In a city where the public face of its police has always been more or less avuncular, this was an amazing shock. Seattle, after all, is the birthplace of the bicycle cop; it took a superhuman leap of imagination to picture the same officers in this futuro-fascist getup.
The convention was widely seen as a chance for Seattle to show the world its laid-back, civil way of settling disputes and debating issues. The Seattle City Council had even prepared a resolution welcoming the protesters to Seattle and inviting them to camp out in city parks. Alarms from the FBI and police agencies around the world even from agencies that had dealt with previous WTO riots were laughed off by condescending Seattle politicians and boosters, who were as convinced that the rest of the world didn't understand enlightened Seattle as the WTO-weary elsewhere were convinced that Seattle had no idea what was headed its way.
I was just as disdainful of the warnings, but for different reasons.
The pattern was always the same: Local boosters would proclaim the value of the exposure the Next Big Thing would bring, the Thing would be launched with tremendous fanfare, and few outside the Puget Sound Basin would notice. Why, I reasoned, should the WTO be any different?
Mixed in with the celebratory glee on the faces of the rioters around me was real rage the kind furious children direct at adults, and righteous students at the establishment. How weird, I thought, to see Seattle, of all places, being the target of anti-establishment rioting!
In my mind, Seattle had always been, if not outright anti-establishment, then certainly aslant of the establishment, determined to live outside the American status-seeking norm. Once a hotbed of labor-union activism, in 1919 it became the first city in the U.S. to be shut down by a general strike. It was the leading city in the state toasted in the mid-1930s by the U.S. postmaster general as "the soviet of Washington." It had elected the nation's first African-American mayor to be voted into office by predominantly white voters. It had engendered and nurtured grunge rock, one of the most anti-upward-mobility rock movements in history.
I was standing within a tear-gas canister's throw of four Northwest companies Nordstrom, Nike, Starbucks and AT&T Wireless, née McCaw Cellular which all had at one time been brash, romantic startups determined to rebel against the status quo in their businesses and deliver something previously forbidden to the beleaguered and deprived citizen-consumer. My city had long been virtually synonymous with rebellion. How could such a place have turned into such a willing symbol of repression?
Even if times had been good, I would have been desperate to leave. No self-respecting adolescent could help but bridle at the maddeningly slow pace of Northwest life. It was infuriating to live in a place where restlessness was frowned upon and ambition an outright disease. The only cultural values apparent in 1970s Seattle were moderation and politeness. Anne and I decided to head east after graduation, having concluded that if we were ever to make something of the possibilities of our lives and our youth, we would have to do it elsewhere.
We were gone all of six years. When we returned in 1980, we told ourselves we were coming back for the sake of our new daughter, Erin. But I also had to admit that I couldn't stand living away from my own kind anymore, and my fear of turning into a rude Eastern American, chronically disgruntled and proud of it, had become overwhelming.
Now I saw Seattle as a city where people chose to cultivate the mind and the soul, disdaining standard American status-seeking for a life in which people were essentially sympathetic with one another rather than competitive, and in which all the city's residents shared the understanding that you measured the worth of people not by what they achieved, owned, wore or drove but by what they were. An old folk song broadcast constantly by the town's most charmingly off-the-wall restaurateur, Ivar Haglund, perfectly described the Seattle state of mind:
No longer the slave of ambition
I laugh at the world and its shams
As I think of my pleasant condition
Surrounded by acres of clams.
That foreswearing of ambition was the defining characteristic of a Seattleite. Haglund's was a tradition that extended back to the beginning of recorded Northwest history. Even the Native tribes here had been exceptionally pacific. It was a given that those who moved here now were more than willing to take substantial cuts in pay and career opportunities for the privilege of living easy in the shadow of the nation's most spectacular mountain and surrounded by some of the world's most beautiful waterways and forests. Between the weather outside and the mental makeup within, I reasoned, Seattle would forever be safe from the dangers posed back East by ambition.
So I came home, set up a little typesetting shop in my basement and got down to the business of living a properly laid-back Northwest life. Which is where I was when an editor from Microsoft, a company unknown to me, came calling.
