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Sunday, June 2, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The face of Fremont. Wily. Inventive. Unrestrained. Showman.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The waitress looks distressed, not so much deer-in-the-headlights as cat-in-a-cloudburst. Armen Stepanian does that to people, scares them with the way he gets in their faces and says whatever's on his mind. Usually, it's whatever he thinks should be on theirs.

Call the lemon soup by its Greek name, he tells her. Also, dress more ethnic. You'll get bigger tips. The server scuttles away.

Stepanian can do this. This is Fremont, a neighborhood he helped transform from a seedy backwater into the quirky, innovative, self-named Center of the Universe. In the 1970s, he became its fifth and maybe most famous honorary mayor, a long-haired radical whose time had come.

Now, at 70, he's about to receive an award from the Fremont Public Association honoring his legacy — as co-founder of the community social organization, honest-to-god father of curbside recycling, co-creator of the Fremont Fair and a force behind that most recognized of all Fremont sculptures, "Waiting for the Interurban."

From his table at Costas Opa, he can see the iconic aluminum figures across the street. A KOMO-TV reporter and camerawoman are over there, waiting to interview him. Fixing the hair. Planning the angles. Unaware he's watching. "They've got it all wrong," Stepanian croaks through his bushy, blond-gray beard. "They should shoot it from the backside."

The camerawoman crouches to knee-level and zooms in on the dog. That's Stepanian's face, on that dog. He groans, unable to escape the enduring humiliation that sculptor Richard Beyer explained in one publication as "sort of mockingly vengeful."

"I don't know what he's talking about," Stepanian says about that. And yet Stepanian, a man who seems to consider any attention good attention, must derive some satisfaction from the stunt. Doesn't he?

"Put yourself in my place," he says. "Do you need this? Would you want to be the face of the pig at the Pike Place Market?"

A double-decker tourist bus slides into view and stops, everyone aboard twisting and leaning to get pictures of the thing. Stepanian raises his hands in disgust.

'Fremont started to die'

Stepanian was born a year before the Aurora Bridge was dedicated, and if age has stolen any of his thunder, he is even more Zeus-like than he appears. "As soon as that bridge went up, Fremont started to die," he says. "How does it happen that I come here and revive a community that started to die the day I was born?"

Understatement? Not his strong point. And political correctness? Let's just say he is challenged that way. Still, Stepanian's influence in Fremont — and in Seattle, for that matter — cannot be denied.

A carpenter and sometime-actor from New York City, he won Fremont's mayoral contest the old-fashioned way — by getting more votes than the other guy. But where others treated the job like the joke that it was, Stepanian did not. "It's not because I'm a wonderful person," he says. "I just really love to kvetch."

Back in 1973 Fremont was full of saloons, earning nicknames like Tavern Town and Schooner Bay. "Why do you want to change anything?" one barfly asked him. "You're just going to drive the rents up."

Undeterred, Stepanian kvetched to the Seattle City Council about Fremont's crumbling social conditions and paltry funding. Along with fellow "Fremonster" Artis the Spoonman, he dreamed up a street fair to help launch a local food bank.

A strategic finger

Angry at the city for thwarting his efforts to paint the Fremont Bridge in the community's adopted color of orange, he shouted "Welcome to Bureaucratic Blue" at the ribbon-cutting ceremony from a passing vehicle, punctuating the move with a strategic finger.

And, miffed that someone was stealing aluminum cans from supermarket drop bins, he set out to prove that people would pay to have recyclables picked up at their homes instead.

"I tried to convince him it was a completely impossible idea," remembers the Rev. Bob Walker, then-pastor of Fremont Baptist Church and one of Stepanian's early cohorts.

Instead, the notion took off, fueling Total Recycling, the business he ran with his wife, Jan. Recycling was the theme of the second Fremont Fair. (For the third, dubbed "Fair of the Opposites," Stepanian placed, for instance, the hemp groupies next to the police department, and bodybuilders next to the La Leche League, tempting conflict every eight or 10 booths.)

If you make people laugh, he says, you disarm them, and in the process, you can leave them with a message. This is something he tries to convey at a lunch address for staffers of the Fremont Public Association (FPA), the formidable social-service descendant of the collective community-building efforts birthed in those early days.

Fremont's fair — scheduled this year for June 22-23 — is theme-free these days, which rankles Stepanian no end.

