The Library Is a Nightclub
This Was the Year the Genius Awards Party Got It Right
It was the happy, easy reunion of booze and books. An occasion of grand civic architecture and anomalous appearances, including a black-haired gentleman sporting blond hair extensions fashioned into blouse ruffles and several sexy librarians in capes dancing with carts. It was one of those nights when, even for the sober few, all Seattle feels stuffed into one bright spot, and the rest of the city emptied out. Two guards on duty, one stationed in the hell-red bowels of the Central Library and the other wandering the aluminum-and-glittery-black balcony above, both declared they would have taken the night off if they'd known the party would be this good.
This was the year the Genius Awards party got it right.
It's not that the past five years of bashes haven't been great. The occasion is lovable: The Stranger quits its criticizing and simply adores, in the form of a QFC sheet cake, a heap of publicity, an unrestricted $5,000 each to four artists and an organization, and a culminating party.
The night of the adoration is always bacchanalian and quotable—this year's literary Genius, Heather McHugh, who's taught at the University of Washington since 1984, announced from the stage that she has "a friend who sleeps with anything that moves, but I never saw a reason to limit myself!"—but that delicate thing that is party chemistry, mojo, whatever, changes with the venue and the Geniuses.
It helps to have Rem Koolhaas on board. When I first saw his Central Library on opening day in 2004, it reminded me of a woman pictured from the middle, thrusting a hip out, mid-dance. Maybe what we're all so enamored with about the Central Library is that it isn't a library so much as the best of all possible nightclubs, a romantic (yes! in the middle of all that modernism!) place where you might actually meet someone smart and fall in love right away and for forever.
The seduction Friday night began on the escalator up from the first floor. At first, the steps carried you alone, full of private thoughts (what are you wearing, who will you see, what will you say). Then, halfway up, a spectacular view appeared in reflection, of the whole swarming party, seen in the puzzle of diamonds and glass that is the library's exterior. By the time the escalator reached the top, the world outside was visible in some of the windows, and the two realities were projected simultaneously.
After last year's big, eight-week-long exhibition of art and ephemera by the Geniuses at the Henry Art Gallery, this year's program was minimal. No display, just celebration. Testifying to the Geniuses—Alex Schweder in visual art, Amy Thone in theater, Linas Phillips in film, Heather McHugh in literature, and Strawberry Theatre Workshop in organization—were 11-by-15-foot scrolls hung from the highest balcony. They were blowups of the pages of the Stranger's Genius issue, bearing stories written by Stranger editors illustrated with photographs by David Belisle—the most memorable a depiction of Schweder (whose work entangles architecture and food) wiping his mouth while eating a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich on the toilet.
The only other images, projected on the giant concrete wall that rises all the way up the 11 stories in the center of the building, were of logos for Smartwater and Dewar's, the night's twin sponsors, the former freaking people out a little by being served, inexplicably, by waiters in white lab coats, the latter relaxing the nerves in turn.
During the announcing and awarding of the golden (spray-painted) books, many, many nice things were said, and public-speaking awkwardnesses were either narrowly overcome or mercifully brief. Most eminently, black-suited and tassel-shoed MC Christopher Frizzelle dubbed McHugh the first-ever summa cum laude of Geniuses (over shouts of protest from other editors), and most passionately, theater editor Brendan Kiley promised Thone his very soul and kissed her, while her husband, actor Hans Altwies, clapped and cheered with pride.
By 9:30 p.m., the VIP event was wrapped up and the line at the door for performances by Velella Velella and the Blow wrapped around the block. (McHugh, a character worth following, had already rushed the exit but was stopped with the news that a PBS documentarian awaited her upstairs. He looked very serious until he saw her, and the two of them degenerated into raucous laughter. I will allow that McHugh is the funniest Genius.)
Just before Phillips went on to get his award, he told Frizzelle that the last time he was at the library, he was scouting for homeless people to be in his next film, Great Speeches from a Dying World, which is a series of famous speeches recited by homeless people. Throughout the evening I heard many references to the homeless—you know, they roam free in the library while drunk all the time. Perusing fiction this way, it felt like there would be time to read it all.
City librarian Deborah Jacobs seemed more relaxed than anyone the whole night, reclining during a private champagne toast like the empress of ease, joking that The Stranger was more worried about people damaging or running off with books than she was. Ease turns out to be the closest word to describe why the party worked and why I heard from so many people (I stopped writing their names down) that this was the best of Stranger Genius parties. Where in hell will we go from here?
This story was corrected on Sept 20, 2007. A reference to Seattle Public Library's Level 4 was actually referring to Level 1, on Fourth Avenue.