Almost exactly ten years before I became a full-time writer for The Stranger, I read the paper for the first time. The year was 1991, and my decision to settle in Seattle still stood on shaky ground. To make matters more uncertain, I did not have a clear idea of what to do with my life, which was in its early 20s and fresh from Africa.
A part of my future had the view of an academic career in Russian literature. I was then dipping my toes into the language, to determine its difficulty. How long would it take before I could translate a poem? It certainly felt like a very long time. There was a whole new alphabet, a torturous case system, and (not to be ignored) the declining influence of Russia after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Another part of my future had the view of a theologian in the process school of thought that the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead initiated at Harvard during the 1920s. I sold popcorn from a wagon-styled stand in an open-air food court in the heart of downtown Seattle.
My popcorn job occupied the middle of the day, 11 am to 3 pm. Most of my customers were white corporate women on a popcorn diet that seemed to be very popular at the time. They always wanted real butter, not the fake stuff. That was the healthy choice, and it cost a little more. And they, my prime customers, almost always begged me to pour just a little more real butter into their bag. And they never failed to smile and increase my tip when I made a show of doing so. No one lost weight this way, I think. And my dreadlocks ended up always smelling of butter, oil, and salt.
One afternoon while waiting for an order of beef curry and rice from a Pakistani restaurant in the food court, I found on a table by a window that faced a dreary street a spent copy of the December 16 issue of The Stranger. On its cover was a picture of a gigantic Santa Clause with one eye. His big body didn't fit in the small chimney. His elves recalled, in my mind, gremlins. Making sense of this monstrous holiday season scene was beyond my powers. When my order was ready, I took it and the paper copy to my popcorn stand, which I closed during the slow period between 1:30 pm and 2 pm.
I cannot exactly recall what I read in that issue, which had just 12 pages, but there was, on the top of its second page, a cartoon with, according to my impression, important pieces of information missing: two dead/dying men? on an island? with a dead/dying palm tree?
This confusion was followed by lots of little ads/coupons, and lots of little columns. There was nothing like the news in the paper, and barely any arts coverage. And it all concluded with a sex advice column that used a word that even then I was long taught not to use when describing gay people—In 1987, I was informed by a math teacher at my high school in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe (Ms. Barbra Hind—also affectionately known as B. Hind), that in the olden days, you were burned at the stake for buggery.
I honestly did not know what to make of the whole business. Was The Stranger, then on its 12th issue, a zine? There were certainly plenty of those around the city. Walk into any Kinko's on the Ave or Capitol Hill and what you saw was nothing but a zine factory. But this upstart rag, despite having no color pics, and being free, seemed to be of a grade higher than a zine. But was it a weekly? Hardly. Little here compared with the professional Seattle Weekly, which I rarely read because you had to pay for it (three quarters! or a can of Rainier) from a dispenser. The Stranger was neither fish nor fowl, and often very funny.
And it is here where the paper, which I began reading regularly, made its first, important, and certainly lasting mark on Seattle. Its humor was totally new.
When I first arrived in Seattle, its leading form of humor was defined by the comedy television show Almost Live! And what made the program popular in the city was not so much its spoofs of, say, Star Trek, but its local color sketches, such as the confusion between Pike and Pine.
The ruling local humor of the period (in the late 1980s to early 1990s), it could be said, was one that made fun of Seattle people and their stubborn Seattle ways. The Stranger had none of this local-color stuff. There was nothing about Ballard being boorish, or Bellevue being snotty. The humor was decidedly non-local because most of its writers were not from Seattle. And when local matters were addressed, it was either unreadable, as with Spikey Andrews's run-on column, "Coffee Corner,'' or dry, as with Clark Humphrey's column, "MISC."
So, this is what I first found in the 12 pages of the 1991 December issue of The Stranger. Would it snow that month, as it did in 1990 when I visited the city during Christmas, when I first heard and met DJ Riz at a snowed-in Re-Bar? The tallest buildings in the Pacific Northwest surrounded my food court. The city, which was a ghost town by 5 pm, even had a black mayor. I was reading Tolstoy that holiday season as grease saturated my dreads. It was cold outside, but warm in my popcorn stand.