IN EARLY '80s SEATTLE, status-consciousness was all but forbidden. The closest a Seattleite could come to snobbery was a smug sense that he or she lived in paradise. What I had regarded 10 years before as intolerable complacency I now embraced as a virtue: Let the rest of the country consume itself in the quest for status symbols we Seattleites were living in a place so marvelous that standard American joys (money, lavish wardrobes, new cars, massive homes) weren't worth the effort it took to acquire them.
Small wonder then that I had never heard of Microsoft it was on that other side of Lake Washington, the upwardly mobile side, the side I resolutely ignored. All I knew about the company was what the editor had told me: That it wrote software for personal computers new machines I had heard a little bit about, since they were just starting to make national news.
Curious, I drove over, at the editor's invitation, to check it out. The company was housed in a nondescript building that stretched out behind an old Burgermaster drive-in. The lobby was dark, crowded and chaotic. Electronic equipment was piled everywhere. There was no receptionist and no security I could easily have walked out with all the computers I wanted. Kids looking like the "Frodo lives" freaks I remembered from college were running in all directions.
I couldn't believe there was any company anywhere that was hiring so many English majors. And when the English major who had called on me sat me down and explained what she wanted me to do, I couldn't begin to believe how much she was willing to pay me for doing her typesetting on contract.
How can I explain how strange it was to have something like Microsoft suddenly land in Seattle? The people in this place worked around the clock. They looked just like normal (if nerdish) Seattleites. They were dressed in jeans, sweatshirts, T-shirts, flannel, boots, sneakers; their hair was unkempt, and they were often sloppily bearded. Yet they crackled with purposefulness, ambition and fervor. They looked and acted like people who knew they were onto something unimaginably big, and they had the passion of True Believers.
It was clear that Microsoft was headed for success territory the likes of which had never been seen in Seattle. The excitement there was infectious and exhilarating this amazing little emotional and financial boom exploding on the quiet eastern shore of the lake. I kept waiting to feel in my heart the thrill I could see everywhere around me whenever I went out there. But instead, the more of this I took in, the more I found myself recoiling from it.
At first, I thought it was simply that I couldn't imagine spending as much time away from home as these people had to spend. By now, we had two daughters, and being at home during the day, working mostly when the girls were asleep, left me exposed almost constantly to irresistible charm.
Erin ran around the house all day either narrating her life in the third person or explaining the world around her, as in: "This is the permanental fur cat; its fur is permanental soft." Meanwhile, her little sister, Caitlin, toddled around calling me "Little Shat" and leading me to our couch, sitting me down, and correcting me as if I were a wayward child: "Now, Little Shat, you know that was a very bad thing to do." The opportunity to give that up for the company of hyperactive computer geeks and endless work on algorithm-bedecked paragraphs was horrifying.
Yet, it was hard not to see that my customers at Microsoft were destined for wealth and success beyond the reach and imagination of your basic English major, and I felt sorely tempted again and again to apply for full-time work there. Microsoft editorial jobs consisted mostly of checking grammar and punctuation in extremely straightforward prose not a daunting task, except for the risk of death by boredom and the payoff was potentially immense. I was always trying to talk myself into being interested, gradually coming to suspect that my fear of the place stemmed from more than just wanting to spend time with my family. (The thematically useless idea that Microsoft had no interest in hiring me has never occurred to me.)
I was pondering my ambivalence with particular frenzy one day when I came walking out of the Microsoft building and fell prey to one of those timely memories that always occur to people who inhabit memoirs. I found myself recalling Doc Maynard, the hesitantly legendary settler here who gave Seattle both its name and its collective consciousness.
In 1850, unhappily married and mired in debt, Dr. David Maynard set off for California and its fabled gold rush. His wife, Lydia, and their two children stayed behind. On the way West, he met up with a family headed the same direction, fell in love with one of them Catherine Broshears and followed her to her brother's home on south Puget Sound before settling in what would be Seattle.
The short story from then on is that Maynard laid claim to 640 acres that eventually would be worth $100 million and frittered away all of it, dying more or less in poverty. He found it impossible to hold for himself any of the wealth he brought to Seattle.
