’t know anyone on campus anymore, and everyone that was there looked like they were about twelve.

So yeah, you can’t go back. And I’ll be honest: I’m not going to stay in New York forever. There will come a time when we will bug out of here and go to the next big stop down the road. And I know my relatives automatically assume the next and last stop for me will be when I “grow up” and decide to move back to Elkhart and buy a house right across from my parents’ house and spit out some kids and come over every Sunday for dinner. And of course, that’s all shit. It’s gotta be something new for me on the next stop; I can’t have a do-over. I’m not saying I want to zip all over the country like I’m following the Dead, but I wouldn’t mind trying something else someday. It would also be nice if they had real grocery stores. But there’s Trader Joe’s now, so that’s huge.

Speaking of, we’ve booked our next vacation, and will be going to Alaska at the end of May/beginning of June. Sofar, we’ve got airfare, a week of hotel in Anchorage, and a rental car. From there, we’ll drive around, see some glaciers, take a lot of pictures, eat some food, and who knows what else. I’m going through Frommer’s now. There will probably not be any above Arctic circle exploration, and given my knee condition, I doubt we’ll be climbing Mount McKinley. But I’m hoping for some flightseeing, and it would be absolutely golden if I could get in a flight lesson while we’re up there.

Alaska also has a weird Seattle connotation, too. Seattle’s always had a tight bond with the 49th state. A lot of people that fly up there end up with a plane change at SeaTac, but even back in the old days, Seattle was the last big outpost before you headed north. Some of the culture of Alaska is second-tiered in Seattle in some weird way; salmon’s big because of the fisherman bringing it down. Lots of commercial boats winter down in Seattle, too. There are a lot of street names and other places and buildings in Seattle that are named after Alaskan cities, features, or explorers. And the whole time I was in Seattle, I thought hard about making the jump up the Alcon to get up there. I’d sit in bed with my Rand-McNally, tallying the miles and trying to find the shortest route, the number of hours and days it would take me. Growing up, you look at the big map at the front of the classroom and it looks like Alaska’s just one state’s worth of Canada up from Washington. Really, you have to drive like 24 hours straight through the mountains of British Columbia to get to the most remote southernmost point on the tail of Alaska. If you wanted to get to a city that was actually in the meat of the state, add another 24 hours of solid driving. It’s basically like driving across the entire United States, but up, and on much worse roads. So I never made it further north than Vancouver, and I’m glad I will be able to do it now.

Not much else. Still working on the book of Bloomington stories. It’s getting there, slowly. I should get on that now, actually.

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general

Ten years of unhoosierdom

I was just thinking about this the other day, and I realized this weekend marks the ten year anniversary of when I packed up and shipped out of Indiana for Seattle. It’s a nice round number, which is the only reason I thought about it, but it is pretty weird. I guess ten years seems like an eternity to me, and it doesn’t seem like that long ago that I left. On the other hand, living in Seattle does seem like forever ago to me, and my whole time at 600 7th Ave and working at Spry seems like another lifetime.

Lots of other little flashbacks remind me of things, but it’s more about Seattle than Bloomington. We went to Newport mall out in Jersey city yesterday, and that little area right around the PATH train station looks so damn much like Bellvue or Redmond, the east side of Seattle. It’s all of those office commercial buildings with mirrored glass outsides that look like airport motels, plus the subtle roads and open skies. It looks just like the area surrounding the Bellvue Mall, the building I used to work at in Factoria, and all of the other stuff around I-405 in Seattleland. And sitting here in Sarah’s apartment, looking out toward the skyline from a few floors up with lots of sunlight from a couple of big windows, it almost reminds me of the time in my place in Seattle, except it’s not raining and there’s no Kingdome anymore. But sometimes the weather’s just right and it makes me think for a half second that I should go down to that ’94 Ford Escort and take a drive up I-5, and then I remember I made my last lease payment on that thing 7 years ago, and all I’m driving is a MetroCard these days.

Ten years… I still haven’t written up a suitable story for that cross-country drive. I wrote a story for this Bloomington short-story book that probably will never see the light of day, but it covers all of the events up to me leaving, and not the actual trip. I drove nonstop, by myself. I went through so fast, there was no real vision of a trip, as much as there was a huge blur. It rained a lot in part of Montana; I blew through all of South Dakota in the darkness. I stopped at Devil’s Tower at about 2AM, technically on the 4th of July. I don’t remember Wall Drugs, but I do remember a few other gas stations with slot machines and nothing else. I listened to every tape I packed at least five times. For every meal, I stopped at McDonald’s, because I didn’t want to hunt around for some other alternative 19 miles off of the off ramp. Montana was really shitty, 12 hours of uphill and curves, almost no roadstops, the few around were no more than barns with a single gas pump that was overpriced and so low-octane, you could safely drink it. Then I crossed into Idaho, and it was all downhill, all beautiful. I regret not taking the trip slower, spending some time and money exploring the nature, taking a few more pictures, relaxing for a couple of days before I reported for duty for my first real job. But I regret a lot of things, and I made it here, so who cares.

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general

Seattle nostalgia

I think I’m already stuck on this book. Maybe I just don’t feel up to it this weekend, but I can’t even think about it without thinking it isn’t that good. I don’t know, I never had this problem with Summer Rain because the whole plot was there and it was just a matter of doing the work and coming up with the details, and Rumored had its problems and there were many second thoughts, but it eventually pulled through. The problem now is that a lot of the notes I’ve taken in the last few months don’t really fit this book, and it makes me wonder if I should just finish this and start something else with those notes, or just start the something else, or do both, or do neither, or who knows what. So tonight I’m just dicking around, maybe editing the web site, and playing video games.

I was thinking about Seattle today, which is always bad news. I was playing around with traffic cameras on the web, because part of an underpass collapsed here, and I wanted to see if there was a picture of it or anything, and while googling around, I found the WSDOT web page and started checking out their cameras, and it made me miss Seattle so much, it was pathetic. It’s hard to explain, but back when I was there, I always spent my Saturdays driving around. When I first moved there, I was always broke, but I still had the almost-new car and it got great mileage, and I’d spent all of my time driving up I-5 to Northgate mall, or down I-5 to Southcenter, our out on I-90 to Bellevue or across the 520 to Kirkland, or wheverever I needed to go. I drove a lot, because everything had a parking lot, and even though traffic pissed me off, I had a tape player and an air conditioner and the new car smell and I didn’t care.

And looking at the pictures… I mean, check them out sometime. Every road in Puget Sound is perfectly carved into the hills, with grassy meadows and evergreen trees wrapping around every terrace. You can’t drive five miles in Seattle without crossing over a lake or passing by a large body of water. Maybe it’s just something familiar to me about looking at these cameras, all of them positioned right at places I remember, that makes me reminisce. But when I look at that and then I look at what I do on most Saturdays here, it’s depressing. I know I took the scorched earth approach when I burned my bridges leaving Seattle, and I think assistant managing a McDonald’s here probably pays more than doing my current job back there, so I’m not in any rush to leave New York, but I just wish I could hop in my car that I don’t have and drive when I’m sick of staring at the same four walls and I want to get out.