Collie Creating
Codex Firestarter

A comparison of geographically separated subcultures

by Collie Collier
July 2004 Firestarter column

I recently spent a week on Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state. It was lovely, and I had a great time. It was also fascinating from an anthropological perspective, in that there's obviously a different subculture there from the one I usually live in (San Jose, CA).

Here are a few interesting things I noticed while there. Just for fun I've also tossed in a few random observations regarding two other locales I've visited in the last three years: St. Louis, MO, and New Haven, CT.

The terrain

It takes about three hours to get to Whidbey Island from the Seattle-Tacoma airport. We took the Mukilteo ferry on the way in, which was a nice, cool, peaceful 20 minute ride, and the Deception Pass bridge on the way out.

Deception Pass is a park, one of several on the little island, and despite it being geographically farther to take that route, it works out to be roughly the same amount of time. While the park is breathtakingly beautiful, I personally enjoyed the ferry ride more, as that way there was less highway driving.

Physically, Whidbey Island itself is simply gorgeous. The countryside is richly green, with huge, lovely trees in the parks, and ferns growing up all around, in the many reserves, green areas, and camping grounds. I even saw a free flying bald eagle, which was a thrill. The hiking is wonderful, and the weather was unseasonably beautiful. It left the folks there gasping in the unaccustomed heat, but I loved it.

While we were there we saw a lot of 'pick your own' farms, selling various kinds of really delicious fresh fruit. It's hard to get lost, too, as State Road 20 goes down the spine of the entire, rather slender island. Admittedly, the road signs are miniscule and hard to read, and often not listed on the maps, but the whole island's only 45 miles long, so you really can't get too far off track before hitting water.

Physical structures

The towns on the island were pretty small. I think we blew through Oak Harbor, the largest town on the island, in less than ten minutes. Also, there were very few new-looking buildings. Most looked at minimum to be about 20 or so years old, and most of the business signs looked hand painted. A large number of the buildings sported some rather rough looking repairs, too, as if they were done by a casual hand with just the materials available.

Shopping was unfortunately limited, and just about everything that wasn't a major chain (of which there were only a few) shut down on Sunday. There weren't any big bookstores at all, although the little one we went to did say they could order anything we wanted in about a week. Curiously, when we did a web search for book stores on Whidbey, the first page on the search engine was almost entirely christian book stores. Not what we were looking for... ;)

I didn't notice any computer stores or coffee shops either, but I did see espresso was available just about everywhere -- even drive-through espresso! Lots of storage spaces too, which I guess would be expected in what's basically a Navy and retirement town.

The Navy base

Speaking of the Navy... yes, their buildings looked quite old also. However, I thought they had a rather clever arrangement in the women's restroom (I didn't see the men's room) of the CPOs club. In effect, you could stand at one particular point in the room, and see yourself front and side, in two mirrors. Smart! How come no one else does this? It seems so basic, once you think of it.

Bob says he thinks the reason it's not done here is twofold: vandalism is unfortunately prevalent in the restrooms of smaller businesses, and using that much space to put up large mirrors costs the restaurant, in wasted space. Thinking about it, I'd have to agree. Most of the mirrors I've seen in smaller businesses both here in San Jose and in St. Louis were actually polished steel, not glass. It's a real shame; I always prefer restrooms where I don't feel crowded.

There was actually one thing on the Navy base which didn't look 20 years old: a very nicely done brick circle right at the gate, which was full of flowers. It was about four feet tall and about a ten foot diameter, I think, which caused cars to have to slow down and drive around the little circle before getting to the actual gate.

I thought that also was clever -- the Navy had created a well-organized, probably reinforced entryway to prevent gate crashers, and done it nicely with flowers and greenery instead of with an ugly, sterile concrete barrier.

Also at the gate were several very cheery, very polite guards. Bob's amused comment was: "Of course they're polite. They're armed." Kudos to the Navy for all those smart things, I say. ;)

The Internet café

While there were no true coffee shops, there was a really lovely little Internet café called The dialup in the hotel was terrible, so it was a real relief to find such a nice wireless and DSL setup. The shopping center it was in was one of the few new looking ones, having a very well done log cabin effect. The Internet café itself was in a large, well-lit, airy room with lots of space. There was also a beautiful second floor available for free for meetings, with a reservation.

