WARD DUFT MOVED TO SEATTLE IN THE SPRING OF 1991 AND HE liked it right away, even though it was all a mistake. He arrived at the wheel of a 1978 Volkswagen with two friends and all the gear they'd need to spend a summer fishing in the Gulf of Alaska. They left Raleigh, N.C., and drove for two weeks, arriving just two days after the fleet had left for the season. No problem! It was the day that spring that the sun was shining; the mountains loomed across the dappled bay and on the corner you could buy a caff Americano, a mass of froth sitting atop a few sips of bitter sludge, for $1.50. ""I liked the laid-back atmosphere,'' Duft says. ""Everybody's so kind and polite you can just about bull your way into anything.'' He liked the attitude of Seattle's youth culture -- morbid, apathetic, but still, somehow, cool about it. He tended bar in a funeral parlor that had been minimally redecorated into a restaurant. He wrote hip, nihilistic advertising copy (for a sky-diving outfit: ""We make a lasting impression -- you won't!''). And he came to appreciate the motto that isolation and its immense natural splendor have conspired to engrave on the secret heart of the place -- Seattle: if you can make it there, so what?
Michael Kinsley moved to Seattle early this year and he liked it, too, although for totally opposite reasons. The editor, columnist and liberal host of CNN's ""Crossfire'' had been hired by Microsoft to create and edit an electronic magazine of political and cultural opinion that would be good enough to compete with anything now in print. His first reaction was that he could put out a better magazine in the East, near the drones who generate cultural and political buzz. ""They told me cyberspace makes distance irrelevant,'' he says. ""I said, that's my point, I can do this from a computer in Chevy Chase.
""And they said, no, we want you here for the synergy.''
There were drawbacks -- in his first week, he was invited to bond with his colleagues in a game of Laser Tag, making him wonder if it was too late to ask for his old job back -- but also compensations. He rented an apartment with a dramatic view of Lake Washington, the same one Rob Morrow stayed in while shooting ""Northern Exposure.'' He discovered the delightful freedom of working in a city where no one cared what he thought about how Clinton should respond if Yeltsin postpones the Russian elections. And one of his biggest worries -- that he wouldn't be famous anymore -- turned out to be unfounded. Amid Seattle's near-perpetual drizzle, he first made the acquaintance of the local microbes, who showed him a different meaning of the word ""host.'' At dinner one night he was seized by a fit of coughing so profound it sent him running to a drugstore. Racked and gasping, he tore open the box of cough medicine and began grappling with the bottle cap, while the cashier looked on adoringly and cooed, ""You know, my mother just loves you.''
SOONER OR LATER, IT SEEMS, everyone moves to Seattle, or thinks about it, or at least their kids do. The city is a demographic paradox, a place whose population -- 532,900 in 1995 -- is essentially stable, yet which seems to visitors (who don't often get to working-class neighborhoods) to consist entirely of people who were born somewhere else. Rootless youths seeking alienation beneath Seattle's brooding skies, but with plenty of girls to keep them company. Middle-aged strivers betting that Microsoft can create one more millionaire. Even those constrained to spend the 21st century in some less-favored city will inevitably feel the tug of Seattle's gloom. For decades the Pacific Northwest has quietly positioned itself at the leading edge of eco- nomic growth -- natural resources (Weyerhaeuser), manufacturing (Boeing), technology (Microsoft), music (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) and coffee (Starbucks).
But the reality of postindustrial society is that power lies with the people who tell the rest of the world what to think. Since the invention of television, that power has been invested in New York, Los Angeles and Washington. But if -- as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates seems to believe -- it's now up for grabs in the demotic babble of the Internet, then Seattle may be the city to grab it. Starwave, a company controlled by Microsoft's cofounder Paul Allen, publishes original Web magazines dedicated to sports (SportsZone) and entertainment (Mr. Showbiz) with high-powered editors lured from New York to an office park in the Seattle suburbs. Kinsley became one of America's most influential commentators as editor of The New Republic, whose circulation never got much above 100,000. What could he achieve with Microsoft's billions behind him?
