August 3, 1997

The Great Divide He Knows Spokane Self-Styled Ambassador For The Lilac City Goes On A Mission To Seattle

By The Spokesman-Review
 

I spent five days in Seattle not long ago and did what everybody does. I applied for a job at Microsoft.

It took awhile to find the right low-slung suburban corporate campus. But when a guy in a Mercedes almost ran over me in a visitors parking lot, I knew I was in the right place.

Boy, my friends back in Spokane were going to be amazed. I could almost picture their reactions.

“Did you hear about Paul? He landed a great gig at Microsoft.”

“No! Wow. Well, then he’s set for life. But he’s such a great guy, he deserves it.”

I went inside. It was bright, businesslike and uncluttered.

A sign said: “Thank you for considering Microsoft Corporation as a potential employer!”

Hey, no problem.

Striding confidently to the information counter, I announced that I wanted a job application.

This was it, I thought.

A young woman wearing a lot of makeup looked up. She immediately began the all-important process of figuring out where yours truly might fit in the software giant’s dynamic future.

“For a shuttle driver?” she asked.

The words hung in the air.

The next few minutes are kind of a blur in my memory. It should suffice to say that I didn’t get a high-powered job, or any job for that matter.

In the weeks since what has come to be known as the “Incident at Building 100,” I’ve gone over it and over it in my mind.

What went wrong? Was it the fact that I possess virtually no computer skills? Could it be that perhaps everyone looks at me and guesses that it’s my dream to become a shuttle driver?

Nah. It had to be the button. It was anti-Spokane bias at work.

You see, there’s something I neglected to mention. The entire time I was out in public while in Seattle, I wore this big pink button on which a special message was printed in large black letters:

“I Know Spokane…ASK ME!”

You couldn’t miss it. Believe me.

I wore it in the lobby of the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel. I wore it on the Bainbridge Island ferry. I wore it on the top of the Space Needle and on city buses. I wore it everywhere.

I wore it so relentlessly that, when I came back home, it was possible to imagine that at least a few people in Seattle would soon find themselves asking the same question. “What ever happened to that Spokane guy?”

In addition, much of the time I also wore a too-small greenish ballcap emblazoned with “SPOKANE” and a generic mountain scene. This pretty much rounded out a look that said “Total doofus.” But at least the cap kept drizzle off my glasses as long as I remembered not to look up at tall buildings.

So you’re probably wondering. How many people did, in fact, ask about Spokane?

Not many. I observed probably hundreds of passers-by reading my button. After all, it was hard to ignore. Moreover, I spent a lot of time in crowded places. But darned few West Siders spoke to me about it. I’ll get to those encounters in a second.

First, let’s look at some theories about why my lazy man’s survey technique didn’t hook many responses.

For one thing, I’ve been told that I’m not the most approachable guy in the world. I like little kids and pets. But a smile is not my natural expression.

Too bad. I appreciate Spokane. And I was cocked and ready to do a ton of one-on-one PR for my city.

Secondly, the problem might have been the button itself. Maybe people saw that it was pink and deduced that I was some sort of gay rights ranter who had an ax to grind about the conservative old Inland Empire.

Perhaps most important, however, was the simple fact that very few people in Seattle appear to care about Spokane. To say they aren’t curious would be understating it.

People would scan the button, glance at my face and never show the slightest hint of a reaction. Well, except for those who studied the button and seemed frightened.

I can only guess that a few of these anxious souls were image-conscious Seattleites still in the closet about having grown up in the Inland Northwest. Maybe they thought I would somehow divine their dark secret and out them right there in the Bellevue Square mall.

The first person (not counting a friend-of-a-friend dinner companion) to speak to me about the button was a twentysomething guy in an elevator at my tired downtown hotel. He read the “I Know Spokane” line aloud and asked, “On a personal basis?”

My response immediately pointed out the need for a more rehearsed answer. “Well, not biblically,” I said.

I tried to rally by quickly adding, “Ask away!”

But the moment was lost.

The next day, in mossy Redmond while searching for the right section of Microsoft sprawl, I went into a Kentucky Fried Chicken. A young guy wearing a headset behind the counter took his time reading the button. “You…know…Spokane?” he said, struggling for comprehension.

I assured him that I did indeed. “Any questions?” I asked.

He shook his head “No.”

At the downtown Seattle Public Library, a man with a food-trapping beard regarded me with his head cocked slightly to one side. “What’s Spokane got?” he asked.