"When you have 125,000 people in one place in two days, and you don't speak your mind about what the world is really about, you're not doing your job," he tells the sprinkling of brown-baggers. "Maybe it's autism. Or hunger. But theme the fair. Tell people something. Then, when you ride down the street naked on a bicycle, they're disarmed. But the posters stay up."

Afterward, as coordinators are dismantling the lunch setting and Stepanian is answering questions, a young woman interrupts with a tray of six leftover cookies. "Would you like a cookie?" she asks him.

He pats the table. "Oh, just leave the plate there," he says.

She looks aghast. Then sets it down and disappears.

Stepanian hoists the tray and hobbles out the door, Tolstoy in slippers, teetering from rheumatoid arthritis. "Do they have any milk around here?" he says. "I haven't had any lunch or breakfast."

Still, he's not a guy who needs 125,000 people around to spread his message. He'll preach to just one.

He's got an idea he's been pushing for a while, that food-bank recipients should be asked to give something in return for their handout — stuffing envelopes, whatever they choose, from a posted list of activities. So when he encounters a local food-bank coordinator, he can't help himself. He becomes a bull in the china shop of her personal space, hands on her shoulders, 15 inches nose from nose. Slowly wearing her down.

Here's his thinking: In an environment where no one is denied, he says, anyone who can stomach showing up is gonna take something home. Fine. Let people deal with their conscience on their own time. But see — here's a few things the food bank needs done; what can they help with? Then clients can go home saying, "I may not be able to get a job, but at least I filled 10 envelopes today."

It's a crazy, interesting, logistically problematic idea. She weathers his barrage before finally telling him that how clients go home feeling isn't her problem and shouldn't be his, either.

Yes, people sometimes find it hard to listen to a guy they see stuck in the mid-'70s, whose lengthy, vaguely poetic rambles recall Dennis Hopper's flighty photographer in "Apocalypse Now." Maybe there's no place anymore for old radicals like this, aiming to make a difference. But it doesn't mean he's not going to try.

Never about the money

At its height, Stepanian's recycling business claimed 3,000 home pickups monthly. In 1988, the city of Seattle bought him out, finally hip to an idea that would ultimately spread nationwide. He had to sign a no-compete clause — a career lobotomy, he calls it, although he says it was never about the money anyway.

"All I ever wanted was for the whole city to do it," he says. He took a job in Indiana pushing similar efforts there, but it didn't catch on.

He and his wife have since retired in Ocean Shores, living on disability and Social Security and walking the food-bank line themselves. Stepanian, still young at heart, milks every ounce of daylight; he's now trying to hatch a cordwood business.

Still, it wasn't hard to persuade him to come back to Fremont on this day late in May. An audience beckons. Yes, the man who would recycle everything, if he could, has even managed to recycle his 15 minutes of fame.

At the FPA's well-attended "Local Heroes" award ceremony, the Rev. Walker recalls meeting Stepanian, with whom — along with a dozen others — he created the agency. Back then, the FPA had a $16,000 budget; today it's $15 million.

"The only person saying Fremont had a future was this crazy carpenter," Walker says. "He was an agitator. But I listened to what he was concerned about. A lot of agitators are against something, but a lot of what Armen was agitated about was what he was for."

After the first street fair, he remembers, he and Stepanian walked around the area picking up trash until 1 a.m. "He wanted to clean up the mess so Fremont would look nice," Walker says. "I realized his dedication was to Fremont."

The fair is now a steady source of FPA's funding, says agency president Frank Chopp, announcing that Mayor Greg Nickels, with whom Stepanian has yet to have a run-in, had proclaimed May 9 Armen Napoleon Stepanian Day. "We cannot forget who got us here," Chopp says, his voice breaking. "How many people do you know who make a difference in people's lives? How many do it every day?"

Nixonesque peace signs

Then again, how many people are like Armen Stepanian?

He steps to the mike flashing two Nixonesque peace signs and eats up the spotlight like he's Godzilla stomping through Tokyo.

He pitches his food-bank scheme and lances local landowner Suzie Burke, on whose canal-abutting property now stand the six-story-high, view-blocking office behemoths whose benefit to the neighborhood has been much debated.

Stepanian's irreverence and button-pushing showmanship once triumphed on a neighborhood scale, but Fremont has changed, and he has to confess: It is not what he had in mind.

"Entombed in stucco," is how he describes it. Trendy. Overpriced.

Still kvetching, this one is. An audience is an opportunity. Make 'em squirm. Make 'em laugh. But leave them with a message.

Or two.

Marc Ramirez: mramirez@seattletimes.com.

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