WANT TO KNOW whether to stay with your girlfriend? What to wear to a costume party? If you should move...

Share story

WANT TO KNOW whether to stay with your girlfriend? What to wear to a costume party? If you should move to Portland? Or quit teaching piano?

You could ask your best friend, your sister, your spouse — or, you could try the Advice People.

Late nights on Broadway, plunked in lawn chairs next to a homemade sign, “ADVICE — 5 cents,” they’re Seattle’s answer to Lucy, the comic-strip shrink who offered therapy for a nickel.

“We consider this our ‘Front Porch,’ ” says Scott Allison, who, with a group of friends, has been informally advising passers-by at festivals and farmers markets as well as on Seattle sidewalks for more than a decade.

“It goes back to the time when people had porches and grandparents sitting on the porch. You had someone to talk to and someone to listen in your life,” he says. “Now, a lot of people are from somewhere else. . . . Seattle has this magnetic draw. It’s the farthest west and north in the continental U.S. It’s the edge looking over. A lot of people move here to kind of have this sabbatical from life, to find themselves. The mountains, the sense of exploring is still really big. People are open, unshielded, because they’re not sure what their direction is.”

Compare with an earlier era when people lived in a village and got advice (wanted or not) from parents, neighbors and local clergy. There were stricter social norms about how to behave.

These days, choice is open wide. So many of us have left our roots, our families, the friends who knew us best. According to the 2000 Census, nearly one in five Seattle residents lived in a different state or country five years before. And a quarter of Washingtonians say they have “no religion,” a higher percentage than in any other state.

We can always dial Mom on our cellphones, type e-mail or tune into a gaggle of Dr. Phil/Dr. Laura advisers on radio and TV. But let’s face it, sometimes there’s no substitute for in-person give-and-take.

So where do we turn? What are we asking about? What answers are we getting? And what’s the best way to give advice if you’re the one who winds up being everyone else’s Lucy?

For advice about advice, we chatted with an unscientific sampling of local advisers: A hair stylist, a bartender, a coach, a therapist, a personal shopper, a campus counselor, a knitting circle, a palm reader, and, of course, the Advice People.

RELATIONSHIPS, relationships, relationships.

That’s the top issue (surprise!), virtually all our advisers said, especially for women.

“It just seems to be what we’re about,” says Seattle psychotherapist Flora Coughlin. “Women don’t tolerate unhappiness in relationships very well. For men, it may be the relationship, too, but they often start out by talking about satisfaction or dissatisfaction with work or social success.”

Please note: As a professional psychotherapist, Coughlin rarely gives advice. In fact, she explicitly refrains from doing so.

“One of the good things about psychotherapists, we have no self-interest in what you do. Almost everyone else does, even if it’s benevolent,” she says. “If you go to a school counselor, they want you to perform well in school. If you go to a minister, he wants you to do well by the church. All those people are agents of social conformity . . . A therapist is essentially judgment free and value free. We listen to someone and try to understand: What do you really feel? What do you really want? We explore behaviors and give feedback: If you do this, these are the likely consequences. Can you live with those consequences?”

With a psychotherapist, “All you have to do is pay your bill.”

That’s typically $80 to $130 an hour, up to $300 for specialists.

Coincidentally, getting your hair styled at Braid Express Seattle Salon costs $135, advice free during the six-hour session.

Awa Manneh learned hair braiding and life’s lessons from her mother, in Gambia, and opened her own salon there at age 14. Now 29, Manneh has a one-chair Central Area storefront where clients come for fabulous Senegalese twists along with swirls of advice.

Turn the other cheek, she tells Michelle Reese while twisting maroon extensions into cornrows. Reese had an issue with a childhood pal who’d told Reese’s boyfriend their best-girlfriend secrets, personal stuff that shouldn’t have been repeated because when it was, he got mad at Reese, who then got angry at her friend. Actually, the story’s more complicated (aren’t they all?), but the point is, the hair stylist says, don’t lose your temper, keep your head on straight.