I must say, the café was really pleasant. By our second day there they recognized us, and were waving hello and asking us if we wanted our 'usual.' There was a plethora of Torani flavors, which I really enjoy, and good coffee, which made Bob happy -- and when Bob says it's good coffee he means it! You could get big sandwiches and side dishes as well, along with several varieties of soup made daily. The scones were simply delicious, and also made daily and delivered by the Scone Lady -- let's hear it for small town personalization! ;)

Alas, that setup (while delightful) would probably be prohibitively expensive in San Jose.

Interestingly, I saw no compact parking spaces at all on the island. However, considering the number of pickups there, that's no surprise. Also, smoking seems to be a bit of an issue. I saw 'no smoking' signs everywhere -- on the car keys, on the hotel room door, on business doors, etc. However, outside just about every business building you could also find big coffee cans with sand in them, filled with cigarette butts.

Air conditioning!

Remember I said the weather was unseasonably wonderful? I loved the warmth, but I felt really sorry for the island's local folks when I found out most of the buildings on Whidbey (including all the Navy buildings -- what were they thinking?!) have no air conditioning.

There were interesting side effects of this decision. For example, the hotel rooms had air conditioning, but the hallways didn't. This meant the hotel had little table fans going almost constantly in the hallways, because it got so breathlessly hot there. It was a very pleasant hotel, though, with a lovely little heated pool and a nice fitness room -- much nicer than the hotel by Seattle-Tacoma Airport, even though they were equally priced, and of the same chain.

Private property

One other thing there was a lot of was real estate offices. Also, while I didn't see many personal homes, I'd guess on an island there aren't many basements. I don't know for sure, though. I know in San Jose there aren't any to speak of -- it's earthquake country, after all. People use their garages for storing stuff, instead of basements. In St. Louis, by contrast, I think everyone there must've had basements. Cars in the garages -- what were they thinking?! ;)

There's some worry amongst the island's local folks about real estate development breaking up the land into such small chunks that only tract housing will fit.

I realize it's a complex subject I'm not read up on, but I had a curious thought on that subject. People buy tract housing because it's all they can afford, not because they want cheap or shoddy homes. So if folks don't want the land divided up into tiny tract housing, why not make the land itself less expensive, so folks can afford to buy and care for it more easily?


Apparently there's a real lack of viable jobs on the island, which I suspect contributes greatly to the need for housing development. I overheard no less than three different conversations on the subject while there, and from what folks were saying it sounds like fast food is unfortunately the best bet in the job market for kids and bored Navy wives.

On the other hand, all the folks I met in restaurants and fast food places were all quite pleasant. I'm guessing they don't get as much nastiness as you can see here in San Jose. After all, the folks they're serving are their neighbors, not complete strangers.

As an example, we went into a combined Taco Bell-Pizza Hut (that was a first for me), and the guy behind the counter was friendly and helpful! They all spoke good English, which was nice, and we both noticed with some curiosity they were all White.


Every place we went the food was very fresh -- they even had good bacon, which I've not been able to find in San Jose for a while. Curiously, we saw something similar in St. Louis while we were there -- salads and fruit were fresh and delicious!

San Jose, despite being in the middle of some of the most fertile cropland in the country, doesn't have nice fruit or greens for sale here. We speculate it's because the best food is shipped out -- the farmers keep and sell locally the stuff they can't sell elsewhere.


I don't know if it's because Oak Harbor is a small town, but there seemed to be a very different sense of privacy there, as opposed to either St. Louis or San Jose. For example, at one fast food place a girl came in and was pretty much openly and cheerfully discussing her date of the night before with her co-workers on duty -- with customers present and easily able to hear.

I've never seen that in San Jose or St. Louis, although I'd guess it's because you don't really know most everyone in a city. Also, in San Jose it's enough (and sometimes startling) to just smile or nod in passing. In Oak Harbor I was myself startled several times by receiving that, plus a hello -- usually before I'd initiated the greeting myself.

It made me wonder: if you're in a small town and pretty much know everyone, do you not worry as much about hiding things, because you know your neighbors will eventually find out anyway? Do people just assume no one's a stranger?

