1988 TAFF Report: Lilian Edwards

Chapter 2

Published 1995 in The Wrong Leggings 3 ed Lilian Edwards
Rekeyed by Dave Langford's scanner

My only contribution to the continuing travel theme of The Wrong Leggings for this issue is -- gasp, shock, horror -- an extract from my TAFF report. Yes, I know I haven't, er, written up any of it previously. (Dave Langford knows this too: his project to unearth unpublished chapters of past TAFF reports is one reason to produce one, fast!) Well, I was busy -- um -- continuing my research. Reading Bill Bryson's wonderfully witty accounts of small time Americana and the American language. Studying the dialectic of economy-sized American fanhistory zines. Making friends with Americans. Learning to make chili, muffins and pesto dressing. Going on real-world, academic-type sabbatical to Vancouver, Canada, for six months in 1993. Visiting San Francisco for ConFrancisco that same year, so I'd have a benchmark for the average standards of large American Worldcons against which to measure much reviled Nolacon, the shambolic N'Orleans Worldcon which Christina and I both perversely enjoyed. Revisiting Seattle in winter so I could compare and contrast to that sun-baked week Christina and I spent there in August 88, in John D Berry and Eileen Gunn's comfortable basement. In fact there's a thought: why not write up TAFF-tripping Seattle of August 88 with a forward glance to sabbatical-Seattle in November 1993, as seen through the omniscient (though slightly baggy) eyes of pre-Intersection Lilian of August 1995? And what could such a concept be called but:

The Once and Future Seattle

[For TAFF completists (does such an animal exist?), this extract roughly plugs the gap between Christina's first instalment of her trip featured in Two Times Taff 4 and the San Francisco piece published rather more recently in Never Quite Arriving 3.]

Those who know me will be unsurprised to learn that virtually the first thing I did in Seattle was go shopping.

One of my first purchases on Seattle's mythical 15th Avenue East is a badge, which word I have only just learnt to translate from the American "button", on which is emblazoned "I saw America and bought it". Such pith, such encapsulation. It seems hard to believe now how impressed I was according to my notebook by miracles of American consumer merchandise we found heaped in the local drug store, like TV Guide, with its endless pages of cable TV channels, coffee mugs which declared "All I want in life is world peace and thin thighs. Actually I'm not all that bothered about world peace", and news-stand Marvel comics available up-to-date (US comics arrived three months late to the UK at this point) and at reasonable prices. Little did I know that seven years on there would be 10 spin off X-Men titles and me without a thread of desire to buy any of them. More commendable was Christina's and my enthusiasm for Red and Black Books, an alternative feminist/radical/wholefood/you name it bookstore which was still as zingy as ever when I went back there in 93. Everything you'd ever wanted (including most of that which had failed to get past UK customs) was there. Unimported collections of Marge Piercy poems. Novels by lesbian law professors (Ruthanne Robson -- honest to god.) Magazines for "adventurous lesbians" with disconcerting open crotch shots on the inside front cover -- nowhere much to hide for the unsuspecting page flipper. Walls of small ads listings, as interesting and as full of political intelligence as any Chinese wall poster. Lesbian happenings, lesbian house shares, bisexual massages (my first indication of the great Yankee massage experience)and a lesbian woman who wants to meet others interested in Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin. She needs to be put in touch with fandom, we agree with slight smugness. On to Horizon Books, a dusty secondhand emporium reminiscent of the book cemeteries of Hay-on-Wye, but by now we're booked out and too tired to do more than skim we retire instead to the further joys of American consumer choice and select ice creams, me predictably getting most of my strawberry cheesecake cone with hot Grand Marnier sauce down my new yellow teeshirt.

