David Schmader is an American writer known for his solo plays, his writing for the Seattle newsweekly The Stranger, and his annotated screenings of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.” He is the author of the 2016 book “Weed: The User’s Guide.” And he is the Creative Director of the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a literary arts center offering free programs for youth ages 6 to 18. I had the opportunity to interview David and discuss better approaches to community and seeking common ground. Locally, for those of us who are a part of the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, we have been undergoing a recharge, a rallying around, after a gas leak explosion that tore into the fabric of everyday life. With BFI preparing to return to its original Greenwood site this month, it seemed to me a good time to check in with a thoughtful leader in our community. I begin our interview going back to that March 9th gas leak explosion in the middle of the night. Fueled with cups of coffee, we settled in at Couth Buzzard Books for this interview.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: What were your reactions to the Greenwood gas leak explosion when you found out about it?
DAVID SCHMADER: I was at home in bed. And it didn’t affect me directly as I live in Beacon Hill. I got a call really early in the morning asking if I’d go look at what had happened. I got here not too far from where we are now. And it looked like the Gaza Strip. There was a doorframe in a tree. It was insane. BFI wasn’t torn up a lot visually but it’s an old enough building that the blast unearthed all sorts of things like toxic dust and foundation issues. So we had to move out right away. We had to clear out and we’ve been out since then. We’ll be coming back in July.
HC: I see the Phinney-Greenwood neighborhood as strong. The Phinney Neighborhood Association, our local community center, stepped in to help coordinate donations with the Greenwood Relief Fund. And the Bureau of Fearless Ideas stepped in with its special gift to its neighbors. Would you share with us this opportunity for community-building?
DS: Yes, it was like that phrase from The Simpsons. We had a “crisitunity.” We were working on this book, “Encyclopedia Greenwoodia,” which is half adult writers and half young student writers. It was writing stories about Greenwood, interviewing business owners, writing mystery stories set in local businesses, and really taking a dive imaginatively into our neighborhood. Before the explosion, this was going to be a cute little boutique item for parents of our students and gifts to donors. We had just sent the book to the publisher; and, after the explosion, it became something much different. All of a sudden, some of the places that kids had set stories in were now gone, like Mr. Gyros and Neptune Coffee. So, we doubled the print run and made everything benefit the Greenwood Relief Fund. It was an unusual opportunity. We couldn’t bring this out and just pretend nothing had happened in the neighborhood.
HC: Reading “Encyclopedia Greenwoodia,” I find an uncanny relevance. I love all the work. And I have some favorites. We’re here in Couth Buzzard Books Cafe and that makes me think of 9-year-old Meghan Doyle’s essay on this landmark bookstore cafe and the smell of fresh apple pie for sale here. Another 9-year-old, Maya Mullaney, reports on the Phinney Neighborhood Association’s director, Lee Harper, and her dog training adventures. Then there’s really marvelous stuff like Paul Constant’s essay on the poetry mailbox. And there’s your piece on being freaked out by taxidermy in Greenwood.
DS: Yeah, my first job in Seattle was on a house cleaning team in Greenwood. I was a vegetarian and having to dust these taxidermied animal eyes was a crisis moment. And I got to write about it for this book.
HC: We both moved to Seattle around the same time, the early ’90s. And I was just wondering about what led you here. I’m guessing part of it had to do with Seattle ranking high as a livable city and our love for the arts.
DS: My training was in being a professional actor, conservatory training. Everyone I graduated with went to New York. And I didn’t want to go to New York. I love to visit. But I’d have to be a bazillionaire to live happily there. I had a friend who had graduated a year earlier who had come out to Seattle and she told me that Seattle had a great and accessible theater scene and a great and accessible gay scene. This was still the “bad ole days” when you lived life in the closet and eventually found a way to come out. It left you with this totally bifurcated experience. There was this thing when training as an actor, before I came out, where I was doing this double layer, this facade. I didn’t have this exportable personality product yet. I was still this under construction semi-closeted wannabe writer. So, I found everything I wanted in Seattle. But I hated going on auditions so I stopped being an actor and I started writing and it worked out.
HC: Not too long after moving to Seattle you became a staff writer at The Stranger.
DS: This is going back to the first thing I wrote. I was a performer during the time of of the “NEA Four”, Karen Finley, punk rock performance artists. I was coming out and I was obsessed with Guns N’ Roses, the most homophobic band in the world. So, I wrote a show about that called, “Letter to Axl.” The Stranger gave it such a good review that it prompted me to tour it around the country. They ran the show as an essay. And now I was an essayist! Dan Savage started directing my shows and they started giving me assignments through that. And then I got that column, Last Days. Sean Nelson had written it for about six months and then his band, Harvey Danger, took off. I took over and wrote the column for the next 18 years.
HC: Let’s talk about your book, “Weed: The Users Guide.” I see it as such a positive thing. I see you exercising your role as a leader in the community and an educator. You take a very balanced approach.
DS: Thanks for pointing that out in your review.
HC: Yes, you’re welcome. It’s such a distinctive thing you do. Would you share that with us?
DS: I don’t care if anyone smokes weed. I’m not a proselytizer for it. I wanted the book to be sort of like a book about a guy and his scotch. But even with scotch, not everyone likes scotch.
HC: No full support on scotch. Scotch is harsh.