In 1855, when the Washington Territory started forcing Salish natives onto reservations, Maynard stocked Chief Sealth and other natives with enough supplies from his store to get them through their first winter away. When he sought reimbursement from the territorial government, he was rebuffed and ostracized by the rest of the city.
Alienated, he traded away nearly all of his Seattle land for a considerably less valuable parcel on Alki Point, where he and his now-wife Catherine tried to make a go of farming. That venture failed largely because Maynard gave most of what he managed to harvest away to less fortunate people. Finally, his house burned down and he and Catherine moved back to Seattle and opened a hospital. That enterprise went under in short order because Maynard hated billing his patients.
Maynard ended up afoul of the courts when his first wife came West to lay claim to half his land. Finally the courts decreed that neither wife was entitled to his land and that he therefore had to give half of it back to the government. When he died in 1873, as broke as his city was prosperous, all of Seattle turned out for his funeral.
He lives on in Seattle as a classic divided soul who always managed to work at cross-purposes with himself, consistently undoing his own designs. He was Seattle's first underachiever. And I found myself wondering, standing there that day in the Microsoft parking lot: Was our collective lack of ambition a psychological trait inherited from Maynard? More to the point was mine?
IN APRIL 1990, Forbes magazine published a picture of Bill Gates on its cover, with the caption, "Can He Be Stopped?" The story inside described him as a Titan who had maneuvered his company into a position of such power that it was, in effect, bigger than its own industry.
Microsoft's operating system was running on more than 80 percent of the world's personal computers, and everyone in the industry professed to be terrified of Gates. The change in his image was jarring. When I last had been paying attention, Gates if he was noticed at all was perceived largely as a charming eccentric with a gift for business, a mysterious boy genius who was converting his arcane computer knowledge into millions of dollars.
The idea that a Seattle kid, while still essentially a kid Gates in 1990 was only 34 was among the richest, most powerful and most feared men in the world just didn't compute. How on earth could anything as terrifying as Gates and as infinitely ambitious have come out of Seattle?
This was more than just a philosophical question. After living indirectly off Microsoft for a couple of years, I was put out of business when Gates' industry made phototypesetting obsolete. Now, I was making a living as a writer, and managed to get a magazine assignment to go out to Microsoft and try deciphering Gates. By then, he was already a legend, having helped create a new paradigm the paradigm of the startup where the story line was short and sweet: A, B, C, D, rich. Within a few years, it would be viewed in Seattle not as an anomaly but as the norm.
The Bill Gates who emerged at the top of his industry was not at all like the Bill Gates he had seemed to be in the early days of computing. But I decided after spending a week with him that it was less a matter of Gates' intentionally assuming a disguise, as many of his adversaries believed, than it was a matter of people misreading his Seattleness, his lack of pretension: his casual wardrobe, insistence on flying coach rather than first class, disinterest in drawing attention to himself, distaste for limousines and other perks of corporate power.
He was a cultural descendant of the Nordstroms, who obsessively eschewed the spotlight while driving themselves and their company to the top of their business. Just as one morning Americans woke up to find a store run by the shy Scandinavians on every street corner in the country, so, too, did they find themselves blindsided by the sudden dominance of a software company run by a shy Seattle kid.
Nordstrom and Microsoft and, for that matter, Starbucks all had presented themselves to the nation as soft-spoken, sensitive alternatives to the American corporate norm, then had gone out and crushed their competition the same old-fashioned way it had always been done.
I CAME BACK from my week of interviewing at Microsoft to a Seattle that looked like an old small town faded, dated, outmoded, befuddled. It was like coming back to your childhood home, in adulthood, after having matured elsewhere, in a real city, and marveling at how much smaller and more drab it looks than you remembered. I suddenly fell prey again to that same disgruntled restlessness that had driven me out of Seattle in the 1970s.
Having seen the energy and excitement at Microsoft, and the conviction that people there were changing the world, I found it impossible to settle back into the complacent slough I'd been inhabiting for the past 10 years. I decided that Microsoft was going to be changing the way we did everything, and I wanted to watch it happen from up close.
