2002: The Year of the Palindrome

I’ve been in and out of health food stores for almost twenty years and seen so many people come and go they’d probably fill Key Arena.  I could look around this arena and easily not remember more than half of them.

Of the ones I do remember, there was Kitty, and Squanch, and a self-described ’30 something virgin’ named Elderberry (who we called Eldercherry).  There was a guy whose name I don’t remember but who answered the phone “Hello sir or ma’am, thank you for calling Perelandra.”

There were people who got arrested, who died, or who fell in and out of sobriety. A couple of them committed suicide. But they were outnumbered by those who got married, had kids, and just moved on.   Several moved onto other stores within the same company, like Issaquah or Seward Park in Seattle; or Duluth or Buckhead in Atlanta.  Others went to work for the competition; like Madison Market, LifeThyme, or Back to the Land.  Or even Whole Foods (back before I worked there myself).

Some environments were safer than others; in Brooklyn the turnover was so high my friend Jimmy likened it to the movie “Platoon.”  He wouldn’t even talk to new people until they survived being fired a couple of weeks.  However, in Seattle, union protection kept a few people around perhaps a little too long.

I’ve seen or heard of a lot of firings.  Stealing, fights, no-shows, a guy punching a timeclock.  Relationships gone sour, people just disappearing…. one guy left for a while to appear as a Russian soldier in the fourth Indiana Jones movie.

Immersed as I have been in this environment for so long, I’ve developed a kind of short term memory.  I can work with someone for months and then after they leave the store for a couple of weeks, I’ll see them and not remember their name.  I think my head is always trying to make room for new people.  One thing that long term people, like Bridget in New York, Mackenzie in Seattle, Philip in Atlanta, and of course I have learned is that you just move on; there’s too much to do to linger in the past.

In 2002 I transferred from PCC’s Greenlake store to their View Ridge one.  I was a little bored and wanted to meet some new people.  Right off the bat I encountered a cherubic kid named Sam Watts who was in the middle of a short to medium term hitch at the store.  He was slightly chubby with blondish hair and a real innocent vibe about him.  He appeared to be years away from facial hair. I took him to be a high school senior or maybe an undergrad at U Dub.  I noticed immediately that everybody liked him.

Spending my first few lunch breaks in the break room upstairs I started to overhear Sam and his spiel. He was pretty non-stop, talking and ad-libbing all the time.  I listened a little more closely and decided to approach (maybe I had a little of the “Platoon” syndrome myself).  Sam was aggressively funny.  His humor was of the machine gun variety, he’d pepper you with so many things you couldn’t catch them all.

He seemed to be performing for us, though there were never many more than four people in that tiny break room.  One of his main things was imitations.  He was a very careful mimic and would “do” our boss, John, or the CEO of PCC, Tracy.  He’d do celebrities or come to work in character, like the befuddled Inuit, or the wisenheimer New Yorker.  He’d stay in character long beyond when it was funny, to where it got annoying and then became funny again.  Only then would he relent.

The breakroom-Sam's first stage.  With Dario and Leo

The breakroom-Sam’s first stage. With Dario and Leo

If Sam was physically hurting you with his act (from excessive laughing) he’d have a look on his face like he was drinking it in, like he needed it.  Like it was about time you paid attention.  But he’d also blush sometimes, that was more fitting with his cherubic look.

His other thing was a love of palindromes.  He either memorized or made up dozens, I could never tell.  His ad-libbing was so powerful I thought it could have been all his creation.  He’d get quiet for a second and scribble something on a piece of paper.  He’d turn it over and slide it towards you on the break room table, like a guy in a movie making a payoff offer.  You’d turn it over and it would say:

step on no pets


Mr. Owl ate my metal worm

or his all-time favorite,

Tulsa slut

He’d remain quiet but watch for your reaction with an expression that said:  “See how great this is?!  Are you seeing what I’m seeing here?!”

