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From Pub to Pub

From Pub to Pub

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Letters threatening to spread poison throughout Seattle's gay bars prompted Capitol Hill residents to stand up and play host to a pub crawl.

Presumably, the person who sent letters to 11 gay-friendly bars in the tight-knit Seattle neighborhood of Capitol Hill threatening to poison patrons with ricin wanted to scare everyone into staying home.

It didn't work. If anything, it proved a boon to business in harsh economic times.

Word spread among bar owners, bartenders, promoters, DJs, and others orbiting the scene shortly after the first letters were opened January 6. The letters warned, "I have in my possession approximately 67 grams of ricin with which I will indiscriminately target at least five of your clients."

After the usual emotions -- shock, outrage, anger -- subsided, a kind of calm set in. And that same day, a plan was formed.

Rather than don hazmat suits and batten down the hatches, several of those who work in varying capacities for the bars that were targeted decided to organize a Friday night pub crawl in response.

"I kind of felt like it was a way for me to call out some of the other people I know that benefit from this community," said Alison S., a well-known promoter in the area and one of the crawl's chief organizers. "It's time to stand up to this hatred."

Soon, an e-mail address and a website dedicated to the crawl went up. The popular alternative weekly The Stranger, which received a different version of the letter that listed all of the bars targeted and the number of expected victims, led the local media charge in drumming up support.

For many, the Capitol Hill Pub Crawl on January 9 started at C.C. Attle's. Inside, the mostly male crowd buzzed with the kind of festive energy usually reserved for the holidays. The presence of a CNN reporter shooting stills and video footage only added to the excitement. If anyone was worried about falling victim to the nasty effects of ricin poisoning (vomiting, diarrhea, and potentially death), they kept it to themselves.

Though the crawl was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., C.C. Attle's bartender Chris Daw said a group of more than 20 people got things started a couple of hours early. Bars reported bigger business than usual, and though most bar owners seemed confident the threat was a hoax, at C.C. Attle's signs were posted warning customers not to leave drinks unattended.

"But we try to keep it light," Daw said, before exclaiming with an operatic bellow, "Ricin free since '93!"

Alison S. was on hand, along with fellow promoter and crawl organizer Luying.

"If these people have any doubt about our commitment to our community, they're mistaken," Luying said, leaning against the bar as a group of guys squeezed past.

At R Place, the vibe was similarly fun and loose. The only thing out of the ordinary was the presence of a pair of uncomfortable-looking cops. However out of place the police might have seemd, most attendees agreed that the Seattle Police Department had done an exceptional job of working with the community and keeping it informed of the investigation's progress, which now also includes the FBI.

While no one has been caught, The Stranger's editorial director, Dan Savage, wrote a blog posting arguing that the letter writer was a self-hating gay person, and this conviction has only grown, he told Advocate.com during a phone interview. Savage pointed to the fact that religion wasn't mentioned in the letters and that an astute reader had pointed out that the perpetrator had quoted from the work of gay poet Mark Doty.

This is somebody who's "crushingly disappointed" with gay life, Savage said.

Around town, people tried to focus on moving past the threats -- drag queen Alexis seemed more concerned that he almost fell during his performance than with ingesting a deadly poison, but said it was tough not to worry at least a little.

"I moved to Seattle from Chicago because I thought it was safer for homosexuals," he said.

He said the threats had caused him to rethink that assumption.

Nearby, the Wildrose Bar had the largest and most upbeat crowd. People jammed on the dance floor, chatted at the tightly packed bar, and posed for photos with friends.

Owner Shelley Brothers stood outside, shivering and smoking a Newport, talking to customers and basking in the support.

"It's had the unintended effect of bringing the community together," she said of the threats.

Surrounded by a gaggle of rowdy revelers, Tippet, another of the crawl's organizers, seconded Brothers's observation: "This is one of the most smiley, happy nights I've seen."

Some local activists had questioned whether holding the crawl the night before the nationally organized anti-Proposition 8 rally made sense. Savage said the criticism was ridiculous.

"Everyone had the exact right reaction. People are refusing to be intimidated. [The threat] didn't work. It backfired."

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