This sudden, uncharacteristic, irresistible urge to be where the action is took on the proportions of a complete personality change, a midlife crisis. Disgusted with myself for having disdained ambition and settled for contentment, I sat down and wrote out two proposals one, to Microsoft, asking permission to move into an office on its campus and follow a product team from beginning to end of a project, writing a book about its quest; and the other, to a publisher, asking for an advance to fund my research and writing.
Microsoft was reluctant until I explained to one of its public-relations people that I was not interested in company trade secrets all I wanted was to study company culture and that in any event I worked so slowly that by the time I got my manuscript finished and my book on store shelves, technology would have advanced far beyond the technology in my book.
Her eyes lit up. "That's a good data point!" she said. Two days later, I was on the Microsoft campus getting ready to talk directly with potential subjects. I may be the only person in history with something to sell to Microsoft whose pitch succeeded because of the seller's lack of ambition.
I watched over the course of the next two years as the relentlessness of the company wore away at the youth and vigor of the people I was following. I noticed that the end came for many employees in a sudden burnout manifested either in physical ailments or the inability to work any longer. These people were being slain by ambition. And in nearly all the cases I knew of, the company, as if understanding that industry conditions were to blame for the employee's sudden collapse, offered each one tremendously generous severance packages.
Life outside of Microsoft was barely noticeable, so wrapped up was I in the struggles and lives of the people I was stalking.
I emerged from Microsoft early in 1994 to find an entirely different Seattle from the one I had left two years before. Optimism and money were everywhere. Everyone on the streets looked as young and purposeful as the people working at Microsoft. There were disturbing new faces kids who had come west to Seattle "because it's cool," and more disturbing because they saw the city as a place to make their fortunes rather than drop out.
By 1997, a new gold rush would be raging all over the state. In February that year, Coopers & Lybrand reported that 61 Washington companies had closed venture-capital deals in 1996, bringing $295.5 million into the state a significant chunk of the $10.1 billion invested nationwide in such deals, particularly given the size and remoteness of Washington.
"It probably doesn't get any better than it is right now," the Puget Sound Venture Club's Gary Rittner told The Seattle Times. "These angel investors are feeling pretty good. If you're the right guy with a good idea, you can probably get the money."
Weirdly enough, it was going to get a lot better than it was right then, and you didn't even have to have a good idea. Most Seattleites viewed the boom as evidence that economic rules and models were changing and that Seattle was helping lead the world into a new economy, the workings of which were inexplicable to minds trained to think in old-economy terms. In time, the believers insisted, the new rules would become clear, the behaviors and results rational and reasonably predictable.
Now, lured by the prospect of putting in a few years' hard work and long hours in exchange for retirement by age 40, people began leaving mainstream businesses for jobs at startups with no products, customers or apparent means of ever making money. Fascination with the personal computer had given way to far more fervid fascination with the Internet, which everyone began pegging as the next revolutionary development in computing, communications and entertainment.
The word "content" was everywhere in Internet strategyland. I began getting calls, many of them desperate, from Web-site editors faced with the pressing need to fill their vast, empty sites with well, they really weren't quite sure what to fill them with; all they knew was that whatever it was they wanted, it was worth a lot of money.
Sites were willing to pay three or four times the going print rate to "content providers" their highly entertaining word for "writers" in return for pieces that took three or four times less work than printed pieces took. For a writer-cum-content-provider like myself, their pleas amounted to hilarious fantasy: "Could you please give me a piece of opinion writing quickly, on any subject you like, for this extravagant amount of money? And one more thing could you make the story you write really, really short?"
Between the sheer number of pieces I was writing and the youth and energy of the people I was writing about, 1996 through 1998 went by in a blur allowing me no time to luxuriate in doubt, depression, disapproval, self-loathing the hallmark emotions of the Seattle-souled. I found myself instead getting swept up in the new Seattle zeitgeist the chase for the Next Big Thing that would catch on worldwide and make its local progenitors billionaires.
Not that it was all uncomplicated excitement. The explosion in salaries and net worth in Seattle and the tremendous influx of young, moneyed new residents set prices and real-estate taxes on a steep upward curve that made supporting a family on a writer's income increasingly difficult.
