“Spring is different this year.
The dynamic is different.
Feels like collective joy and pent up energy.”
That was written today, by a friend just 2 hours north in Vancouver. It might as well be a different planet.
Here, I walk down the street in a supposedly major city and I feel… nothing.
Energy? If Seattle has any, it’s on a wavelength that I don’t receive. Joy? People don’t even say hello.
If people have energy or joy, they sure do keep it to themselves.
I turned down a job offer earlier this week. There were a lot of reasons not the least of which is that I like the opportunities my current job is presenting me. But one of the issues that concerned me was “you’ll be fully remote, stay where you are, you don’t need to meet people in person much.”
I never thought I’d want to be in the office again, but lately I have been thinking that at least part time in-person work with my colleagues would be nice. I would like something resembling normal human contact. That doesn’t seem to happen easily here and work has been a significant outlet for me.
Most people in my building won’t respond when you say hello in the elevator. Some will literally turn away. Forget about any other kind of chance encounter. There are 100 apartments in this place. I know one resident by name.
Shortly after I moved here I was sitting at a table, in the bar section of a local Chinese place. I was chatting with a woman at the next table (don’t recall how the conversation started, it just did. Like, you know, the kind of thing that normally might happen when two people are sitting next to each other). She was about to move back to Boston after three years here. Her comment “I need to live in a place where people are willing to talk to you.”
I thought she must be exaggerating. But even pre-pandemic I sat at that same table many times. There was often a person at the next table. I usually said hello. But the conversation with her was the first and the last. Almost two years later, I’m her.
I tried taking classes. Usually not a bad way to meet some people with similar interests. Everybody goes about their business in class and ignores everybody else. Mostly the people showed up as couples or pre-existing groups. It’s not a great opportunity for discussion.
Community woodshop? Well, it’s a woodshop. If there’s a “community” it’s not obvious. I don’t have much space at home, I’m not a hoarder and there aren’t a whole lot of things I really want to make, so in the absence of what I’d consider normal levels of conversation and — you know community! — to get my creativity flowing, I lost interest.
About six months after I moved here, I gave a lightning talk that had been well received at multiple small and mid-sized conferences in LA, NY and elsewhere. There, I got laughs (usually a sign of a good after lunch/pre-happy hour lightning talk, they’re supposed to be light and funny). In Seattle, I received complaints. Too juvenile, too many jokes, content not serious or weighty enough.
I apologized for misjudging the nature of the event and the audience. Then I left. I can listen to amateur pseudo-academic tech talks on YouTube. If your conference isn’t making for an interesting “hallway track” then you’ve missed the boat as far as I’m concerned. I might as well be at home.
This experience may explain why the Seattle Nerd Nite died out a couple of years back. According to the previous organizer who I spoke with, “not enough interest.”
There was not enough interest to generate the one presentation a month they had been putting on. (Most places do 2-3 presentations per meeting and have a wait list for presenters.) This in a city that claims to be a tech/science hub. But, it seems nobody thought it was a good idea to follow the normal formula with 2-3 short, fun, off-beat presentations, some of which may involve adult language (which is to say, what a good Nerd Nite is about), in a venue designed around interaction and conversation. So they were left with… a monthly hour-long lecture about a random topic with no opportunity for fun socializing at all.
I can see why nobody’s interested. I’m not interested in either.
The Nerd Nite a couple of hours north, but currently on the other side of an uncrossable line, is still doing virtual events during pandemic. I was able to go in person once before the border closed. They have sufficient interest. They run the normal schedule of 2-3 short talks with social time in between. That in a supposedly “smaller” and less “nerdy” city where you would think there would be less critical mass. But maybe the difference is they are cool putting on a fun event for random strangers who above all want to use it as an opportunity to socialize with people they might not otherwise meet.
