WE’VE ALL heard the rap: Seattle is the city of unbrotherly love, a polite but frosty outpost where newcomers’ knuckles will bleed before the closed doors of the city open to them.
As shopworn narratives go, the “Seattle Freeze” ranks right up there with Seattle’s obsession with coffee, its passive-aggressive tendencies and gloomy weather favored by serial killers.
Dwell on it too much and you risk missing what, for many of us, ranks right up there with Seattle’s natural beauty as the best reason to live here: Seattle’s deep and abiding weirdness.
We’re not talking about the gum-wall weird of Post Alley, described by one visitor as the most disgusting and germiest tourist attraction in America. Or the oft-photographed Fremont Troll, or the number of places claiming ghost infestations.
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Nor are we talking about UFO citings over Maury Island; Bobo, the taxidermed zoo gorilla; humming fish; bikini baristas, or sweater-wearing trees.
Those are tourist-variety weird. No, we’re talking about the people who color our town red even in the darkness of winter. The unconventional thinkers. The fearless social chemists. The artists and aerialists and chefs and belly dancers. The zombie-lovers and mountaineers and body piercers.
The ones who quietly or boisterously explore their passions and obsessions, creating space for the rest of us to be weirder, less conventional, braver about exploring new frontiers or expressing our own passions, whatever they may be.
We could make a futile attempt at a head count, but given that one person’s weird is another person’s Friday night, it might be more useful to talk to a few of the proudly weird to try to figure out why there seems to be so many of us here.
Take Ron W. Bailey, a musician and Pike Place Market busker who founded the Moisture Festival 11 years ago after seeing a burlesque/varieté show in Berlin. Bailey intuited correctly that there would be enough local talent to pull off a similar show here, and enough curious voyeurs who would pay to watch it.
“I’m proud to be part of the weird and wonderful in Seattle,’’ he says, instantly warming to the subject.
For about three weeks in March and April, first-rate burlesque performers, jugglers, comics, aerialists, singers, unicyclists and others who fall under the general category of “varieté” pile into town to mingle and perform with local talent. The result is a mash-up of the Three Stooges, the Ziegfeld Follies and Cirque du Soleil.
Staff and performers at the festival split the box-office take equally, Bailey says. Last year, that came to about $40 a show, pennies compared to the thousands a night some of the performers earn in Las Vegas.
“We get really good acts because they want to hang out with their buddies,” says Bailey, 66. “Interacting with other artists is part of the chemistry. Dancers mix with aerialists who mix with artists and musicians. Seattle has always been great for that — they mix it up with each other.”
In that regard, he says, Seattle’s burlesque and circus communities reflect the city at large.
“The thing I love about Seattle is that people seem to like to mingle with each other,’’ he says. “They go to each other’s neighborhoods and bring the family along. If somebody does a show, people go to check it out. They support each other even when you’re doing something strange or weird. They see what each other is up to.”
ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
IF SEATTLE is a city of closed doors, it is also a city of portals that can connect us to others through common interests. The Moisture Festival is but one portal. Go to a single show and you’ll know if you’ve found your tribe. If you have, one of the two circus schools in town can help you take your interest to the next level, and you could one day find yourself shooting a bow and arrow with your feet.
You don’t have to look far to find other portals: cafes packed with people playing arcane board games, bicycle polo games on tennis courts, festivals to celebrate hemp, tribal belly-dancing, Chinese New Year and the summer solstice.
Even in the rain, people go out and do things.
In a recent report on our civic health, the well-intentioned if staid boosters at Seattle City Club lamented our lack of friendliness, noting that only 37 percent of us talk to our neighbors.
The report didn’t say why we don’t engage with neighbors as much as some people think we should. But it could be that we’re too busy dressing up in costumes, hanging off ropes and trapezes, or comparing notes on comics and the goriest, most obscure movies ever made.
Instead of small talk in our front yards or lobbies, we’re distilling gin and brewing craft beers, creating shopping “malls” from trailers, sewing new fashions from castoff clothes, reading quietly in large groups or, like Bailey, organizing a showcase for the odd talents humans have acquired, such as memorizing every Zip and postal code in the world, or mesmerizing audiences with a red balloon.
If we’re not doing, then we’re watching others and getting a glimpse of the wide-open city that exists behind the closed doors, the passionate place where weird is normal and where community is built through common interest, not proximity.
The place where “we don’t care” stops hurting and starts feeling like permission to get weird.
ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
HANNAH PALIN knows weird when she sees it.
A film archives specialist at the University of Washington, Palin spends countless hours viewing and cataloging films and photos that stretch back to the 1860s, when white settlers began arriving here from the East.
Out of necessity and desire, they set aside the rigid social constraints of their hometowns. They explored the wilderness for profit and pleasure, and formed clubs like the Mountaineers.