“She gave me advice about no need to be fighting because then she’d have to do my hair over,” says Reese, who started going to Manneh two years ago after losing some locks in another tussle. Manneh “listens. She asks questions. I can talk to her about really sensitive issues. . . . Who doesn’t want a relationship with the person who makes you look pretty?” Or, for that matter, the person who pours you a drink?

Guys want to know how to meet women, says Donna Freye, bartender at Belltown Billiards. Her advice: “Don’t buy ’em a drink right away because they’ll eat you alive. Talk first.”

Talk? Maybe in a bar, but when it comes to advice, our panel says stop talking and start listening.

“The best advice is to not give advice, but to draw them out,” says Mary Romer Cline, director of Seattle University’s campus ministry. “Have them listen more deeply to themselves. Help them ask the kinds of questions that unfold what’s waiting to be discovered inside themselves.”

BACK ON BROADWAY, deep into Friday night, a chubby, red-haired teenager approaches the Advice People on duty, Allison and 33-year-old Greg Dent. Redhead plants his wide sneakers inside the chalk footprints outlined on the sidewalk.

“I’m dating this girl and she’s a pretty girl and she’s got a great personality. But I hate her friends. Her friends are ditzy and stupid, and she’s keeping them around for security.”

Take her out someplace where you need two tickets, so her friends can’t crash, Allison advises. Dent offers other date ideas.

Wait, there’s more. “I’m in this terrible situation,” Redhead says. “She just broke up with me.” Apparently, she’d gotten drunk at a party with his best friend, and they ended up jamming in the bathroom. Perhaps that was payback, Redhead muses, because he’d gotten drunk two months earlier and wound up sleeping with her best friend (the ditz).

Advice Guy: “Well, that sucks.”

“I kinda wish we could get back together. Or I dunno, maybe we should move on?”

Advice Guy: “How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

Of course you should move on. There are tons of people to meet! She’s playing the field, she’s exploring. That’s what being your age is all about.”

Redhead smiles, looks relieved. “I seriously have so much clarity after talking,” he says.

Allison takes out an ink pad and stamps the kid’s hand: I’VE BEEN ADVISED.

Scruffy Guy with groceries wants to know whether to move to Portland. (“Yes!” Great city, excellent light rail, close enough where if you change your mind you can always come back.)

Gen-Y Gal with swingy brown hair can’t think of anything to ask, finally solicits ideas for a costume party.

“Do you like to be touched?”

Already done the fuzzy stuffed-animal thing, she says.

“What kind of man are you looking for?”

Intelligent, dominant. Quick glance at her bashful date with whom she’s obviously bored.

“Well. There’s the school-girl thing. You know, the socks, the skirt. The dominant guys usually go for the librarian type. Submissive.”

Next.

Guy with long, sensitive fingers: “I’ve been thinking of trying to cut back and work part time.”

Advice Guy Dent: “I’d say yes off the top of my head.”

“I’m a film composer, right?” But it pays nothing, so Fingers teaches piano to earn money, and now he has 36 students, 50 hours a week and is completely burned out with no time to compose.

“Go volunteer with a nonprofit; 911 Media Arts Center,” Allison suggests. “You can get jazzed about other people’s ideas, recharge your batteries. Gradually work your way back into what you love to do.”

Before he has time to volunteer, Fingers says, he’ll need to turn away piano students. But he hates to say no. They’ll get upset. . . He’s worried he won’t have clients when he needs money.

“So this is really about confrontation,” Allison says. Security issues.

“Yeah.”

Go volunteer, Allison repeats. Even a couple hours every other month. Get into a new environment. When you can see the place you’re headed, making the leap isn’t so scary.

For the price, you can’t beat this advice.

The entourage of Advice People has included performance artists, waitresses, dancers, a software programmer, writer, secretary and electrician. They have no formal training, just common sense and collective life experience.

