The guilty pleasures of Seattle

Even facing a Microsoft breakup, the city is prospering like never before. So why do these people feel so guilty?

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The guilty pleasures of Seattle

A few years ago a Seattle Times food critic said that there was an optimum number of French restaurants a city should have — any less, and it wasn’t a real city; too many, and there was something wrong about the place.

One can safely assume that Seattle now has too many French restaurants. Even a few years ago, after clear weather, you couldn’t see smog for three days; now you can see it after one day. Eddie Bauer was once the brand name of choice, even for downtown businessmen; Tiffany’s and Cartier are now in Pacific Place, Neiman-Marcus in the Westlake Center. Everyone downtown seems to be wearing designer eyewear, Italian shoes, expensive leather coats. Late-model SUVs (“I’m in touch with nature”) and Volvos (“I’m intellectual”) are ubiquitous, though very few Mercedes or BMWs, at least in the neighborhoods where I drive. A friend who was a successful potter was forced to give up his studio when the rent doubled, so he’s now remodeling houses for millionaires half his age.

There are now 60,000 millionaires (one-third of whom are Microsoft employees or former employees) living in the Seattle area. A friend’s former student, who received his MFA degree at Eastern Washington University several years ago, was divorced and destitute; his temp agency assigned him to the warehouse at Amazon (Jeff Bezos’ garage). He’s now worth $10 million. Walking down the street in Pioneer Square, he hands out $10 bills to beggars. I feel the money as a gilded blimp hovering over the city; it’s the shadow passing across all activity, all conversation — when you got in, when you can divest, when the IPO is, what stock is the next next next …

The bidding for the house around the corner in my shabby-genteel neighborhood was between an Amazon couple and a Microsoft couple; it started at $509K and finished a week later at $550K, cash. The house I “own” is now worth more than twice what I bought it for in 1991. Things have changed since the Justice Department asked Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson to split Microsoft into two companies, but not that much. Now, houses that would have sold in days are staying on the market for a month. A sign of the Seattle economic collapse to come? All of Seattle may be in denial, but nobody here seems to think so. A former Microsoft employee who now works for Amazon said, “Anxiety about Microsoft is bogus. The case is affecting no one, not even Microsoft employees; they’re convinced the judge’s decision will be overturned. Sure, cyberfolks here have worries — about the stock market in general, about venture-capital streams drying up, about employee retention. But Microsoft? Nah. That’s the stablest thing around, no matter what shape it takes. It’s old guard by now, like a rock.”



Being a writer in image-addicted America makes me feel at times somewhat marginal; being a writer in cyber-sick Seattle often makes me feel absolutely beside the point. I was born in a suburb of Los Angeles, grew up in a suburb of San Francisco, went to college in Providence, R.I., and graduate school in Iowa City, Iowa, lived for a few years in New York, spent an alarming portion of my 20s sequestered in artists’ colonies and taught at a small school in a tiny hamlet in upstate New York for three years. So when I moved to Seattle in 1988 to take a teaching job in the creative writing program at the University of Washington, I thought of Seattle not as an idyll but as a real city. A small city but a real city, nonetheless. It’s now even less of an idyll and more of a city, which, to me, is a good thing.

Publicly, I condescended to Seattle, repeated the jokes (“When it’s 11 p.m. in New York, it’s 1972 in Seattle”), but privately I rather liked the containable snugness of Seattle. Publicly, I said it didn’t matter anymore where one lived, but privately (and quite unconsciously) I must have registered the remoteness of my new address, for in the last decade I’ve gone from writing mostly novels and short stories to writing mostly nonfiction books and personal essays.

It was as if, upon arriving here, I no longer entirely trusted the life I lived on a daily level — the material of fiction, at least the sort of autobiographical fiction I was writing — to be of sufficient interest to people living east of the Cascades. So my work became saturated with overtly public, nationwide topics such as the psychodynamics of mass media, our love-hate relationship with celebrity, the racial subtext of professional basketball, etc.

This remoteness is a crucial part of the answer to the question people so often ask, “Why Seattle?” — i.e., how could such a sleepy fishing village become home to so many world-conquering companies? It’s quite striking to me how many of the most successful businesses here — Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, McCaw Cellular, PacTar (Peterbilt trucks), UPS (which began in Seattle as a cooperative) — have created products that have the specific effect of shrinking the distance between Seattle and the rest of the country. The very remoteness of Seattle engenders the need, which creates the imagination to fill the need. (There’s a proverb about this.) This doesn’t happen if you’re living in Montclair, N.J., where you think you’re living in or near the center of the universe. “The locus of innovation has shifted westward in the United States,” as the chairman of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently said. Or as my friend Joel likes to say, “The silicon chip wasn’t invented in New York; it couldn’t have been.”

A few years ago Fred Moody, the former editor of the Seattle Weekly, wrote an incisive article about a BBC film crew that came to Seattle to document what they assumed would be a vibrant city and wound up packing up its equipment and going home without much of a movie because they couldn’t find the vibrancy anywhere. To Moody, the film crew didn’t get Seattle. They didn’t see that the bland face Seattle shows to the rest of the world is a workaholic’s “Do Not Disturb” sign. Less politely, Leave us the fuck alone. It’s a Northern city (Scandinavian, Calvinist, Puritan) and a Pacific Rim city (Asian, self-effacing, polite) and a Western port city (blue-collar, hard-working, unshowy).

