The Backroom

Q: What do you get when a painter, cartoonist, under-employed lawyer and a poet work in the back room of a flopped legal office?

A: Beer for lunch

At first, I heard the slamming of metal and rubber stamps, the stapler and some weird ass laughter. When I passed to and from my little office in the back room of that law firm in the Darth Vadar tower, I’d smile to the little group that worked at the table. They’d look up and say something like, “Hey, are ya having fun yet?”

After a few days, one of the guys came to my doorway.

“Hi there,” he said. “I heard you are a poet.” He put out a hand to the door frame.

“Yup,” I said. “I am.”

“Well, I am a painter.” He said it in a nice way, not braggy or obnoxious. It was like he was saying, “I work here too.”

I looked him over. A small man, brown-skinned, with round spectacles. He smiled and started fiddling with the zipper on his coat.

“Cool. I’d love to see what you’re up to—”

And the guy pulled a plastic sheath of slides from his jacket. “Here are some paintings,” he said. “See what you think.”


“Spring, Impatient Spring,”  1990.

Okay, seriously. If someone asks me to read his novel or something, I try to remain cheerful but I brace myself for drivel. But, when I held the slides under the desk lamp, I felt my blood surge. I inhaled too fast and coughed. The little squares gleamed with color. Figures of airplanes, ladders, big outlines of balls burst from the tiny frames. One had an image of two women, seated. Their hair became part of a garden with birds and planters and swirls of color.

Amazing.

The painter’s name was Mohammed Daoudi. And he introduced me to his friends. One was a cartoonist, John Ambrosavage, and the other was a young guy who had passed the bar but couldn’t find work. One of my friends, the writer Matthew Stadler, sold him a car for a hundred bucks. They chattered more than Mohammed did.

And, they all drank beer at Bakeman’s, the famous old lunch place on Cherry Street. White bread, turkey gravy, beer. A few times I joined them. In that stewy, vinyl upholstered place, I started to envision Mohammed’s homeland. We were a long way from Morocco. But, something in those paintings beckoned me away from the law firm, away from Seattle and my chilly, green landscape. I could start to see myself inside all those flashes of red.


Marrakesh Notebook

Last year, I lived in Marrakesh, Morocco. How our family got there and what happened to us—that’s my story. It begins seventeen years before we moved to the palm and rock-strewn desert of North Africa.

1991, I was working in downtown Seattle’s Columbia Tower (“once the tallest building west of the Mississippi!”). Though it has rolled through several names (Seafirst Center, Bank of America Tower), a lot of people in our city know it as the “Darth Vader Building.” Dark lobby, unknowable passageways, closed storefronts, tinted glass—it’s a building of edges caught in some outer space fantasy. (This dreamscape has been carried on by Vulcan, the Star Trek building complex of Paul Allen’s, just to the south.)

There, I worked on the 53rd floor as a hack paralegal, a quick hire in a failing firm. After finishing graduate school a few years earlier, I had had my first book coming out. Back then, as now, many artists crowded the temp agencies and back rooms of CPA agencies and law firms.

It was a place of failure. Though you could stand in one of the attorneys’ offices and look over Elliott Bay where container ships pull under the orange cranes for unloading, the glittery theater of the law firm only occupied part of the 53rd floor. The rest was empty except for some ripped carpet and a few pieces of rebar tossed around. On Fridays, the mailroom guys smoked bowls back there and took in the view of the freeway. (One of those boys, I heard years later, was the son a partner at the firm and had used the shipping facilities as a cocaine distribution center. He’d mailed envelopes of powder around the country, using his Dad’s letterhead.)

My job at Sylvester Rood Petrie and Cruzen, as I understood it, was to stamp documents, file legal briefs and run back and forth to the courthouse. I was also meant to endure a boss with a personality disorder and a shopping addiction. Her “luggage,” as she called it, was eight or ten Nordstrom and Marshall’s bags that she juggled to and from the elevators between lunch and 5 pm. The roar of wrinkling paper announced her arrival, as did her shrill come-on: “Tell me what you are doing and how long it took,” she’d shriek and then stand, looking from you to her nails, as if deciding whether to buy the explanation.

Rarely did she come back to the part of the firm where I worked. It was in a dimly lit zone wedged between the storage shelves of bankers’ boxes and the partition that separated us from the vacant real estate on the other side. There were three or four Bartleby guys who worked at tables set up by the metal shelves. They pressed post-its onto papers and pounded stamps with rotating number counters onto folders. I left the hollow-core door to my little office open so that they wouldn’t find me unfriendly and that’s when things got interesting.