This last weekend KOMO News aired a jarring special report about the state of Seattle. KOMO’s Eric Johnson rightfully called our region’s many illegal encampments what they are– dens of addiction. He pointed out that homeless people in general do not live in their own lawless filth; addicts do.
There is nothing compassionate about allowing addicts and the mentally ill to wallow in dangerous and unsanitary conditions– or expecting the general public to tolerate it. Local leaders seem strangely disconnected from the harsh environmental and public health and safety problems that the Seattle area’s tolerance of addiction causes.
This sparked another train of thought on Seattle culture. It’s not just Seattle that’s dying, civility in Seattle is dying. There has been a radical change in local culture in the last couple of decades that has natives feeling like aliens in their own city. Perhaps this decline in civility is universal. Perhaps we, the human race, have become too comfortable, too self-absorbed, to the point that life has become all about us, a collective narcissism.
Hang around our region and you will hear talk of the Seattle freeze. Locals like to debate if it’s real, and no matter what they decide, I hear the same locals discussing bad driving, road rage, rude behavior, and social stigmas. It’s clear that as our population has changed with the influx of high tech workers and money, creating enclaves of people who only associate with like people, we have become more distant from our neighbors, more suspicious, more aloof. Call it what you will; this is not the Seattle of 20 or 30 years ago.
Allow me to give some examples. At Christmastime I was thrilled to have family here from out of town. We went to the Pike Place Market, a couple of us wearing festive holiday hats. We were openly jolly and took some great photos at the Gum Wall, pig statue, and other spots. At the same time we noticed that in the midst of all the holiday festivities most people were quiet, reserved, even morose. We noted that those we did connect with were inevitably from other states.
Jogging over to Westlake we happened upon a young man in a loud holiday hat and told him it was good to see someone else in the holiday spirit. 20 years ago, there would have been a spark of recognition, like “my people!” Instead, he was embarrassed that we spoke to him and said something rude. We were taken aback and at that point began to discuss this very topic.
You might have heard of North Dakota nice. I’ve been shocked at how open and friendly people are in that state. I’ve encountered similarly nice people in Montana. Upon arriving at one store in Grand Forks, a man exiting the store took three steps back and held the door open for me. I thought he was going to flirt but he kept going. I was stunned and asked a friend what that was about. That’s North Dakota nice– people have good manners there. I told her that rarely happens in Seattle; men barge in front of women and show almost no interest in chivalrous (or even just plain polite) acts.
In a North Dakota bar I talked to people I’d never met before, like a happily married farmer, for hours. We found some common ground and carried on like we’d known each other for years. Immediately upon contacting the owners of an ancestral property, I was invited over. Two hours later I was having lemonade with them in their kitchen. One has since passed on, but I still keep in touch with the other. These are not things that happen much in Seattle. You’re not invited to sit with a group of strangers or welcomed like family.
In the greater Seattle area many people react with great discomfort or coldness if you merely speak to them at the grocery store. They will often just ignore you as they paw through their phone. Instead of saying “excuse me,” they will walk right between you and the shelf, or grab something from directly in front of you. It’s like you’re not even there. Sometimes I’ll say, “oh excuse me, am I in your way?” just to call attention to the fact that they are literally right in my space. This also happens in the grocery line as the person behind you breathes down your neck and bumps into you.
The same is true of our driving habits. Many Seattle drivers have a horrific habit of following too closely. If you can’t see my rear tires, you are too close. That is a rule of thumb all drivers should follow. But as Dave Barry said, we all believe we are above average drivers. We all think we can continually creep up on the car in front of us in gridlock and never hit them. Yet many someones hit many other someones every day and the whole freeway gets backed up as a result.
Left lane campers are a tremendous problem around here too. The left lane, by law, is for passing. If someone wants to go faster than you, you need to move right and let them by. I wish the Washington State Patrol would make this their emphasis because one 50 mph slowpoke in the passing lane can slow down 405 from Lynnwood to Renton. These people generally refuse to move no matter what you do to get their attention. Most seem oblivious. Some might be self-appointed speed control patrol. Who knows. But you need to stay out of that lane if you’re holding up traffic no matter what your motivation.