More important, what does Seattle's ascension portend for the rest of us? Hard to say, because the city still isn't used to thinking of ""buzz'' as an export- able product. What it has are principles. Seattle has a proud, if slightly eccentric, progressive-labor tradition. It's known for environmental awareness -- the Mariners, so goes the joke, pick up for recycling the trash that Yankee fans throw on the field. (Nevertheless, Seattle has only the most rudimentary mass-transit system, and a proposal to build one spanning three counties was voted down last year.) It is generally progressive on racial matters, with a fast-growing Asian population in the ""International District'' (formerly ""Chinatown'') and a well- regarded African-American mayor, Norm Rice -- although it has one of the smallest black populations of any big American city.
But people didn't watch Kinsley on TV for his principles. Journalism is driven by news, opinions, gossip and wisecracks, and there's no reason to suppose it will be any different on the Internet. Here Seattle is at a disadvantage. It is a city that runs on secrets, not outspokenness. ""It's a Scorpio town,'' says writer Melissa Rossi, author of a new biography of grunge rocker Courtney Love. ""There's a lot of sexual energy, but it's hidden. Guys don't just come on to you, they want to have affairs.'' Seattle's prevailing style is reticent and diffident, rather than glib. Its very reputation as ""America's most livable city'' works against it; as New Yorkers know, there's nothing like getting stuck in a 20-minute traffic jam on the way to the office to put an edge on one's critical faculties.
SEATTLE HAS TRAFFIC JAMS, OF course. Twice a day, rush hour fills the two bridges over Lake Washington that connect Seattle proper to the burgeoning eastern suburbs of Bellevue and Redmond. The three-mile crossing can take up to half an hour, but even then it is almost unheard of for a driver to go berserk and ram a schoolbus out of frustration. Seattle drivers, and, for that matter, pedestrians, are legendary for courtesy and patience. Asked for an example of how the influx of newcomers has affected his city, Rice disdainfully exclaims, ""Jaywalkers!'' Many outsiders find this an even harder adjustment than 160 days of rain annually. ""You could sell tickets to watch a traffic light change in this town,'' says Susan Mulcahy, a former New York Post editor who moved to Seattle last year to become publisher of Starwave's Mr. Showbiz Web site. ""Look: he's stopping on the yellow. It's green and she's not honking.''
So powerful is the tranquilizing effect of Seattle's civility that it touches even lawyers. ""You don't have people serve you [with legal papers] at 6 on a Friday night in July just to screw you,'' says Rob Crichton, a partner in a Seattle law firm who moved there from New York, where apparently such practices are common. If anyone tried it on him now, he wouldn't be in the office anyway. ""In New York, it was a macho thing: you had to be around until 7 every night, after spending two hours and $60 at lunch. I brown-bag my lunch and eat at my desk, and I'm on the ferry to Bainbridge Island by 5:30. The money's not the same; as a partner I make less than a first-year associate at my old firm. But the water is free, the mountains are free, and I have time to enjoy them.''
More generally, he says, in Seattle even successful people approach work as a way to make a living, not as a consuming passion. (Gates excepted, of course.) Because one is presumed to have other interests in life than professional advancement, it is possible to be a lawyer, say, happily married to a bus driver. In the East that might be considered unnatural, if not disgusting. ""When I lived in New York,'' says Katherine Koberg, managing editor of Seattle Weekly, ""if you met someone at a party the first thing you asked was 'What do you do?' Here it's considered a very offensive thing to say. I meet a lot of people who are doing impressive things, in business, in the arts, in academia, but they all say the same thing: 'Oh, I came here because I love the mountains'.''
The mountains! The majestically fogbound peaks of the Olympic Peninsula and the Cascades are usually the first thing a visitor doesn't notice. But residents draw psychological sustenance from them even when they can't see them, the way some New Yorkers take comfort from knowing that if they ever wanted a copy of Partisan Review at 4 a.m., they could get one. Seattle, says the English essayist Jonathan Raban, who moved there in 1990 after falling in love with the possibilities of sailing in Puget Sound, is the only big city to which people move in order to get closer to nature.