Moody recently told me, “Whenever I think about all this, I think about it as a native who grew up in a much more marvelous Seattle that disdained the kind of status-seeking that is endemic here now. It’s hard to remember, but most of these hugely successful companies began as ‘idealistic’ enterprises of one kind or another. The three founders of Starbucks just wanted to make Seattle more like Italy — with these little coffee shops where people would sit around and discuss opera over espresso. Gordon Bowker, one of the Starbucks founders, is appalled by what the company has become. People forget that Microsoft was essentially a revolutionary guerrilla company intent on wresting computing power away from corporations and giving it to citizens” — a view Jackson apparently doesn’t share. “A lot of early Microsoft people feel tremendous discomfiture over how rich they got. No one ever dreamed anything like what happened would happen.

“I was walking around downtown during the WTO riots, and I was struck by how deep the resentment ran against the newly rich and technologically evangelistic in this huge population. But the more paradoxical thought was that with all the pretensions to sophistication and worldliness Seattle has taken on in recent years — a function of its rise in wealth and the power of Microsoft — it still is a small town, with a small-towner’s inability to understand the real world. How else to explain the city’s cluelessness in advance of these protests?”

Seattle has of course been overrun not only by WTO protesters but by the force that winds up overrunning nearly every city — capitalism amok. Seattle native and longtime Seattle journalist Bruce Barcott, now a writer for Outside magazine, says, “The ‘Why don’t we get the hell out of Seattle?’ conversation has become a staple of my conversations with my wife. I blame the money, which has made it impossible to live in Seattle on anything less than an excellent salary and has, lastly and sadly, made Seattle into a worldwide center of ambition. About five years ago we started getting the hyper-ambitious money-smart set, who see Seattle as a kind of junior-varsity San Francisco.” Barcott dates Seattle’s descent into ambition “from the moment Microsoft hired Michael Goff to run their ill-fated online ‘channels.’ Others date it from Michael Kinsley’s hiring at Slate.” He adds, “And the weather’s getting to me.”

Barcott is right about the weather — it feels like it hasn’t stopped raining since shortly after Kurt Cobain’s suicide — but I have to wonder: Is anything particularly the matter with Seattle becoming a “worldwide center of ambition”? Isn’t that a good (or at least an amusing) thing? No, not “greed is good,” but who wants to be too content where one lives? Isn’t the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” also supposed to be a blessing? As the British writer Jonathan Raban, another Seattle resident, once said, “I don’t think you’re supposed to exactly like where you live. I think you’re supposed to live where you live, in a state of grumbling dissatisfaction with it.”

In the end, maybe it’s this grumbling dissatisfaction with itself that sets Seattle apart, that makes its newfound ambition and its 60,000 millionaires palatable. James Atlas wrote a recent article in Vanity Fair profiling several former Microsoft employees, and making fun of the way they were spending their millions — going hang-gliding, opening flower shops, doing do-gooder projects. The rhetoric of the piece had to do with the way in which the East is supposedly about work and the West is about play. This is a fairy tale the East tells itself, as Hollywood and Silicon Valley and Redmond have colonized the world. “Reality,” Jeff Bezos recently said, “is an interesting environment.” The great thing about the line is that no one could tell, exactly, whether he was kidding.

And if Seattle is filled with the nouveau riche, they must be the guiltiest, smartest and least vulgar multimillionaires in the history of the world. A friend who’s a Seattle real-estate agent said, “All of the new rich (whom I’ve come to call NR) I’ve dealt with have been circumspect about discussing their financial gains. No one has boasted about their wealth; in fact, it has been the opposite.” So Seattle.

“I presented an offer to an NR couple who were selling (they were in their early 30s). They were selling because they wanted to go to Paris to live for a few years.” Yikes. “It was clear there was no job there. As we wrapped up the transaction, the NR wife asked that I please not tell the neighbors about their plan (to go to Paris).” So embarrassing! “I live in the neighborhood, so she thought I might talk to one of our neighbors. I assured her I wouldn’t. She went on to say, with a good deal of shyness, that she ‘just didn’t want to give …’ She didn’t finish the sentence.” As who could have? “But it was clear that she felt uncomfortable that they were young and retired, with money, and could make these incredible choices.

“I had another NR buyer last year who bought in Capitol Hill” — one of the most expensive neighborhoods of Seattle. “He did not come from money and here he was, in his early 40s, a rich man. As his agent, I needed to know what his financial plans were. He informed me he’d be paying cash. This didn’t fall right out of his mouth. He didn’t gloat or try to impress — just the opposite; he seemed uncomfortable admitting he had the means to do this. All cash. I told him he was fortunate. He said he never doubted it.” What a genuinely graceful, utterly Seattlesque answer.

Compared to the way Seattleites have and spend money, there’s something fundamentally boring about money in the East. It maintains status quo, is about the past, just keeps feathering the nests of the patriarchs and their broods on Park Avenue and in Summit, N.J., and Ridgefield, Conn. Money in the West is about dreaming the golden dream — fantasies of the frontier, illusions of a new world to come. To people here, I’m a satirist of the city. But I like illusions of a new world to come; I don’t see how anyone can live life without them.

Which may explain why, whenever people outside Seattle criticize Amazon or Starbucks or Microsoft or even Boeing, I find I go rather quickly and stridently into Chamber of Commerce mode. I’m obsessed, for instance, with the relentlessly negative slant of the New York Times’ coverage of Amazon and Microsoft. (It’s like criticizing your parents or your children: You feel free to do it deep into the night, but woe upon anyone outside your family who offers such a critique themselves.) As difficult as I find to admit it, I’m a Westerner and even, if I don’t watch out, a Seattleite. Will the last 47 people who don’t believe the Internet is changing forever the order of society please turn out the lights in their widget factory?

David Shields’s previous book, "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto," was named one of the best books of 2010 by more than 30 publications.

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