In the past couple of years I’ve noticed an alarming number of people on our local freeways who drive far below the speed limit even when there are optimum traffic conditions. This often happens in the carpool lane. This almost never happens in the far right lane. They can literally slow down the freeway for miles. It’s very dangerous. Similarly, many drivers go far below the speed limit up hills or can’t maintain a consistent speed, then go 10 over down the hill when the speed limit has been the same the whole time.
Many mornings I find myself behind Stardrunks. These drivers operate at erratic speeds and/or weave back and forth. Suddenly, upon the appearance of a Starbucks, they’ll slam on the brakes, make a death-defying right turn, and only signal after they’ve begun the turn if they signal at all. Being behind people who haven’t had their triple grande mocha can literally be like being behind a drunk. They will also make sudden lane changes to make the quick turn into the Starbucks. If I were in another town I’d ask what’s in the water. In this case I marvel over the power of that joe.
Ah, turn signaling… a dying art. People in these parts seem to forget that there’s a little lever coming off the steering column that can be activated with a quick flick of the wrist. Law requires them to signal before changing lanes, turning into a side street or driving, and merging. Using the turn signal is important for their safety and others’. But thanks to an all-consuming laziness or apathy, using turn signals to announce your intentions is going the way of the dodo. They can’t be bothered. Or they’re too absorbed in some piece of technology inside the car to care what goes on outside the car.
Speaking of merging, I have personally asked the Washington State Department of Transportation and Washington State Patrol to start PR campaigns that throw out Driver’s Ed 101 tidbits on social media. People here can’t merge. RCW has long said that when a lane is ending on a highway drivers need to signal and yield to those in the lane that is continuing. But there are various theories as to what we’re supposed to do, which ultimately results in traffic slowing or stopping as everyone hits their brakes while getting mad about who’s supposed to be merging where.
(There has been legislation introduced to make zipper merging the law– you alternate one car from each lane. If that changes, WSDOT and WSP need to go all out educating the public on the change.)
I mentioned speeding. I’m not a “do the speed limit or else” type. I am aghast at the reckless speeds I see every day– 55 in a 35, 40 in a school zone. Two days ago I saw a man slow down for a red light, then he decided his time was more important and he chose to go right through the intersection anyway. Not the first time I’ve seen this lately– it’s the third time. Stop signs seem to have become optional, particularly on the Eastside. Come to a full stop at a stop sign in Bellevue or Kirkland and you can be honked at. Instead, people choose to blow right through them or just slow down a little and keep rolling. It’s not a pause sign, it’s a STOP sign.
Don’t even get me going on roundabouts– it seems we have both extremes in operation at these delightful donuts. Some people are thoroughly confused by them and will just stop, sitting there stupidly until someone honks at them. Some gun it and blow through these without regard for others. I’ve seen folks drive right up and over the landscaping in the middle. This is another piece of Driver’s Ed 101 our state agencies could be explaining to the masses but all I get is silence.
Shopping and driving are where frequent encounters with rudeness and indifference occur. Another arena for sick and selfish behavior is in our homes. Despite civil or city noise rules, without regard for others’ health, kids, pets, sleep, jobs, guests, babies, or right to quiet enjoyment, people crank up their TVs and music to movie theater level at all hours and live like it’s Wrestlemania. I have been through hell with such people. I’ve been repeatedly threatened when I exercised my rights and pointed out that their chaos does not belong in my living space.
I’ve reached a point that I don’t believe human beings should be allowed to live in adjoining units unless soundproofing between units is mandated by state law. I know many people who’ve had to deal with disgustingly loud and uncivilized neighbors. The property managers or owners will rarely enforce the rules and the cops don’t like to be involved in civil matters. So law-abiding working folks, excellent tenants, are expected to just tolerate the madness no matter what damage it does to their lives.
Just tonight I had a neighbor’s guest block in my car. It could have been innocent yet I was sadly not surprised by the response. Instead of moving their cars, such guests will say they’ll just be a minute (soon 10 minutes) and then I’m stuck. In this case, I politely told the guest that I might need to leave later and asked her to move a bit. She snapped at me, saying I should have parked somewhere else if I needed to get out. That’s not the point; the point is that she’s blocking my spot. She did move and I put a road cone in front of my vehicle to protect my spot. As I told a friend, I would never dream of being that rude to someone in their own home.
(P.S. The road cone disappeared that night and has not been seen since. So now it’s okay to steal as well?)