Besides hiking in it, another way Seattleites get closer to nature is by eating it. Seattle is a city gone mad with connoisseurship. The humblest Safeway sells fresh lemongrass by the stalk. Bars are chocka-block with rows of single-malt whiskies; the products of some of the nation's most esoteric microbreweries gush from the taps; wine lists are heavy with Washington state Chardonnays. In restaurants, Asian food is inescapable, says Nancy Leson, the Seattle Weekly restaurant critic. ""Even a steakhouse, a neighborhood joint, a place you take your mother for her birthday, will have something with ginger and shiitake mushrooms and black beans all over it.'' At the better restaurants, menu descriptions may run to three full lines of herb-crusted and garlic-suffused prose. ""Lavender-fried quail served on frise dressed with a sherry and thyme vinaigrette, garnished with pancetta lardons and soft-cooked quail eggs'' -- that's a salad. The provenance of each ingredient is specified down to the method of capture for seafood; diners at one downtown restaurant are assured that their fish was caught by long line rather than in a net, sparing their lunch a lot of needless suffering.
AND YET, PARADOXICALLY, THESE paragons of civility, these humble paddlers and hikers fretting about the feelings of codfish, also happen to constitute the work force of some of the most relentless and aggressive business enterprises in the world. It is by now common knowledge that Microsoft's success owes less to Gates's programming genius than his foresight in locking up the rights to the operating system used in IBM's first personal computers. Similarly, Starbucks may or may not have the world's greatest coffee, but no competitor has been able to match the drive of its CEO, Howard Schultz. Since he acquired what was a local 11-branch chain in 1987, Starbucks has opened more than 800 stores, en route to the company's goal of ""2,000 by 2000.''
Schultz likes to emphasize his company's origins in Seattle, a city that he says signifies ""quality, integrity, authenticity, honesty, friendliness and fresh air and water.'' Like Microsoft, Starbucks grandiosely styles its headquarters a ""campus,'' an unlikely term for offices in a converted warehouse near the docks. The company distributes stock to every worker and covers even part-timers with health insurance. And is Seattle grateful? Well, not entirely. ""We all love the idea that thanks to Starbucks we can go to practically any city in the world and get good coffee,'' says Skip Berger, editor of Seattle's Eastsideweek, ""but actually, we liked it better when it was small and local.''
Whereas Gates's shambling, awkward public persona helped for years disguise his acquisitiveness, Schultz is smooth and personable, qualities that in an odd way seem less endearing here than they might in his native New York. A dispute with the city over allegations that his new house encroached on a corner of an adjacent park has somehow escalated into what Schultz contends (in an op-ed piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) is a campaign by some of his neighbors to keep him from living there. Sympathetic observers think he exacerbated the situation by enlisting some of the city's top lawyers and public-relations consultants -- which is just how a problem like that would be handled in a place like New York.
The main thing Microsoft and Starbucks have in common is that they essentially invented their businesses. This, says Scott Bedbury, Starbucks's senior vice president for marketing, is characteristic of companies in this part of the country. ""We're not dragging 200 years of baggage with us,'' he says. ""We're not looking to our peers in the industry to grab a piece of their business. We're looking to the consumer. That's what Howard did, that's what Phil Knight did at Nike: make shoes for the world's best athletes instead of trying to hit a price point for Sears.'' In the history of many Seattle enterprises is a moment, early on, where the solitary genius faced a skeptical world. Plenty of people told Gates, back in 1975, that he was making a mistake dropping out of Harvard to devote himself to personal computers. People who knew Gordon Bowker when he founded Starbucks in the 1970s are still reminded by him of what a dumb idea they thought it was.
SOME YEARS LATER A young man named Bruce Pavitt, who had developed a theory in college that regionalism was the engine that kept American pop music alive, told his friends that one day Seattle would dominate the music world. ""Of course,'' says Larry Reid, a well-known Seattle rock writer, ""we all laughed.'' Pavitt persisted, starting a fanzine which eventually spawned a label: Sub Pop, which was to grunge music what Deutsche Grammophon was to Wagner. ""Seattle had a few things going for it,'' says Reid. ""It was cheap, and so far out of the mainstream that there was no incentive to sell out. You weren't doing it for the money; there was no money.'' Grunge was the musical expression of the alienation of blue-collar youth, in the depressed logging towns of Se- attle's hinterlands. Its ac- coutrements -- flannel shirts, workboots and knit caps -- were what people wear when they have to stay warm and can't afford North Face down parkas. The logging towns are still depressed, but Boeing is adding 6,700 workers this year, and the city's newest hot band, The Presidents of the United States of America, is known for playful, upbeat lyrics about cats and fruit instead of heroin and death.
