What the People of Seattle Know
About Lobsters, Hoboes, and Con Games
John Hodgman is the author of The Areas of My Expertise, which he read from to a live audience on November 17 at Elliott Bay Book Company. This is his review of that audience.
Before our reading in Seattle, Jonathan Coulton and I were told to not expect too many laughs.
"Seattle is an earnest city," our friends from Seattle told us as we all stood in the basement of Elliott Bay, a warm, windowless chamber lined with books, perfect for a reading or a bibliophilic ritual murder.
"It is a very sincere city," our friends went on, and as evidence they produced a third friend, named Pam, who just that afternoon had received a $47 ticket for jaywalking, even though she was visibly, precipitously pregnant.
Pam nodded solemnly. It was true. It would be difficult to predict how my book—a plotless, wry compendium of lies, invented history, and fake trivia—would go over in a town so devoted to the social contract. Never mind our various live antics.
Jonathan, in his buckskin shirt and coonskin cap, looked spooked. An old friend and a former Whiffenpoof, Jonathan had gamely followed me from town to town, playing guitar as I read about the nine U.S. presidents who had hooks for hands, for example, and the secret history of the hoboes.
But we had just come from San Francisco, where the crowds had been very sparse, very quiet, and very earnest, and this had left us bloodless and shaken. Our foolproof bit about the history of the lobster in America (they were, as you know, first released in Central Park in 1890) had provoked only confused smiles and slowly blinking, glassy eyes.
In describing the famous streetside con game known as "three-card monte," I realized that the San Franciscans had no idea what I was talking about. "Is it," I had asked, "that you in San Francisco never deceive one another?" Someone in the back nodded proudly.
Now in Seattle, the first to arrive was a small woman with long, wild, gray hair. She was wearing a fiercely pilled fleece zipper vest (purple) and a white painter's hat dotted with pins protesting a variety of obscure ballot referenda. She was a good 10 minutes early. I explained this to her, but she said, "That's okay, I'm just saving a seat."
BUT DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? I wanted to scream. NO ONE IS COMING!
But Seattleites are not inclined to wait, I gather, for a gigantic man quickly followed her, in thick black-rimmed glasses and sweatpants and timberland boots. He sat down and began silently, unwaveringly staring at me, as he would for the entire hour. Soon thereafter, he was joined by a lively and generous handful of early arriving strangers who did not look like they were going to kill us. And cheered by this, we began.
We talked about the U.S. presidents. As usual, people were less inclined to believe that Martin Van Buren's nickname "Old Kinderhook" is where the term "OK" comes from (which is true) than to believe that they called him that because he had a hook for a hand (which is not true).
But this is common enough, so we went on nervously to the lobsters, and as Jonathan sang his ode to the Furry Old Lobster*, suddenly we were getting laughs. Granted many of these were from the woman with wild, gray hair, whose theatrically loud guffaws seemed to emanate randomly from the back without connection to any jokes I was telling. But they were, in any case, real laughs, and either the guy with the off-brand mp3 player around his neck had very bad allergies, or he was actually in tears.
Emboldened, we went on to the Q&A, which we typically conduct via walkie-talkie. A gentleman named Myron called from the first row to ask a few questions about hoboes. A nice fellow, but I could see them coming from 1,000 yards off. (Q: Did I have a hobo nickname? A: "Non-Hobo John Hodgman.") Another nice fellow stumped me with sincere questions about what it was like to be associated with McSweeney's and to be on the Daily Show (A: both were surreally dizzying, proud-making; only one provided a gift bag packed with Altoids). The Seattleites enjoy the two-part questions, I realized.
The woman with the wild, gray hair in the back at first refused to speak via walkie-talkie. "I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO USE THIS TECHNOLOGY!" she proclaimed very loudly, as if we were really separated by great distance. But then she relented, and asked what does "Hodg-man" mean, and I called swiftly on my third-grade genealogy project to respond "one who tends a hedge." INEXPLICABLE GUFFAW!
(The gigantic man remained silent of course, but I did notice that he was tapping his massive, Timberlanded toes when Jonathan went into the hobo anthem "The Big Rock Candy Mountain.")
Afterward, as we were doing the signing, the woman with the wild, gray hair asked me if I liked Jonathan Swift, not even waiting for the answer before cackling her way out of the room. She didn't buy a book. But that was fine: Apparently the Seattleites are just crazy or pregnant or gigantic or plain sweet enough to get it.
And if I required further proof, it came the next day, when we addressed a group of employees and die-hard Jonathan Coulton fans at Amazon. "I don't suppose you know the three-card monte, do you?" and the room broke out into knowing laughter. Jonathan and I sighed. The people of Seattle know about the con game, that's for sure, and didn't even mind our own, and for that we were relieved and grateful.
The crustacean we call “lobster” today, of course, actually destroyed the species originally known as “lobster” in Maine, a kind of sea otter. But because you are Seattleites, I realize now that this requires no explanation, just as I do not need to explain to you, dear citizens of the Space Needle, that Jonathan’s cap was not coonskin at all, but lobster pelt.