Nonfiction Observations Seattle Systems

What Seattle Got From Amazon.

Yesterday’s New York Times had an article with the title “Amazon’s HQ2 Will Benefit From New York City. But What Does New York Get?” I don’t know what New York (and Crystal City) will get, but here are my observations (as someone who lived in Seattle from 2004 to 2008, and then from 2011 to now) as to what Seattle got:

Lots of young people. Some of these people look like they’re 12 years old, but that’s because I’m now officially old. And some of these young people, fresh out of college, make six-figure salaries. Sometimes it shows. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Lots of blue badges. Amazon employees wear blue badges. You can tell your proximity from the Amazon campus (which is a campus; it occupies an entire neighborhood) by the density of blue badges hanging from lanyards, dangling off of belts, and swinging off of coats.

Food trucks. The young people apparently like food trucks. Caravans of food trucks rumble towards South Lake Union, the site of the Amazon campus. The rotating food trucks sell Thai bowls, Italian sandwiches, barbecue wings, Turkish kebabs, Hawaiian poke bowls, and other international cuisines from their portable kitchens.

Hip restaurants that sell overpriced food. Here’s an anecdote that I share with some bitterness: One such restaurant has the following item on its dessert menu:

Warm chocolate chunk cookie with whole milk. $8.

Long-time readers know that I am fond of cookies, particularly the chocolate chip variety. Upon seeing this item, my eyes lit up, but the light drained from my eyes when I saw the price.

“No cookie and milk is worth $8,” I said. “Even my favorite cookie (the Levain Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookie) is just $4.”

“But what if it is the best chocolate cookie you will ever eat?” my husband countered.

“I doubt it. This is a restaurant, not a bakery.”

“Let me buy it for you.”

I relented and ordered the warm chocolate chunk cookie with whole milk, my taste buds eager and my mind skeptical.

What actually arrived? Two cookies, each about four inches in diameter, and a glass holding about six ounces of milk. The cookies were barely warm, the chocolate was not chunky, and the overall texture of the cookies was dry. The milk was wholly unremarkable. The dessert was rich only in the flavor of disappointment.

These restaurants can charge $8 for cookies and milk because they know that the young people who work at Amazon have no qualms spending such a ridiculous sum on a treat that is sweet only in memory.

Traffic. The tens of thousands of people who moved to the Seattle metropolitan area have to get around somehow. When I was a resident, I saw few taxis downtown or on Capitol Hill. Taxis of all colors now zip around the city, along with ride sharing vehicles. There are a lot more fancy cars—Teslas, Porsches, and the like—crawling up the hills. The buses, streetcars, and trains are packed with well-heeled young people.

High rents and expensive homes. The city of Seattle is in King County. The average rent in King County is $1,731, which doesn’t seem impressive compared to rents in other major metropolitan areas. The rent in King County, though, has increased 155% in the past twenty years. Furthermore, Seattle, by far, is the most expensive and developed city in the region and pulls the average up, as other areas in the county are sparsely populated and considered rural.

Income inequality. I don’t know if Amazon was/is the cause of the homelessness crisis in this region (remember, correlation does not mean causation). As young people with gobs on money have moved in, more people with little money have moved out onto the streets. Certainly the higher rents have pushed many people out of the city: Some people work in Seattle and live in neighboring counties, as that is the only way they can afford their rent or mortgage. Landlords in Seattle know that they can charge nearly $3000 for a one-bedroom apartment because someone from Amazon can afford to pay that. (Just like restaurants can charge $8 for cookies and milk.)

Anti-Amazon and anti-Jeff Bezos graffiti. It is not uncommon to see graffiti painted on sidewalks and buildings that denounce Amazon and Jeff Bezos. Some of it is frankly disturbing (e.g., death threats), though it illustrates the strong feelings people have about Amazon.

Spherical buildings. They took all the trees / And put ’em in a tree museum / And they charged the people / A dollar and a half to seem ’em

Amazon has done well for itself, though it seems that many people in Seattle have an uneasy relationship with Amazon. They like what Amazon has to offer, but don’t like how the wealth of the company has affected the city. Perhaps the leadership of New York and Crystal City will forge closer working relationships with Amazon from the outset to prevent the congestion, big income disparities, and resentment[1. The resentment that people have for Amazon also comes from its own employees. For a while I worked in a clinic where some of my patients were Amazon employees. They often spoke of the pressures working at Amazon, whether they worked in programming, marketing, supply chain, or warehousing. There’s likely selection bias at play, but their work nonetheless induced anxiety and affected their abilities to cope.] that occurred in Seattle.