Films from the Mountaineers’ early collections dating from the late 1920s, show men and women of different nationalities and social classes skiing and climbing side-by-side, or camping in groups of more than 100 for three weeks at a stretch in the Olympic Mountains.
“During those trips, they would entertain each other,’’ Palin says. “They’d play music or put on skits for everyone.”
In one particularly memorable film, the Mountain Players, as they were called, donned huge papier maché heads and costumes and staged “Alice in Wonderland” in the woods of Kitsap Peninsula. Alice, played by a man, wore a ringlet wig. The year was 1928.
“You had a bunch of prominent citizens putting on plays in the woods,’’ she says. “They have the friends to do it, and there’s no social structure stopping them.”
That freewheeling spirit became the norm for successive generations.
The Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s brought people seeking riches, much the same as the dot-com boom did 100 years later, only it was gold bars instead of stock options, she says.
“There’s this sense of starting over and making it big. You could do that in 1910 easier than you can now.”
“And don’t forget the rain,” she says.
It’s hard to stay fancy and decked out when you’re getting rained on all the time, and the films reflect adjustments to the climate, the far-flung location and uncertain economics. Appearances changed. People relaxed, took it down a notch. They had fun, embraced gimmicks to attract business — Lincoln Toe-Truck, anyone? — and turned their old, rusting cars into mobile works of art while Boeing’s fortunes flowed and ebbed.
The World’s Fair of 1962 was a coming-out party for the city, but also for the artists who lived here, Palin says. The low cost of living, particularly housing, allowed them to stay.
It was the city of Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix.
“There was a sense that you can be a nonconformist, and you can be weird. We’re not going to give you a hard time. You can come and hang out. If you like it here, great. If not, you can go.”
ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
JIM ROSE knows something about weird, too. For more than two decades, he’s made a living putting on freak shows and telling tall tales.
He says he was a recovering heroin addict chock full of audacity and ambition when he arrived in Seattle during a bleak period in 1988. After meeting his future wife, he learned about circus arts from her family in Europe and began putting on freak shows at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Seattle in 1992.
“I would never have tried a show like that on the East Coast. I thought, Seattle will embrace this. They will get it . . . Seattle was so darn weird that I’m not weird: I was art!”
There were no freak shows back then, he says. Hadn’t been for 30 years.
“All these kids … were part of the lost generation that had never seen these shows.”
Sensing an “untapped potential to exploit curiosity,” he created the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, which traveled the world with a collection of misfits — people Rose says “either didn’t have a job or had one that they didn’t mind quitting.”
“When I started the show, I couldn’t find performers. It was a lost art,’’ he says. But “like-minded monsters got out of their crypts and came to audition.”
A man who hung heavy weights from delicate areas that had been pierced; a man who swallowed 7 feet of tubing that Rose used to pump and empty the man’s stomach; a yo-yo artist . . .
Calling Seattle “the godmother of weird,” Rose says he tapped into a culture that had developed here over 100 years.
ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
“It’s geographical. You can’t talk about the strange eccentricity of Seattle without really understanding where it’s located geographically, and how it affected the first people who lived there.”
Earliest settlers, he says, “were practically expats, even though they lived in what would become the United States. They couldn’t get along with everybody else, so they moved as far away as possible and still be in the U.S.”
The city starts to grow, then Boeing shows up, he says. “Now, all of a sudden, there’s a boom. Infrastructure is built at a massive pace. Then there’s the Boeing bust of the 1970s and ’80s. You know (the famous billboards): Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?
“You take people who are moving as far away from humans as possible and put them here. It’s raining all the time. They’re broke; they got used to something more than a cabin. What are they going to do with their lives? That’s the secret sauce. You couldn’t find work. It shifted to an artistic mentality that bubbled and bubbled through the ’80s until it exploded. All that pent-up art, and then the economy turned around, and it exploded.”
“For a four-year period, it used to be Seattle inventing everything in pop culture. That was the damn bursting from the 1980s.”
Rose says he barely recognizes that city anymore, though.
“You want to know why? Go shake Bill Gates’ hand. The computer culture energized a lot of people and programmed them to only understand nerd cool. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not expansive. It’s cool, but it is what it is.”
Portland, he says, has surpassed Seattle in weirdness.
But if there’s anything we know about weirdness, it’s that you’ve already lost it if you’re trying to hang onto it for a title.
The passport to that most interesting Seattle — the weird Seattle — is authenticity. It requires a certain amount of honesty about who you are.
It’s still a vibrant place for misfits and nonconformists. Risk being weird yourself and worlds open to you.
Venture out and you’ll find portals everywhere.
Says Bailey, founder of the Moisture Festival, “I’m 66 now. I’ve performed every summer since I’ve been here. You turn a corner, and there’s a whole new group doing something unique and just as exciting as anything you’ve ever done.
“Seattle is this beautiful garden composted with creativity. Something is going to pop up that’s going to blow your mind.”
Susan Kelleher is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.