My current struggles with air quality at my work have reminded me of something from nearly 20 years ago – the “Symptomatic Nerve Gas” guy. This was a street character that I used to see out and about when I was still living in Eugene. I moved from there in 1985, but still remember running into the guy when my friend Jean and I would go to clubs for live music and dancing. We’d spot him and start chanting “symptomatic nerve gas” to each other, because that’s all we ever heard him say.
I was astounded just now after Googling around a little to find that Mr. SNG is now a character in a book by Jack Cady:
FIVE OF US ARE REGULARS HERE. Allow me to introduce the cast. Although years come and go, and so do people, our community is fairly stable.
Our newest member is Symptomatic Nerve Gas, who takes his time a-dying from something gnawing on his liver. He is with us these past two years. Symptomatic Nerve Gas is florid and purpled and beefy. He is in his late fifties. A horror from earlier life lies athwart his brain. In Korea he saw death dealt on a scale larger than any seen by Genghis Khan. Although he sometimes speaks of other things to us, his only public words are “Symptomatic Nerve Gas” and “Felony Assault.” His Army pension sustains him. He strides forth each day with field pack rolled. He wears pressed pants, denim shirts fresh from the laundry; a man of military cleanliness. He stands on street corners repeating his two phrases in a command voice. People are first shocked into avoidance. Then, familiarity brings scorn, Symptomatic Nerve Gas has an important message, but no stage presence. He breaks no laws. People mistake him for a nut.
The only thing I’d add to that description is that he always carried a big green duffel, stuffed full. And on the back of the duffel, written with a magic marker in large capitals, it said “SYMPTOMATIC NERVE GAS.”
I’m not sure, but I think he may have been around Seattle, too… as this poem would seem to suggest. And according to this, he used to stand on street corners near the University of Washington, chanting his mantra. Somebody from Fark spotted him there, too, so it must be so. Sadly, he apparently died in 1990.
Requiescat in pacem.
And as for Seattle itself, it seems that a lot of my favorite places are gone, too. This makes me very sad. Especially as on a whim I decided to wear my old “Queen Anne Coffee House” T-shirt, since we’re in the midst of the baseball playoffs and this was the “uniform” for the D- or E- or XYZ-league softball team I played on in about 1993.