Symptomatic Nerve Gas Is Dead

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.

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8 thoughts on “Symptomatic Nerve Gas Is Dead

  1. I knew and spoke with the symptomatic nerve gas guy a number of times in Seattle while I was an undergrad at UW. I will add some stories later, but I would like to comment that he never told me about Korea. He told me that when he was younger, sometime in his early 20s, he was married and had a child. As he started to realize the dangers of symptomatic nerve gas, and save his wife from it, she looked at him strangely, often crying. The police came, several times, finally they separated, as she just couldn’t understand the dangers, was brainwashed by organized religion (who is behind the nerve gas). They said he was paranoid schizophrenic, but “that just isn’t true” More later.

  2. Ah, god, the Symptomatic Nerve Gas Man. I used to see him on Broadway in Seattle all the time. He’d walk around with his green duffel bag and reel off the same spiel endlessly, about how Symptomatic Nerve Gas was developed by the Vatican and used by the Nazis, and was going to be used on the people of the US very soon. He’d always wrap up by saying, in a voice that sounded like Bill Burroughs, “Symptomatic nerve gas. Enjoy it .. ”
    He always made me feel very uneasy. I’m sorry to hear he’s gone.

  3. I used to see him on the bus that went from the U District towards Ballard [44? 43?] Green army jacket, stuffed dufflebag with that white piece of paper and handwritten on it “symptomatic nerve gas”. He mumble under his breath, but not so quietly, “Symptomatic nerve gas in the air.”

    One time, sitting next to him in the front of the bus in a bench seat he looked down at my liquid crystal watch and asked me if it was shielded. I told him I didn’t know. It probably freaked him out that my watch was adding to the threat of symptomatic nerve gas.

    Haven’t seen him for years.

  4. used to see SNG hanging around the cafeteria and TV lounge at the UW HUB when my ex and I were in grad school, back in ’86 or ’87. Never talked to him, though; I was voting Republican and living in Bellevue back then.

    I’m glad to hear that someone else remembers the guy. People just stare at me when I talk about him, as if I were describing an imaginary childhood friend or something.

  5. It’s amazing and touching that people remember him – he was an unforgettable street character. Multiply him by thousands and thousands, and you have a whole lot of forgotten people, living rough under bridges and trying to stay warm.

    It’s sad that he never got help for his condition, but I’ll bet he was offered help countless times and refused it because the symptomatic nerve gas had tainted the medication.

  6. Occasionally someone would try to engage in conversation with (troll) him outside the HUB on the UW campus and about it. He definitely spent a lot of time on and about the UW campus in the mid-80’s.

    I hope he found some peace in the end.

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