I would sit at our dinner table in the evening imagining I was leading my family to financial ruin by refusing to buy wholeheartedly enough into the boom to go work for a startup. If only I'd pursued those opportunities with Microsoft and Amazon! (I had lucked into a chance to join Amazon in its earliest days and, Maynardite to the core, passed the chance on to a friend, who is now fabulously rich.) My kids would be better fed, more secure, happier! We could be sitting here over dinner trying to figure out how to diversify the family stock portfolio!
Instead, we sat through dinners night after night in deepening silence, and I kept hearing the same conversation in my head:
"What's for dinner tonight, Daddy?"
ONE DAY, I LOOKED UP to discover that two startup-obsessed youngsters had come prancing into my life. Named Michael "Squish" Almquist and William J. "Joey" King, they wanted to build a communications system in which as many as eight different people in eight different locations could put on a little head-mounted display connected to a small box that was in turn connected to the Internet, and "meet" face to face in a digitally rendered "environment," in which they could manipulate and collaborate on any kind of digitally stored file. The system would allow all forms of collaboration and competition, from simple face-to-face conversation to working together on three-dimensional models or playing complex computer games.
The tenuous technological feasibility of the dream aside, there was the more difficult matter of the credibility of the dreamers. Almquist and King struck the sane as unlikely builders of a digital communications empire. Cherubic, mischievous, chronically boyish, poorly groomed and given to long, energetic, free-form disquisitions on any subject anyone brought up, the two were like a high-tech Tweedledum-Tweedledee tag team.
Yet, the tenor of the times was such that they raised enough money to start not one company, but four. And I was able to get another book contract for a project centered more or less on them.
From 1996 into 1998, I followed Almquist and King around downtown Seattle as they fought for their dream. My research turned into a catalog of futility. Every day I would faithfully chronicle the signs of failure I could see all around them. There was the utter disorganization of Squish's mind; the repeated failure of their prototypes to work consistently; the growing tension between Squish and the other programmers; Squish's and Joey's eventual banishment from F5, the company that was to be the cornerstone of their empire.
And then the day came when all of this futility resulted in F5's Initial Public Offering an event that left Squish, at the end of F5's first day on the stock exchange, worth $20 million.
By this time mid-1999 I had finished work on my book and tried to get on with my life. But Squish and Joey wouldn't let me move on they had come to regard me as a permanent fixture in their lives, their personal historian and they turned up wherever I went, like the two tormentors of Joseph K in Kafka's "The Trial."
They would sit in my office talking about how they were going to use their newfound wealth to launch their dream companies and make me come work for them. "You need to come and work for a real company for real money (they were particularly amused by my salary). Look how depressed everybody is around here this place is killing your soul."
And I had to admit the smart money said they were right. I could feel myself willingly giving in to the glamour Squish and Joey represented. By late 1999, I came to believe, happily, that my destiny, and the city's, lay in the direction they were taking it. I became quite insufferable on the subject, dismissing my erstwhile coevals' alarm over the opening of retail outlet after retail outlet Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Tiffany's as Chicken-Little thinking, the panicked focus on risible side effects when Seattle's ascent into glory was the real story.
Yet I fell prey at the same time to an unacknowledged unease. I lapsed into a careful, steady schedule of drinking through the workday, editing and writing stories in an anesthetized haze, downing pints of sanity-pickling local microbrews at lunch and dinner, and employing massive doses of coffee to get me through the mornings.
I couldn't see that I was in mourning. While my dismayed family watched me grow fat, glum and comatose, Squish and Joey chose to be enormously entertained by this regimen and came down to my office nearly every day to take me to lunch and watch me drink while they sat there regaling me with insults.
They insisted constantly that I didn't really work for a living, and that my journalistic enterprise was an outmoded, no longer useful artifact from a bygone age. They insisted that they were going to give me a real job with a real salary. I was going to be half employee, half biographer, writing business plans and product documentation for them while gathering material for a new masterpiece about them. With each of them at an elbow like guards escorting a condemned man to the Chamber, we would head off to a nearby tavern.