Every day. This is every day in Seattle now. “I’m more important.” “My time is more important.” “What I want is more important.” That’s how we shop. That’s how we socialize. That’s how we drive and park and live. Every day idiotic daredevil driving endangers the lives of others and sometimes takes lives. Every day we move a little farther back from human civilization into some sort of relational Dark Ages. The really sick part is that we’re getting used to it, “oh, that’s just Seattle now.”
No. I don’t accept that. I don’t like that some people only associate with people who look like them, or have expensive hair or clothes like them, or believe what they believe. We used to celebrate what we have in common; now it seems like Progressives can’t be friends with conservatives and Methodists are avoiding the Mormons. We’re Americans, people, a diverse bunch with a common heritage, language, and culture who are supposed to be able to work together to preserve the republic regardless of our differences. Instead our brains are filled with a constant barrage of taking head rhetoric that wants us to look at each other funny and deprive others of their constitutional freedoms when their thoughts aren’t our thoughts.
Seattle is a paradox. Elected officials like to trumpet our alleged inclusiveness and diversity while openly ostracizing and ridiculing viewpoints that aren’t as narrow as their own. Those who disagree can be called haters, racists, bigots. There is no respect for viewpoints outside of the same myopic “tolerance” that is turning this city into a giant Superfund site. Is it any wonder that the larger culture reflects these deep chasms, this distrust, this gaslighting and crazymaking? It reminds me of high school, where the “cool kids”– generally the rich jocks– acted intellectually and morally superior to the rest of us when they were neither. If some did condescend to speak to the “others” it was usually because it was on a topic important to themselves. Or to put them down.
Next time you’re at the grocery store, may I suggest saying something kind to a complete stranger instead of shunning them? Or helping the woman struggling around the store on crutches? Maybe returning a cart for an old man or thanking the bagger and the cashier? What about finding out the name of the man selling Real Change even if you have no interest in the publication? Could we say “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” use our turn signals, drive like there are other people on the road, and park within the lines? Is that so hard? We all learned this; somewhere along the way we’ve decided we’re too good for it. Or we’re too busy. Or manners are only for the peons.
Let’s break this freakish, frigid, nasty rudeness and oblivion that has a stranglehold on our city. Every time we decide we’re not going to practice basic manners or good driving we’re taking another brick out of the edifice of human civilization. This is how you lose a civilization. These little offenses become larger offenses. The larger offenses become the new normal. We become so exasperated with what’s normal that we too are sucked into the void of incivility. Zombies create other zombies. We’re better than that.
We might never become North Dakota nice or have Montana manners. We might never address our elders as Mr. and Mrs. or sir and ma’am. We can practice human decency and choose to maintain a conscious awareness of how our actions affect others. I know some of you will point out the influx of other cultures and the number of out-of-staters (ah hem, Californians) who have moved here. Formerly outside influences can change a local culture, for better or worse. I’m highly concerned about the lack of value people from outside of Washington place on our local environment, especially our wildlife and trees. But if locals hold the line and maintain some semblance of normal, we can not only preserve what’s good about Seattle but help make those manners, objectiveness, and kindness normal for our new neighbors as well.
Seattle is dying, Eric Johnson. I agree. But not just physically. Our civility is dying. There is a cultural rot. A spiritual stench. A loss of human empathy and emotion. An acceptance of narcissism as the new normal. I am superior to you. I need to get somewhere faster than you, therefore I am justified in risking your family members’ lives in traffic. I already know what’s best so there’s no point in listening to you. I have no regard for your feelings, your personal space, your pain. You, by the very nature of your political and religious beliefs, are inferior to me and I want nothing to do with you. You don’t look like me, you don’t drive a car like mine, you clearly are not on my level.
No. No no no. Let’s stop this. It is a cancer. It is a blight. Choose to say one kind word today to someone in public and we can all start rolling back this red tide. Ignore the divisive power-hungry politicians. Tune in, be aware, be objective, be different. Let’s coin a new phrase– Seattle Civil. We might not all be comfortable with outgoing and gregarious greetings or stepping out of our social comfort zones. But we CAN– WE MOST CERTAINLY CAN— be civil to our neighbors. They are not ghosts, they are not “lessers.” They are every bit as real and human and vulnerable as we are. Speak to them as if they matter. They do. As much as you do.
Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.Vince Lombardi
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