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Saturday, September 05, 2009

SpaceNeedle

At first, when I tell people that I climbed the Space Needle, they do not believe me. As I fill in the strange and wonderful details, they begin to suspect that maybe I did indeed climb up the most famous Seattle landmark, but if I did, it was a crazy thing to do -- "goofy", as the mother of my Commissar Lady girlfriend (Second Love) used to describe me. People are always asking me to explain my dubious life-choices to them, and I want to say, but I never dare to say, the following.


If I told you, you would not understand.
If you understood it, you would not believe it.
If you believed it, you would not bear it.
So maybe these tales of the MentiFex are better left untold, but the Shrinks here at the asylum are always pushing for True Confessions and self-disclosure. I want to tell them about True AI, but the subject bores them to tears. OK. You wanna know the incredible stories of the adventures of Mentifex, a Portrait of the Mindmaker as a Young Borg? Then listen, my brethren and sistren, and you shall hear, of the midnight feats of Catman so near. Because, back in the day, Mentifex went by many names, of which T.H.E. Cat and Crawdad Man of Green Lake were just a few.

Mikhail Oddjobovich and I were twenty years old that summer as we drove all over on weekends in his father's Buick or in my father's Mustang, that we called "the Horse." Usually we went to coffee shops in the University District, but tonight we were at the Seattle Center, listening to music at the Fountain, then walking up through the Fun Forest. When we approached the , I felt an irrepressible urge to climb the thing. "Wait down here," I said to Mikhail, "while I climb the Space Needle." Mikhail grinned with amusement at my impossible dream, and lit up a cigarette to enjoy while he watched to see how I would fail.

The easy part was getting up on the roof of the Ticket Sales area. I was able to mount a nearby structure and either jump or stretch over to the roof. The hard part was getting past the barbed wire encircling the Space Needle to keep out deranged dare-devils like Very Truly Yours (VTY). The only way through the barbed wire was to climb up through the gap of the external elevator shaft, where nobody in their right mind would dare climb up, because you could get crushed to death by an elevator rushing up or down. You see, when they designed the Space Needle on the back of a napkin at some Seattle cocktail lounge (don't believe it? well, the napkin is in a museum somewhere), they put the elevators on the outside rather than the inside, so that all ye Rubes and tourists would be mesmerized by the sight of high-speed elevators swooshing up and down the graceful spire. And it is a pretty sight, except when the elevator is trying to kill you. And I was no Governor Schwarzenegger, who could just ride his horse into the elevator and ride up in style. My Horse was parked on the south slope of Queen Anne Hill, to no avail as I tried to calculate how much time (007 seconds) I would have if the elevator was furthest away at the top of the Needle.

Not only has the Statute of Limitations expired, but the Space Needle sits on quasi-public property. You can climb Kibo (the mountain, not the netkook) and you can climb the Himalayas (the peaks, not the blackberries), but you can no longer climb the Space Needle, because they have added a lower-level restaurant and foolproof (not good enough for you? OK, borgproof) security since Mentifex had been-there-done-that (BTDT).

Whether from fantasy or a dream or real life, I remember scrambling through the gap in the barbed-wire skirt of the Space Needle while the elevator was at the top of its shaft. I thought I had met and mastered the grand challenge of urban alpine landmark climbing, but I was wrong. My budding career in artificial intelligence (AI) had left my natural stupidity intact, and I don't mean low-level stupidity, but weapons-grade stupidity, of which I am a walking prime example. On the Web I am by no means a netgod like Kibo or Eugene Miya, but in real life I am a deity of stupidity. How do I know? The Space Needle told me so. Once I was past the possibility of death-by-elevator, I thought all I had to do was exercise my twenty-year-old heart and my slim, trim night-runner physique by walking up the spiral of stairs to the top of the Space Needle. A piece of cake; a stairway to heaven. Wrong! When the stairwell ran out and I thought I should be at the top, I was dumbstruck and stupid-struck to discover that I was on the lower stairwell of a double helix of stairwells. Now I had to either go all the way back down to transfer to the other stairwell at a safe altitude, or I had to climb between the stairwells at a dizzying altitude. And Mentifex here always takes first place not only in competitive stupidity but also in competitive laziness. Going back down and all the way back up again was out of the question. So I poked my head into the manhole gap plunging down through the middle of the Seattle Space Needle. It was like looking into infinity, so far away was the vanishing, concentric point that must have marked the bottom. It was like being marooned in space and having to do an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity). Using my three-hold technique from climbing the mango tree as a child in Panama, I slowly, carefully monkeyed my way across the hollow core of the Space Needle from the lower staircase to the upper staircase. Then I walked up the last few steps to a door that was locked. Now what, you almost-but-not-quite climber of the Space Needle? Years later, my friend Ballerina gleefully told me that a book on the story of my life would have the title, "Something Almost Happened." I almost climbed the Space Needle; I almost got the girl; I almost achieved every success I aimed for. Before I started back down the double stairwells, I looked through the open door of an electric panel. There was room for me to climb higher, but I feared electrocution, so I abandoned the grand challenge of reaching the top of the Needle.

Years later, in A.D. 2000 I burned with envy as I watched a TV show called Dark Angel in which the cyborg Jessica Alba actually sat nonchalantly on the roof of the Space Needle. Alba played a bicycle messenger who had harrowing adventures all over Seattle, even though the episodes were filmed up in Canada. I, too, rode my German Staiger bicycle all over Seattle, but I had humiliating adventures. For instance, when I met my private-lessons German student Odna Mona at a place where I had been employed, our boss gleefully observed that he could give Odna Mona a ride home in his car, or VTY could give her a ride home on his bicycle. Score one put-down for the boss, but it was Odna Mona who took me on a ferry-boat ride to Bremerton and it was Odna Mona who took me to a German movie at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), so there! As the poet says, "Fulsere vere candidi tibi soles."

In my mind, I actually did climb the Space Needle, but Mikhail Oddjobovich was the only witness, and I can no longer find Mikhail when I search the usual places for him. In the following summer, that went down in American history as the Summer of Love, Mikhail took intensive Chinese at the University of Washington while I took intensive second-year Russian down the hall from him, so that in the fall I could take third-year Russian and fall in love with the Commissar Lady (Kommissarin). Whereas I got drafted into the Army out of U Cal Berkeley graduate school, Mikhail worked at a series of entry-level jobs that included a stint near the Pike Place market working for an eight-store chain of coffee shops called Starbucks. Decades later, in order to secure his inheritance, he engaged the services of a woman attorney who befriended him and had him over to the house of her and her husband in Laurelhurst. One night Mikhail was cooking dinner for them in their kitchen, and she introduced their guest who had casually stopped by, and would be eating with them the dinner cooked by Mikhail. Their friend (of M$oft) turned out to be a real sharp guy, because he was easily able to identify two of the flavor factors in the main dish that Mikhail cooked. After Mikhail spent his inheritance and had to complete Marriott training in cooking skills, he hired on in the cafeteria system at Microsoft, but BillG never recognized him in passing while Mikhail stood outside for a smoke break. I last saw Mikhail in 1998 on a #16 Metro bus that he was taking to Northgate and I was taking to the Green Lake Library to work on my AI websites with the computers that BillG had donated to the Seattle Public Library. Mikhail was looking down and out, so I gave him some money from the endless source of cash that Crawdad Man of Green Lake retrieves each summer from the bottom of the lake -- but that is another story. The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.