Pleasant reactions

The whole week was surprisingly full of extremely pleasant people -- folks who were sometimes just astonishingly polite. I didn't notice a single screaming kid all week, which I most heartily approve of!

This unusual level of politeness started before we even got to the island. At the Mukilteo ferry, where we stopped at a dockside store for a drink, their soft drink dispenser wasn't working. So the two ladies there just gave me an entire bottle for the same price. It was startling, but the kind of pleasantness we'd notice happening a lot over the entire week.

Another thing we noticed only after we returned to San Jose. We were in a Friday's, eating dinner, and Bob pointed out there was no place on Whidbey Island (excluding the Navy airport) where there'd been as much noise as there was in the Friday's. It was obvious, too, the Friday's was set up to actually increase the noise level, i.e. metal ceilings to reflect back sound, and no cloth or dividers to soak it up, lots of TVs playing everywhere, etc.

We speculated it was because lonely or bored people mistake auditory overload for excitement, fun, and happiness. "If it's this noisy we must be having a good time, right?" -that sort of thing. I rather liked the slightly calmer, quieter, more deliberate pace of the island, in comparison.

There was a funny example of courtesy on the island as well. At one point several members of my family (I think the average age was almost 40) were gathered together at night in a hotel room to play cards. It was hot, so the door was open.

Eventually we got rather enthusiastically loud, and a tattooed young man who couldn't have been more than 25 wandered by the open doorway. He apologized for interrupting us, but asked if could we tone it down a little, please? Folks were trying to sleep.

In all my life I've never been at a party so raucous that folks have asked us to tone it down. Who would ever have imagined it'd finally occur with such a group?! ;)

I am corrected! On 7/7/04 John, a long-standing friend, wrote me: "It's happened that the party has been asked to quiet down before, you just didn't notice. It happened at 2 of the barn house parties you attended that I can remember. Admittedly, a looong time ago..."

Gracious, I've been so wild -- and not even noticed?! What am I doing wrong here? ;)

The closest thing we saw to rudeness was a driver who accelerated around a right hand turn on red in front of us. He didn't really inconvenience us, though, and he was driving a white low-rider pickup with fuzzy dice hanging off the rear view mirror, which made us giggle so much we really didn't care.

Physical characteristics

One other interesting observation: almost all the people there were White. I saw a small handful of Asians or Pacific Islanders, and maybe three black people all week -- a Navy guy and his family. I didn't notice any Hispanics at all, although Bob said he heard some Spanish. It was... a little odd feeling. I guess I like San Jose's ethnic plurality.

I didn't see much in the way of piercings, aside from earrings, but I saw a huge number of tattoos, even on what you might call "respectable-looking" middle-aged women. Nice tat work, too. There were many women (unsurprising in a Navy town), and quite a few of them were apparently Mary Kay ladies. Then again, that seems an elegant solution for a bored Navy wife to fruitfully occupy her time.

Another interesting thing about the people was their size. I saw several chubby people of both genders -- but none that were morbidly obese. By "morbidly obese" I mean so overweight as to spill out of chairs, not fit at all into booths, and to be unable to move with any ease -- to walk as if it were painful and required all one's concentration and effort.

I mention these because during the short time I visited St. Louis I saw more morbidly obese people than I've ever seen before. It was just painfully sad to watch.

Initially I wondered if I was just imagining it, but since then I've read a study showing St. Louis had one of the highest percentages of morbidly obese people in the country. Unsurprisingly, the mayor has called for a change in folks' eating and exercise habits. Good for him.


On the whole, I'd say Whidbey Island society appeared quite conservative. For example, all the women's restrooms had diaper changers -- but none of the men's did, according to Bob. No diverging from "traditional" role models allowed, I take it?

Also, maybe I didn't find the right radio station, but most of the music I heard was oldies -- rock music between 5 and 30 years old. There wasn't a lick of rap all week!


There were some things you saw a lot of, though. There were tons of US flags everywhere -- in ads, on cars, in windows, flying in front of buildings -- every place you could possibly imagine! Not entirely surprising in a Navy town, but somehow I doubt every single one of them was put in place by a flaming patriot... ah, commercialism. ;)

Another thing you saw a lot of was churches -- my god, they were everywhere! At least they didn't all appear robotically duplicated, though, like in New Haven.