In the afternoon, our native guide John takes us via trolleybus downtown, away from the pleasant suburbs which we have been firmly instructed to call city, past the downtown skyscrapers and shops, to the commuter ferry to Bainbridge Island which lies across the sound. As usual, I have no real idea where I am crossing from or to. Up till now we've struggled simply to understand the deep geographical and psychological division between Seattle and Tacoma, where, Eileen assures us, the populace are so depressed that 39% of Tacomans say their favourite colour is grey. I remain perplexed, now and for the following seven years by the geography of Seattle with its multifarious lakes, fjords, sounds and odd knobbly bits of water. It is like a city out of Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, built apparently for maximum amenity and nice crinkly edges, rather than in any sensible way. Vancouver was equally confusing but could be mastered with the help of a map, six month's study and a comprehensive swim by swim survey of each separate beach. Both Seattle and later Vancouver confronted and destroyed all my preconceptions of American cities as dusty, hot, and crowded, full of urban poor, cars the size of street blocks and costumed superheroes. (Of course these stereotypes are revived later when I get to Dallas, a space station of a city the temperature of Venus, containing only malls, freeways and prostitutes. But that's for later.) Later, we move on to our first genuinely American Mexican restaurant for a rendezvous with Jerry Kaufman and Suzle. This was something of an event as both Christina and I had been subjected for years to an intensive training routine of eating our way through the Tex-Mex restaurants of the UK by a Sherry Coldsmith (then Sherry Francis) pining for the real and infinitely superior salsa and margaritas of her native Lone Star State. Eventually Sherry was drawn back to the ur-source of mole sauce and poblano chilis in Hutto, Texas, taking Mike Christie with her and ended up publishing a baby quicker than a novel, much to all our amazements. My diary records that although my steak a la chicana was nice it was not an epiphany. The restaurant, we discovered, was owned by a collective, like most the shops of 15th Ave East, again not quite my vision of the capitalist American dream. "Didn't you know that the US has 49 states plus the Soviet Republic of Seattle?" jokes the waitress. Under the influence of margaritas and jet lag I sink irretrievably into a stupor, barely alive enough to notice that the chic topics of fannish conversation are whether Gardner Dozois (Eileen's chum) will win the Best Editor Hugo, how appalling Orson Scott Card's sexual politics are, and that perennial chestnut of the late 80s, why did Interzone have to have such dreadful covers?

The next morning has been designated for an outing to Seattle's second most famous landmark, the Pike Place Market. The most famous landmark was the Space Needle, of course, which in 1988 seemed altogether too tacky to go near. Perhaps we'd all become more tolerant or less embarrassable by 1993 when John, Andy Hooper, Carrie Root et al finally took me there. Pike Place Market is a vision of vegetables, a lagoon of legumes, a fiesta of fish. It is the World SuperBowl of market gardening. There are heaps of obscure green Chinese leaves, gallons of gourds, fresh herbs I've only previously seen on Mediterranean cooking programs (this is when I find out that cilentro is really coriander), live crabs oozing from their buckets, oysters, lobsters, enormous trays for whole tuna and salmon, sea-slugs and sea-snails. If only Simon Ounsley was here, I think, he would have enough material to keep him going in food metaphors for decades. (Or was Simon still into giraffes at that point? At any rate he was incontrovertibly not there, having cancelled out of the trip at the last moment with one of his many bouts of ME. And ten minutes after I write this paragraph, Simon rings to announce his return from in order of specificity, America, Seattle and Pike Place Market. I am not the only fan to be living recurrent lives.) And then, of course, there are the geoducks. Pronounced, "gooey-ducks". John and Eileen take great pleasure in introducing this pearl of the Pacific North-West, a type of seafood which looks almost exactly like a worse for wear penis. People eat these? It's a delicacy, we're assured -- at least for the Chinese. But this is clearly not the point. Here we have a type of mollusc with its own whole sub-culture of humour, contingently connected to Eileen, Gardner, foreskins, the immaculate conception and geoduck rustlers. The geoduck was the joke that wouldn't die. In 1993, Eileen showed me her "topic" on Genie, her Internet service, a sort of equivalent to her own personal alt.fan.eileen.gunn. "Like doing a fanzine, without having to write articles or do anything," she said -- a cyberspace extension of her own personality as reinforced and reproduced by others, like a computer-virus version of oneself. Surprise; the principal thread was headlined, "Geoducks, foreskins and sex".

At night a party is scheduled in our TAFF-winning honour. Eileen dresses up as the Punk Fairy of Eugene, in an outfit which consists of black sundress, black jacket, incredibly high black stiletto heels and a hat made of sequins and adorned with plastic chilis and defunct Christmas-tree light bulbs, with matching plastic chili ear-rings.

In competition I can only muster the pink bolero and sundress I bought cheap and rather uncertainly the day before I left the UK. En route to the supermarket to buy wine for the party. I dare to ask what the Punk Fairy actually does.

"She grants Bad Wishes!" says Eileen, menacingly.

"Well, you got your bad wish," says John grimly, surveying the check out queues, "in Safeways when there are two tills open and five people in each queue, they usually close one of them down."

Despite these vile prognostications we hustle out of Safeways with reasonable speed clutching extra size bottles of Washington State wine and on to the freeway, where, wisely, perhaps, the other cars steer well clear of Eileen.

"People avoid me when I'm wearing this hat," she advises. "Someone wearing this could do anything."

