I remember returning to Seattle in the fall of 1991. I had spent two years drifting around the Detroit area after failing to apply for admission to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in time for the 1990-91 school year. That life phase ended after a friend of mine and I took a couple of months off to hitchhike across Europe – first following an all-girl rock band through Poland, and then, after I broke off to write about my experiences with them from a friend’s place in Berlin, chasing after the band across the continent to get them to fact check what I wrote.
After I returned to Detroit, I found that my job as a student media facilitator had vanished (not returning to work at the time you originally estimated you would come back will do that to you). Additional pressure to leave the Motor City came when, having watched the Soviet Union disintegrate after a hard-line coup failed, I saw an opportunity to do something really worth writing about. Gathering the last of my funds, I set out for Alaska, intent on finding some way to cross into Siberia, and become one of the first to make a low-budget crossing of all 15 former Soviet republics.
In retrospect, I blame my failure to cross the 11 time zones of the collapsing USSR on poor planning. When you don’t have money, or contacts, it doesn’t matter much how intrepidly you stand on the shores of the Cook Inlet of Alaska. Russia was far out of reach. So I returned to Seattle in the latter half of September, showing up on the door of my mother’s newly-purchased condo on Lake Meridian in Kent just in time to get ready and go out and try to sneak into the Paramount for Nirvana’s big concert promoting their Nevermind album. (I failed utterly, but Kurt Cobain was polite about not being able to get me in – as a bonus, I got to meet Courtney Love for the first and only time… sadly, it would be the last I would ever see Cobain alive.)
I remember, in particular, the collection of newspapers that existed in Seattle at the time. The Weekly was run by what had always seemed to me a bunch of baby boomer new-age types that were trying to push Seattle toward a homogenized crystal-watching organic-food munching future, and The Rocket was holding up the banner of local music as best that it could. A large number of self-published zines written by writers like Karl Myers (I want to say the first incarnation of his Permafrost zine was called “Bottlerocket House of Cards”, but my memory is not so good), and the occasional edition of Maximum RocknRoll littered the front shelves of Left Bank Books in the Pike Place Market. Alongside all those offerings, I remember finding a copy of the first edition of The Stranger.
Looking at it, I thought that perhaps this was an alternative student newspaper for the University of Washington. If so, I thought, it was quite well done for an initial issue. I had tried to do a competitive alternative publication myself at Green River Community College down in Auburn, and I knew what it took to try and compete with an institutionally-funded publication. Of course, The Stranger’s goal was far greater than just the university – it was all of Seattle itself.
I’m not sure if one of my favorite columns was in that issue, I think it was called Spikey’s Koffee Klatch (basically, it was a run-on sentence written as if the writer were a maniac on caffeine), but I do remember the Hey, Faggot! column put together by Dan Savage. Dan appeared, in those days, to be mostly a gay rights activist. He did have a reputation for being an ardent fighter for causes like ACT UP, which was in its own fight to promote safe sex awareness to high school students. But Dan, well, he wanted his column to be called specifically “Hey, Faggot!”, rather than Savage Love, in order that he could lead the charge in reclaiming the word “’faggot”, co-opting it into something positive. Or at least that’s what it seemed to me that this was what he was trying to do.
For me, though, the brilliance of Dan’s work wasn’t in that. The early columns all had a preamble explaining that this was a sex advice column and that when you look for advice on anything, it’s generally best to get it from a disinterested third party. It only followed that for heterosexual sex, you couldn’t find a more disinterested party than a “faggot”, that horribly pejorative slang term for gay male. This was the kind of thing that stirred real envy in me, making me wish I had thought of that myself in my Green River days, and of course that I had the resources of having a good student writer who was openly homosexual.
Still, when looking back to my time at Auburn’s Harvard-on-the-Hill, power-napping under my editor’s desk between going to classes and doing page layout on the nearby light-board, if I did have a gay staff writer, I’m not sure that I would have been as comfortable around him as I should have been. Today, I’m a bit ashamed that this was the case. Indeed, when I first met Dan, I found myself habitually uncomfortable in a typically suburban way. I remember later reading his writing about how he enjoyed making “breeder boys” nervous, but that after awhile he started to feel sorry for them, because for the most part we were sold by society on an irrational fear of being identified as gay. I can’t help but think that I was probably one of those socially-handicapped straights who inspired part of that transition.
Whether I played that particular role or not, though, Dan quickly erased my then-typical hetero male fear that all gays were out to get me. He showed a lot of respect for all his coworkers, and I quickly got the message that in order to associate with him, I didn’t need to change my own sexuality. As long as I was happy with his sexuality, we could co-exist. He was the first gay person that I felt comfortable working so closely with, and typing on an old Macintosh computer while sitting alongside him as he was writing another of his columns (that happened maybe a couple of times, even though he preferred working, presumably, from his home) did more than anything else to shed these sorts of irrational fears. I’m forever thankful for that.
Recently, The Stranger posted on its site a number of 25-year anniversary stories, one specifically about their first year in Seattle. I came in at the six month mark, and stayed through probably the 11-month mark. (By late-September 1992, I was already back on the road, this time in Ukraine.) I remembered a few of the personalities of the day that they presented. They had dug Matt Cook out from wherever he ended up, just for the article. He was the editor in chief of the day when I was there, the dark-clothed goateed personality that ran the show on the editorial side. I wanted his job (and later I admit that I followed him into that look), but he was clearly superior to me.
Another familiar name was Nancy Hartunian (definitely an Armenian name, though I have no idea if that was ever in fact part of what she considers her identity). She was always fluttering around the background far out of my line of sight, so I never got to know her. I probably should have, though, as I had started with the publication not as a concert calendar person, but rather as an advertising design “apprentice”, one of three. However, she interacted mostly with the person who was my boss, Jonathan Hart Eddy (whose absence was noticeably conspicuous to me in the 25-year anniversary article). He was the other person whose position I wanted, but who was also clearly superior to me.
Additionally, I saw in one of the pictures in the article the person who, if memory serves me, would replace Matt as editor, Christine Wenc. I remember being infatuated with her. Looking back, she was another ambition from my days at The Stranger that was likewise wholly out of my reach. (I can at least laugh now about what was clearly hopeless back then.)
Tim Keck’s picture was also very familiar to me. He was always in the background, and the paper always seemed to take on his brand of very snarky personality, even with all the other contributors to it. But without a doubt, he was quite a supportive uber-boss. The article noted that no one got paid at the time (yeah, that matches my memory to a tee), but I do remember on the last day when I was entering data for the concert calendar, just before I left Seattle for my second trip into Eastern Europe, he gave me ten dollars as a token of appreciation. Maybe it was because I was one of the few local boys on staff.
Having been on The Stranger early in its rise to stardom (while it was still on the second floor of that weird beaten barn-like Dutch Colonial Revival-style home on the 4200 block of Latona Avenue), and having interviewed Kurt Cobain twice in different Detroit venues, were probably the two Seattle things that made me seem cooler than perhaps I actually was. (Having been on the staff of KGRG, and still having my dilapidated and aging yellow FCC broadcasting license from there, takes a close third, but that’s still very much a local thing.)
In the end, though, I’ve so far lived nothing of what I would consider worthy of publishing. To this day, I’ve not written anything of my story of crossing the former Soviet Union. Perhaps, this is because I still have eight of the 15 republics still to cross, and indeed, I’ve not been any further east in Russia than Vladivostok. And time is slowly ticking away on me.