Man, that was creepy, in New Haven -- like an alien conspiracy or something. You're lost, driving down a maze of twisty backroads, all alike -- then you break out of the trees to find a crossroads. Hurrah, we can maybe find ourselves on the map now! -and every crossroads had its identical corner with the monotonously identical clone of a tiny white box building capped with an identical steeple. You could get lost, depending on them as landmarks. ;->

There are a lot of churches in San Jose, too, but they're all different, and a lot of them have really cool, interesting architecture.

One thing San Jose doesn't have, which both Whidbey Island and St. Louis did, was a lot of Christian paraphernalia. I saw a surprising number of stores and people sporting and selling that stuff. Bumper stickers, t-shirts, necklaces & earrings with crosses or the characteristic fish on them, wristlets, tag-holders for around your neck, car decals, etc. -- there was a disturbing amount of it floating around.

I have a question about this stuff, and it's not geographically related at all -- I've noticed this everywhere I've been. Why do people buy it -- especially the "What Would Jesus Do?" paraphernalia?

Every time I've seen someone sporting one of those WWJD things, I've been deeply unimpressed by their behavior. Cars with those bumperstickers cutting people off on the road, people wearing the wristlets trash-talking those around them, folks with those tag-holder thingies gossiping maliciously about co-workers -- what are they thinking? Surely they don't believe Jesus would behave like that?

Yes, I know people will be people, but if you want folks to think well of your religion, shouldn't you walk your talk? Or is this just another religious victim of rampant commercialism? Someone's making money on all this paraphernalia, after all.

Appearances vs. reality?

However, even though the area appeared quite conservative on the surface, most folks we met seemed taken with, or at least amused by, Bob's lapel button, which said, "Someone less dumb for president." He always grinned when they laughed, and noted he wore it every election year.

It makes me wonder if most places are like that -- a surface appearance of conformity with whatever is the norm in that locale, but in reality there also exist a lot of folks who don't necessarily agree but aren't comfortable expressing their difference ("Hang up the flag and put on your cross before you go out, dear" ;-).

An example: at one restaurant we went to there was an old white beater car in the parking lot, with simply wonderful art all over it, done with black sharpie pen. It had repeating geometric patterns, swirling anarchy symbols, occasional pithy comments such as "What am I doing here?", a lizard rocker, big decorated eyes and stars -- and it was signed by Lara Star. Nice work -- very cool!

We went in and asked who owned the car. A rather worried looking middle-aged woman called out a young man from the kitchen -- he couldn't have been much older than 18 or so. We complimented him enthusiastically on the wonderful artwork on his car, and he grinned and said, "See, mom?"

Apparently the worried looking woman was his mom, who thought he should have parked behind the restaurant, because otherwise his car might offend someone. Wow... poor woman. That's too much conservatism in a society.

I wonder too -- does conservatism occur more naturally in economically depressed areas? On the radio the morning I left for Whidbey Island, I heard Bill Moyer talking about his newest book. Fascinatingly, he postulated the real societal divide isn't liberal or conservative at all. It's class-based -- whether you're rich or poor.

From what I've seen, I'd have to agree with him, especially regarding his sadness over those who claim to be conservative, won't do any research -- and thus keep voting in politicians and programs that actively harm them.

Random silliness

And finally, one last thing which tremendously amused me. A lovely, large, Dutch restaurant on the island was called "Kasteel Franssen," but for some reason my brain kept blurting out "Castle Frankenstein" instead.

As we were driving by late one night, I noticed some colorful holiday lights shaped like a huge star and hung in the parking lot. Naturally, I pointed and exclaimed, "Oh, look, there's a really nice star in Castle Frankenstein's parking lot -- see it?"

Bob turned to me with a gleam in his eye and said, "So you're saying there's a light -- over at the Frankenstein place?"

Argh. Puns are so dreadful -- and even worse when you can't help laughing! ;)

Reader comments

06.25.04: Lou's thoughts

This was an interesting set of observations. Sort of a comparative travelogue.