At the party, Jerry Kaufman typically has everything under control. Everyone is issued sticky name badges, just like a con, although the percentage of fake badge names is somewhat higher than usual, reducing their utility as a way of helping us meet the local lumpenfandom. Spurious inverted commas and middle initials multiply and Eileen is re-christened Helen Highwater for reasons that evade me -- an American soap character? It quickly becomes apparent that the cool people -- including Tami, the Eskimo leather dyke and apparent adoration object of Seattle fandom, Randy Byers, designated the fanciable one, and Denys Howard, a dark, scrumptious looking gay fan who reminds me of Jodie from Soap (ie Billy Crystal, who later became the recipient of Meg Ryan's out-of-body orgasm and wasn't actually gay at all) -- will hang around smoking on the front stairs while non-smoking underlings inside the house are left to prepare nibbles. Christina and I in our guise as cosmopolitan travellers naturally choose to kibitz outside even though it's unexpectedly freezing and neither of us has on a jacket. Tami, who despite her S/M appearance is as soft as butter, drapes her studded and buttoned leather biker jacket around Christina's shoulders, leaving herself in "basic black" ie top to tail leather. As she drinks more, Tami tells us of her planned months-long fish gutting expedition to Alaska to pay off her debts and becomes fascinated by the chromatic contrast of my pink dress. Perhaps she has never seen so much of so naff a colour at a Seattle Vanguard party. I am declared Pretty in Pink. I have become, by cosmic forces, the Sugar Plum Fairy to Eileen's Punk version.

Meanwhile Jerry, who has recently been to Britain for a Mexicon, is recounting his observations of how the whole of UK female fandom is in lust with Geoff Ryman (sigh) to no great avail. (Some things never change.) "What a bummer!" says Denys with considerable and understandable fellow feeling -- before going off to the wedding of a friend who's dying of AIDS.

Later events at the party become more surreal. Though I don't know it now, this is probably as drunk as I will ever see a conglomeration of US fans, whose tipple on later stops runs more to iced tea than Zinfandel and Chardonnay. Suzle produces a squash which seems quite unreasonably large. "That's a wine box, not a vegetable!" we scream.

"You could kill someone with that," I suggest brightly, "then chop it up and make it into soup. The Pacific North West version of the frozen leg-of lamb murder mystery."

My diary is extracted and taken over by an unknown fan who fills it with paeans of undying love to Tami, "Tami cliffs, Tami rushing water, T-A-M-I, one "m" and an "I", gnarled moss, gripping strong, releases sweet." (Any poet laureate out there want to admit to this one?) Someone -- Randi? -- comes up with the perfect shirt slogan. My brother was sodomised and all I got was this lousy tee-shirt. I am invited to demonstrate glottal stops but fail, despite being a native Glaswegian. Janice Murray asks to join TWP (and eventually years later, actually does, but not for long). I feel wonderfully important, a real emissary from UK fandom. TAFF seems to have a point if it can make fans I have never heard of, never sent a fanzine to, want to sit and have a good time with me in the middle of the night on the edge of the continent.

Five years later I make it down from Vancouver for my second ever Seattle party, a Vanguard party at Amy Thomson's. Although I have a good time, I feel very marginal. There are still squashes in the kitchen. Jon Singer arrives unexpectedly, embraces me and gives me his latest email address but simultaneously tells me he has such a backlog of e-correspondence he won't be able to reply for six months at least. Why not just use the phone I think? I talk more of work and computers than fanzines and vegetables. Amy has a new lover post-divorce but her sundress doesn't close at the back. Back at the house John and I talk into the small hours about aging, depression and world music. He admits to reaching 40 and going through two years of confusion as to where his life was going and if there was any of it that it was time to change. I remember how I came back from America in 1988, threw up my job, went back to university and became very depressed. I think that for the last five years I have cherished Seattle as a beacon of hope, optimism, a place where hippy values and sunshine had not surrendered. Is it possible that in Seattle too people get older and feel confused?

The next morning we rouse groggily for "our usual early start" as John wryly remarks. (It's about 3pm.) Enough of this fannish stuff and lounging around, we are to have a real cross-America trip and our destination is the Cascades, the mountains that head north from Seattle across the Canadian border eventually running into the Rockies proper. On the freeway Interstate 5, John tells us that the Douglas firs on either side of the road hide the urban sprawl of suburban Seattle. Nothing further from urban sprawl could be imagined -- the countryside is rural, undisturbed, bathed in light. Occasionally we see signs for fresh corn on the cob, or pick your own blueberries. I wonder what our hosts would think of Birmingham and the approach to the Royal Angus Hotel. En route we sample the usual couple of quintessentially American foods; frozen yogurt tastes just like icecream, I decide, but root beer tastes basically of TCP.