OF COURSE, SEATTLE STILL WOR- ries about its future; it is shadowed by its very success, haunted by the fear that stalks every city west of the Mississippi, of turning into another Los Angeles, filled with $50,000 cars and great restaurants no one can get into. It was out of just this fear that Seattle society ostracized Seahawks owner Ken Behring. ""I am a rich California developer -- three bad words,'' he told reporters, in announcing his plan to move the football team to Los Angeles. Paul Allen now has an option to buy the Seahawks and keep them in Seattle.
Yet even as the city welcomes such civic-minded applications of Microsoft's untapped billions, it fears them, too. Twenty million dollars in seed money from Allen did not persuade voters to approve an ambitious plan to demolish a large swath of cityscape for a park with the unhappily chosen name ""Seattle Commons,'' which somehow managed to sound both elitist and socialist to many residents -- notably the thousands whose homes or businesses would have been displaced. A scaled-down version of the plan, which still faces heated opposition, is to be voted on next week.
The place still works its magic, no question. Young people still flock to cheap apartments in Belltown, or slightly less cheap ones in Capitol Hill, where a place called the Gravity Bar advertises ""modern food'' -- trays of sprouts in glass-fronted cabinets and big schooners of wheatgrass juice, served amid Seattle's characteristic post-apocalyptic interior design: exposed ducts, electrical cable, heavily scratched backlit Plexiglass. For $10 a month, they can have an e-mail address at the Speakeasy Cafe, and download the world's wisdom in a drafty converted garage, lit mostly by the glow of the terminals reflecting off the eyeglasses of the customers.
Not all of them find what they're looking for, naturally. ""People come here with the idea 'I'm gonna start a new life','' Rossi says. ""But they arrive and there isn't a Welcome Wagon out that says, 'Hello, welcome to Seattle, fellow spiritual seeker.' If you come, you'd better bring your own friends, because otherwise you won't last here long enough to make any.'' Even many natives leave after a while, for better jobs, or just because they're sick of what the weather still does to their hair after all these years. Lynda Barry, the geek-chic cartoonist and playwright (page 55), moved to Evanston, Ill., where she'll never have to look at a damn mountain again. ""Seattle,'' says Duft, the bartender/adman/would-be fisherman, ""is a place you go when you're on your way somewhere else. Everybody's a damn poet, or else they're a drummer. I'm sick of synchronized-hair bands that pound out their four chords and shake their hair back and forth in unison. I want somebody to honk their horn and give me the finger when I cut them off, so I'm moving back East.
Seattle? "a wet L.A.," sneiffs Portland writer Paige Powell, who's not alone in thinking that her city is the real promised land. A guide to other spots in the area:
Clean, safe and polite-in other words, Canadian. Blessed with a stunning waterside perch, Vancouver (population 1,800,000) may be the fastest-growing city on the continent. it's also No. 1 in wine consumption. ..MR0-
Shielded by the Cascades, Spokane (pop.: 188,000) isn't as wet as Seattle and Portland. But it does attract the same emigrating Californians, as well as Seattleites pushed out by rising home prices. ..MR0-
Near skiing and beaches, the "Rose city" (pop.: 439,000) boasts affordable real estate, exceptional public schools and a rich cultural landscape. It's also sprouting jobs three times faster than Seattle. ..MR0-
Low humidity, cool nights and 250 days of sunshine a year make the Aspen of the high desert a golfing, skiing and hiking mecca. Population is a manageable 29,000-and they'd like to keep it that way. ..MR0-
A river runs through it, and if you're trout-fishing downtown, you may spy an eagle. Boise (pop.: 153,000) is the choice for Seatlle refugees who find Spokane a bit too much like home. ..MR0-