Jess Walter: The Urban Outdoors

I was just at a swanky party on the top of the Smith Tower in Seattle and I kept getting the dreaded Spokane eye. You’re having a perfectly swell conversation about politics or literature and the Seattleite asks where you’re from and when you tell them, they pretend not to be horrified, but it’s as if you’ve just casually mentioned that your hobby is collecting other people’s scabs.

“Uh … What do you do in Spokane?” the Seattler asks after a long, uncomfortable pause.

“Well, I used to sell meth but after my cousin and me got divorced and she got custody of the Siamese crack twins, I decided to put my life back together, so I got my GED and now I manage a mobile home park.”

I used to launch into my Spokane-is-Rising and You-Wouldn’t-Recognize-The-Place speech in that situation but, honestly, I’m getting tired of having to do that. I think we’ve reached a place where it’s sort of needy and pathetic, like that mother of your friend you see who insists on telling you that Eric is a stockbroker when you know perfectly well that Eric is a stockboy.

And it doesn’t work in Seattle anyway. It’s plausible in every other city in the world, but in Seattle, the idea that Spokane is becoming cool or prosperous is just plain crazy talk. You may as well tell them that you’re a professional ballet dancer in Omak.

So at this party, I decided to take the opposite tactic and just reinforce their ideas about the ‘Kane. And I have to tell you, it really puts the Seattle person at ease and it’s a lot more fun.

“Isn’t Spokane supposed to be doing pretty well these days?” asked one guy.

“Oh yes. Me and my friend Cokey, we was trying to save money to build a monster truck from scratch, but he got evicted from the school bus where he was living so he got on at the rendering plant and he was saying how it used to be folks just brung their dead animals from Spokane but now they get roadkill from Canada, Clarkston, all over. Shoot, we even get meat from back east, clear to Idaho.”

It was amazing how friendly the Seattle people became when I gave them the Spokane they expected. It put their world in order and made them feel magnanimous-almost as if, by talking to a poor rube from the East Side, they were donating to charity or giving money to that homeless person who sleeps outside their condo in Belltown.

(One woman did ask about the ice-skating championships, which apparently were in Spokane last month. I didn’t see anything in the local media about it. I guess they probably just missed it … or maybe they just made the decision that to endlessly pimp some trash-sport event would make the city seem kind of provincial.)

There was one guy at the party who had just been to Spokane and he kept telling the other Seattleians how great the city was. He was threatening to ruin my whole deal.

“You wouldn’t recognize downtown Spokane,” he said. “It’s gone through quite a revitalization.”

I had to think fast. “Oh, shoot yes. We just got us a Taco Johns.” I leaned in close. “That there’s ethnic food, case you ain’t got one here. And don’t quote me … but they’re maybe gonna reopen the Woolworths.”

Jess Walter’s new novel, The Zero, is available in bookstores

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