Into the mountains -- the river rolling along on our left, dammed for hydroelectric power at the town of Marblemont. This is, for some reason, the last sensible place name for some time. Shortly after we roll into the princely town of Concrete, all three blocks of it, complete with signs announcing both our welcome and our farewell to the State Bank of Concrete. Between these two Rubicons we glimpse a department store with a dusty window full of 1950s fashions and a grocery where I imagine one might find the generic tins marked FOOD which Emilio Estevan ate out of in Repo Man. If Seattle has failed to be the big American city of the movies, small town America at least seems to hold out the promise of cliche. Any minute now, I think, we might even find a serial killer.

As night draws in, the countryside thins to a sprinkling of farms, chiropractors and churches. (There seems no American community so small it does not need an on-hand cure for back pain as well as spiritual healing.) Every house has a satellite dish -- unsurprisingly, as this seems the only entertainment on offer for miles other than the love of God. John and Eileen look worried. It seems every possible eatery out here has already closed at just after 9 -- in America, the land of the all-night hamburger. Another illusion shattered. So it's back on the road, looking for cabins to sleep in and sources of nourishment. And here it is: two bedrooms in a wooden Hideaway for $45 for the four of us, deep in woods swarming with half wild half tame white and brown rabbits. There's even a chapel for a maximum of 9 supplicants, and the visitor's book proves not just the rabbits use it. At Marblemont we even find an open diner with "generic American food" which seems more interesting than that description promotes: John's roast beef sandwich, for example, comes with what appears to be a mound of chocolate sauce on top as well as a cup of gravy on the side. Yum.

In the morning we resolve sternly to make better time. After a swift but enormous breakfast of fresh blueberry pancakes and cream (yum for real), it's off again, past the glorious copper sulphate blue Lake Diablo (where we succumb to heat, and stop, and swim), past the dirty white rock adjacent to the highway which looks like lime or sandstone but on closer inspection proves to be a small but genuine partially melted glacier. Ice, and the temperature is 80 degrees! I boggle. The countryside spreads out as verdant as a butter advert, lakes and rivers abound, firs spread up the hills and then gradually, we climb to the top of the pass, down the other side of the Cascades and now the whole climate changes, the heat is dry, the vegetation erodes into desert. We are in the mythical Wild West and the first town for 89 miles (as advertised) is coming up in front.

Winthrop's whole raison d'etre is to be a Wild West town, having been preserved roughly as it was in 1902. Saloons! BBQs! Heat boils pulsatingly off the wooden sidewalks mixed with the heavenly aromas of BBQ beef. It's all at least superficially authentic enough to fool the tourists -- and the film crews -- except for one "Don't Even Think of Parking Here" sign which John reckons has been shipped over from the East in defiance of the local byelaws.

The retreat from the desert takes us back across the Cascades on the last leg of our slow circular route. It's solid driving from here despite the heat if we're to get home without another overnight stop. Poor John drives stolidly at the absurdly low US speed limit on wide and deserted highways that could have been urban dual carriageways at home. One persistent road sign perplexes me: TAIL OF 5 VEHICLES ILLEGAL -- USE TURNOUT. What does the fifth vehicle do? Self destruct? Eileen explains that on steep roads it means a slow lorry with a tail of vehicles should get off the road and let the other traffic past. How prosaic. Outside we have re-entered the twilight zone of towns with little to offer but silly names and Dairy Queens. Start-Up. Monroe. Cashmere ("home of aplets and cotlets" it adds bizarrely.) But soberly named Leavenworth is the best yet. In baking heat, it is modelled on a Bavarian ski resort. I feel like we have entered a dream sequence as we drive past the Gothic-lettered Safeways and the Tyrolean Inn. If Twin Peaks had been on television by this time I would have undoubtedly have compared its dislocating small town eeriness to that. After Leavenworth we become slightly hysterical. The next signs are for Sultan. Will it have minarets and theme Turkish casbahs? No. In fact, it's pretty dull. It's dark now and John is driving on auto pilot. Finally we start to limp towards the industrial outskirts of Seattle. 400 miles we've driven -- the same distance as Edinburgh to London -- and we've only done a minor two day loop in one tiny corner of the North West. For the first time I have some real idea of the enormity of America, a fact not viscerally grasped even from the trans-Continental plane flight. It's 10.30pm and our choice of eating comes down to the University district and Greek, Italian or yuppie cuisine, the latter chosen out of unfamiliarity. Yuppie cuisine seems to consist mainly of home-made sausage. Last in the restaurant, (as usual) our cheerful waitress finally evicts us only by threatening to bring pillows and blankets.

Our final day in Seattle is devoted to recovery, shopping and ritual photography. In front of us lay our next port of call, San Francisco and Lucy Huntzinger's apartment where the air was already thick with pre-Worldcon tension and alleged sightings of Elvis. But that too is another story.