The article was short and clear, and I liked that. It didn't make me work too hard, and I liked that. I think that some of what you saw would show in Seattle, and some wouldn't; it's a bigger city. People are friendlier, though, even though you don't know everyone.

06.25.04: Kathy's thoughts

(and my replies)

I actually have a few random comments this month, since I actually know something about Washington :-)

Yay, feedback -- thanks for writing, Kathy! ;)

(OK, this is a nit...) Whidbey Island and Puget Sound are not generally considered to be "off the coast" of Washington, as there is still quite a bit more of Washington to the West of Puget Sound.

Oops! Sorry about that. It looked that way on the map. ;)

The green countryside is one of the reasons we moved up here... I never liked how California spent most of the year looking so brown.

Oh, I remember talking about that. To you it was brown -- but to me it was golden, like a lion's mane. Diff'rent strokes! ;)

Nearer in to Seattle, we have some of the best bookstores in the country, both big and small, including some really great used bookstores (though the "best in class" of those is, of course, Powells, down in Portland). And we also have a really fabulous county-wide library system.

That does sound nice! I guess the kicker for me was the (usually) one hour of travel, each way, just to get to the ferry, take it, and get to the city. If it weren't for that, Whidbey would be a much nicer place to live, to me. Of course, I'm a book fanatic...

And you're right -- Powells is book Mecca! Someday... ;)

We don't actually have anything unusual in the way of computer stores (especially when compared to San Jose), though there are a few CompUSAs and such around. We just got our first Fry's a year ago, and boy was that a big deal. How do I know? John insisted he wanted to go on opening day, and the line JUST TO GET IN TO THE STORE wrapped almost all the way around the giant building.

Yowch! I guess the issue I have is something we noticed in New Haven a few years ago. Bob wanted to help my parents with their computer, so he suggested we just make a quick trip to the computer store to pick up the software. It'd been released several years ago, and was an oldie-but-goodie, so would get the job done well for them.

My parents agreed, and off we went to the "computer store" -- ONE double-sided rack less than ten feet long, of only the most recent, common software! That was, apparently, par for the course...

Also, when my parents came to visit for my graduation a few years ago, they were simply astonished at our bookcases of computer books. Admittedly, it was the accumulation of three folks, but according to them that was more than most stores in their area had!

I may be just a proto-geek, but I want my books! ;)

Coffee is definitely a big deal here. Drive through espresso stands are quite common (though they are usually of the "mom and pop" variety, not so much the big brands). People don't want to get out in the rain to get their latte. Most of the "big brand" coffee shops offer wireless access now also, as well as a few of the malls.

A small note of amusement -- I didn't see ANY Starbucks on Whidbey. Hold on, little island, hold on...! ;)

Compact parking spaces are a bit of an annoying issue around here (at least for me). Each city has its own rules about how many are required, and they seem to bear no relation to the proportion of compact cars in the general population. So with all the big SUVs driving around and parking in the first available space, no matter its designation, cramped parking is all too common. This is particularly a problem when you're trying to lift a baby or toddler into a car seat and can't get your door all the way open...

That's actually an issue here in San Jose too, still. Annoying as heck.

Smoking is not allowed in indoor public places except in bars, and some counties are trying to ban that also.

Many older buildings (and most homes) do not have air conditioning. Generally, it's only needed for a short time each year, and most people don't bother. Yes, it was overly hot last week, and there have been times I wished we had more than a few fans, but AC has so many issues. (I do use it in the car though, that gets WAY too hot...)

With regard to basements: many older (>50 years) homes in the city have true basements. Many "middle-aged" homes (like ours) are what's called "split-level" with a "daylight" basement (the main living areas are upstairs and the lower level is ½ buried). Most newer homes (<15 years) are 2-story with no basements. Western Washington is also earthquake country -- we just had a 7.0 a few years ago. And we even have a live volcano in our backyard...

Huh, I didn't know that about basements -- neat! The split-levels sound nice. Are they easier to heat and cool that way? More data to add, and thank you.

