I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the unique culture we have in Seattle. We love our coffee, our dogs, and we like to dress like we’re headed hiking at any moment. But like every area of the country, people here have unique personality quirks. I’ve recently noticed that Seattleites seek a great deal of anonymity. They just want to be left alone.
Yesterday, the Seattle Times featured a story about August Wilson, a playwright who called our city home and wrote several famous plays while living here. The only play that I recognize from his canon is “Gem of the Ocean,” partly because it was being preformed at the Ashland Shakespeare festival this year (we opted to watch the Shakespeare plays instead, so we missed it).
In the article, Wilson’s widow (he passed away in 2005 from liver cancer) explains why he liked the city so much: “He could hibernate and work here. He could be a little more anonymous than in New York. He’d sit in cafes and write, and people left him alone.”
This famous man lived and worked in Seattle because people didn’t know him, didn’t care, or just didn’t bother him because that’s how people behave here. It might have been a combination of all of those things.
I know a bit about famous people and their desire for anonymity. I lived in Montecito, California for three years while attending Westmont College. It’s in the hills south of Santa Barbara, and all my neighbors were the rich and famous. I got used to seeing actors and actresses in the restaurants, in the boutiques, and at the grocery store (yes, some stars actually push their own shopping carts around). Not long after moving there, I learned the law of the land: ignore the famous people. It’s pretty hard not to gawk when an actor whom you watched on the big screen the night before sits across from you at a restaurant, but you learn. If you’re with some newbie who doesn’t know any better, they’ll graciously give autographs, but in general, they want to live life as normally as possible.
There’s a big difference between these two places, though. In Montecito, only the stars get ignored. In Seattle, everybody gets ignored. It’s a large-scale cultural phenomenon.
To be anonymous literally means to be “without a name.” People in Seattle want to remain nameless. They don’t want to be recognized. They just want to go about their lives without being bothered by others.
I think it’s strange that Frasier moved from Boston, where “everyone knows your name” to a Seattle, the place where nobody does. If the quintessential Boston gathering place is the local Cheers bar, in Seattle, it’s the corner Starbucks, where maybe the Barista knows you, but she’s the only one who will talk to you.
My pastor has dared us to strike up conversations with random people sitting at Starbucks. (We’d probably get blacklisted from our favorite caffeine spot and need to cross the street to the next one.) He points out the irony, that we’re a city filled with lonely people (the last census showed that we have one of the highest rates of people living alone), who go to coffee shops to be around people, only to ignore them.
The good news is that in a city that doesn’t want to know our name, God knows it: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3b). Even though Seattleites ignore us, Jesus never does. He pays attention to all the moments and details of our lives, “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:30).
Just a note to the girl in line behind me at Starbucks yesterday. I know that in Seattle, people don’t talk to each other, but isn’t it taking it a little far when you swat me on the shoulder (rather hard, I think) instead of simply telling me that the barista was trying to get my attention? I may not know your name, but I know your drink, which is just as good, Miss Short, Skim, Mocha!