Roberto Bolaño and “The Seattle Sinner”

page_1_thumb_largeI moved to Seattle late in the summer of 2003, with my partner who was enrolled in the University of Washington’s graduate program in economics. It must have been late August, maybe even the first weekend of September, when we loaded up a U-Haul full of stuff in Eugene, Ore. I drove, with her parents following in a car. Our first apartment in the city was in the University District, not too far from the campus, on 15th Avenue near 55th Street. The Shuksan Apartments. It was small, in a building set into the side of the hill so that we were on the second floor when entering from the front, from 15th Avenue, or the third floor when entering from the back, from the alley that ran north-south between 15th Avenue and University Way to the west. Once known “14th Avenue,” the street had been renamed “University Way” in 1919, but old habits die hard, and to this day University Way, the major commercial street in the U-District, is known simply as “the Ave.”

She’d just graduated. I’d dropped out a couple credits short a year or so before, unable to afford continuing college and very much so burnt out and lost. I was a class-and-a-half short of graduating, and couldn’t bring myself to do it. (I eventually completed the courses a few years later.) At the time, I had no direction, no drive, and was generally hopeless. I’d studied theater mainly, but learned to hate theater. Or at least resent theater people for not accepting me into their ranks, and I, in turn, spurned them. I was doubling-majoring in comparative literature and theater, but comp lit seemed like an even worse course to follow: An academic focus I couldn’t hope to continue given my remarkably weak foreign language skills. So I was lost and listless, and spent most of that last year in Eugene (we attended the University of Oregon) working at McDonald’s, which did little to improve my sense of self-worth, as well as selling blood plasma for spare money for cigarettes, coffee, a copy of the New York Times, and beer.

When Kasia was finishing up, and all my closest friends were moving on, I tried to sort out what to do. I considered moving wherever my friend Heather moved, but Heather was herself–despite her considerable gifts and intelligence–equally lost. Instead, she grudgingly moved back to her hometown of Salem, Oregon, where she died only a couple years later under circumstances I’ve never sorted out, exactly. Instead, I followed Kasia to Seattle.

The jobs I had in those early years were strange and stumbling. For lack of better options, I Googled all the local theaters and emailed all to see if any had internship or job opportunities; a couple wrote me back, and I made the mistake of going with Seattle Public Theater, a decrepit, miserable space on Green Lake in a converted bath house. Once a beloved independent theater known as the Bathhouse, that company had closed down with the decline in public funding for the arts, sometime in the 1990s I believe. Eventually, SPT moved in, a mediocre company perpetually on the verge of financial collapse. Around the time I started, a new managing director was brought in by the board to set things right, and the artistic director’s friends and long-time collaborators were quickly fired, leaving her isolated. I was named interim technical director, or at least paid a monthly stipend, for the rest of the 2003-2004 season. I quickly learned to hate working in theater again, because I worked with terrible people on terrible shows, but that’s another story.

Where else did I work? At a video store, a Blockbuster Video near University Village, a terrible contemporary shopping mall designed by Californian architects, I suppose, which is the only explanation I can come up with for building an outdoor “shopping village” in a city as wet and miserable as Seattle’s weather can be. Each day, I walked down the 52nd Street stairs from the top of the hill, where we lived, to the massive shopping emporium below. And later at small mail order store that sold Celtic knick-knacks that ramped up every holiday season. I spent my time surrounded by reproductions of Lord of the Rings prop swords, all manner of “Green Man” emblems, Aran wool sweaters, and endless knot designs.

Our only close friend upon moving to Seattle was Aron, a good friend of ours, a few years older, who’d served in the Air Force before attending the University of Oregon for computer science. We met the first year we were there in the dorms on campus, and remained close friends over our undergrad years. More or less as lost as us and not wanting to move back home (he, too, was from Portland), he took up an offer from his uncle to move to Seattle to pursue a job at the same time we were leaving.

Kasia, Aron, and I were always close. We still are, really, though in those early fall months of 2003, we really didn’t know anyone else. No one really had a lot of money, but sitting around home all day was no fun, and we got in the habit of getting together for beers and food fairly regularly. A. was living in Wallingford, across Interstate 5 from the U-District (close, in other words), and we’d alternate visiting his neighborhood and he ours, where more often than not we’d hit up the Galway Arms, a little Irish pub just down the hill from our apartment on the Ave.

There were actually two Irish pubs on the same block back then. The stretch of the Ave between 52nd Street and 55th Street (there are, for reasons I never fully gathered, no 53rd or 54th Streets) was, in the early Aughts, north of the busy commercial bit of the Ave. Most businesses struggled to stay open, and there were more than a few empty store fronts the two years we lived in the neighborhood. The Galway Arms was on the west side of the street, a small, dimly lit pub that definitely fit the definition of a “dive.” It didn’t offer much in the way of a selection of beer, which was odd (this being the Pacific Northwest and all) and made due, more or less, with Irish standards: Harp, Guinness, Strongbow. It did, however, have a decent little kitchen, with affordable burgers and a fantastic clam chowder, heavy on the dill.

