SEATTLE IN THE SEVENTIES?
Sure, I could tell you stories about Seattle in the seventies. It still had a kind of innocence then you didn’t usually see in cities its size. But that didn’t make it boring.
The Nixon Justice Department waged part of its losing battle against the antiwar crowd in Seattle after an estimated two thousand of them besieged the federal building February 1970. Trial of alleged ringleaders was moved to Tacoma in front of a federal judge who liked to be photographed wearing Indian war bonnets. Fistfights and Mace in the courtroom; lots of noise and news coverage; fury at his autocratic posturing by disaffected college-age activists known to history as hippies. (Seattle first called them “fringies” for hanging out on the fringes of the University of Washington campus.)
In early 1974 the judge redeemed himself with left-wingers, but was reviled by sport fishermen, when he ruled Indian tribes were entitled to fifty percent of the salmon and steelhead catch. Emotions ran so high it came close to a shooting war: Indians toting AK-47s;state fisheries patrolmen wearing helmets and flak jackets.
Seattle had suffered the same long gas-station lines and rationing as elsewhere under the famous Arab Oil Embargo. But when the federal government mandated 55 mph to save fuel, our speed limit increased, having already been cut to 50; the Evergreen State liked to be on the cutting edge. By autumn you could fill up again — if you could afford it. Gas cost twice as much, and the local economy was in bad shape.
The decade began with an incomprehensible stock-market paroxysm that prompted a spasm of parsimony in the other Washington, the one on the Potomac. Boeing relied on federal largess. Seattle relied on Boeing. Loss of 60,000 jobs led to double-digit unemployment and recession. Two real estate men achieved fame with a sardonic billboard: “Will the last person leaving Seattle — turn out the lights.” A guy calling himself D. B. Cooper made a separate economic peace by extorting $200,000 and parachuting from a commandeered Boeing airliner into legend.
You had to love Seattle’s quirks. I did. But pilot-fish businesses like mine that swam in the great whale’s shadow still were in trouble that autumn of ’74. The slump hit my little private-detective firm hard; I was scratching for clients. Lucrative background checks on Boeing engineers engaged in aerospace and defense had lured Buchinsky and me from Pennsylvania. But with thousands on the bricks, and Congress canceling the SST, rocket scientists didn’t need background checks. Buchinsky went back to Pennsylvania in disgust. I had the Seattle habit by then and told him I would stick around to turn out the lights.
It was a little over a year since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, striking down abortion laws. But Evergreen State legislators had legalized abortion two years before that; cutting edge, I say.
Ideas about sex had been in dramatic flux since the so-called sixties sexual revolution. Now, abortion was a legal last resort for those neglecting the revolution’s famous Pill. Meanwhile “no fault” divorce laws were a big change in marital relationships, deepening my personal recession. A once-reliable target market, anxious spouses suspicious they were cheated on, all but dried up.
But the lights were still on. I was still here. Buchinsky had been back in Pennsylvania two years, an absentee partner, sometimes infusing a little cash if I went too long between clients. My bill collectors hadn’t panicked and I traded off some of my debt by skip-tracing; recessions are good for that work. Somehow I stuck. I’d been sticking long enough to worry newcomers might spoil the Northwest when the economy recovered. Instant native, that was me.
Mostly it was down to drab routine gumshoe work: insurance claims, child-custody, or worse. When things got really slow I placed a 25-word classified in the personal-services column of Little Nickel Want Ads, sandwiched between Amos the Drywaller and Madame Zulu, Palmist Extraordinaire. Out in bedroom suburbs, or in logging or dairy or coastal-fishing towns, I might get a few calls. Most of them nervous about the cost of long-distance clear to Seattle; working people worried about things like that. The Little Nickel did not exactly attract the carriage trade.
About once every other ad someone would actually make an appointment. I would open my office for the day in hopes they’d keep it. Then wait around reading something like Edna Ferber’s big public- relations job for Seattle, first chapter of her novel, Great Son. It would be raining, because it always rains in Seattle. Okay, not always, but enough to suit me. I like rain. I like Seattle, especially in the rain. It sure isn’t for everybody but I liked it before I ever saw it, reading about it when I was a kid as the backdrop for lumberjacks or fur trappers or Klondike-bound miners, or setting sail to the Asian mysteries of the Pacific Rim. They called it the Queen City back then. It was a city of queens, all right, and a lot of other things Ferber never mentioned in her lovely first chapter. The quirkiness like the rain appealed to me.
The November day this Little Nickel case I’m thinking about began, I was in my office skimming the Ferber when I heard the elevator stop at my floor. I looked at my wristwatch: quarter til three. Not much afternoon traffic on my floor, so odds were it was my client. She’d said on the phone she had to drive in from the Cascade foothills, southeast King County, about fifty miles. When they have that far to drive they are always early: elementary.
Beyond my windows, the winter rain was steady; it usually settled in the week after the Puyallup State Fair ended, and 1974 was no exception. I closed the book and waited. The outer door opened. There was a muffled exchange between my caller and the Kelly girl I’d had sent over an hour before. My regular secretary had gone back to the unemployment lines months ago. On the intercom the Kelly girl announced the arrival of Mrs. Eugene Crain.
“Okay, give me a couple of minutes,” I said.
My unpaid bills stared at me unblinkingly from the blotter. The refinanced car, office rent, a couple of credit cards I lived on through thin spots. Both card companies were making strained noises in their collection departments. I shoved it all in a desk drawer. The office had been freshly dusted that morning, first time since my last client appointment. An arrangement I had with management to trim costs. You gotta have front. A thin veneer anyway. I slipped on my suit jacket and told the Kelly girl I was ready for Mrs. Crain.
I have never been more mistaken in my life.
(One version of the first chapter of “Twin Killing.” May not have made it into the Amazon Books version shown for sale. Amazon Books doesn’t talk to me.)