At 37, Allison has lived in bucolic Connecticut, a West Texas trailer park, Delaware, Los Angeles. He’s worked in a bar, Pike Place Market vegetable stand, ski resort, art gallery, embroidery factory and landscaping company. He’s moonlighted selling holiday wreaths, and recently became a solar-energy consultant, fulfilling his lifelong environmental passion. Giving advice is Allison’s version of community service.

Advice People was started almost a decade ago by Allison’s friend, Lisa Schwaiger. Schwaiger’s then boyfriend was in Alcoholics Anonymous, trying to get clean. They wanted to go out and have fun on weekend nights, but didn’t dare hit the bars. So they sat on the corner and gave advice for free. It was a chance to connect with passing souls in an otherwise scattered world. Schwaiger and her boyfriend split, but the advice concept stuck. At its peak, before Schwaiger moved to Alabama, Advice People had a rotating crew of 8.

Qualifications? Be fun, have common sense, Allison says. “The main thing is an ability to sit out in the cold and not be afraid of strangers.”

Ground rules: No politics or religion. Don’t tell anyone to get divorced. Refer heavy stuff — unwanted pregnancy, potential suicide — to pros. But sometimes, people want street talk rather than social-service appointments. Like the pregnant teen who had nothing and nobody. She visited often, made it through the birth. Last they heard, she’d gone back to school, gotten a job and was in touch with her 3-year-old daughter’s foster family.

They got her through. But what about the dark underbelly of giving advice?

“Hey!” says a ghoulish guy wearing fangs and cat-eye contacts. “Are you guys the original Advice People from 10 years ago? You guys led me into a bum marriage, man. I gave you five bucks to tell me whether we should get married, and you gave me your blessing, said, ‘Yeah. Go for it.’ That was a mistake.”

“How long did it last?” Allison asks.

“A year, from dating to divorce.” Ghoul strolls off, cussing.

EVERYONE HAS AN internal barometer that tells them when they’ve been given bad advice, says Cline, the campus minister.

Yet even bad advice can be instructive, she says. Ask yourself: “What was the answer you were hoping to hear?”

Another advice pitfall. Asking the wrong question or not knowing what to ask. “I often say: What else are you really asking? What’s at stake here? My hunch is that most people are carrying around some very important questions but sometimes avoid seeking answers. You need to ask: Am I avoiding painful questions? And if so, where and how will I get the energy and courage and support to address these questions? If you don’t have questions, are you numb? Alive?”

Hmmm. For a person who earns a living asking questions, I was having a hard time thinking of questions about my own life. I wasn’t numb, but I felt cold, especially my skinny hands.

“How can I stay warm in winter?” I asked Advice Guy Allison. Not exactly an existential query, but perhaps if I could thaw my fingers, I’d warm up to inner contemplation.

Breathe in through your nose instead of your mouth, he suggested. That will warm up the air before it hits your esophagus and brain. And don’t think so much about being cold, he said. Compared to Alaska, Seattle is balmy.

It didn’t work. The next week, I met with palm reader Jim Barker, who is also a trained counselor and marketing specialist for Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

In reading the lines and posture of my hands, he declared me creative, a dreamer, a leader because of the way I extend my thumbs. He told me I hold stress in my chest and mid-back. I asked why my hands were always cold.

“Girls just have cold hands,” he said. “What else do you want advice about?”

Without thinking, I said, “My dad. My dad is getting older. He was always very active, dynamic, a force! He’s still going strong, but needs his hearing checked, physical therapy, and he won’t do it.”

Barker picked up my palms again, examining my “dream” area. “Maybe you’re dreaming of what your dad was, or what you want him to be,” he said. Maybe, he suggested, I should stop nagging and let Dad be himself. Basically, stop giving him advice.

Bam! My advice barometer knew the palm reader was right.

I breathed in through my nose, out through my mouth.

Getting advice is easy. Acting on it is not.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. She can be reached at pbock@seattletimes.com. Laura Morton is a former Seattle Times staff photographer.