I asked him once if he was an actor.  He said “No, what makes you think that?”  I asked if he was a stand-up comic.  I just got a puzzled look in return. If he had anything creative at all going on I never heard about it.  I concluded he was just a funny, extremely witty kid.  That he’d be with PCC for a long time, or not.

I noticed after a few weeks he was getting visibly restless.  He’d been late a few times and had a little friction with the Store Director.  I didn’t know at the time but he was on his way out with the company.  I figured I’d remember him a little longer than most because he was so funny; but that eventually he’d join the nameless masses at my figurative Key Arena.

A couple of weeks before he left he handed out a few invites to an art show to be held at a little gallery in Fremont.  I didn’t know right away but he was the artist.  Oh, OK, I got it; after all I’d never asked him if he was an artist.  I knew he had something creative about him.

I went that Friday night with my friend Leo (who was also an artist) from View Ridge.  Sam’s work was really nuanced and amazing.  He’d painted a series of abstracted landscapes that showed a wonderful understanding of the blending of colors.  Sam was there greeting everybody and he was all business.  I’d never seem him like this before and idly wondered if it just was another one of his characters, like his Native American.  If it was, it was as impressive as his art.  His stuff was way out of my price range so I just watched as little red dots appeared on one painting after another.

I’d heard he sold all of them on opening night.  We at the store started to think this kid could do anything.  We also started to see him as a little bit of a mystery, which was odd considering he talked just about all the time.

A few days later he was gone from PCC.  He said he was just sick of it and wanted to move on.  We didn’t hear from him for a few weeks but wanted to keep tabs on him, by now convinced he was moving on to recognition somewhere.  The next time we saw him he showed up at the store all excited, he brought us out to the parking lot to look at his new car.  It was actually an old car, a green MG convertible that he’d purchased with the sales of his paintings.  He told us he was “gonna just hit the road and travel around the country for a while.”

“Lucky him,” we said as we retreated back into the store to finish our shifts.

But after that day it became a kind of hobby for us to guess what he was up to.  Maybe he’s going to New York to pursue painting, or comedy, or whatever.  Maybe he’s in LA, rubbing elbows with actors.  We missed his jokes and his energy in the break room.  Later we did hear about him, that he was in Texas, then Tennessee.

We heard he was in Nashville, and he’d met some people and was recording music.

Wait, what?

We didn’t know he was into music.  He never talked about it to us.  But apparently he’d been writing songs for quite a while. Now the staff’s ‘where’s Sam’ guessing game really took off.

   We didn’t see him for a year or so, he turned up one day thinner, looking older and with a beard.  It was quite a transformation.  He showed off his sleeve tattoos.  Damn, what happened to Sam?  He’d grown up on us, more like grown outward.  He’d found a voice for his creativity and was specifically expressive.  He’d left PCC and just went out and did stuff.

  He’d formed a band called “Ghosts I’ve Met” and had already performed in several venues in and around Seattle.  Sam had become a folkie, it was his latest and now permanent persona.  His non-stop jokey nature was a thing of the past.  Over the next few years we PCCers went to see his band, which included my friend Joe (who I always knew was a musician) on keyboards, anytime they were in town.

Sam with Ghosts I've Met at Seattle's Tractor Tavern

Sam with Ghosts I’ve Met at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern

He was a natural singer-songwriter in front of any sized crowd and I realized that while he was at PCC he was just getting used to performing in front of audiences (the store staff).  I think he was honing his stage self the whole time he was there.

His band stuck around, though with changing lineups, and has recorded several LPs and EPs (one can find them on Amazon or at any local Seattle record store).  He then went back east again and on a long road tour, circling back to Texas and living there for a while.  Now he’s back in the Pacific Northwest, with a family and a kid, playing music and recording.  He played Bumbershoot last year, I wonder if a date at Key Arena could be in his future.  At this point we wouldn’t be surprised.

He could play for all the other unremembered former co-workers of mine from over the last 19 years.sam

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