“Less of everything,” I answered.

After a day of experiencing King County traffic, that was meant as an if-you-think-about-it endorsement of life in the Lilac City. But later, I wished I’d added “Except sunshine and elbow room.”

The next day, a teenage girl standing in front of a Thai restaurant in the University District saw the button. Her jaw dropped a little. “You know Spokane?” she said. “I do, too.”

At first, I suspected this was a ploy to get me to buy one of the sorry-looking beaded necklaces she and a friend were selling. At least I think they were necklaces.

But both girls seemed to be familiar with Spokane. “The people there were rude,” said one of them.

I asked if they were runaways. They said they weren’t.

A 19-year-old waiter at a restaurant called Nikola’s in the Wallingford neighborhood saw the button and seemed flabbergasted. “You’re from The Can?” he asked.

You betcha, I declared before asking how he liked Seattle.

“I like it a lot better than Spokane,” he said.

Oh.

But as luck would have it, he might be moving back to enroll in a firefighter-training program, he said. He didn’t seem thrilled.

I declined to offer sympathy.

At GameWorks, a senses-stunning high-tech amusement arcade in downtown, a woman spotted me standing like a potted plant under a strobe light. That pink button must have really stood out.

“Do you work here?” she asked over some absurdly loud music.

“No, I’m from Spokane,” I shouted.

She shot me a “Well, then, what good are you?” look and departed, the strobe making it seem as if she was moving really fast.

The next day, in the lobby of the historic Smith Tower, a pudgy security guard scrutinized my button. “Is Spokane harder to know about than it looks?” he asked.

Enough was enough. I decked him with a left hook.

Not really. But I was in the mood to see a smiling face. And that’s what happened when meeting a friend who was going to take me to lunch at a Vietnamese place in the International District. At least she was smiling until she saw my button. Then, for a moment, she looked as if she was weighing the advisability of being seen with Mr. Spokane Buttonhead. (She got over her discomfort quickly enough when she realized nobody paid much attention to me.)

That night, entering the Kingdome at Gate E for a Mariners game, the fiftyish woman tearing my ticket looked me up and down. “Spokane?” she said. “What about it?”

“It’s a nice place,” I stammered.

“I know,” she said, her expression softening. “I’d love to live there.”

I was too surprised to say a word. I almost didn’t write it down in my notebook. It just sounded so unlikely.

A little while later, inside the dome, a good-natured beer vendor stopped by my aisle seat. “So can you answer ANY random question about Spokane?”

“Anything,” I said without hesitation.

He said he’d think of a hard one and zing me next time he came by.

I was actually looking forward to his return. But my ticket was screwed up. There were two different seat numbers printed on it. So an usher said I had to move.

Maybe it was my imagination. Maybe it was classic Spokane defensiveness. But it seemed that after reading my pink button the other people involved in the same-seat dispute assumed that I was the confused party, not TicketMaster.

This steamed me. But for some reason I started to feel better while watching the Twins murder the M’s.

Ya gotta love those guys.

The next day, I paraded my “I Know Spokane” button around in settings ranging from a museum to a gun shop to a Mexican restaurant where the other patrons were speaking Spanish.

The button got lots of looks. No bites.

It was at about that point that I figured out another problem with my “Button Survey” plan. It was, in a nutshell, a ridiculous idea. Except for panhandlers, people don’t talk to strangers in big cities - especially not to strangers wearing big pink buttons.

Still, I wasn’t displeased with myself for having worn it.

Then it was time to go home. I know enough to get out of the rain.

“So, you know Spokane?” asked a woman at the Alaska Airlines counter at SeaTac.

“Exhaustively,” I said.

She took my word for it.

A sixtyish woman with a Russian accent working at one of the concourse security checkpoints read only the bottom half of the button’s message. “Ask me?” she said. “OK. I’ll ask. Are you married?”

Haha.

Then my button set off the metal detector.

Another of the security people was going to ask me about it, but my expression must have suggested that I had already been in Seattle too long. So he just smiled. And, sans button, I passed through the metal detector again.

I fished my pink badge of courage out of a plastic bowl and started walking toward home.

Barely breaking stride on my way to gate C-9, I pinned it back on.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Staff illustrations by Milt Priggee 5 Graphics: 1. By the numbers: Way of life, Part 1 2. The friendly factor 3. By the numbers: Way of life, Part 2 4. Traveling to the other side 5. Excellent drivers?


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