On the east side of the Ave, near directly across, was a nicer, newer pub, the Irish Emigrant. Two stories, on the weekends it was basically a dance club catering to college students. I think we may have been in there once or twice, but very quickly we determined which pub was our pub and from then on it was our mainstay.

One night, Aron, Kasia and I were drinking in the Galway Arms, probably around October 2003, and I was no doubt complaining about my lack of direction and prospects. Sure, I had some kind of theater gig and some kind of part-time job (though the dates get fuzzy with all the years gone by), but neither seemed to be pointing to anywhere I’d like to be. And what I wanted to be was a writer. I’d done a bit of writing in college, when my friend Brian Boone helped take over a nearly defunct campus newspaper, the Oregon Voice (which he’d spent years tearing down for its milquetoast liberalism from his perch at the Commentator, the campus’s libertarian newspaper; he didn’t share the politics but he did share the sense of humor). So I became arts editor and wrote a few arts articles during my last year, and then we were done.

Anyway, in 2003 I was complaining about not being able to be a writer while sitting with Aron and Kasia at the Galway Arms, and one of them, I can’t remember if it was Aron or Kasia, though I think it was Aron though it could just as well have been Kasia, got up and went to the front counter, where the free papers were stacked, and grabbed a copy of each and declared, “Why don’t you try to write for one of these?”

At the time, Seattle still had a robust print media. Two dailies, the Time and the Post-Intelligencer, and two alt-weeklies, the Village Voice Media-owned Seattle Weekly and the punkier, upstart The Stranger, edited by Dan Savage. But it was none of those that Aron or Kasia picked up. I knew I had a snowball’s chance in Hell of writing for anyone who’d pay me. Instead, it was a pair of alt-alts, the little monthly or bi-monthly rags. One was Tablet, a two-fold paper published twice-monthly that aimed for hipster intellectualism and had no relationship that I’m aware of with the Jewish national magazine of the same name. The other was a more-or-less monthly paper called The Seattle Sinner, and a well later I was a writer for it.

Really, everything I know about publishing I learned for working at the Sinner, including the sad lesson that when it comes to solving the shortcoming of a publication you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. And that given the chance, an editor will always opt for a picture of an attractive, not-well-clothed woman on the belief it moves copy. And finally, that magazines founded by iconoclastic people with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove will rarely if ever grow beyond that initial grudge against the world. Though as far as iconoclastic editors go, Chuck Foster was the most fun to work with, and one of the more equitable.

The first time I met Chuck was in his Capitol Hill apartment, and I readily admit I was somewhat intimidated. Foster was tall and burly, a construction worker by trade, with a shave head, a bushy goatee with the upper-lip shaved, and plenty of tattoos. Basically, he looked like Antrax’s guitarist Scott Ian, but less friendly. Looked, that is; personally, I found Foster to be charming and kind, though I wouldn’t want to wind up on his bad side after a night of drinking.

The Sinner was born of a dare that one person accepted without the other knowing it’d even been made. A native of the less glamorous parts of Florida, by his later 20s Chuck Foster was a divorced dad and carpenter who didn’t much care for his home state. In 2001, if I recall correctly, Foster and his girlfriend Terri decided to pack up and move from Florida to Seattle, where life seemed better. Foster had work as a carpenter, and Terri did layout from print advertisements.

It was somewhere on the trip by car across the country, around the middle part, where the highways are very long and there’s not much to see out the windows, that somehow their conversation turned to how Chuck would never be capable of running a newspaper. Or rather, that was Terri’s comment. Chuck had clearly disagreed, but the importance of that exchange would be lost on Terri for some time. She fell asleep as their truck barreled down a highway with Chuck at the wheel, and by the time she awoke, he’d made up his mind: In Seattle, he’d start a newspaper.

“Sinner” was never meant to sound explicitly anti-religious. Or like a Goth magazine. It was meant to sound contrarian in the best sense, but, perhaps owing to Foster’s lack of experience or consideration, he chose a name that from the beginning demanded its readers not judge it by its cover, at the same time that the contributors it attracted seemed to want to live up to the most stereotypical associations.