DS: Yeah, and apparently gin turns some people into monsters. So, the idea is that not everyone is going to like weed; and don’t think there’s anything wrong with you if you don’t like weed. Because it’s all about your system and what kind of feelings you enjoy. In your review, you quoted that chunk about why people don’t like weed. And I thought that was great as most people had not focused on that.
HC: This book seems to be an ideal resource for young people asking questions about weed.
DS: I don’t condone people under twenty-one using weed.
HC: Yes, certainly, that makes sense because of brain development.
DS: I hope that legalization creates this normal channel that, if you wait this long, you can get your weed. It used to be that, with alcohol, kids knew to be patient; but, with weed, there was no legal route to use it so why not smoke it in the 8th grade. Smoke it when you can get it because they’re trying to keep it from you. Now, the idea is to get rid of that counterculture mystique and see it as a grown-up pleasure that you can enjoy when you’re a grown-up.
HC: When it’s a completely new mindset, when you get rid of that mystique, things will change. How long do you think before we get there? Another generation?
DS: I guess. I can see having a drink in front of your kids but not weed because of that weird lingering shadow of it. I think it will just be a matter of time when you can see that they’re both the same. Although, it does stink up a room so that’s not the same as having a beer.
HC: Yeah, weed is a different animal.
DS: Sure, I’m just thinking of how it will be treated by society, not inside the human system. I’m thinking in terms of something that adults do.
HC: Washington state is like an experiment for the rest of the country on cannabis. What do you think of how we’re treating medical marijuana? The state is focused on the greater tax revenue from recreational marijuana and have virtually pushed out all the dispensaries. Do you think that might correct itself?
DS: I think that will change. You’re still dealing with something that is medicine for a lot of people.
HC: From my research, I see that the current situation raises the price on legal marijuana, limits the selection, and cuts out the advice from the budtenders.
DS: It seemed to me, from my experience, that the budtenders are always helpful.
HC: Up to a point. They’re restricted on what they can say in a recreational shop.
DS: Okay, I got it, because of the medical advice. I took a tour of the Zoots factory, its edible marijuana. And we talked about how they need to use precise language. They could use such terms as “refreshing” and “rejuvenating,” but nothing specifically medical.
HC: We’re right in the middle of reworking a lot of things.
DS: Yeah, it’s pretty disruptive to mess with people’s medicine.
HC: What can you tell us, as we wrap up, about your experience with Greenwood? What would you tell the world about this neighborhood?
DS: Well, I’m still getting to know it. I’m coming up on my first year at BFI. The explosion definitely brought out the Greenwood spirit. People talk about it. The PNA definitely brings out that spirit. That’s where we go for the Farmer’s Market. That’s where I go for the dog training in the Brick Building. People are really proud of this neighborhood. Before the explosion, the thing I kept hearing was that people did not want to see anything cookie cutter coming into the neighborhood. We don’t do cookie cutter brew pubs. We have funky brew pubs that has been here for forty years, those are the kinds we like. I see a high density of people with social personalities. It reminds me a lot of what I saw in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in the ’90s.
HC: Tell more about the Bureau of Fearless Ideas.
DS: It’s a writing and tutoring center for kids all over the Puget Sound region. We do after school tutoring and these crazy theatrical field trips where they write chapbooks. There’s a lot of kids leaving with books in their hands which they wrote. And it’s all free for any kids from any socio-economic class. We have a ton of volunteers and very generous supporters which is so great. You know, I think this is the first time that I’ve talked about both BFI and “Weed: The User’s Guide.”
HC: It makes sense.
DS: I don’t think the kids know that I wrote a book. My bios are totally separate. All my side stuff is for adults: Showgirls, The Stranger, Weed.
HC: It all makes total sense. With kids, you don’t want to be dishonest with them. There’s an adult world and things that are appropriate for adults. And, kids, if you’re listening, you know what I’m talking about. Marijuana is for twenty-one and up and there are reasons for that.
DS: Actually, I did a podcast in Portland for KBOO and that was the only other time I spoke about both BFI and Weed. There’s been a lot of talk about conquering addiction through community. The idea is that, through community, you can find solutions to replace self-medicating. The moderator for the podcast got excited about my working at BFI and said that what I was doing was helping with drug prevention. A big thing about BFI is showing kids that adults care about them. This is a place where you are welcome and you can show your voice and there are grown-ups here, who are not related to you, who want you to do well.
It does sound a little grandiose to say that what we’re doing at BFI is drug prevention but the moderator was convinced of that. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. And, of course, there’s a whole chapter in the Weed book about keeping weed away from kids. Okay, there are so many monster myths we’ve heard about marijuana and the one that is closest to being true is what’s been said about kids and weed. All that other stuff about marijuana being a gateway drug, it having no medical benefits, so much of what the government has said about marijuana is a lie or has been a lie. The one that is unfortunately true is that weed is bad for developing brains. It can be an onramp to mental illness, foggy thinking, and weird problem-solving skills. No fun. Save your brain.
HC: What do you look forward to for the re-openng of BFI back at its original Greenwood location?
DS: The good thing about something like this is that the building is brought up to current codes. Some new-fangled stuff. New lighting. We’ll have air-conditioning and heat. Lots of new staff.
HC: It all sounds very exciting! Thanks so much, David!
DS: You’re welcome, Henry!
You can listen to the podcast interview by clicking the link below:
You can always visit the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas right here.