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Better Than Robbing a Bank

Man Oh Man, We Didn't Expect This

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Kyle T. Webster

Dave Eggers read at McCaw Hall during Bumbershoot, along with Sarah Vowell, Daniel Handler, Mike Doughty, and Death Cab for Cutie, in a benefit for 826 Seattle, the local chapter of a national chain of writing centers for students ages 8–18. This is a review by Eggers of his audience, written the next morning.

Something happened last night in Seattle that knocked me so flat that now, the morning after, I can only try to make sense of it by writing it out. Bear with me.

In October of this year, an 826 will open in Seattle. A woman named Teri Hein, who previously ran the Hutch School—a center for children whose families are affected by bone-marrow cancer—will be heading it up. Teri and her team have been working on getting 826 Seattle open for a long, long time. For almost two years now, she's been hustling for local funding, looking for the best location, almost-signing leases, getting screwed by landlords, looking for new locations, on and on. She's a super-human being and has been single-mindedly, and without pay, putting this together since 2003.

Now, finally, there is a building, and a lease, and solid plans to open the space for tutoring in October. The building is big, perfectly shaped, right in every way. In fact, it will be, at 3,000 square feet, the biggest 826 so far.

But the organization, once it paid the first and last months' rent, was nearly broke. Add to that the costs of putting some carpet down, buying tables, chairs, a handful of computers, and doing rudimentary repairs, and 826 Seattle was deep in debt.

Then Bumbershoot happened. Long ago, we'd planned an event at Bumbershoot, where Sarah Vowell, Daniel Handler, Mike Doughty, Death Cab for Cutie, and I would do some kind of show; with everyone donating their appearance fees—and the Bumbershoot organizers chipping in a significant amount—we could raise around $20,000.*

Yesterday afternoon, before the show, we had an idea. We decided to give the attendees of the show envelopes. And in the middle of the show, Handler, as host, would ask the audience to chip in what they could. We were aiming to raise about $10,000 from the audience of about 3,000 people.

So this is what Handler did. He told the attendees that Death Cab and Doughty would play a very special encore together—with Handler himself joining them, on accordion—if the audience came up with the $10,000. So the audience, in mid-event, stuffed their envelopes, 826 volunteers collected them, and while Death Cab played their set, the money was counted.

Backstage, 20 volunteers carried the money into three cramped rooms—with the cash in white sacks, it really looked like a bank robbery—and counted the bills. They were working feverishly, but it was taking so long! Death Cab had to play two extra songs while the counting continued.

At one point we had to announce the progress to the audience. We guessed—we had no choice—that we had already surpassed $10,000. Were we sure? Not at all. In fact, we were very doubtful that we'd come up with that money.

After all, the average age of the audience appeared to be about 25—not a group with vast amounts of disposable cash on their persons. In fact, at previous, similar, events, we had asked audiences to chip in, and at one event (not in Seattle) we had raised exactly $683. So we were doing our best to stay optimistic.

But the over-$10,000 update allowed us to bring Death Cab, Doughty, and Handler onto the stage to play their promised cover, which was—holy crap—"Hungry Like the Wolf." Can you picture this? Can you picture Lemony Snicket howling? He howled a lot. He was also wearing a tuxedo. Doughty and all of Death Cab were howling. It was something.

As the song stretched longer and longer—the counters were still counting!—finally we had news. We had the final count. Teri Hein showed the final number, written on a legal pad full of calculations, to everyone backstage and suddenly there was a lot of hugging. People were crying. It was pandemonium.

From an audience of mostly twenty-something people, in the middle of a concert, we had raised $13,000. (This is the adjusted number. In the middle of the show, we thought we had raised $18,000.)

That's on top of the $20,000 that the performers and Bumbershoot had put together. Count donations that have poured in since last night, and the take is over $40,000. That's by far the most fruitful fundraiser we've ever done.

That pays the rent on the building for a full year. Think of that.

Never before has an audience stepped up so heroically. Seattle has set a new benchmark. And this is significant, because 826 counts on the participation of the kinds of people who showed up last night. Someday we might be the sort of organization that attracts huge national grants, but this is not currently the case. We have to raise the funds by hook and by crook, in denominations of $10, $25, $100, from the people who live nearby. Maybe this is a good thing.

826, it should be noted, is an organization that keeps itself so lean that almost every dime donated goes into programming. The staffs are kept skeletal, the rents are always cheap, the volunteer base huge. To be more exact: For each 826, the average number of staff members is four. The average number of volunteers is 700. The average number of students served per year is 7,000.

At Bumbershoot, we tried to communicate this to the audience. We tried to communicate that there were no heroes outside that building waiting to fund the center. That Seattle is not a gigantic place, and that the volunteer and funding base for the tutoring center very well might be right there, in McCaw Hall.

And the people in that audience got the message. I'm sitting in some kind of cafe right now, on Pine Street (I think), watching Seattleians pass by, and I want to go out and grab each one and give them a very embarrassing sort of hug—the kind of hug that involves grunting and loud patting. Maybe I'm over-caffeinated. I have to be, since I didn't sleep well last night, and woke up at 6:00 a.m., re-running the night in my head, again and again, like a teenager after a prom. We all knew Seattle was going to embrace a tutoring center like 826, but man oh man, we didn't expect it to get off to a start like this. It was a great night. People are good.

Dave Eggers is the author of several books and the editor of McSweeney's. For more information about 826 Seattle, visit www.826seattle.org.

*By the way, I have no idea why the event was called Smart. To this minute I don't know who named it; I can't take the blame.

 

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