Lessons Nonfiction Reflection

Be Different and Do Better.

I didn’t know that he and I were on the same train. At the Othello stop, I got out of the last car and walked towards the front of the train. The morning chill seeped through my coat and I slid my hands into my pockets.

“Dr. Yang!”

The doors of the train were still open and there he was: A baggy black hoodie was pulled up over his head, but it did not conceal the wide grin on his face. He was leaning forward in his seat and waving his arm and hand at me like a little kid.

The doors were closing when I waved back. I was still smiling when the train whirred back into motion and passed me.

It was the gracious and respectful patient!

There were several men loitering outside the clinic, the red and yellow leaves of autumn scraping the sidewalk around their feet.

He saw me first.

“Hi! Doctor… Yang! It’s so good to see you!”

“Hi!” I greeted. He looked well, though the gaps between his teeth were wider now compared to when I last saw him.

The two men who were standing by him looked at me with curiosity.

“It really is good to see you,” he said, taking a step towards me. “Can I hug you?”

“No,” I said, “but we can bump fists.”

My fist met his in a gentle bump. One of the other men cocked his head to the side, his face perplexed. He slowly extended his arm towards me, his hand in a loose fist. My fist bumped his, too. His head began to bob in a slow nod as he kept his arm extended.

“I’m doing really good,” my former patient said. Over a year had passed since we had last seen each other. During his many months in jail, he had been under my care. “I’m off prbation! I haven’t been in the hospital in over six months! I have a place to live and I see my counselor here every week.”

“That’s fantastic!” I exclaimed. “I’m happy to hear that.”

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m doing well, thank you,” I answered. He didn’t press further when I redirected the focus back onto him. “It is wonderful to see you out here and not in that other place.”

“Jail?” Oh well. I at least tried to keep that out of the conversation. “Oh yeah, I haven’t been in jail in a long time.”

“Which is good news. I’ve got to go inside to meet someone.”

“Oh, okay, Dr. Yang! I need to check in with my counselor, too. It really is nice to see you! Bye!”

Perhaps it is foolish to assume that people are inherently good. How can we believe that people are good when they burst into houses of worship to kill people? Why should we trust that people have good intentions when they send explosives in the mail? When people encourage violence against people who don’t share their beliefs, language, or skin color, isn’t it unwise to have faith in our fellow humans?

The charges filed against the two men described above weren’t trivial:

  • theft
  • criminal trespass
  • resisting arrest
  • assault

I shared a gentle fist bump with one of them. I know what injuries he had inflicted with that fist in the past.

And yet. And yet!

People ask me how often I encounter people who were under my care in jail. They ask me that question with concern; they worry that these chance encounters will lead to danger.

I see former patients from jail about once every one to two months. Most of the time, they see me first, greet me by name, and then go about their business. Sometimes they provide a short update about their lives. Sometimes they make a point of thanking me.

So is it truly foolish to assume that people are inherently good?

Let’s be clear: There are a few individuals who have been, are, or will be under my care who I do not ever want to see on the outside. If I do see them, I cross the street, duck into a building, or otherwise try to disappear. I trust that some of these individuals have probably seen me without my awareness. In those instances, ignorance is bliss and I am thankful that nothing transpired.

Things change, people change, circumstances change. Sometimes we look at the world around us and despair: People suffer, injustices big and small happen to the best of people, individuals we don’t like or respect collect more and more power.

And yet. And yet!

Consider the people in your life who inspire you to do good things. There are people you see and who see you: Friends, family, coworkers. They do things you admire; they say things that spark ideas; who they are makes you want to be different and do better. This happens to you every day.

Then consider the people in your life who you see, but they do not see you: Leaders, artists, and other public figures. Despite the absence of a personal relationship, they also inspire you to be different and do better.

Realize that there are people who you do not see, but they see you. You, too, can inspire others to be different and do better.

We may feel like we don’t have much influence, but we all have influence within the three-foot radii around us. We can choose to amplify the inherent good within us to help ourselves, others, and the world around us—even just the world within our three-foot radius—be different and do better.

Yes, the suffering and injustices continue, but if we do nothing, then we surrender to those who do choose to do something.

Many of these men in jail have and will continue to inspire me to be different and do better. Maybe they will inspire you, too.