You win with the volcano, though -- but feel free to keep it! ;)

Land prices in the area is a big issue, development is going crazy (as it does in any area with growth), and once rural areas are feeling the pinch. Since you can't readily affect the supply of available land, when the demand goes up, the prices go up. People may say they want to keep areas open and rural, but when a developer comes along and offers $2 million for your 5 acres (that he will then build 30-40 homes on)... most people will take the money.

*sigh* I've seen this occur repeatedly across the country, actually: in Gainesville, FL; in Plano, TX; here in Silicon Valley... I wish I knew the answer. People do need places to live, but do they have to be stacked on top of each other like unhealthy coral reefs?

Washington does have a Growth Management Act which has succeeded somewhat in keeping some of the rural areas rural, but the consequence is that the developed (urban & suburban) areas are getting even more crowded and housing prices are getting out of hand (though not in comparison with SJ, and other major cities.)

Apparently they just passed some law on Whidbey saying parcels of land couldn't be broken up into less than five acres -- and it was a long battle to get that passed. I wish them luck... land issues are always tricky, I know.

I watched a tree get sliced down to nothing yesterday, for the "crime" of having branches that brush against a power line. It makes me wish for Gainesville, FL's stricture about trees -- you cut one down, you have to plant two more! There's a sad little empty spot there now, and I can't help but remember the lovely, huge, towering green trees on Whidbey. I miss trees...

In closer to Seattle, there is quite a bit of ethnic diversity. This area is one of the top areas for international refugees, for some reason. I'm surprised you didn't see any Native Americans, since there is a reservation off the North end of the island (where the land access is). Native Americans are a bigger part of the population up here than in California and Hispanics a much smaller part, though Spanish is part of the general curriculum at my kids' school. Eastern Washington has a much higher Hispanic population due to the farm workers (migrant and otherwise).

Well, to be honest I could very well have seen more ethnicities than I realized, and just not realized they were different ethnicities. There are folks who laugh at me about it, but the first thing I see and analyze when I look at folks is their body language, not their skin color, you know? ;-j

Eastern Washington is also where more of the true conservatives are, though you can find them anywhere... Yes, being Navy & retired folks & rural, Whidbey Island is generally pretty conservative.

It was very nice, although Bob & I made no effort to be radically different or anything. I wonder if that would have made a difference?

I wish we could get that small-town feeling in big cities, though... maybe if we scattered the townships out more, and had better connecting public transportation available? Yeah, I know -- there's an entire series of articles there, concerning proper land and human management.

Next time we're up that way we'll have to get together. Maybe we can do pilgrimage to Powells or something! ;)

10.11.04: Ron's thoughts

It's me again. (grin)

Hi, again! ;)

For some reason, I had skipped the July firestarter (I guess that the title didn't really interest me enough to read it before). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the "other" location you visited was here. Yes, I live in Oak Harbor, and I am stationed at the Navy base.

Oh, wow! I wish I'd known -- woulda been fun to do coffee or something! ...especially in, that wonderful internet cafe we found. Wowsers, that was nice. We really miss it, here in San Jose.

So, if you can say, what do you do there? Aside from the obvious "I'm in the armed forces" answer, of course. ;)

FWIW, many of the newer buildings on the base do have A/C (the newly renovated barracks, for example, and the building in which I work), but that's a very minor quibble in an otherwise fascinating article (Piece? Column? Presentation? Not quite sure what to call it...) I'll have to alert some of my more intelligent and inquisitive friends about it.

Oh, they do have AC in some of the buildings? Glad to hear it. Re your very kind compliment, thank you so much! You're going to give me a swelled head at this rate. ;)

Sadly, most of my co-workers are a little too shallow to really enjoy that piece, as it is not exciting in the adrenaline-junkie sense, nor is it humorous or profane. Not everyone needs profanity to express themselves, and not everyone needs profanity to enjoy what they read or view. Unfortunately, none of the kids who work for me fall into that category.

Mmm... I shall remain discreetly silent. A favorite comment of a good friend of mine is, "The problem with dealing with the masses is... you have to deal with the masses!" ;)

This is specifically why I don't have a forum, in fact -- I've not the patience to check every day and delete the comments which consist of nothing more stimulating than (I quote, alas), "EEEeee!!!11 so kaWAIIII!!!!!" or "d00d u suxx0r"