Working at the Sinner was a strange experience. The paper never had money. Foster started it by putting together a dozen articles about stuff, including simply printing press releases from PRWeb (a habit he was fond of the entire time I worked there, particularly when he had nothing to better to run as part of “7 Deadly Sins,” a monthly section, a collection of short news briefs each nominally themed to a given sin). The first issue was 20-some pages long, and filled with ads for all the sorts of places Chuck liked or at least thought he might like or at least might someday pay for such an ad. Then he printed it and distributed it and went around to all the places he’d run ads for and asked them to start paying. Some of them did, and it was enough to pay the printing costs and little more over the years.

Writers got paid in beer. In good times (when Chuck was working) we went to bars with cheap pitchers. In bad times (when he wasn’t working), it was in the park, where we’d barbecue. Our mascot was a man known as “Hippie” whose real name I never learned. He looked like Chuck, except with more piercings and tattoos but all stretched across the emaciated frame of a junkie, which he may well have been. According to Chuck, he’d once been a high-end hairdresser in Florida. Chuck had accidentally knocked him off the wagon some years before, and despite best efforts he’d never been able to get him sober again, which gave a Chuck a certain of responsibility for him. Hippie lived, insofar as he had a home of his own, in Florida, but for lack of work every year he’d come up through Seattle on his way to Alaska to work at the canneries during fishing season. With long hours and little chance to spend money, he’d come to back to Seattle after the season flush with cash and proceed to spend some 4-6 weeks in a haze of booze and drugs until, before his annual earnings ran out, Chuck and Terri would get him on a Florida-bound bus and send him packing home. To my knowledge he never actually wrote anything for the Sinner, but he everyone agreed he was the mascot, a job which mostly entailed being roused from a stupor to scream at the writers, perpetually past deadline: “Submit bitch!

Indeed, that was our publishing motto for all intents and purposes. In the sense that he’d give anyone a chance, Foster was a remarkably charitable person. Every month he’d spend countless hours and spend thousands of dollars to publish a newspaper which was, as far as he was concerned, available to anyone with a point-of-view to publish in. One of our main music critics was actually schizophrenic. During a barbecue, I remember he once wandered fifty feet away from the group while Chuck was giving his speech, and then called Chuck’s cell phone “just to make sure it was really you.” I occasionally tried to proofread his album reviews, mostly of industrial music, but they were completely incomprehensible except for the band and album names (which were sometimes not even part of the text). But we published them.

Given our name, it was perhaps unavoidable that our closest associations were in industrial music, alternative burlesque, and modern sideshow. The Sinner sponsored a float in the Gay Pride Parade one year filled with burlesque artists and contemporary freaks, pulled by a couple circus guys from hooks through their flesh. Our cover art was more or less BDSM modeling, Suicide Girls-wannabe photography, or burlesque dancers. Almost every issue one or another establishment would ban us from being distributed there due to the covers, and every month Chuck would more or less politely tell them to fuck off because the First Amendment, which he fully supported as the publisher of an extreme and at times incomprehensible journal of art and opinion.

All of which makes the sort of work I was writing for it laughably absurd in retrospect. Sure, I sometimes wrote things that fit the general attitude of the magazine. I wrote a piece on controversies over pro-pedophilia activists, and interviewed several, including NAMBLA. Another time, I did a piece on home-grown pornographers, including sitting in on a shoot in a suburban home, where outside you could see a massive kids’ soccer rally going on half a block way, a contrast in extremes I’ll never forget.

But mostly I wrote book reviews. Sometimes they were of bizarre books that seemed to fit whatever aesthetic we’d wound up with. But more often than not they literature in translation. To this day, you can read a blurb from my Sinner review inside the paperback version of Chris Abani’s GraceLand, a harrowing novel about the experiences of a child in the Lagos slums. And it was in the Sinner in June 2004 that I published a books piece called “Two Novels from Chile,” reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s By Night In Chile and Pedro Lemebel’s My Tender Matador. It can be read on the Internet Archive (the Sinner’s website having gone the way of the rag itself) here. The choice quote, I think, is:

While both writers employ creative and elegant prose to their ends (both, furthermore, beautifully translated into English), it is Lemebel who proves himself the superior stylist.

I don’t know whatever happened to Chuck Foster and Terri, who was always more private and quiet than Chuck but without whom the paper would never have happened. By 2007 or so I had a real, regular day job and was one of the main writers for Gothamist’s Seattle edition, Seattlest.com, and stopped working for the Sinner. Sometime around then, Chuck and Terri parted ways with Seattle. They named someone editor of the paper, which they still controlled, and went off to another city, even less hospitable to such a paper than Seattle, to start a sister publication. Some months later, a site and Facebook page for the St Louis Sinner cropped up. But the Seattle Sinner more or less disappeared, and the latest cover for a St Louis Sinner I can find online is from June/July 2013. I’ve written the Facebook page and tried to track Chuck and Terri down, but I’ve never received a response.

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