[I should mention that one of my favorite occasional presenters at Nerd Nite LA is Trevor Valle. He’s better when there’s a crowd laughing and drinking along but here he is on Zoom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gf3T7-D6FCQ&t=13411s]
Maybe it’s another reason I’m feeling bad about my photography. I took two photo seminars in Vancouver during my first year in Seattle. (I’ve found nothing like them in Seattle.) Unlike Seattle classes and “community activities” there was lots of discussion. I met two people I’m still in touch with. One is now living in Mexico. The other is home in Germany. I hope I’ll be able to see them again at some point.
Stand in the middle of the street in Vancouver with a camera on a tripod, a bunch of filters, a remote release, etc. and… people talk to you. They ask what you’re doing. You can stand there with a camera for an hour and have a hundred different interactions. I mean, it’s still not New York (which has a rep for being unfriendly that completely misses the reality) where you’ll end up in multiple long distracting conversations with people who will ask what you’re doing, tell you you’re doing it wrong, and then argue about it. But it’s something.
In Seattle and people won’t even say something when their dog wraps himself around your tripod. They disentangle and move on.
That conversation doesn’t replace many of the joys of old-school photographic chemistry that I miss, but at least there’s something to talk about! Maybe it’s not really the same hobby I once enjoyed a lot more, but at least it’s an opportunity to exchange ideas, however fleeting. It exposes me to energy. There is contact. It makes for a thousand encounters, most of which will lead nowhere, but where one will occasionally spark some mutual connection.
I’m an introvert by nature and don’t do well at parties or other large social events. I hate “group activities” and membership organizations. I’m always the weirdo in the corner socializing with the cat. Chance encounters, the ones that happen and (usually) end quickly with nothing lost to either side are the low-risk way that I usually meet the rest of humanity. 10-30 seconds and I (mostly) move on. One time in a thousand, I keep going. Sometimes, she joins me for dinner.
One of my more recent friendships came about because of the t-shirt I was wearing. “Make It So!” it reads. One of the two women at the table next to me in a coffee shop asked if she should call me “Jean Luc.” She had wavy dark hair, and I responded “only if I can call you counselor.” She laughed. I laughed. A connection was made. We kept talking. (Not about Star Trek, as it so happens.)
Sometime in the following hour, her girlfriend told us we were obviously having too much fun, that we should continue enjoying ourselves, and then she left. Eventually the coffee shop shut down. We decided to change and meet for dinner. Then we shut down the restaurant too.
There were no groups to join, as everybody in Seattle tells me I must if I want to meet people. (Because, let’s make our social lives as structured, scheduled and painstakingly organized as work? Why? So it can stop being spontaneous and fun?) We did not require any formal activities or detailed schedules and group obligations for the connection to happen. We just fucking said hello and let it go where it did. 99% of the time it goes nowhere. That’s OK too.
We’re still Zoom friends, but as her life gets back to normal, it’s hard not to drift apart when I can’t actually be present every now and then (she’s in a location I still can’t visit), and others in her life can.
A couple of weeks ago I was on a long video chat with my girlfriend to the north. Around midnight, we were both hungry. She ordered food. I had too warm up food. At midnight in Vancouver, McDonald’s is doing deliveries. I never felt so isolated.
It’s amazing how two places, two hours apart, can feel so different.
But, maybe not surprising. One aspires to be a world-class global city with all the amenities, transport and variety of a world-class global city. As anybody who lives there can tell you, it is far from perfect and surely doesn’t have the balance right particularly where housing is concerned. But Seattle seems mostly not to aspire to be a city at all.
[Personal definition of city: “a place where most people encounter more people who are unlike them than people who are like them and where the encounters occur naturally, many times a day.”]
This might be a great place if you already have a group of friends or a family and have less of a need to interact more broadly. Most of the people I know here like it. But I’m always looking for new people and random experiences, whether at home or when I travel. I rarely meet people in organized groups, and I’ve developed exactly one lasting friendship at work in my entire life.
I need to walk down the street and feel the energy around me.