Safely in the bar, pint in my fist, I would listen to their tales of impending glory. And I was going to be there with them! No more editing lame fashion supplements! No more writing stupid lifestyle stories for a dying alternative newspaper!
SQUISH AND JOEY'S stock kept shooting up into the stratosphere. Six months after F5 went public, Joey had a net worth of $6.6 million, Squish a mind-numbing $200 million. And all the while, they were ridiculing me for feeling hesitant about going to work for them.
"What if the economy starts turning down?" I asked one day.
Joey looked at me as if I'd gone mad. "Why would the economy go down?" he asked. "And even if it did, the technology sector wouldn't!"
I gave in, and gave notice. A few weeks later, I found myself wading through the WTO riots to my new life.
I had my moments of unease about this bargain, but tried to think of it less as the sale of my soul than a high-interest loan of it. Looking back from a safe emotional distance now, reassessing (or reinventing) my state of mind, I believe that I derived some comfort from the subconscious suspicion that I was signing on with a doomed proposition. For indeed I was: 18 months to the day after I signed on with them, Squish and Joey's new companies died.
I reacted as if it were a tremendously surprising shock the last thing in the world I would have expected. It was the ending I had always known was coming but had never been able to imagine.
Shock almost immediately gave way to recrimination. I couldn't understand how I could have known as much as I knew about the uncertainties, risks and fundamental insanity of the technology market and still jumped wholeheartedly into it.
Hoping to deepen my hopelessness, I started taking constant note of Seattle's unemployment rate, which was rising faster than stock prices had been two years before. There wasn't a glimmer of hope to be seen, no matter where I looked.
Not that I was looking, particularly. When you lose your job, you devote most of your waking hours to self-loathing. It keeps you too busy to look for work. There is something almost bracing about the beating you give yourself for having so carefully arranged your life so as to leave you with a family to feed and no means of doing so at the time in your dependents' lives when they most need your money. You fill your days with visitations from your angry Inner Mother, who is given to shrieking: "How could you have been so stupid?"
The problem with this sort of energetic self-flagellation is that the high only lasts for a few days. And unemployment is forever.
I applied for work as a teacher, public-relations flack, technical writer, marketing writer, computer-user-education writer, manager, editor of this, producer of that, and on and on and on and on, sending various versions of my résumé off into silence and nothingness, feeling eminently unqualified and unsuited for every possible job on modern Earth, except for bile processor.
I stopped talking to my family almost entirely. The whole bust raging through Seattle, the legions of laid-off, the ruined lives I saw it all as a story not about the city but about me. Other unemployed were not suffering humans but simply competitors, obstacles to my finding work.
I saw my life now as a ridiculous quest that began as a vain and pointless attempt to understand, to define, Seattle: What it was, what it was becoming, whether the magic that I believed to be unique to it could be saved in the face of material progress and a tremendous economic boom. That search gradually became more and more confused until I couldn't tell whether I was trying to define my city or my self.
It wasn't just me, either that question always seemed to be part of the news in Seattle, the main item on the public agenda. What was it about Seattle that made its people so self-absorbed?
Then one night, for no reason, I raised my head while we were sitting at the dinner table and looked out at my family for what felt like the first time in months. My eyes met Caitlin's, her brows beetling, her lips pursed, her face set in a stern expression. I was about to be disciplined.
"You are the most self-pitying person I've ever seen," she said. "Ever."
It was an amazing moment one of the great experiences of my life. The blackness evaporated around me. I felt clouds part overhead and heard a chorus of angels burst into song, as is customary when humans undergo Revelation. It was almost unbearably trite. Everything and everyone around me vanished for an instant, replaced by pure glowing golden light and the vision of a shining path curving out before me, beginning to describe a circle.
I blinked and restored my home and family to their rightful places. We were all quietly eating as if nothing at all had happened. Had anyone heard what Caitlin said? Was she even aware she'd said what I'd heard her say?
Now everything was different. My sorrows and fears had evaporated. I was Little Shat again, taken aside by Caitlin for correction, brought body and soul back to those pre-boom days of laid-back bliss. And now, I knew, all would be well.
Fred Moody is a Seattle-area author. Susan Jouflas is a Seattle Times staff artist.
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